Naksewee Asma
Founder of WO-MANIS

Assalamualaikum Asma! How is it like being a Muslim in Thailand?

I was born in Thailand where Muslims make up the minority. However, my hometown is Pattani. It is 1 of the 3 provinces in Thailand that is home to most of the Thai Muslims. I grew up in a community of various faiths. We respect one another and always share our happiness. Unfortunately, in 2004, violence broke out in the southern Thai provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat. We don’t know what caused it to happen. Most people who don’t live in our area claim that it was due to a conflict of religions. Even now, the violence has not stopped. There are bombings and shootings almost every day. This situation is just so sad because we, the local residents, don’t believe that this is a religious conflict. My neighbours and I are still united, notwithstanding our difference in faith. We love each other and want to live our lives peacefully, just like we’ve had for many years.

Because of the fighting, it has become difficult for us to travel and live in other parts of Thailand. Just because we are Muslims, some people assume that we are the same as the insurgents. It’s hard not to feel victimized. When I was studying for my Bachelor’s degree, insensitive students would say things like “Did you bring a bomb from the South with you? What’s under your scarf? Is it a gun?”. It’s not funny at all but sadly, I’ve forced myself to get used to it.

On the other hand, there are Thais who are genuinely curious about Islam. They will ask me about my hijab, beliefs, how I dress and halal food. My friends love to watch while I pray because it’s something new for them. Even though it’s a little difficult to live in the country where Muslims are the minority, these kind souls make it easier for me to adapt to this environment.

You represented Thailand in the Young Southeast Asian Muslim Forum. How was it?

Honestly, I felt so grateful and honoured to represent Thailand in the forum. Before arriving in Singapore, I was so excited yet extremely nervous. Not only was it my first time visiting Singapore but the profiles of the other participants were super impressive! Everyone’s so talented and passionate about using new media positively for Islam. Moreover, the line-up of activities was very interesting. It was such a wonderful experience for me. I’m glad that I got a chance to share my ideas and experiences from working on WO-MANIS with everyone. I received a lot of advice and creative ideas on how to make it sustainable. I learnt a lot from each speaker, participant and facilitator. Their knowledge and experiences were invaluable. I felt so inspired by them because I knew that they were not only smart, they were also people who were truly concerned about others and willing to make a difference in their own community. Just being around them made me feel motivated. I feel recharged to continue working on my project. I went back home with an unforgettable experience, new networks and friendships that I hope will last a lifetime.

Alhamdulillah! You mentioned WO-MANIS. What is it about and how can we take part?

I’ve told you briefly about the brutal conflict in Southern Thailand. What I haven’t touched on is the impact on the women in that area. The violence has killed many men, who leave behind their wives and children. Unsurprisingly, the widows are struggling to pick up the pieces and move on with their lives. It’s difficult for them to raise their children without their husbands, who are their pillars of support. Now, they are suddenly responsible for tasks that their partners used to take care of. They don’t know where to start. The feelings can get overwhelming and they feel like there is no one to talk to. Some of these women become very reserved and end up slipping into depression.

With this in mind, my sister, close friend and I started brainstorming. What if we could bring back the smiles of the widows? What if we could empower these women to take control of their lives? Imagine if we could create a family that can lean on each other for strength?

That’s why we created WO-MANIS. It is a social enterprise that empowers widows with embroidery and sewing skills to make an honest living for their families. Our tagline is “Wrap Women with Hope”. At first, the women only made and sold scarfs. Now, they are so good with their hands that they are selling accessories such as handmade bags and handkerchiefs as well. Alhamdulillah!

Sometimes, it’s difficult for us to continue this project because we’re young and still in school. It was also tough for us to gain their trust at first. We believe in what we are doing and worked really hard that to prove that this project could really help them. We ensured that WO-MANIS can provide a safe and comfortable environment for group members to share their stories and express their grief. The widows realised that sharing with others, who identify with their experience, helps to normalize their confusing feelings. Soon, word got around and more and more of them joined us. At the end of the day, I feel very happy when I see them helping each other to deal with pain and slowly recover.

I appeal to you to help these courageous women in rebuilding their lives. Feel free to click ‘like’ and share our Facebook page: www.facebook.com/WOMANISSCARF

That’s so inspiring, Asma. What drives you to strive for excellence?

I was born and raised in a small community in the Pattani province, which is far away from the capital city. I was never born with a silver spoon in my mouth. However, I consider myself lucky that I was born and raised in a happy Muslim family. Since I was young, my parents always tell me, “Asma, don’t think that you are not as smart as everyone else. You should just try harder. Nothing is easy but if you do your best, it will be worth it.” As a result, I always strive to be excellent. I continually aim to be the top of my class because I know that education is important and can bring me to where I want to be. During my childhood, I had a dream of becoming a doctor to help my community. When I grew up, I realized that I’m more passionate about entrepreneurship and technology. However, my mission is still the same. I want to work in my hometown and help develop my community.

Who inspires you the most?

The person who inspires me most is definitely my dad. He has always been my role model. Since I can remember, I know that he devotes himself to helping others. One day, we were on the road when we saw a car that had crashed. There were injured people lying down next to it. My dad stopped the car immediately to help bring them to the hospital. He’s very kind and follows the way of our Prophet. He always reminds us of what the prophet once said, “The upper hand is better than the lower hand”.

My dad always donates money to kids from less well-to-do families and schools but requests to be anonymous. When I was younger, I just did not understand why he would do that. I remember asking him why and he said,” One day you will get it.” Now, I do get it. When you do something good from your heart, for the sake of Allah, you are happy no matter what. At this stage, you don’t need any human recognition. In shaa Allah, Allah will reward you with even better. Allahu Akbar.

12 years ago, my family faced a horrible tragedy. Our house had caught fire by accident. Within a few hours, everything burnt down. We had nothing left other than the clothes that we were wearing. Alhamdulillah, no one got injured. We were so devastated that we were in tears. Before we knew it, a lot of people gathered around us with food and necessities. One of our neighbours immediately offered her house for us to stay until we find a new house. Alhamdulillah! This experience made me realize how meaningful it is to help others without expecting anything in return.

Before the violence in the 3 southern provinces, we lived as a happy, secure community. Now, most of us are living in fear. A lot of people have moved out. Nobody wants to visit anymore. This has also affected the economy of the area. Alhamdulillah, I feel lucky to have a complete family.I want to be just like my dad and help everyone sincerely. My life mission is to help bring back the smiles of those who have lost their loved ones, in shaa Allah!

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