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An Ideal Modern Muslim Woman in Sri Lanka:
Yasmin CADER

Yasmin CADER
Director Marketing Communications, Hilton

Interview by Bircan ÜNVER


"I consider that the sari (traditional garment worn by women) is the one, which reflects beauty in a woman the most. Women of Sri Lanka are without a doubt, at the top of this category with their beauty wearing bright colours such as yellow, orange and other multi-coloured sarees...

On a typical working day - some wear flat sandals in the shape of slippers in a variety of colors to match the sarees. As the day ends should there be a social evening function or gathering - Sri Lanka's avenues and streets suddenly changes its• face. Just watching this unexpected change of the city of Colombo throughout the day is quite joyful by itself.

One Muslim woman in this city who has had the opportunity to visit many cities in Turkey is in full admiration of Istanbul in particular: her name is Yasmin Cader. My interpretation of her full name is similar to Yasemin (name of a flower in Turkish/jasmine) and Kader (destiny).  She is the Director Marketing Communications overlooking public relations of the Hilton Colombo, the leading hotel in Colombo.

She•s an intelligent woman with a wealth of experience behind her. She carries a vast amount of knowledge and well recognized for her hardworking attitude."

"Since I've met with her, I have begun to realize the other beautiful faces and values of Sri Lanka," says Cüneyt AYRAL, a one time frequent visitor to Colombo.

* * *

I met with Yasmin Cader before going to Sri Lanka via Cüneyt Ayral. While I was searching for hotels to book with, I asked Cüneyt•s advice by e-mail, because he lived in Negombo for 5 years during the conflict period between the Sinhalese and Tamils. Presently, Cüneyt lives in Nice, France.

However, Cüneyt suggested that I contact Yasmin Cader, which I did. Of course, I wasn't able to afford to stay at Hilton in Colombo but Ms. Cader was very kind and helpful and directed me to Jetwing Tours. I was then able to make my first two reservations.

Just a day before I left Sri Lanka, which was on January 13, 2003; I returned from the Sacred Mountain - Adam's Peak or Sri Pada, where I climbed 2247 stairs to the summit on the previous evening. I then spent the night in the mountains, and returned to my guesthouse in the afternoon on Monday to Colombo.  Until that day I couldn't call her because it was the holiday season and I felt uncomfortable visiting her during this period.

After returning to my guesthouse that day, I called and ask her if I could visit. She was once again very kind enough to fit in me into her busy schedule at that moment. Right after the phone call, I went to visit her with my audio-recorder.

* * *

When I entered her office at the Hilton Colombo, I immediately thought about what Cüneyt had said because Ms. Cader was dressed in an orange sari with an orange necklace.

I previously knew that she was a Muslim, because Cüneyt had mentioned it, but had no idea how a Muslim woman lived in Sri Lanka. Overall, we talked openly in her office for a while even during the numerous phone calls she received during that time.

* * *

- Were you born here?

- Yes, I was born here in 1952.

- So how many generations your family & ancestors lived here?

- All our lives including my grandfather and great grandfather.

- Where did your roots come from?

- Well, they say Arabia. But this is going back a few hundred years. Because of the Arab traders who at that time did a lot of trading in Sri Lanka. So they say that we are actually the descendents of the Arabs.

- I cannot distinguish the different types of living between Sinhalese, Muslims, Tamils and (or the others) in daily life. How do you define the differences?

- Actually the only difference would be the sub-traditional customs. But otherwise, there isn't much difference in everyone's daily life. I mean, look at us at this office, for instance, my colleagues are from Burger, Sinhalese, Muslim, and Christian families. So there is no real difference in that sense. But we each of us have our customs and traditions. This mostly comes out; when wedding ceremonies take place, and other festivals that each religion celebrates. The up bringing can also vary. They would be slightly different. The Sinhalese race has very different customs, which would usually relate to their backgrounds. At different levels, the different races also differ. Many Sri Lankans are fortunate in that we all have basically our own homes. They are very family conscious. Like I take care of my mom who stays with me. So we don't like in the west put our parents in homes; instead, we take care of them in our own home. Today in many homes, even though both husband and wife work, we still take it upon ourselves to look after our parents. It is also possible because domestic help is available.

- In terms of worshiping and shaping daily lives by religion, how can this be distinguished from traditions? For instance, in the Arab countries and parts of Turkey, a woman's daily life has been shaped by both religion and tradition. How does it work here? You give me an impression that you are a very modern secular woman.

- Well, I might be modern in my thinking, but I still find time to fit my Namaz during my working day. I have performed my Hajj. For instance, I wake up in the morning, and I start my day with prayers. I believe in my religion but not fanatical about it. I read my Koran and Yaasin everyday. I try to say all the namaz's on a daily basis, and I fast, too. We keep the Ramadan. But I don't think just covering the whole body like some do makes you a better Muslim. For me, I have a very clean heart. I don't speak badly of anybody. I don't speak ill either. For me that is more Islamic. So for me, even though I dress fairly modern, I wear western clothes as ethnic dress as well. Until, it comes to a stage where I cannot wear all those crazy clothes, I guess I will continue to dress the way I do wearing pants, sleeveless tops, and other attractive clothes.

- Did you study abroad?

- My education was all done here. Actually it is a long story. My education is minimal, in the sense - I have only got my O•Levels that is a GSE level.

- Can you further explain your last answer? What does O•Level• mean? Does it mean high school, secondary high school or university?

- Secondary High School. Then I did one year in pre-University, but my mum did not allow me to pursue my studies any further. I was very keen to do architecture, as I was a good Mathematics student and still consider math's as my pet subject.

- Was it a preparation class?

- We call it the A Level Class, which is spread over two years. It is here that once you qualify, you can enter the University.

- A level?

- Yes.  A Level. During our time, the education system was exactly like the British, and hence we were fortunate to study in English. Throughout my years in School, we received an English education. Also in my home we speak English, so for this reason I didn't study too much the local language. I am ashamed to say that even though I am a Sri Lankan, and raised here, my level of the local language is not the best.

- Was it difficult to reach your career as a Muslim woman?

- It's hard work because I don't have qualifications, a degree, or any public relations degree. It is all my own learning. I married at 22. You may consider that young but my parents had all their children married when they were in their twenties.

- What were the main obstacles you faced being a Muslim woman and a mother?

- Actually I can't remember having too many problems. Today, a lot of Muslim women are working, and some of them even use the hijab, or just tie the scarf on their head covering their hair. We even have a Muslim minister in parliament right now. Her husband, who was a minister, was assassinated, and she being a lawyer by profession chose to drive his party on. Like that, lots of Muslim girls are working now. So it's a lot easier for the girls. On the other hand, we see more and more younger people reviving Islam again.

- How can you define that?

- Because a lot of young girls are taking to the religion quite strongly, in particular, the younger generation. They are all in Hijab, covered and all that.

- So do you evaluate this as a positive development?

- Yes, in a positive way, because they are learning the religion more thoroughly. Even my niece in the United States, she goes for Koran classes, she is not in Hijab, but very modernly dressed. But she says she would like to study Islam more deeply. It is a good feeling. She prays all of her five prayers. She is thirty-one, and it amazes me to see how disciplined she is.

So it's happening. But I feel that being a Muslim woman, you don't have to go crazy and act in a fundamental way. We cannot point a finger at another Muslim and say he or she is a bad Muslim.  We cannot judge people like that.

- Are there any problems in terms of mixed marriages?

- Well, parents naturally don't like it but sometimes do not have a say when their children insist on marrying a partner of their own choice, be it another religion or not. They prefer one of their own kind because it is easier on the children and for their sake, you know. As they grow up, the children get confused most times and do not know which religion to follow; the mothers or fathers or vise versa. My advice is always best to marry your own kind, because everything falls into place automatically. There is no strain in trying to please in-laws etc and respecting the other person's religions. All this can be stress full and you may sometimes do the wrong thing and not intentionally too.  But it happens today, where many Muslim girls are marrying out.

Sometimes they are able to get the boy converted and sometimes not. So, I doubt being able to tell my daughter what to do, as she is a very strong person. She is 26.

- What is the biggest advantage and disadvantage of living in a society with such multi-ethnic mosaic like in Sri Lanka? I'd like to understand this ethnic mosaic better.

- Actually it is good because we enjoy and celebrate most of the festivals. Our friends are of all races and religions, and we don't have a problem at all, by the Grace of God. Infact, I have such a mixed group of friends, I am truly blessed!  Not only me, but also all of us in this city, we all have good friends from every religion.

- Did you face any problems with Tamils- in person?

- Never. I'm very comfortable with them. Its just sad because of all of this you get a certain group of people in the country, who maybe are not educated enough, just being misled or misguided and then they come out with all the violations possible. But actually it's not really necessary. Because we here in Colombo, think that there are no problems between us.

* * *

- Are you married with a Muslim man?

- Yes, I married my cousin. It was my own choice. My mother's brother's son, but unfortunately it didn't work out the way my dreams were meant to be. We are divorced now.

- Did you remarry?

- No I chose to remain single

- For how long?

- 15 years.

-  How did you deal with it here as a divorced woman?

- You can, because it depends on your own behaviour. You must know how to conduct yourself. Because I had a young daughter, it was difficult at the beginning but soon I got used to it. I am a very balanced person. I have fun, I have a lot of friends but that's as far as it goes. I had relationships earlier, but always opted out of it sooner than later.

- You look very young.

- Masha Allah

- Mash Allah, how have you kept yourself so young looking?

- I don't know really. I exercise fairly regularly, am vegetarian and live an honest life.

- What type of exercise?

- I work out in the Gym or do aerobics, what ever. I am not paranoid but whenever I can I try 2-3 times a week at least. 

- It's amazing. I am really very impressed. Because being 51 years old and staying very young is great.  At the same time, living alone for 15 years should be difficult?

It's been difficult. I am a survivor. It's been tough. I work hard. So I think it has paid off. Despite this, as I grow older, I feel that, I don't need somebody to live with. Because, I am very used to my own life now. If I want to go to out or to a party, I go, if I don't want to, I don't have to go. I have a few friends. All married people treat me like their sister. It is nice to have friends like that.  Plus I like being at home. I am a very home person. I love to cook. I always entertain at home. I have 2 dogs.  I love my garden. I am a very domesticated person. Tomorrow if have to quit work, which I would love to. I think it is enough now. You know that you are not getting younger. And this hotel job is very time consuming. Now I want time for myself, because I don't have time to read, to do my hobbies or anything, it's all one big rush from morning till I get home. Today, I left home at 6.30 in the morning.

- How many hours a day do you work?

- 10 to 12 hours a day.

- How many years have you been working?

- I finished 14 years now here. Before I was at the Intercontinental Hotel for 5 years. So it's been all together almost 20 years in the hotel business.

- What is your most memorable moment in your career?

- Actually every day is memorable and a challenge. Every day is different. It has been a great learning experience, which I managed to handle and grasp very well. I have natural writing skills, which helped I guess. So I think I should be quite proud of myself that I have come this far. It's been hard work. It's taken me a long time and hasn't been easy. But, like I said before. I am quite proud of my achievements. Everything I have done has been on my own with the help of the Almighty. I have a little house and done extensions to it by taking loans which are all paid off now. If today, I die, I will go happy. My daughter is grown up and is a responsible person, so I have nothing to worry.

- Don't say that. What do you want to do next?

- Stay home

- How many years do you have to work to retire and what is the requirement age here?

- Four-and-a-half years from now, and requirement is to be 55 years old.

- What would you like to add: As a woman; as a professional: as a mother; as a Muslim?

- That nothing is impossible. If you want to do it, and if you stay focused you can do it, but you need to have the determination. I never give up. I like challenge. Being a mother, it hasn't been easy bringing up a young and beautiful girl.

- So, I was going to ask how your relationship is with your daughter?

- Sometimes good and sometimes bad. Over the years and with her also getting older, I guess with time, they tend to realise their mistakes and learn from it. Nothing is more precious than having a daughter though and I wouldn't like to exchange this for anything in the world.

- Would you like to add anything else?

- I hope you have enjoyed your stay in Sri Lanka and look forward to seeing you again soon - Insha Allah.

- Thank you.

* * *


I was very impressed that she looks so young. She has a very short and modern hairstyle in black combined with beautiful eye make-up, which was what struck me. To me she appeared to be in her late 20•s or early 30•s•I couldn•t believe that she is 51 years old, and also that she has a daughter who is 26 years old.

I was, and still I am very impressed that how she could pray every day, work 5-6 days a week, apply the most part of the Islamic practices and traditions. At the same time she has a successful career, and a single mother for 15 years, raised her daughter, taking care of her mother. She has a very modern hairstyle, make-up, as well as has an active social life.

As a conclusion, to accomplish all these as a Muslim, single-mother in Sri Lanka, which is also very difficult for millions of women in any westernized countries I think it is incredible.

In particular, when I, --in a fast paste--, compared in my mind increasing young-covered-up Muslim girls who also study at the university, suddenly thought that, Yasmin Cader can be an ideal Muslim woman for the Islamic world be it in Turkey or anywhere else.

- . -

Updated on April 22, 2003
Actual interview date: January 13, 2003, Colombo
© Bircan Unver, Light Millennium, New York, April-2003.

This issue is dedicated to the Peace Process of SRI LANKA & prominent Turkish author Yasar KEMAL

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