By Ishara Jayawardene
She has fought for women’s rights and has been a strong advocate for Human Rights over the years. A woman who has been praised for her unrelenting spirit and will, she has committed herself to achieving social justice and has been a voice for those who have no voice. A lady who believes in living a righteous life, she always has an ear for those who have been wronged. In fact there is many an activist in Jezima Ismail.
“I was born in the village of Sainthamaruthu, which is about two and half miles from Kalmune. It is in the Ampara district. My father was an irrigation engineer. My grandfather was a trustee of the mosque and my father was brought up in a very conservative set up. And my father was very much interested in education. By the time he was 11 or 12 he came to Colombo and became a qualified engineer. He took the injunction of the Koran ‘Seek Knowledge and education’ quite literally. The focus of the Koran is very much on knowledge. It is only when you are educated that you can interpret the Koran and manifest it in action. My father gave me a lot of freedom and it was difficult for some people to believe that I come from a conservative Muslim background,” said Jezima.
“On my mother’s side it was a kind of feudal aristocracy and her family was very much involved in politics and the local leaders of the area came from this Kariapper family. M. H. M. Ashraff also belonged to the same family. My mother was not a typical Muslim housewife. During the election times our house was turned into an election office and my mother worked as a polling agent. And strangely enough my father had been warned that the wife of a government servant should not be involved in politics. So he wrote back and told them that in Islam a woman marries a man but will marry on a contract; she has her freedom if she wants to get into politics; I have no say in it and there is no question of my divorcing her; she is allowed to lead her own life and she is allowed to keep her own name, so there is perfect equality where our contract is concerned. So they had to keep quiet.
But she obeyed my father, brought his cup of tea to him, never sat at the table but served him. That sort of wife on the one hand but this sort of an independent woman on the other hand.”
Reminiscing on village life, Jezima said that she loved village life because the essential passions of the heart are found in the village. “Every holiday when I went back to the village, I lived the life of a villager. Their customs, singing, and their culture was an integral part of my life. We never consciously and deliberately looked at nature. Nature was a part of our lives and even for protecting nature and looking after nature we didn’t have to have deliberate rules and there was no cruelty. In Ampara, we have all the ethnic communities and they coexisted peacefully. But today I see a totally different kind of picture.”
Contribution to education
“I wanted to live in the village but my father had different ideas and brought us all to Colombo. He put us straight into St. Bridget’s Convent which was a Catholic school. He was a broadminded person and he wanted to expose us to other religions and their values. I had my primary as well as secondary education at St. Bridget’s which I enjoyed very much. I did not have to compromise my religion because I have complete faith in Islam and it was my guide. But at the same time Catholicism had this appeal to me, the hymns.”
Jezima entered the University of Peradeniya. She defied the image of a typical Muslim girl of the 1950s. She participated in many extracurricular activities. She played Badminton and Tennis and won University Colours.
After graduation Jessima joined the staff of Devi Balika Maha Vidyalaya when Dr. Wimala de Silva was its Principal. Recollecting her days at Devi Balika, Jezima said: “I got a reputation for everything – English, Singing, Dancing, you name it. I have never gone to a class in my 30 years of formal teaching without preparation.” She considered Dr. Wimala de Silva as a ‘model Principal.’ With her husband, Jezima went to Canada and obtained her Masters degree in education from the McGill University. Later she completed her postgraduate diploma at the University of Sydney, Australia. After serving 19 years at Devi Balika Maha Vidyalaya, she became the Principal of Muslim Ladies’ College (MLC), Colombo. She held this post for 13 years rendering a yeoman service in transforming the quality and outlook of the school. She is considered an eminent educationalist in Sri Lanka. It is interesting to observe that both Dr. Wimala de Silva and Jezima Ismail were honoured with the title Deshabandu in recognition of their contribution to the field of education. Dr. Wimala de Silva became the first woman to be appointed as the Chancellor of a Sri Lankan University (Sri Jayewardenepura University). Jezima Ismail became the second woman University Chancellor (South Eastern University).
Jezima is a person of varied interests. She is the founder president of Sri Lanka Muslims Women’s Conference (SLMWC) which is an umbrella organization of Muslim women’s organizations. She was instrumental in establishing the Muslim Women’s Research and Action Forum (MWRAF) in 1978 and she still works with this organization. “We are dealing with several issues: how to empower women without alienating them culturally; how do we make them empowered financially? The idea of social justice in the Koran is very important. Social justice includes both economic justice and legal justice. We empower Muslim women because they are the most marginalized. The ideals of the Koran have not been translated into practice. The concept of equality is very much evident in the Koran. At the beginning I used to think of Women, Women and Women. Then I thought this won’t work, especially when it comes to gender-based violence. I am a free and empowered woman because of my father and husband who believed totally in the independence of women. We need partnership strengthening.”
With Jezima’s stature and influence in society, there is no doubt that she is an attractive candidate for a political position in the country. Were there any temptations for her to get into politics? “My mother’s brother was a politician of the East. He wanted me to take his place but I was not interested in. M.H.M. Ashraff was my cousin. Though he was much younger than I, we were very good friends.
His wife is also very close to me. About three months before he died, I went off to the United States and he begged of me not to go because he wanted me to come into politics. He said that he spoke to the President and got the assurance of a place for me in the National List.
I declined the offer but he kept insisting on it. My husband was also not in favour of the idea. I was returning to the island on September 19 and I promised to meet him. He rang me on the 14th and 15th as well. I came on the 19th but it was too late. He was killed in a mysterious helicopter crash on the 16th. He had a tremendous vision, tremendous charisma and leadership backed by education. He had all the positives. Strangely enough, he also predicted his death. He wrote a poem:
‘I will not die in a bed
I will be in a pool of blood
Mangled body and shattered bones’
Without getting into the whirlpool of violent politics in the country, Jezima continues to serve the society in her own silent way.
Her journey has been one of sacrifice and love for her fellow men and woman. The fruits of her selfless endeavours can be seen in the lives of those she has touched.