“The more women gain equality, the more men run to football”
— Feminist slogan painted in the streets of London, 1997.
A SELF-PROCLAIMED religious ideologue once wrote about why women could not and should not be allowed to have the same roles and jobs as men. I shan’t get into the details of the book (I’ve lost the reference, I confess) but it soon became a classic among men in particular. In the text, the author anticipated all the advances that society would make in the future, and did his utmost to close the door of equality for generations of women to come.
I am paraphrasing here, but I recall passages of homespun male wisdom declaring that women should not be bus drivers or bus conductors. The day will come every month when their wiring gets crossed and “lady bus driver” will end up driving on the wrong side of the road and “lady bus conductor” will over-charge passengers. There are others — “lady judge” will pass the wrong sentence (say, the death penalty for double-parking) and “lady pilot” will end up flying to Cuba rather than Beijing once a month.
Which brings us to the sorry state of Malaysian affairs, where some of our leaders have opined that women should not aspire for higher office, and certainly not the office of state premier. Of course it goes without saying that the prime minister’s office is simply beyond the horizons of possibility at this stage of Malaysian society’s evolution.
But forgive me for being a historian and for doing things that historians are wont to do: shedding some light on today by exploring the past. There is an account of the 17th century Persian embassy that was despatched to the court of the Maharaja of Ayudhaya, Siam. As fate would have it, the ship that carried the Persian ambassador was blown off course by strong winds as it crossed the Bay of Bengal. Unable to make landfall on the Malayan peninsula’s western coast, the ship was blown all the way to Sumatra’s north-eastern coast instead, where it finally found safe harbour at the port of Aceh.
The Persian ambassador was forced to stop his journey for a while as the winds continued unabated. In time, an emissary from the court of Aceh arrived to call upon the ambassador and invite him before the presence of the ruler of Aceh. The Persian ambassador was pleased with the invitation and replied in the affirmative. As the ambassador approached the ruler’s palace, he noted the progress and development of Aceh that was then one of the most important port-cities of Southeast Asia. Aceh traded with countries as distant as China, India and Europe.
Drunk on power once a month?
Finally he was brought to the presence of the ruler of Aceh, but was struck dumb when he gazed upon the ruler. It turned out that the Sultan of Aceh was in fact a Sultanah — Sultanah Safiatuddin of Aceh (r 1641-1675). The ambassador noted in his diary that the ruler of Aceh was a woman no less, and that she was armed with several kerises. Her bodyguards were made up of men of equal martial prowess and demeanour.
The ambassador was also amazed by the fact that Aceh’s aristocracy (Orang Kaya) would submit to the rule of a woman, no matter how competent she may have been. In fact, Aceh would later achieve something matched by only one other country — Greece — by having a woman command its naval forces, Laksamana Koemalahayati, in whose honour an Indonesian navy battleship is named.
Across the region
Let us remind ourselves, however, of some basic facts: During the anti-colonial struggles across South and Southeast Asia, women were key and important figures. Throughout the Vietnam War, women fought alongside men in their struggle against US military hegemony. Vietnamese women were fighting there, in the front lines, in a guerrilla war against the most powerful military force on the planet. Did they complain of period pains? Did they tell their commanders, “Sorry, dear, but today I can’t control the rocket launcher against the Yankee helicopters because I’ve got a cramp and my tampons just ran out?”
Burmese, Indonesian and Filipina women were likewise working and struggling with their male counterparts throughout the anti-colonial struggle. They pioneered new initiatives such as education and mass literacy in fighting against the colonial forces and defending their newly-independent homeland. Did these women complain of period pains? And were the Burmese and Indonesian wars of independence stalled because some female guerrilla fighters had to run off to the sundry shop to buy sanitary pads before loading their rifles?
He figured it was just the wrong time of the month
Why, even in the relatively sedate climes of Malaya, women were key figures in the early nationalist movements like the Malay Nationalist Party and even the Malayan Communist Party. When the Malayan Indian Congress was formed under the leadership of John Thivy, many of is founder-leaders were themselves former members of the Indian National Army. There was Puan Sri Janaky Athi Nahappan, the second-in-command of the Rani of Jhansi Regiment who later rose to the position of senator in the Malaysian government. Another member of the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, Rasammah Bhupalan, rose to become one of the first women’s rights activists of Malaysia and a welfare activist.
So under what scientific and/or historical basis are we to accept this claim that women are not fit to serve and work alongside men, and to have the same aspirations and ambitions as men? One of the most insidious things about patriarchy is the manner in which it strives to normalise and re-present itself in the same packaging of outmoded conventionality and tradition. But this is why we need to be attentive to the voices of history that continue to speak to us. Then perhaps we would see that Southeast Asian history is also a history of women who have played visible and important roles in the development of their respective societies. As a Southeast Asian, I’m rather proud of that.
Dr Farish A Noor is a historian and school teacher heading for early retirement. He believes that all men should be feminists, and some women, too.
1 For a detailed account of the life and times of Sultanah Safiatuddin of Aceh, see the presentation by Sher Banu Latiff Khan, (Panel 1, Dominant Ideas in Scholarship on Religion and its Impact), for the Conference on Religious Activism and Women’s Development in Southeast Asia: Highlighting Impediments and Exploring Opportunities, 20-21 Nov 2009. The conference was organised by the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs in collaboration with the Malay Studies Department of the National University of Singapore and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, Singapore.
2 For a cursory overview of the prominent women in Indonesia’s history, particularly Laksamana Koemalahayati and the sultanahs of Aceh, see: Ismail Sofyan, H Hassan Basri, T Ibrahim Alfian (eds), Wanita Utama Nusantara: Dalam Lintasan Sejarah. Jayakarta Agung, Jakarta, 1994.
Perhaps the only weak aspect of the abovementioned text is that it is a compilation of the histories of queens and commanders. There is almost no mention of the biographies and histories of subaltern women from the Southeast Asian region.