The rise of valiant women

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At a time when some of us might bemoan and feel helpless in the face of an oppressive political culture, Dave Anthony says we should take heart at the emergence of a string of valiant women who have given our society a fresh ray of hope.

We are witnessing the rise of valiant women who have courageously stepped into the public arena and are prepared to kick against the goad and to be hurt, denounced and maligned by government loyalists and pseudo-patriots, religious fanatics and racial extremists for the sake of defending justice.

It takes a lot of gumption for a woman to stand tall in a man’s world and these women are indeed giants among men. They are Ambiga Screenivasan, Irene Fernandez, Kian Sit Har, Irshad Manji, Annie Ooi Siew Lan, Mariam Moktar and other.

Ambiga

She has spearheaded a groundswell of people who are standing together in solidarity, crying out for free and fair elections through Bersih. In the face of massive intimidation, people who had been brought up in fear and people leading comfortable lives in the comfort of their houses took a stand as they want to see free and fair elections. “All of society, they were there that day,” she says, ‘You didn’t give us Dataran but we took KL.”

She has been harassed, accused of threatening the peace and stability of the country, causing disunity among the people, and smearing the country’s name. Her privacy and religious standing have been violated, her effigy burnt.

Her accusers urged the government to revoke her citizenship, withdraw her honorary titles, arrest her and chase her out of the country. The supporters of the Prime Minister paraded banners saying “Get out of Malay land”, “Bersih is communist”, “Bersih – an agenda to wipe out Malay and Muslim political power”. They held a mock funeral with a garlanded photograph of her.

In spite of threatened violence she can still stand up and say, “Nothing will change. Our campaign is about voter education and it will go on.” Only a mulier fortis with faith in true Malaysians can say, “Do not underestimate Malaysians.” Malaysians have someone to rally around even though she says that Bersih is not about herself.

Irene

The government declared that it was a shame that Irene Fernandez, executive director of Tenaganita, highlighted the plight of migrant workers. Irene has been fighting for the rights of migrant workers for twenty years and has well documented evidence of abuse and harassment faced by migrant workers.

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She highlighted the fact that Malaysia did not have a legal framework or specific law to protect migrant workers and therefore Malaysia was not safe for (Indonesian) workers. She has been accused of being unpatriotic.

She rebutted that by saying that it was the government that has tarnished the country’s image and that she would only be unpatriotic if she remained silent.

Now the government is considering probing her under the Sedition Act for allegedly continuing to disparage and defame the country. Sedition against the country?

Migrant workers from Indonesia alone number about two million, mostly maids and labourers. Those among the workers who have been victimised have no voice or recourse to appeal. They often suffer in silence.

Irene (Tenaganita) has stuck her neck out for them and courageously speaks for them.

The powers-that-be are crying out for her blood.

Kian Sit Har

This 73-year-old lady is no ordinary member of the MCA. She has been a senator and is the MCA Wanita chief. She worked towards the formation of Malacca Wanita MCA in 1975 and 37 years later remains its president.

She has taken a bold step breaking all tradition and protocol in party politics. She wore the yellow Bersih 3.0 T-shirt and took part in the rally that was condemned by her party and her government.

She sees something wrong in the party she has served for 55 years. It is not easy to break ranks at this stage but she did it by saying that we cannot be neutral and we have to choose between right and wrong. “We must take the side of justice. We cannot just follow faithfully if BN or MCA is doing something wrong,” she said.

Chief Minister of Malacca Mohd Ali Rustam asked her to step down.

The feisty septuagenarian retorted: “What right does the chief minister (from Umno) have to ask me to step down?”

The unkindest cut of all came from her own boss Soi Lek, who not only berated her for participating in Bersih 3.0, but said she was old and could no longer contribute to the party.

Kian Sit Har may have just crossed the Rubicon.

We have to take our hats off to her for her steadfast courage to defy all odds to stand up for justice.

Irshad Manji

Although not a Malaysian she left her mark on the land. She launched her book “Islam, Liberty and Love” in spite of overwhelming pressure from various religious groups and the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department that she should not be allowed to conduct her roadshow.

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The Ministry is considering banning her book because it is offensive to Muslims.

She claims her book shows all of us how to reconcile faith and freedom in a world seething with repressive dogmas and guides us to becoming gusty global citizens. She believes that a couple does not have to convert from their faith just to get married; that education and the freedom to think are paramount and not the indoctrination commonly practised in most religious teachings.

She hit out at muftis, imams and clerics who are self-appointed ambassadors of God, including Malaysia’s National Fatwa Council, who try to impose their own mores and dogma upon the populace.
Good believers cannot be expected to uncritically submit to the religious scholars without question because they themselves are humans and neither perfect nor divine. Their fatwas do not have divine authority.

This stirred up the ire of some of our local Muslim scholars and lawyers who wanted her out of the country.

She claims that political interference and the heavy-handed actions of the clerics have changed Islam from a faith into dogma and made mindless ‘robots’ and blind ‘automatons’ of its adherents. She highlights a truth that is hard to stomach.

Although she faces a barrage of opposition she has also received accolades and awards for her audacity, nerve, boldness and conviction. Even in Indonesia where she was heavily criticised, the Jakarta Post declared her as one of three women creating positive change in Islam.

Annie Ooi Siew Lan

Popularly known as ‘Aunty Bersih’, she walked alone drenched in chemical-laced water holding a flower in Bersih 2.0.

The frail 65-year-old aunty said, “I’m just a simple, simple, simple person; I speak for the voiceless.” She demanded that the vote be given to everyone 21 and above.

The simple retired school teacher captured the attention of everyone. “Why do we have to feel so scared and frightened in our own homeland and by our own countrymen?” Having said that, she put her fears behind her and marched to put an end to corruption and for justice.

In her simplicity, she immediately became an icon – Malaysia’s Lady of Liberty.

Mariam Mokthar

She is an activist who wields her mightier weapon of the pen to challenge the status quo in current issues that arise out of political, social religious and racial tensions that plague us every day. She takes to task extreme positions and presents a balanced view.

She is critical of her own race, the Malays, and laments their slavish adherence to archaic norms where blind allegiance to race, religion and royalty dominates their behaviour. They have become prisoners to their own beliefs in the 21st century. She writes out of deep love for her own race but is often misunderstood.

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Women lawyers

Four women lawyers from the KL Legal Aid Centre dared to sue the IGP and the government. They are Fadiah Nadwa Fikri, Murni Hidayah Anuar, Puspawati Rosman and Syuhaini Safwan.

The four went to the Brickfields police HQ to provide assistance to 14 clients who had been detained for holding a candlelight vigil for Wong Chin Huat. They were not only prevented from entering the HQ, they were also detained. In filing the summons for unlawful detention, they have named the arresting officers along with the IGP and the government.

How can women be so bold as to take on such male heavyweights? They did and gender inequality was no barrier. “Once more unto the breach, dear ladies, once more.” King Henry will turn in his grave for he was addressing his men’s notions of masculinity.

Corruption and injustice resulting from a government’s bad management have become so deep rooted that we despair of seeing any change, we bemoan and criticise and do nothing or feel helpless to do anything – but these women have given our society a fresh ray of hope.

Ambiga has been despised for being Hindu and of Indian origin only by those religious bigots and racists. All others have no problem with her and hail her as a true Malaysian.

Irshad’s criticism of the practice of Islam is applicable to all religions where the religious authorities love to play God. While on the one hand we are indoctrinated by religious interpreters of God’s will, we are, on the other hand, manipulated by the government using religion and race as tools of control. As Irshad says, in order not to be controlled we have to think for ourselves, to think out of the box.

We must be prepared, like Mariam to speak without fear or favour and like Sit Har disagree, even with our comrades-in-arms, for conscientious beliefs and simply step out and be counted like Aunty Bersih.

One step is not enough we need the perseverance of Irene to plug on and take on even the most formidable of powers like the women lawyers.

These women have given us the lead. Men should stop referring to them as the weaker race; these women at least have debunked that notion.

Once we cease to talk publicly about race and religion Malaysians will begin to live as brothers and sisters. – aliran.com

Dave Anthony is an Aliran member based in Petaling Jaya.

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