Mon, 09 Oct 2000

S. Asia tradition: Widow pushed into politics

By Namini Wijedasa

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP): When a helicopter crash killed her husband last month, the widow of the country's most influential Muslim politician was propelled into politics.

If Ferial Ashraff wins in next Tuesday's election, she would become the first Muslim woman in parliament. But it would follow a tradition in South Asia -- including in Sri Lanka -- where widows and daughters of political leaders have often parlayed their famous names into power.

Sri Lanka, an island country off India's southern tip, is home to 1.3 million Muslims among 18.8 million people, most of whom are Sinhalese. The country has been torn by a 17-year civil war, with Tamil rebels seeking an independent homeland. The tightly knit Muslim community -- descendants of Arab traders -- control much of the country's trade and business.

The 225-member Parliament dissolved in August included 19 Muslim lawmakers, nine from the Muslim Congress party of Ashraff's late husband, Ports Minister M.H.M. Ashraff. As a bloc, Muslim legislators can wield great power greater than their numbers which -- along with the Muslims' domination of the economy -- has caused resentment among the majority Sinhalese .

This could hurt Ashraff's chances.

Still, there is the tradition of South Asian women riding to power on the names of husbands or fathers, often those who died violently. Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi of India, Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan and Shiekh Hasina of Bangladesh all were daughters of famous political leaders.

In Sri Lanka, Sirimavo Bandaranaike became prime minister after her husband was assassinated. Bangadesh opposition leader Begum Khaleda Zia also is the widow of a slain president.

But Ashraff's transformation will not be easy in a country where Muslims follow a strict religious code.

"Muslims would not go out openly for a Muslim lady," said Ahmed Mohammed Zameem, a political analyst. "It is difficult for Muslim women to make it big in national politics.

"It is very doubtful that she will win unless there is a considerable wave of sympathy because, unlike other communities, the Muslim community here doesn't want their women to come out in politics," he said.

Ashraff is struggling to reconcile the demands of faith and politics. Any attempts to campaign or even visit her constituency are prevented by the Islamic mourning period.

There are no election posters of her on the walls of her family's hometown, Digamadulla, 220 kilometers (132 miles) east of the capital, Colombo. She cannot attend election rallies or meetings.

"Only her family members know about her, no others, except on rare occasions when some people have seen her on television," said M. L. Aziz, president of the main mosque in Digamadulla. When her husband was alive, she appeared on state-run TV.

Wearing a white sari symbolizing mourning, the widow accepts condolences at her home from a stream of women. Seated in her husband's study, she agreed to let The Associated Press observe her transformation from homemaker to politician.

Although she spoke on a wide range of issues, she asked that none of her comments be used until after her period of seclusion.

"I am in iddah," she explained, referring to the Islamic holy period following a husband's death or a divorce.

This will last four months and 10 days. During this period, she may not appear in public, nor is she allowed to meet any men outside her immediate family.

If she emerges a winner this week, she cannot be sworn in until after her mourning period ends.

But this did not stop her husband's party from nominating her as co-leader with Rauf Hakeen, the party's former general secretary. Her husband was killed with 15 others when a helicopter crashed en route to an election meeting Sep. 16. Suspecting sabotage, his party appointed its own investigators.

Aziz said there was confusion over Ashraff's candidacy. "People here don't know which way to vote," he said, adding he expected a split between her and Muslim opposition figures.

U.K. Samsudeen, vice president of the district's mosque, believes Ashraff will win on a sympathy vote.

"The people of the East did not have the opportunity to throw sand onto Ashraff's grave because he was buried in Colombo," he said. "They will vote for his widow as a last sign of respect."