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WOMEN fought for freedom on two fronts that were connected. One was national independence and the other was the struggle for gender equality. As Mrs Devaki Krishnan, who won a seat in the 1952 Kuala Lumpur elections, said in her manifesto: “I will interest myself particularly in the lot of the women of Kuala Lumpur and in extending the programme of social work already carried out by the municipality.”
Education was what created such political activism and the corresponding move towards female emancipation. In 1852, formal schooling for girls began in Penang but remained exclusive and elite. Only in the early 20th century did education, whether in English or the vernacular languages, expanded and became more comprehensive.
Some of those women became role models. In 1926, Mrs B.H. Oon (nee Lim Beng Hong) became the first Malayan woman to be called to the English Bar. Her counterpart in medicine was Dr Soo Kim Lan.
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In 1948, they became Malaya’s first female representatives in the Federal Legislative Council. Together with other women professionals of their generation, Mrs Oon and Dr Soo showed that with the same opportunities, women performed just as well, if not better, than their male counterparts.
Indian women found the Indian Congress Party inspiring while Chinese women had their intellectual role models in their more enlightened compatriots of Hong Kong and Shanghai.
For Malay women like Ustazah Salmah Sheikh Hussein and Tan Sri Aishah Ghani, inspiration came from their schooling in Madrasah Diniyah Putri in Padang Panjang, Sumatra. Rahmah al Yunusiyah, the founder of this 1923 school, was a great educationist and fighter for women’s emancipation in Indonesia.
The school’s reformist ideology attempted to reconcile secular and religious approaches to life. Interestingly, Ustazah Salmah went on to become the first PAS female senator while Aishah became a Wanita Umno leader.
Sadly, such opportunities were the exception rather than the rule, making the emergence of these mothers of independence all the more remarkable. The emergence of a women’s movement began with the Young Women’s Christian Association formed at the turn of the century in Singapore (1875), with a branch in Penang in 1909 and in Kuala Lumpur (1913).
The first registered Malay women’s association was the Guru-guru Wanita Melayu Johor, formed in 1929 by Zain Sulaiman. This was followed by Persatuan Wanita Melayu Terhormat Johor in 1940.
In those days, most women who were enthusiastic about the making of a new nation had to get permission from their fathers or husbands before even venturing out of their homes. They relied upon senior women like Lady Rahiman Ariff, whose forward-thinking husband, Federal Legislative Councillor Dr Sir Kamil Ariff, encouraged her to take part in Malay women’s welfare.
In September 1945, the first registered Malay women’s association in Penang, the Penang Malay Women’s League, held its inaugural meeting in Rahiman’s kitchen. The League’s purpose was simple – to provide aid to Malay women who were suffering after the Japanese Occupation.
Datuk Zubaidah Ariff, former chairman of the Penang Women’s Institute (WI) and Rahiman’s daughter-in-law, remembers having to convince husbands to let their wives join the league and later the WI and Wanita Umno as well.
Such political awareness quickly led to a wider public role. Activism in social welfare developed into national political movements. Although their main activities had to do with providing welfare services, some of these early leaders rose to the challenge of national independence.
Datuk Halimahton Abdul Majid, for example, headed the Negri Sembilan Kaum Ibu section of Umno (later Wanita Umno) in 1949 and went on to become the first elected woman member of the 1955 Federal Legislative Council.
In the 1940s, Malaysia’s pioneer female leaders were also inspired by examples from India and Indonesia. Puan Sri Janaky Athi Nahappan, for example, joined the Indian Congress Medical Mission in Malaya and visited rubber estates throughout the country.
This experience made her aware of the need for some political organisation within the Indian population. In 1946, she helped John Thivy to establish the Malayan Indian Congress, which saw Thivy as its first president.
At about the same time, Khatijah Sidek, then a young firebrand nationalist from Indonesia, was fighting for Indonesian independence in her home province of Sumatra. By 1944, she was responsible for organising several anti-colonial movements, including Pertubuhan Parti Kesatria (Party of Warriors), a women’s volunteer party whose activities included supporting the armed struggle for independence.
Between 1946 and 1947, she made many trips to Singapore and Malaya to give talks to awaken nationalist feeling among the Malays. This ended in 1948 when she was jailed by the British.
Upon her release in 1950, she took her cause to Johor and emerged four years later as leader of Kaum Ibu Umno. As the Member of Parliament for Dungun in 1959, Khatijah became the first woman MP of the Pan-Malayan Islamic Party, later known as PAS.
While editing the London-based student magazine Suara Merdeka (Voice of Independence), Datuk P.G. Lim remembers thinking to herself: “India had become independent in 1947 and Indonesia had succeeded in her armed struggle against the Dutch, so why should Malaya not run her own affairs?”
Lim was then studying for her Bar exams after an illustrious academic career at Cambridge. Among other founding fathers of the nation, her circle of friends included two future prime ministers, Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Abdul Razak.
Suara Merdeka, started by Goh Keng Swee and Datuk Mohammad Sopiee Sheikh Ibrahim, was an intellectual forum where future Malayan leaders tested their ideas. They organised public lectures, inviting senior British administrators as well as MPs. Under Lim’s editorship, gender equality came boldly into the picture.
Lim found it difficult to get the wives of these mature Malayan students to participate. Conservative traditions restricted women to cooking and serving their husbands. They voluntarily kept out of public affairs.
For these early women activists, independence meant a change in the way they thought about themselves. They had to lift “the veil of conservatism,” as the Straits Echo reported on the 1952 PMWL’s charity show featuring Malay women on stage for the first time. For Toh Puan Umasundari Sambanthan, lifting the veil meant making rural women aware of the benefits of Malayan citizenship. Her lifelong battle has been to bring uneducated rubber-tappers into mainstream national life.
In the 1950s, this meant getting Indian women to sign up as citizens. Mrs Oon and Lim did the same for the Chinese community.
At crucial moments, these women leaders rose to the occasion. Mrs F.R. Bhupalan joined the Rani of Jhansi regiment, the women’s wing of the Indian National Army, to fight the British. Ibu Zain (Tan Sri Zainun Sulaiman) bravely took the lead when it came to national politics, galvanising Malay women during Umno’s early years to support the cause of national self-determination.
Mrs Oon galvanised Chinese support for independence despite threats on her life from communist guerillas. Lim spearheaded the intellectual and legal battle for self-government.
Datin Puteh Mariah Abdul Majid headed Umno’s Kaum Ibu Kuala Lumpur division during the historic 1952 alliance between Umno and the MCA. Some time later, Tan Sri Rosemary Chong set up Wanita MCA, giving Chinese women a political platform.
But the contribution of women to national independence was more than merely politics or women’s emancipation. They fought for freedom based on the idea that people should be treated equally regardless of their gender, ethnicity or religion.
This is an ongoing struggle that is constantly in danger of being foiled by the same conservative elements that underlay colonialism, which in those days was the belief that Malaysians were not mature enough to govern themselves.
Our mothers of independence continue the fight. Whether like Mrs Bhupalan for equal pay or like Datuk Seri Rafidah Aziz for the opportunity to prove themselves on the world stage, others like Datuk Dr Ng Yen Yen battle to change the hearts and minds of men, bringing them up to date with new attitudes among their wives and daughters.
Our founding fathers have shown us that independence comes at a price, thankfully not too much bloodshed in Malaysia’s case. Our founding mothers tell us that we are a nation yet to be, for until we are judged according to ability and not gender, we will live in an independent country where half our talent is being wasted.
*News source from The Star Online
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