Categorised | Found in Malaysia

Learning to be “unproper”

Ivy Josiah (all pics courtesy of Ivy Josiah)

IVY Josiah is not the type of person to keep silent in the face of injustice. As the executive director of the Women’s Aid Organisation, she’s been at the forefront of the struggle to reform domestic violence laws and create shelters for battered women.

Because of her outspokenness, Josiah is also often at the forefront of any backlash to this struggle. For example, authorities, bloggers and religious figures have told her that as a non-Muslim, she should keep silent about Muslim women’s issues.

In an interview on 17 July 2009 in Petaling Jaya, Josiah tells The Nut Graph this is nothing new. She’s been rebelling against pressure to act like a “proper” Indian Malaysian woman since university. But before she could do that, she had to unlearn a few things.

TNG: Where were you born and where are your parents from?

Ivy Josiah: I was born in Malaysia, but my parents were born in Sri Lanka. My father, before the Second World War began, went to Colombo, got on a boat, and decided to come to Malaya. He started working here for the colonial government.

Then he went back, got married and brought my mother in. And of course, growing up, you hear all these stories of the Japanese occupation, and the kindness of strangers and neighbours, and how everybody had to help everybody else.

I always got the impression it was a very close-knit community, because to this day we are still friends with the children of my father’s friends, who they all had to go and seek shelter [with] because it was not safe at times.

What stories about the Japanese occupation do you remember?

I would hear about my mother being alone in the house because my father had gone out, and there would be a knock on the door, a Japanese officer at the door. She was very scared, they were knocking on the door just to see who was in the house. They were living in Klang, and they would put severed heads on poles on the bridge. The stories were always fear[some].

Father (seated, far right) with his friends and little Ivy; circa 1959

They often talked about eating tapioca, a real staple. Whenever we wasted food, they would say, “During the Japanese occupation we had to eat tapioca! We would never waste the food.” It was always about how they had to suffer, they had so little food, and here we were throwing away our food and not even bothering to appreciate whatever was on the table.

How did your identity as a Malaysian develop?

I was always told by my parents that we would go back to Sri Lanka. Of course, I was very upset with all of this because for me, my only notion of a home country was Malaysia.

For me, Sri Lanka was always a country where [my] relatives always seemed to need money. By then, the civil war had broken out in Jaffna. As a young person, I suppose I kept thinking, “Gosh, Sri Lanka must be a very poor country”, and my family always seemed to be so much better off [here].

I think at some point my parents realised it was probably not a good idea to go back to Jaffna, and I was really relieved. Growing up in Malaysia, I very quickly realised there was an affirmative action policy for the Malay [Malaysians]. I didn’t feel too upset by that because I kept thinking that no matter what, this country gave my parents a home, whereas Sri Lanka wasn’t a safe place.

When I went into university, I had fairly good grades. And I couldn’t help thinking with those grades [that] if I were a Malay [Malaysian], I probably would have got into the law faculty, which of course my parents wanted me to do. But I was surrounded by a lot of students who had very good grades, but they were in the arts stream, a lot of non-Malay [Malaysian] friends.

There was a lot of bitterness among these students. But I never really reacted bitterly. I thought I had to give up something because I was given something in return. It was almost like the pendatang mentality, that I had to be grateful. I should just be very happy that I have a safe country to live in, right?

So when did you start to see things differently?

Well, I suppose 13 May (1969). During 13 May, like the Japanese occupation, I think my family started feeling fearful again. It was like, we left the country of Sri Lanka, survived the civil war there, survived the Japanese occupation, and now we’re in a country where not being a Malay [Malaysian] is dangerous. We started getting a sense of that.

Then in university, I started learning traditional Malay dance. And I’d got a whole bunch of my friends from the arts faculty who were all non-Malay [Malaysians] to join the University of Malaya troupe. When I saw Malay dance for the first time, I knew I wanted to learn it. I didn’t think of it as Malay dance, I just thought of it as dance.

I suddenly realised that out of 12 girls, all of them were Malay [Malaysians] except for two Indian [Malaysian] girls. And one of the seniors in the group said, “You know, Ivy, you have a very good chance of staying on in this troupe next year, because the other Indian [Malaysian] girl is going to graduate and you can take her place.” And that’s when it dawned on me — you mean to say that you’re only allowed one place here?

I really started feeling really upset with this. Then it became very personal. See, I didn’t mind not having the scholarships. But when it became something I felt so passionately about, when my space in that group was because of my race and not because of my ability, that’s when I really felt, this is not good.

How has your sense of Malaysian identity influenced your work?

When we started lobbying for the Domestic Violence Act, the authorities said this Act should only be applicable to non-Malay [Malaysians], because Malay [Malaysian] wives are taken care of by syariah law. That was a time when we started working closely with Sisters in Islam, and the women’s groups began constantly reminding people that we did not want the women in Malaysia to be divided into Malays and non-Malays. That we are all women, that we all face the same problems, and the same law should be applicable to all. A crime is a crime is a crime, and we shouldn’t have crimes in syariah and crimes in civil law.

Mum celebrating her 80th birthday in 1999

What do you hope Malaysia will be like in the future, and how do we get there?

The first thing they can do is take away the NEP (New Economic Policy). Affirmative action should be for poor people, for economically disadvantaged groups, certainly for women.

And I think if you want to embrace that all of us are equal, then we need to also free up the media and have programmes that help us understand each other’s religions and cultures. Not to say, “This is only for Hindus”, or “This is only for Muslims.” That shows respect and acceptance.

And when I hear that there’s an allocation of X amount of dollars for the Indian [Malaysians], I cringe. How about an allocation of X amount of dollars for the socially disadvantaged? I just get so tired of hearing this, because it just keeps reminding us of how different we are, and how grateful we should be, or how we need to constantly negotiate and ask and strategise.

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