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|INTERVIEW: Ferial Ashraff
‘I want to make a difference, get
women more involved’
candid and down to earth... Ferial Ashraff, wife of the late Mohammed
Ashraff, the martyred leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and
the National Unity Alliance (NUA), has shed her aura of anonymity and
stepped into the limelight as a woman of substance who will stand firm in
Professing to be comfortable with herself with no regrets, she talks about
her role as the Minister of Reconstruction of East and Rural Development,
her goals for NUA, the split in the party, her life with Ashraff, of women
in politics and peace. Excerpts of an interview with Hana Ibrahim in
|You are the first Muslim woman
to become a cabinet minister. Given a different circumstance, would
you have aspired for such a position?
Of course. I may not have dreamt of being in this specific
position, but I've always wanted to have the authority to do things
for people. My husband always encouraged me to enter politics and he
was disappointed that I chose to stay at home. He would continuously
grumble about me not coming out to the open and often asked me to
Why didn't you?
Because I wanted to be an individual. As Ashraff's wife I didn't
have an independent status. More specifically I didn't want to be
used in any manner that would bring discredit to him. Ashraff
Could you tell us something about your background?
I come from a very close-knit, somewhat liberated family. My
father was a wonderful person, a self-learned man who read a lot and
introduced me to books. He asked me to make books my companion
saying I would never be lonely or depressed. How true. Books are my
companions now. I read anything.
Your relationship with your husband?
We had a beautiful relationship and I was very much involved in
Ashraff's life. He would discuss everything with me, his direction
of thought, what he planned... I wasn't a homely sort, I took the
trouble to find out what he was doing. Ours was a give and take
How did you meet him?
We met on the train. After my A/L at Zahira College in Gampola I
was following an Assistant Medical Practitioner's course. I used to
travel by train. Of course I couldn't complete the course, because I
got married. But it wasn't love at first sight. We wrote to each
other, but ours were not romantic letters. Ours were more of a
political introduction. I was left-oriented, he was very
conservative and into religious teaching. He was shocked by the fact
that a young Muslim woman was travelling alone and was keen to find
out about me.
What does your appointment mean for the women of Sri Lanka?
I want to make a difference, get the women more involved. I hope
to work in close collaboration with NGOs, specifically in rural
development. I want to get women into the forefront and start
something like the Gramine Bank scheme of Bangladesh, because women
are better at repaying loans. I am keen to get women to participate
more in all areas and plan to draw up a programme that will
facilitate their participation.
Did you have any reservations about being in the limelight,
especially in terms of lost privacy?
No reservations. I am not doing something I am forced to do. I
am enjoying what I am doing. So losing my privacy isn't a big issue.
Even when I was with Ashraff, the accepted concept of privacy was
not there. And I wasn't disturbed by that loss.
Muslim society is to a large extent a conservative one, with a
certain segment still frowning upon female leadership. It was also
initially reported that many in the east were also against
nominating you as the party leader - have the people accepted you as
I think they are more concerned about women in leadership
positions maintaining their identity as Muslims. I think the issue
should be not what you do, but how you do it. If you maintain your
identity as a Muslim and do what you are called upon to do, I don't
think there should be any problems. I never forget I am a Muslim and
so far I haven't seen any displeasure directed at me.
It was reported that SLMC will be headed by Rauf Hakeem and you
will be the sole leader of NUA - where is NUA heading now?
In the same direction where Ashraff wanted. He felt that all
Muslims, or at least a large majority, should be brought together
under one leadership, so that the people could have confidence in
one leader who would work towards bringing all communities together.
He believed that by 2012 Sri Lanka would have a different political
system with one big party, where the various identities would be
intact. No single person will be more important than the other, all
will be equal. I share that dream.
Do you envisage NUA under your leadership will realize Ashraff's
dreams, or will it have new directions?
My goal is the same as his. But I haven't started working on it.
What Ashraff did is a great source of strength to me and we have
discussed his ideas. I will try to do my best. But I am not going to
step into his shoes. My route may be different. It is difficult to
tell, I am not Ashraff.
What are the obstacles you see in your path?
Basically the obstacle will be in the kind of expectation people
have of me. They might expect me to perform in a different way,
continue with what Ashraff had started. My goal may be the same, but
my route may be different.
It has been often said that women are essentially the peace
makers at home and that this role should be made public and that
women should be more involved in the peace process. What are your
thoughts on that?
I believe women can play a significant role in bringing about
peace. But I also believe that dirty politics can be cleaned up with
more women coming in to the field, at least those women who
understand that politics should be cleaned up.
Will you be encouraging more women, especially Muslim women to
enter politics and if so, what should they do?
I don't know whether any encouragement is required. I believe it
will happen when they are ready. Getting women involved in politics
can't be done individually, although we can provide them the
motivation and guidance. q