Yasmin Azad's memoir explores nuances of Muslim life in a modern setting

Stay, Daughter is a coming-of-age story that is both a family portrait and an insightful account of seismic generational shifts

Yasmin Azad was born and raised in Galle Fort, Sri Lanka. Photo: Stephanie Colasanti / Shutterstock
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When Yasmin Azad was growing up in Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, in the 1950s and '60s, her carefree early years eventually gave way to a markedly more difficult phase.

“I had a sunny, happy childhood when I was very young,” she tells The National. “But as an older Muslim girl, I had so many freedoms curtailed, which was hard.”

At the age of 12, Azad was “brought inside” and no longer allowed out to swim, cycle or play with her Christian friend. But she continued to find love, warmth and security at home and, chaperoned by her ayah, she continued to go to school — after which she became one of the first girls in her Muslim community to leave home to further her education at university.

Azad’s Stay, Daughter is a remarkable coming-of-age story. It also manages to be both a finely-drawn family portrait and an insightful account of seismic generational shifts.

Azad was born and raised in Galle Fort. In the period her book covers, its inhabitants lived side by side in relative harmony

“Inside its four square miles were Christian churches, a Buddhist temple, a mosque and several Islamic schools,” Azad says. “When people of different religions or ethnicities are your immediate neighbours who might help you during a crisis and whose children play with your children, you begin to see them as not much different than yourself.”

Azad’s mother came from the Galle Fort. Her side of the family had, Azad writes, “a weakness for Parangi ways” — Parangi being a variation on ferengi, or foreigner.


Author: Yasmin Azad

Publisher: Swift Press

Available: Now

“My mother’s family was notably westernised, especially for a Muslim family during the late 19th and early 20th century,” she says.

“As I describe in my book, my maternal grandfather’s sister was the first Muslim girl to go to school in what was then called Ceylon. The men in the family were friends with the descendants of the Europeans who had colonised the island, and the family adopted certain traditions like sending their daughters to school and teaching them to play the piano.

“This perturbed the more traditional and conservative people in the Muslim community because they feared that a slippery slope was in the making. That turned out to be the case. The education of girls was eventually to cause monumental changes in the economic independence of women, the traditions of arranged marriage and the incidence of divorce.”

Azad’s father, a jeweller by trade, looms large in the book. A proud patriarch, he was also a popular man and always had people around him.

As Azad writes: “Wappah was fortunate to have been born a Muslim — it gave him his fill of people.” But he grew up in a traditional rural village and as a result, he often found it difficult to reconcile his conservative beliefs with those prevalent in the urban and cosmopolitan Galle Fort.

“His values were deeply rooted in the conservative Islamic culture into which he was born,” explains Azad. “And in his later years he had to negotiate a changing world where women and girls were no longer who they used to be.

“He had to face two major challenges to his way of thinking. One was that his niece to whom he had been a surrogate father eloped with a man — an unheard-of act for a Muslim girl at that time, and utterly devastating for the family. The other was that I, his only daughter, asked to go away from home to university.”

Azad’s memoir is at its most absorbing when her father is presented as a conflicted man. One minute he is relenting to his daughter’s demands and allowing her a bicycle, the next he is flying into a rage at “filth” like Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. His violent response to his niece’s elopement makes for sobering reading. His decision to bring Azad inside elicits the reader’s sympathy.

“Looking back on that experience, I would say that I went into a depression,” she says. “My mother tried to help but she didn’t dare flout the customs of the time by letting me go out of the house unless to school or a relative’s house.”

Azad considers the phase “a terrible time of confinement” but she eventually adjusted. Books saved her, and later that opportunity to leave home and study at university. Afterwards, Azad relocated to the US and built a career as a mental health counsellor.

“When I defied the Islamic traditions that held females back from education and work outside the home, I moved away both literally and metaphorically from many aspects of the culture I had grown up with,” Azad says.

“However, sometime after I commenced work as a mental health counsellor, I began to appreciate the ways in which Muslim communities foster the close connections that women and girls long for. What I hope to achieve with my memoir is a more nuanced depiction of Muslim life that can counteract the stereotype of unremitting oppression."

At the heart of her memoir is the question of how the values of connection and close community that have their roots in traditional cultures can be balanced with the freedoms and innovations of the modern world.

“It’s a question that haunts me,” Azad admits. “There’s a real fear that when freedom and independence are given priority, family and community are not valued as much."

“I don’t know what a judicious balance would be,” she adds. “But I think that a step in the right direction would be at least to recognise the perils of hyper-individualism and the epidemic of loneliness that it can bring.”

Stay, Daughter is available to download or order now

Updated: April 07, 2023, 6:03 PM

Author: Yasmin Azad

Publisher: Swift Press

Available: Now