The graduate

Mrs Haniah Sultanbawa, the first female Muslim graduate from the Southern Province, talks about the challenges she faced on her path to a degree in 1960 and the people who helped her along the way. Photography by Kannan Arunasalam and Menika van der Poorten.

Join the discussion: 12 comments

  • Kannan Arunasalam says:

    It was Mrs Khalid from the Galle Fort – a great source of characters for the project – who put me in touch with Mrs Haniah Sultanbawa. The first Muslim woman from the southern province to graduate from university was too important to miss out on. A few days later, I visited Mrs Sultanbawa at her home in the suburbs of Colombo where she lived with her husband. Mrs Sultanbawa had moved from Galle to Colombo in 1964 after becoming a teacher. Now retired, she still gives the odd tuition class to young students.

    My first impression of Mrs Sultanbawa was her unrelenting modesty about her achievements. She was really only the product of circumstances, she said. Or, she was not really intelligent, she just had a good memory. It went on like that.

    Of course, there were people who supported her in her path to a degree from the University of Ceylon in 1960. Her father encouraged her and other girls in her family to continue their education. When the family had to leave the fort, an uncle gave up his own house so she could be closer to school and finish her ‘O’ levels. Then when Southlands College stopped offering ‘A’ levels at that time, her teacher Mrs Ridge helped to get her into Methodist School in Colombo to continue her education.

    But there she faced more hurdles. She was not from a well-off family, and was taunted by students from more privileged backgrounds about the way she dressed and talked. She didn’t let them get to her and she ended up becoming a prefect at the school.

    It was only after considerable coaxing by me that Sultanbawa agreed that perhaps she had paved the way for other Muslim girls to follow their academic goals. Then she retreated, and continued to explain away her achievements, saying she was just “docile”. Hearing her compelling story, I couldn’t accept that. She faced bullying at school and came up against a culture that believed Muslim women should remain in the house after puberty. Lost in her version of her story was the courage and strength it must have taken to be a pioneer in her community.

    When I called her last week, months after we first talked, Sultanbawa said she was surprised to hear from me. She had simply assumed that she had “been rejected” from the project. That was Mrs Sultanbawa for you. I told her I was keeping the best characters for last. And I meant it.

  • Thanuja S. Jayaweera says:

    Hats off to Mrs. Sultanbawa! Thank you for sharing your experience. Very interesting and a lot to learn from it. May you be blessed with good health and happiness always.

  • Ziqufi Ismail says:

    It is indeed an honor to learn first hand from a great lady who paved the educational way for other ladies to follow, which at the time her parents took that hard decision was a nightmare in the Muslim community. She continued with her four daughters and still does for many children to follow from her hand. May she be blessed for that worthy FIRST step in the right direction.

  • Najeeba Shamil says:

    I’m proud to be one of her daughters. Thanks for giving her the opportunity to tell her story. She is definitely a brave and intelligent lady who guided her daughters on the correct paths. There are no words to explain how thankful I am to her, for what I am now. I think she tried her best to protect us from the things she experienced in her own life, but always drew from those experiences to put things in perspective. She always asked us to help others in however way we could, which I truly believe in and try to do.

    I’m sure she is proud to be a good wife and a much loved mum to four daughters and eight grandchildren, and a good mother-in law to four great sons-in-law! May Almighty Allah give her strength and courage to live a happy life for many more years to come!

  • Yasmin Thahir says:

    She is my teacher. She is simple but straight. Whenever I need to know something or my son needs help with his studies, all we have to do is call her. She has the answer. So we call her a walking library!

  • Gayathri Pathirana says:

    Although I only spent a short time with her, she gave me the impression of a great character with profound wisdom and I wish her the strength and courage to be the person she is: a role model for future generations. May she be blessed!

  • Muneera Mohideen says:

    Thank you for sharing your life experience. Haniya Aunty’s life is a great inspiration to Muslim women to strive hard and make their life meaningful. I always admired Haniya Aunty’s wisdom, courage and her ability to balance family life in the most intelligent manner. May Allah bless her with good health and a long life.

  • Samanthi Kannangara says:

    It is a great achievement as a Muslim woman, especially in the 1960s! Her life should be an example for other Muslim women. I wish you good health and a long life, Aunty!

  • Suha Cassim says:

    Assalamualikum Aunty!

    You were always thumbs up!
    Love and Salaams from Daniel and I in Africa :)


  • Gayathri Fernando says:

    We scatter light is our motto at Metho. She is a shining light and a real lesson in modesty and generosity to all those who helped her be the first Muslim lady from the Southern Province to go to University. Common sense and wisdom. Can we ever be like that in our generation?

  • (@iam_project) (@iam_project) says:

    To mark Ramadan I Am will share narratives of Muslim elders. Listen to the first female Muslim graduate from the south


    The first female Muslim graduate from the south of Sri Lanka the @iam_project’s


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