Corrected on 17 Nov 2009 at 11.30am
DESPITE stepping down in 2008 as executive director of Sisters in Islam (SIS) which she co-founded and led for two decades, Zainah Anwar has not retired from her commitment to women’s rights and justice.
Currently project director of Musawah, a global movement for equality and justice for Muslim families, Zainah, 55, continues to travel the world to advance equal rights for Muslim women. On top of that, the daughter of one of Umno’s founders is not one to stay quiet in the face of an injustice. The most recent example was when she lent support to Perlis Mufti Dr Mohd Azri Zainul Abidin following his arrest by the Jabatan Agama Islam Selangor.
A former journalist and one of the pioneering commissioners of the National Human Rights Commission or Suhakam, Zainah has also worked with the Institute of Strategic and International Studies and the Commonwealth Secretariat.
Still, she is most well-known for her work with SIS which has brought her and the organisation both acclaim and condemnation. The Nut Graph interviewed Zainah at the SIS office in Petaling Jaya on 22 Oct 2009, and traces the source of this activist’s resilience.
TNG: Can you trace your ancestry?
Zainah Anwar: I love the story that my great grandmother was an Abyssinian slave whom my great grandfather bought, freed and married. He was an Islamic scholar from Muar who moved back and forth between Mecca and Muar. He brought his Abyssinian wife back to Johor to settle. Supposedly there were quite a few Abyssinians who were brought to Pahang and Johor during that period when religious scholars travelled between Mecca and the Malay states.
My great grandfather and his Abyssinian wife had only one child, who was my father’s father. My father was born in 1898 in Muar and he died two months short of his 100th birthday.
My mum was born in Johor Baru. Her side is Malay but I’m not sure about the mix. There might be some Chinese and Indonesian blood.
What are some of the family stories or aspects of your childhood that were formative of who you are today?
Our family is a story of mixed races. I’m very proud of the fact that we have different bloods in us. There’s Malay, Minang, Javanese, Abyssinian, Arab, Chinese and also one extinct race, according to my father. I grew up embracing the pluralism of Malaysian society. I had neighbours who were Malay, Chinese and Indian [Malaysians]. I went to a school that had all races and my closest friends include all races, from young until today. I went to an English school, the Sultan Ibrahim Girls’ School where I had a cosmopolitan and liberal education.
My father, (corrected) Tan Sri Anwar Abdul Malek, even though he was socially conservative, was intellectually very liberal. He was part of the Kaum Muda in Johor. He believed in religious reform, was critical of the ulamak and he was against closed-mindedness. He spoke English fluently and was an avid reader. We had subscriptions to Life magazine, the Readers’ Digest, three newspapers a day — which were the Utusan Melayu, the Jawi version then, Straits Times, and The Malay Mail. We also had a subscription to Dewan Masyarakat.
So in terms of trying to explain why I am open minded, it’s because I grew up in that kind of environment. Books, newspapers, magazines laid all over the house. Breakfast, lunch and dinner could only be served after the BBC world news at 8am, 1pm and 8pm were over. My father had two shortwave radios, one upstairs and one downstairs to listen to world news.
When were you born and what were some of the exciting times you lived through?
I was born in 1954 into a very political household. My father was a contemporary and political comrade of Datuk Onn Jaafar; so politics was very much in our family. My father took part in local elections but lost in the Johor Baru municipal council elections on the Parti Negara ticket.
In my childhood, all kinds of people came to our house, my father’s old political comrades and his Malay, Chinese and Indian friends and others who came for help. Our front door was always open and people just came and went. After retirement in 1954, my father sat on many boards — all in a voluntary capacity. He would help the poor and needy irrespective of race.
As a retired division one civil servant, people needed his signature for this or that government application, for aid, scholarship, or licence. He helped many poor Chinese and poor Malays get stalls when the new JB (Johor Baru) market opened. I remember the flower person, the chicken person and the vegetable person, who were all Chinese. Because my father helped them, whenever we went marketing they would not take money from us. My mother thought this was great! But my father was very strict and he would instruct us to pay or buy from another stall. But during Raya, they would send us live chicken, flowers and durian when it was in season.
I love the fact that my father’s friends in Umno who later became rich in Kuala Lumpur would remark to me that they do not make men like him these days. He was a man of honour and integrity. The kind of man who would hand over the receipts of all our Raya purchases in Singapore to the Customs officer at the Causeway so that he could pay all the taxes! He was the chair[person] of the organising committee of the the Johor Baru Grand Prix and yet he would not give his children free tickets to watch. There was an invitation card for two persons and my mother would take one child per day to the grandstand, while the others joined neighbours and relatives on the grassy slopes.
Tell us about your father’s links with Datuk Onn Jaafar.
He was private secretary to three of Johor’s menteris besar, including Datuk Onn. My father was one of the six men who founded Umno.
The British effort in 1946 to form the Malayan Union, which would have transferred Johor’s sovereignty to the King of England, led to protests among the Johor Malays, and disbelief that the Sultan had signed over his sovereignty to the British Crown.
Protests also erupted in other parts of the country. My father felt the only way the Malays could fight this attempt to take over the country was if all the Malay organisations in the Malay states were united under one organisation. And there had to be one strong leader to lead the protest movement. He felt that that man could only be the fearless Datuk Onn, who was then the Batu Pahat district officer.
My father and two friends, Syed Alwi al-Hadi and Syed Abdul Rahman Abu Bakar, drove there to discuss with Datuk Onn this urgent need to bring all the Malay associations together under one umbrella. It was on that momentous night that Datuk Onn dictated the historic letter to Utusan Melayu calling on all the Malays to come together in one United Malay Organisation.
The name “Umno” which is actually in English — first came from my father. He was inspired by the formation of the United Nations to bring world peace after the end of World War II. Since this was an effort to make every disparate party more loyal to their state and Sultan than to a nation together, he came up with the name United Malays Organisation. It was Umo at first, until the big meeting [the first Malay Congress] at the Sultan Sulaiman Club [in Kuala Lumpur] where [Zainal Abidin Ahmad] Za’aba then added the word “national”, and it became Umno.
What role did your mother play?
My mother, Puan Sri Saodah Abdullah, was a model homemaker, an extremely capable woman. But I always felt sad that she did not reach her full potential. She could have been a doctor.
She was so interested in medicine; she was in the St John’s Brigade, she was in the Red Cross, she knew everything about first aid and nutrition, and she had this huge dictionary of medicine in Jawi that she always referred to.
But she was born in 1922 and there were no opportunities for her further education. She went to a domestic science school where she was an outstanding student, and later gave cooking and sewing classes. During those early days of Umno, she opened her house to women who ostensibly left home to attend sewing classes, but who were actually organising protests against the Malayan Union.
My nationalist father wanted to send us to a Malay school and it was one of the few times my mother held out against him. My father was such a patriarch who expected to be served hand and foot, and my mother was the good obedient wife. But when it came to our education, she had greater ambitions for us. At that time, if you went to a Malay school, you ended up being a Malay school teacher. But she wanted her children to be financially independent and successful professionals.
It’s clear where you get your sense of advocacy and value system from.
My father brought us up with strong values. I remember when Tun Hussein Onn became prime minister, my father received an endless stream of visitors arriving in Mercedes cars. These business[people] wanted my father to be chair[person] or director of this or that company. My father would be totally baffled. He would tell them that he had no money to invest in their companies, so how could he sit on the board.
They just wanted his name because they thought my father would be able to get them access to the new prime minister. So he sent them off packing.
When I went to study at Institut Teknologi Mara, my father insisted on paying a token sum even though pensioners’ children did not have to pay fees to study there. In fact, we could even get a small monthly stipend. I remember I was shocked to find friends whose fathers were wealthy business[people] getting the monthly allowance, just because their fathers were also pensioners. But my father felt that since he could afford it, he shouldn’t be depriving another poor person of the privilege.
What kind of Malaysia do you want for yourself and future generations?
I want a Malaysia that truly celebrates its diversity and sees this as strength. This is not something difficult because it’s in our blood, in our history. We once embraced our Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim heritage that enriched us.
Nobody felt that we were lesser Muslims because we had wedding ceremonies that adapted practices from the Hindu tradition, or that we performed the wayang kulit. The Malays were once confident and proud of their identity. How did it come to today where Malay [Malaysians] now feel under siege? It’s politicians with their short-term interest who have created this siege mentality. “Mati Umno, matinya Melayu”. Please lah, this is 2009! Malay [Malaysians] will survive even if Umno is dead! There are more Malay [Malaysian] Members of Parliament now than ever before.
I also want for every Malaysian to have the opportunity to realise their full potential. Especially now, when we are competing globally. We urgently need to do something about the education system. It’s creating bigger class divisions. Rich Malaysians are sending their children to private schools, while the national school system remains 90% mono-ethnic. We’re losing the kids who have a cosmopolitan upbringing and global outlook to the private school system.
Now the better off Malay [Malaysians] are sending their children to private schools as well, educating them to compete globally. If this regression, fundamentalism, intolerance, the obsession to control every minute detail of our lives and our choices does not stop, if everything continues to be seen as a threat to the Muslims and the Malays, more of the best are going to leave Malaysia, and that includes the best of Malay [Malaysians].
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