A Life of Changing Roles Lived by an Extraordinary Woman: Ferial Ashraff
By: Sharanya Sekaram & Abilesha Segar
Everystory Sri Lanka presents the first thirty stories from our ongoing work to create a compendium of Sri Lankan women’s stories — featuring those whose lives, work, and experiences have shaped and are shaped by Sri Lanka’s social, political, and cultural contexts.
From the Stories of Sri Lankan Women Archive —Ferial Ashraff
Described as a “prominent figurehead in the Muslim community of Sri Lanka”, Mrs. Ferial Ismail Ashraff’s life is one where reinvention became not just a skill or a means of surviving — but how she has thrived in circumstances her imagination could never fathom. The many times her life has been upended is reflected in her lack of physical artifacts, “we never even took a wedding picture!” she laughs, “I just have never believed in it. I’m the kind of a person who lives very much in the present.”
Mrs. Ashraff finds herself occupying an iconic status among Sri Lankan women as she found a way to blend and intersect her identity as a Sri Lankan, a Muslim, and a woman, disbelieving that to honor one identity, the others must be compromised. Growing up in Gampola, a key influence in Mrs. Ashraff’s life was her atheist, Leftist father to whom she credits everything, “I am what I am on account of him”, she says. She didn’t see herself as a rebel but rather a young girl raised by an extraordinary set of parents who made love and respect the cornerstones of their family life. She recalls a time when she was made school prefect in Grade 9 and her father saying, “Now people are going to look at me and say this is Ferial’s father. I won’t be known as just Ismail; I’m going to be known as Ferial’s father”. These were to become prophetic words as her life continued.
It was at the age of 21 on her regular solo train rides (as she was following an Assistant Medical Practitioner’s course) between Gampola and Colombo on the Udarata Menike that she met the second force who would change her life, her husband M.H.M Ashraff (who would eventually become Founder Leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and the National Unity Alliance (NUA). Her face creases in amusement as she describes herself at the time wearing, “a pair of jeans and a maroon shirt with big Mao-Lenin badges I used to wear; it was pretty big and red. That was me, all the time… I was very proud, and I had a bracelet from Czechoslovakia with all these various characters”. A fearless young woman driven by her father’s faith and trust in her, a mutual friend introduced her to the lawyer who would eventually sweep her off her feet in a letter-writing romance, although that took some time! In recounting the story, she laughs saying, “people think that I fell in love with the man I saw on the train! I never did”.
But love indeed it was. Following her marriage, she found her life take a 180-degree turn, from the freedom of her childhood in Gampola, to the deeply conservative community that was Ampara, and the onset of a deep sense of loneliness in this unfamiliar territory. Mrs. Ashraff turned to her husband, and the foundation of their marriage which would see many challenges — personal and otherwise — was laid. “Ashraff and I, we had a lovely relationship” she reflects, “Our base was very good; the foundation was excellent. We respected each other”. She began to find herself once again in this new role, as her husband’s political interest and involvement began to grow.
In 1985, Mrs. Ashraff would find her life upended once again as following the violence between the LTTE and Muslims living in Kalmunai, they were forced to flee with their three-year-old son leaving everything behind. She describes it heartbreakingly, “we had to carry him and run away and we lost all, you know”. They settled in Colombo, into a life that was a far cry from all she had led before, “I had to work work work…The whole time I had to work especially because Ashraff when we came to Colombo he had to start from scratch he did not have anything”.
In 1986, the SLMC under M.H.M Ashraff transformed from a cultural organization to a political party, and Mrs. Ashraff was to find herself in her most public role yet — one that would instill in her a deep sense of caution and often isolation from the harsh judgment of the public and voters. The challenges were far from over, in a devastating blow, she faced the unexpected demise of her deeply loved husband in 2000. Following this, she was encouraged by Party members and her son to take up the leadership, a role she was too shocked in her mourning to even consider what it would mean for her. “They needed to protect the Ashraff name” she muses, “and I was the only one who was there — so I went”.
This was to be an incredible shift, changing her from the wife of an influential politician to entering the annals of Sri Lankan political history. In the 2000 General Elections, she contested and won her seat in the Digamadulla District and would be a Member of Parliament until 2010, during which she held the post of Minister of Housing Construction & Industries, the first Muslim woman to hold a Cabinet Ministry. From 2011 to 2015 she was appointed the High Commissioner to Singapore. She is one of few Muslim women to have held such high positions within the Government, and one of the even fewer politicians who has chosen to gracefully step back from contesting time and time again, following the loss of her seat in 2010. She reflects on her upbringing and how while others may have viewed her as a wife simply by default stepping into her husband’s place, it was, in reality, her being able to stretch the wings that she had been given long ago.
In retirement, she prefers to avoid the public spotlight and instead enjoy her time as a grandmother. Mrs. Ashraff is not always able to indulge in this preference, however. Be it by members of the women’s movement or the Muslim community, her counsel and support are still asked for widely, and she can’t find it within herself to turn away passionate advocates whose values echo her own. She expresses deep love for supporting young women finding their way as advocates, activists, and game-changers and supporting the next generation to find their wings. Her love for the country and deep sadness for its struggle with divisions lingers when she is asked about her hopes for the future. “It is a very difficult divide to bridge. But we would be able to bridge it. I am still optimistic”, she says.
(Sharanya Sekaram is the co-founder of Everystory Sri Lanka and identifies (for now) as a Sri Lankan feminist activist, researcher, and writer — working as a consultant in the gender space. She is currently reading for a Post-Graduate Diploma in Women and Gender Studies at the University of Colombo and you can find her on Twitter @sharasekaram and on her blog “Writing from That Sekaram Girl”)
(Abilesha Segar is currently a Program Manager at Everystory Sri Lanka and the Project Manager for the Stories of Sri Lankan Women. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree and a Master’s Degree from the University of Colombo and moonlights as a Tamil compere, moderator, and voice artist. Most importantly to her, she is the mother of a wonderful toddler who has yet to miss any Everystory meeting she attends.)
Reference Links and Further Reading
- Ferial Ashraff, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ferial_Ashraff
- Ferial Ashraff, LinkedIn, https://lk.linkedin.com/in/ferial-ashraff-a9420730
- Interview: Ferial Ashraff, The Milli Gazette, https://www.milligazette.com/Archives/01032001/inter.htm
- National Unity, Business Today, http://businesstoday.lk/article.php?article=6655
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