WHEN I read a fortnight ago that the Afghanistan Government intends to take over the shelters run by NGOS, I am reminded of the Women’s Aid Organisation’s early struggles against conservatives hostile to the notion of women having autonomy from abusive husbands.
In 1982 when WAO opened Malaysia’s first refuge for battered women in Malaysia, it was told that the place would soon be shut down as Malaysian men do not beat their wives. WAO was accused of being man-haters and breaking up families; one perpetrator even complained to the police that it was running a prostitution den.
Government agencies wanted the list of names of the wives who fled and sought refuge. WAO stood its ground; it was nobody’s business who comes and leaves the shelter, and no information about a woman would be given to anyone outside of WAO without her consent.
It was also in 1982 that I had the good fortune to be introduced to WAO by a good friend. We attended a house meeting with staff, volunteers and residents of the refuge. It was a particularly balmy evening, worsened by cramping 15 women in a small living room in the refuge. I found the conversation exhilarating with buzz words like feminism, patriarchy, impunity and hidden shame.
Someone quoted journalist Evelyn Cunningham: “Women are the only oppressed group in our society that lives in intimate association with their oppressors.” After that meeting, I was ready to roll up my sleeves and take on male bullies.
When I am asked how my social consciousness was awakened, I tell them that it was a nun, Sister Anne, who was my teacher, who encouraged me to ask questions. That was how I first came to believe that a woman’s life should be about choices and not just accepting anything given to, or thrown at, her.
The other person who is my role model is my mother, Harriet Ponmalar. Yet, if you were to look at our lives, we couldn’t be more different. She came to Malaysia as a young bride from Sri Lanka. She was wife, mother, housekeeper. She sewed all her children’s clothes. I am none of that although I am a fine cook.
I was told from young that I would be match-made and married off. But to me, being dictated to – be it over a career choice, who I married or how I should dress – were all part of a system to control women. I knew this system was the problem, not me, and I refused to accept it.
My mother may not have understood me completely but she gave me unconditional love and support. She never stopped nor discouraged me in my life choices.
In university, I was part of the cultural and dance group, Kesuma, and active in the Tamil language society and the students’ union. I was also in a study group focusing on women and feminist writers.
It was through dance that I made my first contribution to another major issue: violence against women. That was in 1985, when WAO joined the Joint Action Group against Violence (now renamed Join Action Group for Gender Equality/JAG) was formed in conjunction with International Women’s Day (IWD) to lobby for a Domestic Violence Act (DVA).
It would take 11 years. Every year without fail, during IWD, JAG would organise an event reminding the public and government about the need for domestic violence legislation. In 1985, my contribution was to dance with Marion D’Cruz and Dancers during the opening of the IWD 1985 workshop on violence against women.
Even after the DVA was passed, my “sistas” and I had to lead a demonstration in 1996 demanding for the law to be implemented.
I was chastised by my then significant other for such unbecoming behaviour. We looked cheap; good women do not demonstrate and stand astride, he said. Obviously, he is no longer significant in my life but more importantly, by “misbehaving”, our IWD 1996 demonstration made it to the front page and within three months the Government announced that the law offering protection for battered wives and women would be enforced.
WAO took on more issues, some which were unpopular and got us into trouble.
In 2000, some members of the public were not happy when we began to support and provide legal representation for migrant domestic workers. Apparently, an anonymous complainant (whom we suspect to be the employer whose father allegedly impregnated the domestic worker) “tipped” off Immigration that we were sheltering “illegals”.
This led to the infamous Immigration raid on our shelter. Eleven officers banged on our gate and, when let in, took away four Indonesian women who had been referred to us by the police. My colleagues and I jumped into our cars and followed them to the Immigration office. There, the four were kept in a cell. We refused to move. We were prepared to sleep on the floor in solidarity with the four women.
While I might have been “born bold”, as a writer once quoted me as saying, it is this fearless spirit of WAO women that has moulded me to what I am today: an activist-feminist.
My sisters in the movement have taught me to be joyous, optimistic and passionate. I never had to apologise and explain why I am single (my motto is: “I think, therefore I am single”).
I reckon my nyonya BFF describes it best when she retorts: “We can yarn about world politics, the next general election, polygamy, fundraising and the perfect shade of lipstick and decisively take action to make the world a better place for women.”
So when in 2005, S. Shamala and the lawyers of Lina Joy approached WAO, we did not flinch as we were entering a so-called sensitive area – freedom of religion. WAO acted as secretariat to the coalition called Article 11 that challenged the unilateral conversion into Islam of minor children by the converting spouse and even called for the rights of a Muslim who desires to convert out of Islam.
Even when Article 11 members, including myself, received death threats and were advised to toe the line, we trudged on.
History will look back at Article 11 and judge if we were right and honest to demand higher standards.
As I write this piece, there are 17 women and 28 children at the refuge. I am still furious that domestic violence is alive and well in Malaysia. But today, I want to celebrate our work spanning 28 years. I thank, too, the women workers who 100 years ago took to the streets to demand decent wages and better working conditions. I especially salute the suffragettes who demanded the right to vote.
I honour the WAO pioneer volunteers who took that courageous step to open a shelter which took us on a winding road uphill and downhill in claiming rights for women creating herstory.
We activist-feminists played a key role in the passing of the DVA; securing gender equality in the Federal Constitution and Guardianship Act; raised public awareness on the abuse of migrant domestic worker; sex education; child marriages; just to name a few. However, our work is not over and I am certainly looking forward to a lot more misbehaving.