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INTERVIEW: Ferial Ashraff
‘I want to make a difference, get women more involved’

Ferial AshraffConfident, 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 her convictions.
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 Colombo: :

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 join him.

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 understood that.

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 relationship.

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 their leader?
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.
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