First Muslim woman in Cabinet


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Mrs.Ferial Ashraff greeting
President Chandrika Kumaratunga.

by Zanita Careem
It will be a proud moment for Muslims in Sri Lanka when Ferial Ashraff takes oaths as a Minister of Eastern Rehabilitation and Reconstruction in the Chandrika Kumaratunga government.

Ferial, widow of the late M. H. M. Ashraff, Minister of Shipping as well as leader of the Muslim Congress, will be the first Sri Lankan Muslim woman Cabinet Minister, to emerge as another South Asian political widow to lead a political party.

The South East region has a record of wives taking to politics after the death of their husbands. Although born and bred in the thick of politics, Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike and her daughter Chandrika Kumaratunga took to active politics after the deaths of their husbands. Mr. Srimani Athulathmudali, Mrs. Hema Premadasa in Sri Lanka are other examples.

In South Asia Sheikh Hasina, succeed her father Mujibur Rahman and Khalida Zia is one of the wives of political leaders who joined the bandwagon of widow politics.

In the case of Ferial Ashraff, politics was thrust upon her and it is remarkable for a woman who was content to spend her adult life quietly bringing up her only son to come out into the open, breaking the traditional mould that women are not for politiics, especially Muslim women.

More women in politics is a welcome sign in the continuing struggle for gender equality.

Ferial swept by the wave of public sympathy has assumed her husband’s mantle. Of course, till recently she was a little known figure but true to the old adage that any successful man has a successful woman behind him, Ferial Ashraff has been helping her husband in his political progress.

An active social worker, Ferial has created a niche in the political history of the Muslims in Sri Lanka.

Of course we had Ayesha Rauf, former Principal of Muslim Ladies College. A former Deputy Mayor, Ayesha Rauf also once contested a general election. Daughter of a politician in India, Ayesha Rauf worked with conviction and dedication for women’s rights in Sri Lanka.

At present we have Jezima Ismail, a leading national figure who has been in the vanguard for introducing vital changes in the school curriculum of Muslim Ladies College. A former principal of the school Jezima Ismail is a graduate of the Peradeniya university and has actively taken part in women’s issues and contributes immensely to the welfare of women in general and Muslims in particular.

There are many other prominent Muslim women who are actively engaged in promoting the welfare of Muslim women and also in women’s issues.

A non-political body, the All Ceylon Muslim Association headed by Halida Shabdeen and a group of dedicated ladies including Mrs. Minaj Mackie, work tirelessly for the welfare of women. We can no longer consider the Muslim community as passive partners.

The sedulously cultivated myth by interested parties that Muslims are only interested in trade is now exploded by the many Muslim men and women excelling themselves in the various professions and also in business.

Mrs. Ferial Ashraff will soon be a trail blazer and in the years to come we hope she will occupy centre stage in the country’s political mainstream. Having worked as a private secretary to her late husband, she cannot be called a ‘novice’ in politics.

In a recent interview she has said that she will improve the status of women.

Ferial, slim, articulate and diminutive has a good command of all three languages. She can no doubt be a catalyst for change in women’s affairs. Her marriage to Ashraff prevented her from continuing her finals in the Assistant Medical Practitioners course.

The struggle for equal rights in Asia has been slow but has been gathering momentum. But with wealth and literary rates rising across the region, women are serving notice that they are no longer willing to accept anything less than their fair share in all spheres. We can see this in Pakistan, Bangladesh and even in India.

Sheikh Hasina, Khalida Zia, Benazir Bhutto are also Muslim women articulate in this region who claim a fair share in this region to be in the forefront of politics. They have shown the world that the Muslim community is a force to be reckoned with.

We have yet to see Ferial Ashraff maturing as a political leader. So under her dynamic leadership all women can benefit. We wish her all success.