While the rest of the world may know her as the co-founder of the Muslim Women’s Research and Action Forum (MWRAF), we always knew her as one of the core women and the original founders of the International Solidarity Network Women Living Under Muslim Laws. Faizun Zackariya has been at the forefront of the struggle for Muslim personal law reforms in Sri Lanka and beyond since the 1980s. Her inspiring career in research and experiential and knowledge-based advocacy for reforms has led her to instigate many positive changes for women across the Muslim communities and beyond. Faizun began her involvement with activism and intellectual contribution at the University of Peradeniya, where she gained exposure to the kind of issues that women went through, regardless of their class, religion, or ethnic background. Following university, she spent time working as a junior research associate at NIBM, which gave her the opportunity to meet different ethnic communities around Sri Lanka and learn from their socio-economic heterogeneity. At the launch of the International Women’s Year,1975, however, Faizun felt that the realities of women’s lived experiences were not well integrated or even represented within the discourse around the question of women status or issues of women and development. Inspired by her desire to bring awareness of social issues to the younger generation, she went on to forge a remarkable career in teaching and in directing the Academy programmes for Muslim women.
In 1984, Faizun began developing solidarity links and sharing local struggles with other activists passionate about the use and abuse of Islam and laws around women’s question and the challenges they face. Thus it was not surprising that soon she learned about the group of women who went on to set up Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML) and served as one of its influential founding members at its inception. WLUML seeks to celebrate women’s multi-identities and their diverse lives as well as advocate for women’s rights across the Muslim majority countries and where they are minority communities. During the same period amid an era of highly polarized ethnic politics in Sri Lanka, Faizun co-founded the Muslim Women’s Research and Action Forum in 1986. Since its inception, the MWRAF has been involved in the struggle of Muslim Personal Law (MPL) reforms, including reshaping not only the formulated legal frameworks and written laws but also the customary informal laws which often restrict women to a lower place of less value in society. This was in large part because the Muslim Personal Laws of 1929 were not reformed and were under the control of an all-male family court that has operated since 1929. Under Faizun’s leadership, the MWRAF conducted field research in Sri-Lanka and documented how women’s access to justice is blocked in the name of religion. Then, through the WLUML, they studied family law in other Muslim contexts and documented how other Muslim family laws have reformed. In this way, she helped to reform some vital aspects of the family law in Sri Lanka.
Faizun’s work and some of the other initiatives developed in other Muslim majority countries encouraged WLUML to launched the first comprehensive transnational study on Muslim family law. Faizun and Marieme, executive director of WLUML, along with two other woman – Farida Shaheed and Salma Sobhan – and several other active networkers of WLUML decided that it was time for a comprehensive mapping of the various Muslim Personal status and family laws. These laws are very diverse, but they are all said to be Islamic family law in 1990-2001. This study stretched across at least 28 countries and communities, and in the process many women’s study groups and women’s organization were set up. Faizun was always ready to help by sharing her experiences and help women in other contexts to develop research strategies appropriate for their cultural contexts. A huge number of publications in local languages were produced. Several international conferences were launched to discuss various findings of this research and its policy implication for women. Additionally, an international handbook was produced to support women activists and policymakers who were concern about family laws and women’s rights. The result of these studies was also the impetus for the Musawah movement, which aims to develop a right based frame for Muslim family laws (www.musawah.org/mapping-muslim-family-laws).
Sri Lanka was embroiled in a long civil war which resulted in the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands. Faizun and the Muslim Women’s Research and Action Forum (MWRAF) also began to work on the internally displaced population as a result of the war between Tamil Tigers and the central state. WLUML launched a project looking at the impact of conflict and militarization on women with a focus on Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. Faizun has dedicated much of her life since 1998 to work on peacebuilding and bring the extreme impact of the wars and civil wars on women and their voices to the world’s attention. As she has said many times over, it is not easy to recover from more than thirty years of civil war; the communities and especially women need to recover from the aftermath and consequences.
Disheartened with the development in Afghanistan and the increase in the assassinations and killings of women and civils society activists, we turned to Faizun for advice for our campaign in support of the Afghan women’s demands, “No Peace Without Women’s Rights in Afghanistan. In the process, we asked her whether her Peace Building Project is now completed after some eleven years that officially the war has been over. She told us that peacebuilding needs long-term commitment, compassion, justice, care, resources and, above all, trust in women and a process to empower them to create the atmosphere for peacebuilding. While we can support many positive steps to build a culture of peace and corperation, we need a lot more than ten years to reconstruct thirty years of war and the destruction of lives and communities. Faizun is fully emersed in her peacebuilding commitment, yet whenever we at WLUML turn to her, she is always there for us. She has been and continues to be a source of inspiration for all of us.