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What would Toni say?

Toni Kasim petting a cat on the street
Toni Kasim in Turkey, November 2007 (© Julian Lee)

“WHAT would Toni say?”

It’s a question I’ve asked myself quite frequently in recent times, especially with the constant and new challenges one faces in running an office and being an online journalist. “What would Toni say”, I guess, is my version of Christians who use “What would Jesus say?” as a guide in their lives.

Toni is Zaitun Kasim. And I use is instead of was, even though Toni passed away from cancer a year ago on 4 June 2008, because in many ways, Toni still feels very present in my life, as if she never really left.

Activist, trainer … friend

Mind you, Toni and I were never bosom pals or what do they call it these days, BFF (best friends forever). We grew to become friends from knowing each other professionally. As a young journalist in The Star in the mid-1990s, Toni was someone I would call when I needed a statement from women’s group Awam about an issue that affected women’s rights.

Line of people posing in front of the workshop's board
Toni Kasim (second from left) and Jacqueline Ann Surin (fourth from left)
(pic courtesy of NUJ-Star)

Later, when I was working in the National Union of Journalists in The Star (NUJ-Star), Toni was pivotal in helping the committee devise strategies for addressing sexual harassment in the workplace.

She conducted the second anti-sexual harassment workshop for The Star in Petaling Jaya and Penang. And I watched in awe how she listened and then helped participants — men and women — deconstruct their notions about gender. Even the most stubborn male participant melted as Toni helped us see the fallacies we had been conditioned to embrace about how women should be treated and how men needed to behave in particular ways.

Much later, when I started writing about political Islam, I again benefitted from Toni’s leadership skills as a trainer, and her insights as a faithful Muslim through my exposure to and interaction with Sisters in Islam.

I’m not even sure when our professional relationship turned into a friendship. I just have these startlingly vivid memories of Toni from years ago.

A group of people looking on as Toni presents a paper
Handing over a letter from Alt Aid Acheh-Tsunami, which Toni initiated, to Anis Yusal Yusoff, Assistant Resident Representative Programme with the UNDP, for the attention of the UN secretary-general, asking the UN to probe reports of aid being selectively distributed and not reaching everyone in need (pic courtesy of Chua Siew Eng)

Like the time she had watched me on TV ask then Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad why there were so few women in his revised cabinet line-up. And when she met me later in the evening at a talk in Kuala Lumpur, what greeted me was a proud and admiring Toni, just waiting with a generous hug.   

Or the time we were talking on the phone, and I was explaining my journalistic practise of doing a fact and quote check with the people I interview. And about how I use the challenges and opportunities that practice creates to talk about the need for free, independent and responsible media. Toni said to me then, “That’s activism. You, doing what you do as a journalist, doing the best you can within whatever sphere of influence you have, that’s activism.”

Toni speaking to passersby
Toni during a KataGender street theatre/activism on the Islamic Family Law bill in January, 2006 (© Ezrena Marwan)

I remember being a little stunned. Not least because for the longest time in my career, editors had warned me repeatedly that I had to choose between being a journalist and an activist. And that I could not be both, not within the context of Malaysia’s political and media landscape. On a more practical perspective, I guess I also felt relieved that activism wasn’t limited to facing down a water cannon or demonstrating or getting arrested. There were other, more inclusive, ways.

Flyer 'undi untuk perubahan'
Leaflet from Toni’s general election campaign
(pic courtesy of Chua Siew Eng)

Toni’s gift

So, what was it about Toni? That she touched so many people’s lives and was loved by so many?

I think Toni’s gift was that she was so inclusive of difference but without compromising on her principles. When she ran as an independent in Selayang in the 1999 general election, she contested on a gender platform in what was a historical first for Malaysia.

Toni’s campaign received a lot of support from PAS on the ground and inevitably, there was pressure on her to cover her hair. At some of these PAS-organised gatherings, the men and women folk would be separated. And Toni would stand in the doorway that connected the two halls where the women and men sat respectively. In The Star newsroom, I remember the editors waiting for Toni to buckle under pressure. “Make sure we have a picture of her covering her hair,” one editor instructed.

But Toni never did. She believed in the principle of choice for women and even though it would have been politically expedient for her to have covered her hair during the campaigning in PAS areas, she did not give up principle for political gain.

The book, Toni Kasim: Many Shades of Good, A Tribute, that was launched on 24 June 2009 bears testimony to the impact Toni’s activism had on people from various communities.

'many shades of good' books at booklaunch
From the launch of Toni Kasim: Many Shades of Good,
A Tribute
As for me, Toni always made me feel like the battles I fought as a woman, a unionist and a journalist were worth fighting for. She provided support, ideas and strategies throughout my friendship with her, no matter where I was and what my struggle was. She constantly made me feel empowered and supported and loved.

That was her activism, and her enduring gift to those who knew her. She may not have been perfect — and I know she would have chafed at being compared to Jesus — but she didn’t expect others to be either. More importantly, what she was was honest, kind and principled — a role model of a politician we could have had had she been well enough to contest the 2008 general election.

They say the good die young. And die young Toni did. But in so many big and small ways, Toni continues to live through the principles she upheld and demonstrated in her life. And she showed that it was possible to live out those principles. Not just for her, but for others, too. And for that, one can only be thankful. Favicon


Jacqueline Ann Surin was privileged to have known Toni Kasim. Toni Kasim: Many Shades of Good, A Tribute, edited by Dr Kua Kia Soong and published by Suaram, is retailing at all major bookstores for RM20.

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3 Responses to “What would Toni say?”

  1. eggy says:

    Dr Kua announced that proceeds will go to a marginalised cause that is unlikely to be picked up (but which Toni would for that reason).

    Sexuality rights was the next domain she had wanted to pour her energies in and protect.

    Erm, Jesus was perfect? I mean, he was male, for starters…

  2. Karcy says:

    I have heard much about Toni Kasim, and while I have never met or known her, the fact that she inspires so many people who have gone on to do fantastic things in their lives makes me wish that I had.

  3. I knew Toni Kasim rather late through Shanon Shah, and my experiences with her were inspiring and comical to put it briefly.

    And while she may have passed on obviously too soon, her mantle and struggles are still carried on by many individuals of caliber.

    I like the fact that she wasn’t prejudiced and was willing to hear differing views, something I know first hand that people are yet to accept in this supposed age of reason.


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