Shoe-in for rights activist

Minari Fernando and daughter Tikaari chatting with grandmother Viveka by Skype. Photo by Amy Williams.
Human rights worker and feminist, Minari Fernando, left her career for a baby and a sewing machine. Amy Williams reports.

Her accent thickens slightly when she talks to her mother. Even through a grainy Skype feed there is a clear resemblance between mother and daughter.

It is mid-afternoon in Sydney and 11am Colombo time. Minari makes the daily call from her home workspace, which is littered with tools, thread and leather offcuts.

Minari has been empowered by the strong women in her family, who have passed down their artistic talents.

The self-proclaimed feminist has put a human rights career on hold to raise her daughter and run her business. At home she shares art and life lessons with her daughter, just as her mother did when she was young.

Looking at her, Minari appears younger than her 41 years, an opinion she hears often. Put this down to her round cheeks and bright smile. The only part of her face that shows her age, are her tired brown eyes.

“I don’t feel 41,” she says.

Shoe-in for rights activist

After shaving her head three years ago, she has settled on a super short and modern style for her jet-black hair. Her face is free from heavy makeup and she wears no jewellery, except for a small nose stud.

Minari is your typical over achiever. Her mother Viveka Fernando, 68, says she is the type of person that excels at everything she does.

“The sort of person that makes things look easy,” Viveka says.

Minari was 19 when she left her home in Sri Lanka and went to university in the United States. She blossomed at Illinois Wesleyan and worked to establish a chapter of the Feminist Majority Foundation.

“I was one of the co-founders of the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance on campus,” she says.

She still unreservedly identifies as a feminist.

“I believe in the equal value of men and women, and that’s what feminism is, so therefore I am a feminist,” Minari says.

During an internship in 1997, she worked with renowned human rights advocate Radhika Coomaraswamy, on the United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women.

In doing this work she discovered her passion for human rights.

“Oh my God, this is the kind of thing I want to do, for the rest of my life,” she said to herself.

While in London, studying for her master’s degree in human rights, Minari met her first husband, a fellow scholar from Barbados.

They married in 2004 and moved to the US when Minari began working at the Global Fund for Women. Their marriage ended in early 2007.

Minari’s father, Nalake Fernando, 71, has greatly impacted her life. He is still working in the private sector as a Director of Infrastructure. Nalake’s extremely loyal and hardworking nature has set a high standard for what Minari expects in a partner.

Minari refused to settle for a lesser mate and as a result she had many boyfriends while growing up.

On their daily Skype call Viveka and Minari erupt into laughter, remembering the revolving door of young men visiting their home.

“She made it a point to have a picture of her, with this boyfriend, kept in the house.

“So when the next one (boyfriend) came along, and that one was brought home, I had to quickly run and hide the picture,” Viveka says.

“That was her job,” Minari says, laughing.

“Boyfriend after boyfriend and I had to do the covering up,” Viveka says.

Western Sydney is now home for Minari and her second husband, Ranmal Mendis, 47, and their three-and-a-half year old daughter, Tikaari.

Viveka and Tikaari (Tikki) are very close and despite the physical separation, they play imaginary games during their calls.

“Sometimes she says, ‘I want to take you into my burrow’, so she takes the phone and goes somewhere and talks softly and says, ‘Shh now we’re inside the burrow,’” Viveka says.

When Tikaari was born, Minari was inspired to create a handmade gift for her.

“Everyone on my mum’s side, we have something that our mother’s made for us, or grandmother’s made for us,” Minari says.

She made her first pair of tiny leather shoes and everyone loved them.

“And then I thought… Maybe I can do this and earn some money, instead of going back to full time work,” Minari says.

Shoe-in for rights activist

At first Ranmal was hesitant and questioned if they could manage on his income alone.

“I’ll do it!” “I’ll do it!” “Watch me,” Minari said.

Viveka helped Minari christen the marketplace and online business, as ‘Huggabies’.

The baby shoe business is a departure from Minari’s work in the prevention of violence and torture against women, but her deliberately gender neutral designs sometimes challenge attitudes built on, what she calls, “toxic masculinity”.

“I have experienced fathers going, ‘There’s no way I’m putting my son in that, over my dead body,’” she says.

This family’s creative legacy is only matched by its strength.

“Definitely that thread of the strong independent woman has been in my family starting from my grandmother,” Minari says.

Minari describes her grandmother’s life as “revolutionary and scandalous” for conservative Sri Lanka, in the 1940s.

Kusuma Hettiarachchi married a younger man, of a different ethnicity and religion. They eventually divorced and she raised their five children as a single parent.

Kusuma had a number of exhibitions showing her hand embroidered, life size tapestries of Sri Lankan birds. Minari and Viveka say the details were so true that they looked like photographs.

The headstrong grandmother spent her 60s teaching in Zambia and moved to Canada when she was 98 years old. She lived there independently until she died aged 103, in December 2016.

Viveka sees many similarities between her mother and daughter.

“Anywhere in the world she can go, and you get the feeling she has been there before, because she fits in so well,” she says.

Minari knew how to sew before she was in pre-school. She inherited the skill from Viveka, who paints and embroiders.

“I remember the first time she taught me.

“She would poke holes in a piece of card with wool and a big needle,” Minari says.

Viveka and Nalake’s home serves as a family gallery, with four generations of artwork decorating the walls.

Not to be outdone, Minari’s father taught himself to play the trumpet and piano, and was a member of ‘The Spitfires’, a famous Sri Lankan band. He now teaches Tikaari to play when they are together.

Minari cherished having her mother at home throughout her childhood, and says it harnessed her creative side.

She is glad to be able to do the same for Tikaari, and believes that her daughter is benefiting from this foundation.

Minari does not judge other women who return to work after childbirth, and acknowledges that some women that cannot afford to stay home.

Emerging from a nap, Tikaari is wearing the red polka-dot dress her grandmother sewed, and the red Mary Jane’s her mother made.

“My shoes work perfectly with this dress, that’s why I like to wear those shoes with this dress,” Tikaari says.

She bounces from one creative activity to another. She grabs a thin long ornament and begins to sing into it, like a microphone. She is pretending to audition for Britain’s Got Talent.

Tikki breaks to share the cookies she baked earlier. They are a little burnt but she insists they are OK.

As well as encouraging Tikaari’s creativity, Minari encourages her to be a just person, who values equality and the uniqueness of others.

Fairytales about princesses being rescued by men are off limits, and instead they read stories about same sex families.

Since starting pre-school Tikaari has been exposed to gender stereotypes that sometimes influence her thinking. To that, Minari reminds her that she can do anything.

“You live in a different time, so don’t limit yourself in here (points to her head), because everyone else will try and limit you,” Minari says.

Minari is not done working in the human rights field.

“I really enjoyed it, like something from my heart, and felt I was doing the right thing,” she said.

Minari’s natural sense of justice will eventually lead her back to Sri Lanka, where she believes she can contribute more.

It is her goal in life to open a desperately needed, “kick arse”, domestic violence shelter that will offer a dignified escape for Sri Lankan women.