Purple is this Fall season’s colour for women

Thor Kah Hoong

Maria Chin Abdullah (left) and Marina Mahathir want more women to be in politics so that issues will get the attention they deserve. – The Malaysian Insight pic by Seth Akmal, October 1, 2017.

Over Teh Tarik’s guests for an Indian vegetarian meal are social activists Maria Chin Abdullah and Marina Mahathir. Due to a failure of communication with the immigrant servers, Marina valiantly ploughs through much of three meals. But there is no failure of communication as both ladies talk about what brought women in purple out on the streets of the city recently to protest toxic politics.

Q: Firstly, how did you all get Dr Siti Hasmah to lead the purple parade? Wasn’t it a first for her to be on an open vehicle, addressing…

Marina: (Laughs.) Yes. (Nods in the direction of Maria to indicate responsibility.)

Maria: She is a victim of political violence, too. When chairs were thrown at Tun’s (Dr Mahathir Mohamad) ceramah, she was there.

Marina: Her eyesight is not so good. She just heard the noise and didn’t know what was happening. It’s scary. She’s 91. To scare her like that is not nice. But she was determined to be involved – the press conference, etc. The materials briefing her, had to be printed out in BIG letters. She memorised it.

On that day, she kept saying, “I don’t know what to say.” But it went well. She got up and suddenly she… (laughs) whoa, wow, where did that come from?

It was funny because when my dad got out of the car – I forgot he was coming – I went to him and told him, “You stay back, okay? This is a women’s march. You stay at the back. Let mum come forward.”

He said okay. I said, “Look we are not ready, still organising things. You go into the air-con, have a drink”.

Then he came out again because he didn’t want to miss the action. Of course, when he came out, the press immediately, schoom, made a rush for him. Poor girl talking up there, nobody’s listening.

So, I had to go back to him and say, “Will you please go back in again? If you are out here, we are not getting any attention.” He looked at me like this… (Marina imitates her father with a glum face. Laughs.)

Maria: Azmin Ali and Mat Sabu were there. They said they were not going to speak. They stayed in the background.

Q: What brought on this parade of purple?

Maria: A series of things. The ceramah by Dr Mahathir – that was bad. Chairs were thrown. There were flames. The police were there but they did not stop it. We felt that it was not the kind of politics we wanted for this country. It would be poisonous if we were to let it carry on.

We decided that women’s voices needed to be heard loudly. Three to five of us discussed and decided to have a walk. 

Q: The political landscape now is so noisy, pre-elections. Yours is another voice. How do you plan to be heard amid the clamour for attention? Are there further activities, or was that a one-off?

Marina: I don’t think it will be a one-off. The hashtag #wanitahbantahpolitiktoxic did quite well. I left that same night after the march, so we haven’t had a chance to meet. Also, so many things are happening for all of us – one court case after another lah,

Maria: I was invited to give a talk by PH (Pakatan Harapan) women from Johor. After the talk, the women said they should be more such talks because they wanted to know more about domestic violence, how to assert their rights.

Marina: Women have cross-cutting issues that are not defined by political party policies.

Maria: It doesn’t matter if there are many voices. We should have many voices. I think there are not enough voices. We are 50% of the population. Ours can be a loud voice.

Marina: Young women were more interested. We encouraged them to organise things, and they did it.

Q: What about women in parliament?

Marina: (laughs) We always want that. Look, 10% of parliament is ridiculous. Either the women are not heard or they are simply echoing the men, kan? My dad was 22 years in office. I never followed him during elections, which now I regret because just for the experience that I missed.

When my brother (Mukhriz Mahathir) was running, I decided this time I will go see what it’s like. That time, he was still in Umno. You could see that the women ran the campaign systematically, but they also had a lot of complaints.

One, the campaign funds that were supposed to be given to them was not getting to them. Some were running on almost empty. They were not just tea-makers. They were pushed into that role and they are told they should be grateful.

Maria: The backbone of elections is the women. In Empower (a civil society group), we train women from all parties to help in elections. Many cannot attend ceramah or meetings till after 9pm because they have to cook, get the children to do their homework, go to sleep, while the men can attend the ceramah.

Marina: They keep harping on women on company boards, but ultimately, what will make a difference is more women in politics.

Q: That’s the reality you women have to chafe under – a patriarchy in politics and religion.

Marina: PAS didn’t even have a women’s wing for the longest time. In Umno, the (members of the) women’s wing are treated like children: go to the side and discuss women’s issues, while we men talk about serious stuff. Umno Youth are the primary schoolkids who will graduate, but the women…

The minister of women prefers family and community development – more photo ops, and it’s not controversial. What can one say about a minister who says an underage girl who was married off to her rapist is fine? If it were her daughter, would she say she was fine? What sort of…

Maria: Rape comes with violence, psychological torture. It concerns integrity, affects self-esteem. To ask a young girl to marry the rapist who inflicted the pain on you, and you live with this man for life… and it’s all right?

Marina: Take the Women’s Council formed by (Prime Minister) Najib (Razak). It is a prime example of male privilege. He is the chairman and Lim Kok Wing is the deputy. More annoying and irritating is all these women smiling as he launches it. I thought, you women didn’t have the b..ls to ask for the deputy chair.

Q: C’mon, it’s asking too much for women to have…

Marina: (Laughs.) You know what I mean. I would have walked out.

Maria: The patriarchy is not just in politics and religion; it’s also in the labour movements, MTUC (Malaysian Trades Union Congress) for example. It’s insulting. The women have their own separate elections. A seat on the main committee is allocated to a woman. She is appointed by men.

Women, 40% of the labour force, are not contributing to the decision-making. There is talk of breastfeeding and maternity leave, but there’s no talk of sexual harassment, health issues of pregnant women working in factories with toxic materials.

Q: Ladies, before we get thrown out from a second restaurant wanting to close, thanks for your time. Marina, a last question: who wears the pants in your house?

Marina: (Laughs.) My husband is going to be reading this, right? Of course, it’s him. – October 1, 2017.

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