Zeenath Kausar trace the history of women’s empowerment in the political process of this land from Kaum Ibu in the pre-Independence era to the appointment of the first deputy prime minister of Malaysia.
According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, as of 1 April 2018, Malaysia was ranked 155th in terms of its number of women in Parliament based on the 2013 general election.
Women in National Parliament, Inter-Parliamentary Union, 1 April 2018
According to the Global Gender Gap Index, Malaysia was ranked 104th in terms of its political empowerment of women and women’s share in the estimated earned income (The Global Gender Gap Report 2017).
No doubt, Malaysia has to go a long way to accelerate the political participation of women and to offer women the highest political leadership positions in the country. But there is another unique aspect of women’s political participation in Malaysia that is unfortunately often overlooked. What is it?
This small article aims to answer this question. However before we move on and give you the full story, let us give you a quick answer to this curious question in two points:
- Malaysian women had demonstrated patriotic, painstaking and unswerving national spirit, along with men, to win Independence, Merdeka for the country from the British colonialists – something that was hugely impressive and phenomenal.
- After independence, over the last few years, when Malaysia somehow slipped into the morass of corruption, injustice, kleptocracy and other evils, it was again a woman, a medical doctor and wife of the then jailed former deputy prime minister, who unfurled the flag of ‘reformasi’ and invited Malaysian citizens irrespective of gender, race, language and religion to join her. She in fact created a new kaum, Kaum Reformasi, to make the country independent from all these kinds of socio-economic and political evils.
Thus, in both these fights for independence, merdeka, first, from external forces and second from internal chaos, Malaysian women have proved themselves as “the most patriotic and unswerving heroines of the nation”! That’s the gist of it.
In the past, Kaum Ibu, the ‘mothers clubs’ played a historical role standing shoulder to shoulder with men for the independence of the country.
Fast forward and the Reformasi movement, which I call Kaum Reformasi, under the leadership of Reformasi leader Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, performed a monumental role in taking the initiative to clean, bersih corruption, injustice and kleptocracy from the country. This endeavour achieved great success through the coalition alliance, Pakatan Harapan (PH) in the 2018 general election.
Kaum Ibu’s critical role
The origin of Kaum Ibu goes back to the Japanese occupation of Malaya from 1942 to 1945 and later Japan’s defeat in 1945 by the British colonialists, who re-occupied Malaysia and presented a proposal for a Malayan Union on 22 January, 1946.
This British proposal was rejected by the Malays because it proposed to replace the sovereignty of the Malay rulers with a central government headed by a British governor. Malay groups organised large protest rallies, creating a movement of peninsular Malays known as Pergerakan Melayu Semenanjung under the leadership of Onn Jafar. The movement comprised 15,000 members including 450 energetic women.
Seeing the enthusiastic participation of women in the movement, it was remarked that Malay women, who could hardly be seen outside their homes during the pre-World War Two period, were seen everywhere after the Malayan Union proposal giving fiery speeches that impressed everybody. They also assembled before the nine Sultans of Malaya and shouted “Hidup Melayu” (Long Live Malaya) carrying with them banners with the words “Save the rulers”.
Who were those women? They were largely from the two most active women organisations, Angkatan Wanita Sedar (Awas), which is regarded as the first nationalist women’s organisation, and Kaum Ibu (mothers clubs).
Awas was formed in December 1945 as the women’s wing of the Malay Nationalist Party and was once led by a revolutionary freedom fighter, Shamsiah Fakeh, a well known communist leader.
As for Kaum Ibu, they were several groups of women which were formed from 1946 to 1948 in opposition to the Malayan Union proposal. They were spread out in various places and districts of Peninsular Malaysia. Although the majority of these Kaum Ibu women were uneducated, they still formed these groups to oppose the Malayan Union and to fight for the independence of the country.
These simple-minded, innocent, but honest, selfless and high-spirited groups in Kaum Ibu should be seen as the ones who opened the gates of freedom of this country.
In 1947, Kaum Ibu officially emerged as the women’s wing of the United Malays National Organisation (Umno). Putih Mariah Ibrahim Rashid, Zainun Sulaiman (Ibu Zain), Khadijah Sidek and Fatimah Hashim were all eminent chiefs of Kaum Ibu Umno.
In 1971, the name Kaum Ibu Umno was changed to Wanita Umno. It was said that the change of name reflected the change in composition of the women’s wing of Umno. In its Kaum Ibu phase, the movement mainly comprised rural and less educated women while in its Wanita phase, it comprised highly educated, sophisticated and enlightened women, exposed to the political world.
Although the majority of the Kaum Ibu were less educated, most of their leaders were not only educated but also politically enlightened. Further, the very fact that they were called mothers or ibu attracted more respect and a sense of obligation to them.
Can we ever forget that the leaders of Kaum Ibu virtually raised awareness among hundreds and thousands of women from villages of the importance of their votes by telling them they could make and unmake the destiny of their nation through their votes – and then training them how to vote.
Can we forget that even after independence, these Kaum Ibu chiefs continued rendering great service to Umno and the nation – even though they were only given promises from Umno leaders that Kaum Ibu Umno would be more empowered, promises that were hardly fulfilled.
Can we forget that Kaum Ibu Umno, even with these setbacks, still continued supporting Umno in every election and in every calamity without which the long journey of Umno could not have taken place?
Mind you, the women’s wings of the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) also played vital roles to support their parties and to serve their nation. Without these women’s wings of the Barisan Nasional parties, it is hard to say whether BN could have thrived for so long.
Independence roll of honour
Besides these women groups, many other women from various backgrounds fought for the independence of Malaya from the Japanese and the British.
For instance, Sybil Medan Kathigasu, a woman of French and Penang Eurasian descent and nurse by profession, supplied medical assistance to the resistance forces in Perak during the Japanese occupation of Malaya. She was captured by the Japanese in 1943 and suffered water-boarding torture treatment, kicking and burning by the Japanese forces.
Similarly, Suriani Abdullah, who was born Eng Ming Ching, a revolutionary woman, is remembered as a Serikandi Anti-Jepun (anti-Japanese heroine). She fought against the Japanese Occupation – and later against the British – and was captured and tortured for six months when she was only 21.
Then we have Mrs BH Oon or Lim Beng Hong, a lawyer who co-founded the MCA.
We have Rasammah Bhupalan, who in her early teenage years joined the Rani Jhansi Regiment to fight against the British in South East Asia and mobilised other women to fight for the independence of Malaya.
Then there is Siti Rahmah Kassim, who donated her wedding gift, a gold bangle, and inspired other women to contribute their bangles, rings, wristwatches and other valuables to finance the trip of the father of Independence, Tunku Abdul Rahman, to London in 1957. Her bangle has gone down in history to be remembered as ‘the bangle of independence’.
Many other women rendered invaluable sacrifices in wresting freedom for the country country.
Dr Zeenath Kausar is a former associate professor at the Department of Political Science of the International Islamic University, Malaysia. She is the author of Muslim Women at the Crossroads: Rights of Women in Islam and General Muslim Practices; Modern Political Ideologies: An Islamic Critique; and Woman as Head of State in Islam? Women’s Empowerment and Islam.