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“Your ‘Sri Lankanness’ will not be reduced to one aspect of your identity.”

ECONOMYNEXT – On March 8, International Women’s Day the Friedrich Nauman Foundation for Freedom invited ten selected women to say what they would do if they were to lead this country.

We publish below the poem read out by Author and activist Sarah Kabir in which she described what she would do.

What Would You Do If You Were Given The Chance To Lead This Country?”
By Sarah Kabir

Many of us don’t have the luxury to seriously consider this topic because, in Sri Lanka, the reality is someone like me could never and will never be THE leader of this country. Why? Because I am identified as a second-class citizen in Sri Lanka. I am a woman, and I am a Muslim. I am labelled as a ‘minority’. So, not even as a child, nor as an adult, could I even dream this dream of one day being able to lead this country. And sadly, I have a feeling, I’m not the only one.

However, if I was President this is how I would lead.

IF I WAS PRESIDENT

If I was President,
The first thing that I would do
Is to change the status quo.
So it matters not where you pray, whom you love,
what you wear, or what you own.
A Sri Lanka, where every citizen can dare to dream the dream,
That one day! he or she, might be able to lead.

If I was President,
Your ‘Sri Lankannes’ will not be reduced to one aspect of your identity.
You can wear a pottu or a headscarf,
As a Sri Lankan you I will treat.
For diverse we are; in language, skin tone, gender, sexuality,
In the clothes we wear, how we pray, the food we eat,
In thought, in faith and beliefs.
And in this diversity comes an unparalleled unity,
Bound, ‘if’ the promise, to respect each other, we keep.

———–

An apathetic citizen, other leaders might adore,
I will change to an engaged one, that is what I will implore.

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One who makes it their aim to prioritise love over hate,
Truth over pseudo-nationalism,
Empathy over Apathy.
Then maybe, just maybe,
There can be a space that is safe and free,
For all Sri Lankan citizen’s to be.

———–

If I was President, my country wouldn’t need a slogan to uphold the law,
The scales of the justice system – would work without flaw.
And every religion, every practice, and every culture, I will respect,
So long! as it doesn’t force or take away from another, at your behest.

See… for me, I think of Sri Lanka as a polsambol
70% of coconut that fills up the bowl,
And 30% of flavour and colour,
That reminds you of ‘home’.
———–

If I was President,
I’d break the cycle where nationalism is used as a tool to divide,
Where it’s ingrained in citizens, who then push leaders to inscribe.
Nationalism, will be a thing we ALL own;
A pride we wear and, with it, a past we must know.

The past, under the rug I would not sweep,
But address every injustice that made a mother weep.
Acknowledging these stains is not to bring mother-Lanka shame,
But to say, we are big enough as a nation, and true to our words when we say, ‘never again!’

Where you have been discriminated, I will not deny,
As denial aims to encourage another conflict we cannot survive.
What led you to believe a weapon is all you had to wield,
I will rectify and heal, so my country will not bleed.

If I was President, I would respect the dead.
I wouldn’t destroy cemeteries where you lay them to rest.
I would allow you to mourn, to light a candle in their name,
So we remember as a nation, the cost of war that was in vain.

I’d push for an understanding and an acceptance of our past
As that is the only way, a positive peace would last.
———–

If I was President, your freedom of speech I would not infringe,
For there is much I could learn from what rages within.
But I will remind you, that this freedom is not an end in itself,
But a means to protect the rights and lives of all – even those who are not your friends.
Sadly, I know there will always be racists and misogynists,
But a platform to amplify their views I will not facilitate.

And in this space,
Independence Day would be one all Sri Lankan’s can celebrate with pride,
Where it matters not what language in which you recite –
The National anthem – would be sung with a sense of belonging,
Where the words ring true to your heart and have meaning.

———–

If I was President,
My pride, I would put aside,
And acknowledge my limitations.
That being President doesn’t give me a PhD or a Major,
In economics, in law, in health, trade or diplomacy,
So, if I was President… I’d be open to learning!
And those accomplished I will find,
To consult,
With always the country’s best interest in sight.

I wouldn’t make my decisions based on a second term,
I wouldn’t centralise, but my power I would devolve.
My committees would not be just for optics, or friends,
They would represent all
And to make this country better, a hand they would lend.

———–
Of all the controversial things I might have said,
There’s one in particular today I feel, surprisingly, scared to address.
A problem, that for centuries has divides us all,
Where ‘class’ has allowed a few to gain, and the rest left to fall.

This, today, remains unchanged,
As many of us privileged prefer class divisions to remain.
We enjoy our high-flying jobs, and our rich threads,
We enjoy our food cooked, plates cleaned, and our cosy beds.
So, threatened we are, by the thought of another,
Being able to climb up that ladder.

For this, If I was President,
Schools – urban or rural – well-trained teachers I will provide.
Education or language, will not be a thing that divides.
The tools you need I will work hard, so you can access,
As equal opportunity is the key ingredient for a nation’s success.

The homeless, would not be swept off the street,
But given shelter, a roof – under which to sleep.

I wouldn’t press my foot,
Down on your throat,
Suppressing your breath,
Instead, I’d bend the knee.
Because it is you that I serve,
It is you, that allows me to lead.

———–

If I was President,
I would not fight the truth that we live in a globalised world,
Interconnected we are, as covid-19 has shown.
Geographical boundaries? are just lines on a map,
As the butterfly who flaps her wings in Sinharaja – might be felt all the way up on the alps.

If I was President,
The environment I will restore,
And be aware of the seeds we sow,
Nothing stands alone, in today’s world that we know,
Not the past, not the present, nor the future we hold.

We are all interconnected by a single thread that weaves through,
And so, there must be unison for Sri Lanka to be more.
For her heart to beat with joy,
For our hearts to swell with pride,
To be proud of our nation! of where we came alive.

———–

Now of course, you must be thinking, ‘all of this is easier said than done,’
And the race to become President, is not mine to be won.

But in this space of being a citizen, I refuse apathy!
Even if I can’t be President, I will – and I can – still lead,
To build a nation of unity, one that celebrates diversity,
A Sri Lanka where every little girl (or boy) … could not just dream,
but wake up! and say,
I am going to be President one day.


(Colombo, March 11, 2021) Edited by Arjuna Ranawana

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