Taking a deep nostalgic look back, then forward, she ponders what the “right balance” is for her community as modernity envelops them in its vigorous demand. “I don’t have all the answers but I have something to say – so I have said it in ‘Stay, Daughter’,” smiles Yasmin Azad whom we meet on Wednesday, [...]


It’s my story and the story of my Galle Fort community

Yasmin Azad who is back in Sri Lanka for the release of her book ‘Stay, Daughter’ talks to Kumudini Hettiarachchi and Ruqyyaha Deane

Yasmin Azad: Recalling growing up in Galle Fort in the 1950s. Pic by Indika Handuwala

Taking a deep nostalgic look back, then forward, she ponders what the “right balance” is for her community as modernity envelops them in its vigorous demand.

“I don’t have all the answers but I have something to say – so I have said it in ‘Stay, Daughter’,” smiles Yasmin Azad whom we meet on Wednesday, soon after her arrival from America for her book launch scheduled for yesterday at the Cinnamon Grand Hotel, Colombo.

Yasmin, who is in her late 60s, is insistent that it is “not just my story, but a reflection and representation of my community……….I can’t speak for other people but there is this threat that if we go on like this, we might just end. You know in a way, Bunchy (her third older brother Cassim) and I are representative of secularisation, as we grew up in the Fort. We are not typical Muslims”.

The Muslims of Galle Fort, a microcosm of the macrocosm spread across this country!

Similar, yet so different, for as Yasmin says “what was so special about the Galle Fort in which our story takes place is that this was a large population of Muslim merchants (Moors) living at that time especially amidst Burghers. It was a fine mix”. Their neighbours were the De Voses, the Andres and more and Yasmin’s own best friend was Penny, a younger relative of leftist Pieter Keuneman.

Yasmin, with Bunchy throwing in a sentence here and there, casts light on the unique life within the Galle Fort in the 1950s.

Bunchy says how it was called “one house with the road being the verandah. The houses had no gardens and were separated only by thin walls and Yasmin adds: “It was very ethnically and socially diverse.”

Then it is time to see in our mind’s eye, many generations before Yasmin. 1887 and Yasmin’s maternal great-grandfather making a dramatic announcement and breaking with orthodox tradition: “I will send my girls to school.”

“My grand-aunts were the first Muslim girls to go to school in this country. I am going back many generations just to show how westernized my mother’s family was,” says Yasmin, picking up her book to read us the epigraph on the worldwide scene even much later.

“In 1963, when King Faisal of Saudi Arabia opened a girls’ school in a very conservative city called Buraydah there were riots against that decision,” she states, adding that culturally, the thrust is to keep women in their homes.

When asked why in Sri Lanka, Muslims seem to be reverting to orthodoxy, her explanation is: “I don’t have all the answers. But I think one reason is that it is a traditional society that feels threatened by modernity. I think that’s part of it but not the only reason. I think any social movement has many reasons. The threat that modernity has for Islamic society  is particularly significant where women are concerned. It impacts women more than men.”

Back in the 1940s and ’50s though, her great-grandfather’s decision of 1887 to send his daughter to Southlands College located within the Fort, smoothened the way for generations of girls to come. So school was no issue but most girls were pulled out as soon as they “became Big Girls” (reached puberty) and married off.

Into this equation of the liberality of the Galle Fort Muslims, came a different dimension when Alavia Cassim who had lived all her life in this westernized environment married “extremely non-westernized” P.T. Abdul Rahuman, with deep roots in a village, whose mother was not able to read or write.

“My parents’ marriage was very interesting for this reason,” says Yasmin. Her father was a trader and having made money through his gem business, her mother’s family which would usually not consider a rural boy for their daughter disregarded these norms. It was an arranged marriage.

From the union of Abdul Rahuman and Alavia came three sons, Naufel, Sheriff and Bunchy, and the much-longed for youngest daughter, Yasmin.

Like the life-changing announcement of her maternal great-grandfather, the declaration by bookish Yasmin who attended Sacred Heart Convent when she was about 18 that she was intent on going to university had sent ripples through her family.

Yasmin (in front on the left) with her friends from school, many of whom only studied up to SSC

Obviously being so rooted in tradition, her beloved “Wappah” wanted her to marry early and her announcement gave him “the shock of his life”.

Even in the 1930s and ’40s only two girls, Fathuma and her sister had gone on to sit the Junior Cambridge examination and they were the daughters of the first Muslim girl who attended school. “By the time I was born, everyone at least stayed on until 10th grade which was the Senior Certificate Level.”

From Wappah’s point of view, Yasmin does understand the agony such a request would have created.

“When outsiders see such a situation within families and communities, they view this as oppression but the truth is that families love each other and want what is best for them,” she says with emotion, adding: “My father loved me enough that he said if you want to go, you go. I think he couldn’t bear to see me unhappy.”

The die was cast……..and in 1969 to the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, went Yasmin. Armed with an English Degree, she wed Abdul Azad in 1976 in an arranged marriage and became a Lecturer at Vidyalankara (now the Kelaniya University), relocating in America. Switching professions, she is in the field of mental health about which she is “very passionate”.

Now with three grown-up sons of her own, Kalid, Siraj and Jehan, and seeing the loneliness and isolation of westernization that she witnesses among the people with mental health issues whom she helps, she wonders……“if the Muslim community  becomes liberal and liberal and liberal, where would we end up? That is why I think you turn inwards.”

These are the underlying  thoughts in ‘Stay, Daughter’ and Yasmin says it is a subject she knows well. “I write about myself because that is the subject that I know best. The important thing about my story is that I represent a larger movement.”

The book has “a lot of intersections” – religion and secularism; colonisation and the influence on the local people; and the English-speaking elite which her mother’s family belonged to and others like her father from very rural, unsophisticated roots and how he struggled.

The bigger theme is that any traditional society that lives within close proximity to other communities is bound to be influenced by them, while another is the individualism of isolation, the loneliness brought about by westernization. This made her draw a contrast with Muslims who live in a close-knit and supportive community.

Yasmin concludes with views on modernity, tradition and freedom and the need for “a good balance”, while also rejecting extremism.

Stark is Yasmin’s reminder that “a piece of cloth (niqab) does not shield your daughter from the future and modernity.  We have to safeguard the best of our traditions which are the close bonds of our community and family even as we open up to modernity”.


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