My grandmother grew up in tough times. She was born in 1926, whence ignorance was rife and widespread. Women died of childbirth because their families did not want them exposed to doctors who were invariably ‘strange men’. Babies were delivered by midwives who would walk straight in from the tea estates, and wouldn’t really bother with washing their hands. Umbilical cords would be cut with anything handy; yes that rusty old scissors will do fine. Unsurprisingly, infant mortality was high.
My great grandmother died of childbirth; her immune system was weakened and welcomed a fatal attack of malaria, which overtook her newborn as well. They remained at home until they died. Never seeing a doctor. My great grandfather was rich, but money had nothing to do with it. She was a woman, and in those times there were certain things women weren’t eligible for. He married again and his second wife suffered the same fate. (Nonplussed, my great grandfather married for the third time, but thankfully she survived. He had altogether 18 or 20 surviving children.)
A newborn came into a wild place. For every family sporting ten healthy children, there were two or three that died; still births, disease; people just took it in their stride. My grandmother delivered seven of her six children at home, but by her time she access to qualified midwives.
Of a keen intelligence is my grandmother. And she has a PhD, in the school of life. But in those days girls were not educated. Muslim girls, especially, were not exposed to strange eyes and they were mostly kept at home; one reason why she enjoyed school so much.
Because even though her father refused to educate her, her grandmother, who was another rock a linchpin just like my grandmother would become, would not stand for it. My great-great grandmother took over the care of her son’s first flock after their mother died, and with her the rules were somewhat different.
They were sent to school; the car and by extension wealth, enabled them to remain secluded. A cloth separated the rear and front so that the driver could not see them. But in those days they used to say; ‘girls need only be educated until they have learned to sign their name’ and eventually this saying came back to haunt my grandma as it did thousands of other girls at the time, and many girls to this day. She was taken out of school when she was fourteen, and at sixteen she was married.
This is slightly unbelievable now, but back then the bride and groom really weren’t allowed to see each other before marriage. The parents would close the deal, and my grandparents only met on the day of their wedding.
My grandmother didn’t mind, marriage offered the only way out of her secluded, pampered existence. It was only after marriage that she saw the world, spoke to people at large, and took a train ride. My granddad was in the Police, and they traveled far and wide for his work. My uncles, mother and aunt were born in places as diverse as Jaffna, Kalutara, Colombo and Nawalapitiya (which is where, decades later, I was born as well).
I like hearing stories from that time. Most of it makes me nostalgic, but some of it shocks, like the denial of basic rights of education and health to women, and the acceptance of this as a part of the cultural identity of being Muslim, carried out by people with good intentions. I guess its a testament to how far corruption can spread so as to seem normal, a lesson for today perhaps.
This ignorance was a sad reality of the community back then. But it is not a reality of Islam. Ignorance started to disappear as religious knowledge spread. And cultural practices long adhered to in an age where colonial invasion had all but destroyed active religious life (many would not attend Friday prayers, let alone pray five times daily), were slowly abandoned as the community gradually modernized. Back then going against customs so set in stone would have called upon the wrath of society, today Sri Lankan Muslim society accepts most of those customs as relics of an age of ignorance.
That is not to say though, that we are completely rid of faults. Muslims continue to do things in the name of religion that would make the Prophet (may peace and blessings be upon him) raise his eyebrows at the very least. We bicker and fight among ourselves, and we fail to stand up for justice. And yes some of our women still face abuse, even though that abuse may not always be in the same form the outside world paints it out to be.
These are not the faults of Islam, but they are the faults of Muslims, and not all Muslims either. We are much better than we used to be, but there are long ways yet to go. But there is hope for me in the story of my grandmother. Let’s have patience, and persevere.