WOMEN’S rights activist Meera Samanther left legal practice in 1995, thinking she would have a short break after a difficult pregnancy. “I thought I would volunteer for a while, do some charity work,” she tells The Nut Graph. She started helping at the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO)’s shelter and ended up becoming its president, actively advocating for women’s rights for the last 15 years. WAO, along with other women’s groups, played an instrumental role in bringing about the amendment to Article 8 of the Federal Constitution, prohibiting discrimination based on gender.
Meera says advocacy plays an important role in women’s rights. “I realised when I started volunteering that we couldn’t just do band-aid work,” she says. “We also had to advocate for changing the law and the policies. We couldn’t do one without the other.”
The Nut Graph interviewed Meera at her home in Kuala Lumpur on 28 July 2010.
TNG: Where were you born and where did you grow up?
Meera: I was born in Kuala Lumpur in 1959. I lived in Kajang till I was five, and then we moved to Ampang Hilir, as my dad was working as a civil servant with Jabatan Kerja Raya [Public Works Department].
What are your strongest memories of the place where you grew up?
We went back to Kajang every weekend and holidays to see all my relatives. I remember roaming the streets with my cousins and brothers. There was a railway line behind my grandmother’s house and we used to walk on it. There would be 10 to 15 of us and when the train was approaching, we would come down the tracks. I remember that vividly; till today, we talk about it and how dangerous it was. We’d walk everywhere — sometimes to town, a mile or so away, to eat ice kacang or tauhu bakar.
The other big impact in my life is my school, BBGS (Bukit Bintang Girls School). Until today, my primary and secondary school friends still meet up. For our 50th birthdays last year, we organised a two-day event at a hotel, with activities. Friends from all over the world came, it was lovely.
Can you trace your ancestry? How did your parents/grandparents come to Malaysia?
My paternal and maternal grandparents came from Sri Lanka. In fact, my parents were related. It was not uncommon at that time to marry your relatives. As a result, the link between my dad and mum’s siblings is very strong.
My grandparents came from a village called Tellipillai in Jaffna, Sri Lanka. There was a very strong sentiment, especially from my dad, about our Sri Lankan ethnicity. I was indoctrinated that, “You’re Sri Lankan Tamil. You’re not Indian, you’re Sri Lankan”. There was a kind of snobbish attitude amongst Sri Lankans.
So what was the reaction to your marriage to a Chinese Malaysian?
Oh, good grief. It was blue murder! It was extremely tough. I nearly wanted to pack my bags and leave. My husband was the sane one, he said we’re not getting married under these circumstances, we have to win them over. My dad had passed away so his brother met with my husband to try and “talk sense” into him and dissuade him.
My uncle told my husband everyone was very unhappy about us wanting to marry. But my family members all seemed to like him after meeting him. So my husband told my uncle a story about an [African] man looking to rent a room in London. Everywhere he went, he was told by white house owners that they would love to rent him a room but someone else would object. “My neighbours,” one said. “My spouse wouldn’t want an African man here,” another told him and the excuses went on. At the end of the story, my husband said to my uncle, “Don’t tell me what other people are saying. If you have a problem with me, tell me so yourself.” He won my uncle over. My uncle rang my mum after that and said, “I think he’s a good guy.”
And then my brothers had a meeting with him and still didn’t succeed in dissuading my husband. So that was it. I told my mother, “I’m getting married on this date”. She started crying but miraculously, the next day, she relented. And since that day, it’s been fine. He won everyone over eventually, especially my brothers.
Are there any stories you hold onto from your family?
I’ve lost both my parents now. I remember the most fun moments were when we went to Port Dickson. We always went with a huge group of relatives. When we got there, we would open the car boot, and there would always be big tubs of mee hoon, curry and rice. We would eat from paper plates, go swimming, come back, eat some more, go back to swim. Those are wonderful memories. We didn’t have to travel far, we just went to Port Dickson, and we were so happy.
My relatives were in my house all the time. I remember sleeping in the hall with bodies strewn all over. After dinner, my dad would say, “Let’s go buy ice kacang” and we’d all troop out for dessert.
How do you connect to these stories as a Malaysian?
Being Malaysian wasn’t something we thought about much. We didn’t really reflect on what it is to be Malaysian. It was never an issue.
I suppose for my parents, there was always an affinity to Sri Lanka. They talked about life there, they brought me there when I was 11 to have a look. As for me now, I definitely don’t see myself as a pendatang, and I totally reject that notion. If that’s the word, everybody’s a pendatang everywhere. This is my land.
But many from my generation keep focusing on what they’re not getting, and instead of fighting for it and claiming it back, they just get into the habit of comparing life elsewhere. People ask me sometimes, “So your child is studying overseas, you wouldn’t mind him living overseas, would you?” I say no, I want him back in this country. I hope he will choose it himself rather than me telling him. This is home. I don’t want them to stay away, not at all.
There’s struggle everywhere and you always think the grass is greener on the other side. […]
Are there any aspects of your identity that you struggle with?
The struggle I had was always having to think I’m Sri Lankan Tamil, in everything I did. I was always told, “When you get married, make sure it’s to a Sri Lankan Tamil.” Most of my relatives married Sri Lankan Tamils — my cousins, brothers. I was the first in my father and mother’s family to marry a non-Sri Lankan, non-Indian. The ball started rolling after that, my cousins said I paved the path for them.
The thing is, I don’t even see my husband as Chinese and me as Sri Lankan Tamil, even though we come from two different cultures. Sometimes, it’s only when we stand side by side in the mirror, then I realise, he’s fairer and he is Chinese.
Describe the kind of Malaysia you would like for yourself and for future generations.
First, I don’t want race-based parties. Can we just go on principle and issues?
I would like the national economic policy to be based on needs, not race. And I would like to imagine a day when we see a civil service as I saw it when my father was a civil servant. Where [anyone] can rise to the top, where there are many ethnic groups. That would be a major change.
I want a secular state. I believe and know that Malaysia is a secular state and we should reclaim that. I want the institutions and leaders to claim it and believe it, not just the non-governmental organisations.
On women’s rights — where to begin? We need a sexual harassment and gender equality legislation enacted. I think many still don’t understand what gender equality means and we need that defined in the gender equality legislation. All we have to do is follow the definition in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination (Cedaw) but the courts, in the Beatrice Fernandez case, failed to do that.
The book Found in Malaysia, featuring 50 of our best interviews plus four previously unpublished ones with Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz, Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir and Ramli Ibrahim, is now available at all good bookstores for RM45.
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