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Rusaslina Idrus (left) presenting on women in national history, and Ezrena Marwan.

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Imagined Communities, Real Women

A group of young dreamers encourage discussion through talks and storytelling and in the process, seek to reimagine Malaysia.

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Expelled from school at 14 for social activism and then going on to set up a fiery women’s group; leading a march for independence because no one else would step up to do so. These acts are powerful stories in themselves, but even more so because they involved women at a time when they were largely invisible: the time of pre-independence Malaya.

But these women refused to remain invisible, and decided to stand up to be counted. So how is it that so few know about them?

As I listened to the talk on Stories of Women in Malaya, I, too, am not very certain that I had known of these women before that day. Dr Rusaslina Idrus, a senior lecturer at the Gender Studies Programme in University Malaya, is aware of this widespread ignorance, but her enthusiasm in presenting their stories was infectious. As she told the stories of the women who led political marches for independence and who pushed the agenda for political change, realisation slowly sank in that there are indeed very large gaps in our historical consciousness.

Largely absent are women like Sakinah Junid (1923-2004) who led a march from Padang Rengas to Kuala Kangsar in 1946 in protest against the Malayan Union. Or Khatijah Sidek (1918-1982) who was expelled from school for activism at 14 and went on to set up Putri Kesatria in 1944. These were women who did not just do welfare work, but also learnt to use arms.

And then there were Shamsiah Fakeh, Janaki Devar, P.G. Lim, Sybil Karthigasu … and many more.

“Women were very important players in the independence of Malaysia,” says Rusaslina. “They were at the forefront, marching, and not just making coffee.”

Juana Jaafar presented women’s Malay magazines.

But their stories are hardly told. And it’s not only in socio-political history that women are invisible. For instance, pre independence women artists are largely unknown as well.

“It’s challenging to find information about women artists in this era,” says Ezrena Marwan, a graphic designer and founder of Malaysia Design Archive, who presented on this topic at the same talk. She noted that women’s publications in the 1930s carried many images but no information on these women artists, cartoonists and social activists.

Some were better known, like Georgette Chen, the first woman teacher at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in 1954, who established the Nanyang Style of art which had a distinct Malayan aesthetic. But very little is available about the rest.

Women’s voices fared better in Malay women’s magazines. Juana Jaafar, who works in the communications field, said her research found that many of the magazines had a progressive outlook.

In the 1930s the magazines had a nationalistic fervour and featured strong women who had had an impact on society. Later magazines were family oriented, often exhorting women to better themselves and stressing the importance of education. By the 1970s, the magazines highlighted strong career women.

But by and large, their stories tend to remain restricted to such female-oriented publications. “It is important to ask ourselves, ‘why don’t we know these stories and history?’” Rusaslina says.

One reason is the way history is written, with men prioritised in the narrative thanks to the patriarchal framework that outlines our lives. People think of great men but not great women. As she puts it vividly, many would be hard-pressed to name a Malaysian street named after a woman. The same holds for everyday life where, for instance, women coolies don’t feature as much as men. There is often an implicit bias with the work of men being more valued, says Ezrena.
But now, these stories are gradually being assembled by enthusiasts like Rusaslina, Ezrena and Juana under their Sejarah Wanita project, an online facility for exhibitions and stories of women. Rusaslina says it was not aimed at replacing men with women, but to complement the existing historical narrative. It adds to the stories of Malaysia and encourages people to think in a bigger framework.

Their well-attended talk, held in October 2016, was their first time speaking about the project. It was organised by Imagined Malaysia, a loose group of young adults who got together to imagine a different sort of Malaysia, inspired by the book Imagined Communities by historian Benedict Anderson.

“Every nation is imagined, and can be reimagined,” says one of its members, Imran Rasid, in his 20s.

They aren’t just imagining, of course, but also trying to spread the message that Malaysia can be remade. They organise talks at least once a month, and discussion groups as well. Imran says they want to encourage discussion about groups that have been marginalised, such as women, indigenous people or the elderly.

The talk on Women in History drew a fair crowd – one-third of whom were men, and mostly young. They were enthusiastic in asking questions after the talk, and clearly left with a renewed consciousness. While they may not later remember the stories of Sakinah Junid or Georgette Chen, they may remember how they once did not know these stories. And how their consciousness about history is conditioned by the system that they live in.

“We do find that people are interested to know, especially young people who are more proactive in looking for information,” says Rusaslina.

“And it is important to know.”

A cover of Ibu Melayu, one of the earliest women’s Malay magazines.

Carolyn Hong lives in Ba Kelalan sometimes, in KL sometimes. A former journalist who once chased the big stories for a regional newspaper, she now hunts for the small stories in Malaysia’s smallest places.
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