A Slice of My Journey in Activism

Mar 08, 2022 4 Min Read
Activist Meera Samanther at the Women Membantah Politics
Source:Image provided by Meera Samanther
Behind The Scenes of An Activist

How I Became A Women’s Rights Activist

I am what you may call an “accidental activist”. But I believe that my path was chosen for me. Whether it was accidental or a path I was destined to undertake, in the end it was my steadfast commitment to make a difference that has stood me through the years. Once I was immersed in it, I knew that I wanted to be part of the mission to change, to make a difference for myself, my children and for women in Malaysia.

I left legal practice in 1995 thinking that it was for a short period of a year or two as I had a challenging pregnancy. A friend introduced me to Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) as I was getting bored staying at home. I knew nothing about WAO when I joined as a volunteer.

Volunteering at the shelter and talking to the women seeking assistance was an eye opener for me. Women who sought refuge came from different walks of life. It soon dawned on me that I could have been in the same boat and if so, will there be someone to help me.

I started at WAO undertaking basic administrative work. I answered telephone calls from women who experienced some form of domestic violence, taking women to the hospitals to attend to injuries sustained by them, accompanied them to court, helped them lodge police reports and so on.


Always be willing to lend a helping hand

The study sessions that we had was the start of my training and education in understanding the dynamics of violence against women. The sessions helped me to challenge and question stereotypical perceptions on why women do not leave their abusive partners.

I was soon introduced to the International Women’s Conventions, (CEDAW). CEDAW is the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women and it became my so-called Bible on women’s rights.

I grew up in a family with 3 older brothers. It was an upbringing filled with fun and laughter. Dad and Mum loved entertaining our extended family members. Dad was an ardent cricketer and was involved with TPCA (Tamilian Physical Cultural Association) and did much charity work. In addition to my 3 biological brothers, I also have a foster brother, Basit.


Our beginnings start with family

Around 1971, when there was a major flood, my dad reached out to a call to foster children affected by the flood who had to sit for exams. My parents fostered this young Muslim boy who was about to sit for his Form 3 exams. He fit so well into our family that he decided to stay on with us until he completed his Form 5 exams! My parents taught us through their actions that we must do good and help others. This instilled in all of us a sense of responsibility to serve society.

When I became a parent, I often spoke at home during dinner time about my work at WAO and the discrimination women faced. So my children grew up with a clear understanding on the issues of gender inequality. We often think children do not absorb the discussions that adults have at the dinner table but I believe what was said and discussed seeps into their subconscious mind. Just before bedtime, we would often gather the children together and I sometimes read a chapter from the Human Rights Charter, a book written by kids for kids. I bought this book from the United Nation’s Senate House in New York. Instilling ideas through story telling is very effective in the primary education of children.


Educating our children for a better future

Over the years, my work within the women’s movement (Joint Action Group for Gender Equality or JAG) has been varied. We quite often face societal resistance as well as challenges from the authorities. We have to work hard to change public perception that are stereotypical.

I will share some of my experiences to date.

Challenges I Faced as an Activist

i. Article 11 Federal Constitution - freedom of religion

I was part of the Article 11 movement. This movement lobbied for freedom of religion as enshrined in Article 11 of our Constitution. We undertook road shows to educate the public on Article 11. At one of the events where I was a presentor, protestors became very hostile. The police who were assigned to keep the peace were vastly outnumbered by the protestors. They were unable to stop the threats from the protestors who were banging of the doors of the hall where our meeting took place. We were quite frightened by the threat of physical violence. We had to barricade the doors and locked ourselves in the banquet hall of the hotel where the event took place. Our reaffirmation of Article 11 had very clearly upset the protestors.

ii. Police raid on domestic violence victims shelter

WAO has a shelter where victims can seek refuge from domestic violence. In an incident some years ago, the shelter was raided by the police. The perpetrator had suspected that his wife was seeking refuge at the shelter and he somehow managed to get the local police to raid the shelter with the view of extricating his abused and frightened wife from the shelter.

Needless to say, the presence of police frightened all the women seeking refuge at the shelter. Bullying tactics was used to scare us at WAO. We later held a press conference to highlight the incident which we regard as constituting police harassment. We received a lot of public support. I am happy to say that since that incident, the shelter has not been “raided” by the police.

In another incident, I had a close encounter with one particular perpetrator. This incident took place at the police station. A colleague and I had a stand-off with four burly men shouting and screaming at us whilst we were shielding the survivor from their verbal abuse.

iii. Mak Bedah Initiative to propagate gender equality

We also faced protestors during the election campaign in 2008. At that time the women’s groups (Joint Action Group for Gender Equality or JAG) were campaigning in Sungai Siput. We were going round the market areas to highlight women’s issues to the electorate. Whilst campaigning, we heard that Samy Vellu, a former Member of Parliament was having a rally in one of the halls somewhere in Ipoh. I was also at that time involved with the “Mak Bedah” initiative.

This initiative arose when the late Toni Kassim who was standing as an independent candidate fell ill and had to pull out from the elections. I was involved in Toni’s campaign and we had worked hard in drafting her election Manifesto. The election Manifesto addressed issues concerning gender inequality which none of the political party gave much thought to. As we did not want to waste all our efforts, we decided to propagate the Manifesto through the Mak Bedah campaign.

The Mak Bedah campaign would involve us going around the different constituencies and highlighting women’s demands as set out in the Manifesto. We started the slogan “Shopping for a Candidate”. Our ideal candidate regardless of political party, should tally with our demands as set out in the Manifesto. This initiative garnered a lot of visibility and coverage from the press.

So, it was decided that three of us will approach Samy Vellu in our capacity as “Mak Bedah” a typical Malay housewife voter and to ask him questions concerning issues of gender equality.

On reflection, I think we were either extremely brave or foolhardy.

When we reached the place of the rally, there were no women in sight but only a hundred or so burly men, most of whom looked very intimidating to us. They were enthusiastically cheering Samy Vellu as their hero and here we were three women with placards, trying to get close to Samy Vellu with the view to asking him questions concerning women's rights.

We were physically cornered by his supporters. These men taunted at us menacingly. One of them even snatched my placard and tore it up.

I was furious and refused to be intimidated. I immediately turned to the media and faced the cameras Malaysiakini (an online news portal) had started to film us. I spoke directly to the cameras and explained about our campaign. My speech was live telecasted by Malaysiakini. Although I was nervous, I became empowered as I was speaking directly to an audience beyond Samy Vellu’s supporters.

iv. Article 8(2) Federal Constitution - no discrimination against citizens regardless of religion, race, descent, or gender

My proudest moment is to be part of the movement to get Article 8 (2) of the Federal Constitution amended to include “gender” as a non-discriminatory clause. In 2001 when I was President of WAO, I was involved with the Stop Violence Against Women’s campaign working with the Women’s Ministry. Dato Sharizat was at that time the Minister. Half way through the campaign, she changed the whole thrust of the campaign to “Women against Violence”.

We were quite upset by this sudden change as the focus was now shifted away from women facing violence. After an emergency discussion, we at WAO decided to pull out from the campaign. As President, I delivered the message to Dato Sharizat personally, who was quite upset with us at WAO. A few days later, she called and asked me what exactly JAG wants as she intended to make a public announcement on Hari Wanita. I requested for two days to revert to her.

Some of the key JAG members got together, to name a few Shanthi Diariam, Ivy Josiah, Zainah Anwar and Maria Chin. We held an emergency meeting. We focused on the need to amend Art 8 (2) of the Federal Constitution to outlaw gender discrimination. Shanthi Diariam and I were tasked to persuade Dato Sharizat.

However, on that day, Shanthi lost her way and could not come in time for the meeting with Dato Sharizat. It was left to me to persuade the Minister. It was an anxious moment for me as the responsibility to convince Dato Sharizat fell on me alone. I felt the weight of responsibility but I hid my fear as I will not be in a position to persuade the Minister if I was not confident.

My discussion with Dato Sharizat lasted for about an hour. I was unable to judge whether I had managed to convince her at the end of our meeting. She called me back a few days later and said that she will make the announcement to amend Article 8(2) to include gender. That was MY PROUDEST moment.


Giving a voice to those who are unheard

The amendment to the Federal Constitution is hugely significant as Article 8(2) prohibits discrimination against citizens regardless of religion, race or descent. Now it is amended to also prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender.

Baseline Study

i. Gender bias
When I was President of the Association of Women Lawyers (AWL) in 2014, I initiated a baseline survey on the working conditions of male and female lawyers. There were rumours floating within the legal fraternity on a number of sexual harassment (SH) cases, primarily against female lawyers. However, there was no comprehensive policy to address it.

AWL felt that to conduct a survey on SH alone was not feasible as we expect that not many survivors would want to respond. So, we looked at gender bias within legal profession as a whole. This survey cover matters such as salaries, attitudes, promotions, bias towards female lawyers, stereotyping areas of legal practice, attrition rate and many other issues including SH.

This was the first time a survey of such a nature was conducted within the legal profession. The Bar needed some convincing to release the data. Suhakam came on board together with the Gender studies Department and Law Faculty of the University Malaya. This survey spawned more discussions on SH within the Bar. The survey brought to light the challenges faced by women lawyers within the profession.

Related : Gender Bias: COVID-19, The Workplace and The Future

ii. People with disability
Finally, I have in recent years been involved in the re-drafting of the Persons With Disability Act, which as it stands, is more of an administrative act with no redress mechanism. I have been lobbying for changes to this law for several years now.

It has been difficult to get civil society groups to understand the challenges that disabled persons face more so now with the pandemic. For example, in the past 2 years, many meetings were held online and those who are deaf had great difficulty managing meetings without zoom captions or a BIM interpreter. We all advocate for an inclusive society but there is a need to walk the talk.

Read More: 3 Empathy Tips Learned Befriending Someone with a Disability

My Journey as an Activist and Change Maker Continues

I am often asked what keeps me going after all these years. For the last 25 years, I have worked on drafting the Sexual Harassment Bill with members of JAG and now in 2022, the Bill is before Parliament. It may not contain all my wish list but it is a start. Hence our work does not stop here. As an activist, I will continue to educate and to lobby members of Parliament, the Select Committees in Parliament, corporations, media, influencers, trade unions to help promote better legislation and enhance many aspects of the Sexual Harassment Bill.

If I do not get involved, should I wait for someone else to do it on my behalf. Who is that someone else? What if that someone else do not come forward?

We all believe in change. Change for the better. Change to bring about a more equitable society so that we can pass on a better world to our children. Each of us need to take the first step. I took my first step as an activist nearly a quarter century ago. Along the way, I faced hardship, challenges, threats, intimidation and tribulations. But I am proud of my work and I have no regrets. I have not written the last chapter to my story yet. The struggle continues and I hope more will join us in fighting for a fairer, more equitable and humane society. I invite you to join me in this journey of activism. Be the advocate of change!

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Meera Samanther is a prominent activist in Malaysia. Advocating for the rights of women, women lawyers and people with disabilities. She served as the President of WAO for a decade. She was also a former President of AWL and present Exco Member.

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