By SUHAINI AZNAM
AVOID Divorce, Stay Single” reads the
cheeky yellow card stuck to a notice on
top of a steel cabinet.
The spacious, airy office with its cushy sofa, and gender-sensitive artwork is home to Zainah Anwar, or at least it was until two weeks ago, when she bade farewell as executive director of Sisters in Islam (SIS), the Islamic women’s movement she had poured her heart and passion into.
For two decades, Zainah, now an exuberant 53 with the energy of someone half her age, has been the face of SIS. In fact, she and SIS have been synonymous.
Zainah Anwar’s passion for her work gives her the exuberant energy of someone half her
age. – Photos by SAMUEL ONG / The Star
“The work consumes your life. The job itself does not pay,” she said when we met up before the elections.
When she gave three years’ notice that she was ready to hang up her hat – “I had to give that much notice just because I have been here forever!” – the board of trustees head-hunted her successor for months, to no avail. She is a tough act to follow.
“The pool we could recruit from was much smaller than for any other NGO – she had to be Muslim, and a woman,” says Zainah. In addition, she had to be open minded, and an activist with the strength to stand up to public attacks. The support of family members, and their calm reaction to controversy were very important.
Finally, the board of trustees decided to appoint “an outstanding management team” of four, each with different strengths to complement each other.
Maria Chin Abdullah, with her vast experience in NGO work as the recent executive director of the Women’s Development Collective, is now senior programme manager with some executive director’s functions: “Advocacy, legal services, and reform fall squarely on my shoulders,” says Maria.
Masjaliza Hamzah returns as a Chevening scholar to head the research and publications division; Norhayati Kaprawi serves as programme manager and head of public education and communication; and Rashidah Hashim is operations manager.
Masjaliza describes Zainah as “a very dynamic leader”.
“She works hard. She’s on top of a lot of issues – you have to be on your toes when you work with her! I have learnt a lot in terms of advocacy, and critical and strategic thinking by working with her.
“Those are tough shoes to fill. But whoever eventually takes over will have to fashion the job in her own imprint. Difficult, but it is possible for that to happen.”
Maria herself is deferential about “being groomed to take over the helm”: “I don’t know if we are filling Zai’s shoes. The responsibilities are being shared by four managers.
“I hope to build on the foundations, the impact that SIS has had.
“Because we are a multi-cultural society, I also hope to extend this to other groups. The priority is still Muslim women. But I hope (the work SIS does) will be shared with other women, building on our diversity.”
Zainah herself remains on the board of SIS. She concurrently serves as project director for the SIS-initiated global movement for justice and equality in the Muslim family.
Moment of epiphany
The outspoken Zainah has donned and doffed many hats over the years, most recently as a commissioner with the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (Suhakam). She left because she felt that as a movement, it was not making a difference.
But of all her efforts, Zainah is most defined by her work with SIS.
In 1987, a clutch of women lawyers and a journalist friend jointly founded a fledgling movement to look into the problems Muslim women had with the courts.
In 1990, the movement formally became known as SIS.
Eventually, SIS expanded to encompass such issues as polygamy, and domestic and sexual violence within marriage.
“It’s as if in Islam, women don’t have any rights at all,” says an exasperated Zainah.
One woman asked, if the house were on fire, would she then have to seek her husband’s permission to flee!
“Women cannot even use their common sense to save their (own) lives. This cannot be Islam. God is just. Islam is just,” she says.
Aghast at what was being taught in the ceramahs, the founding sisters turned to the Quran to find out for themselves what the verses say, as opposed to various interpretations.
What they discovered was a revelation. On polygamy, the Quran says: “If you cannot treat them the same, then marry just the one.”
“That was a moment of epiphany. It was that kind of questioning that made us want to read the Quran with a new lens. It was a liberating process understanding that the Quran speaks to women and is lifting and empowering.”
She is currently talking with the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality to bring awareness of their rights in Islam to girls in universities or upper secondary schools.
Zainah’s peers hold her in high regard.
Ivy Josiah, Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) executive director, says of Zainah, who concurrently served on WAO’s executive committee: “It was useful for WAO to have a Muslim perspective.”
“When Article 11 and the S. Shamala case (involving child custody when the husband converted to Islam) came up, because of the bridge, the trust between us, we could just call Zainah up.
“She’s so crucial, not just in providing substantive input but also with her laughter, sheer joy, her good sense of humour, and generosity. She is very active and thorough in her work.”
Josiah knew of Zainah’s retirement plans a year ago because, “Zai is very loud and clear”.
“Zai is a role model for me in terms of the need to leave to make way for younger people. It’s about leadership.
“And in my learning curve about Islam, I have had the best teacher. She taught me that Islam is a just religion. I can see how pained she is when Islam is misused.”
Not afraid of criticism
Zainah is most proud that SIS has opened public space for debate and given a public voice to women to air their concerns about their rights under Syariah law.
Through its fora and education programmes, SIS has shown that the concerns of Muslim women are “not the monopoly of religious scholars. Everyone has the right to speak”.
SIS has been at the forefront of NGOs influencing amendments to Islamic Family Law. It has espoused equality and justice for women, discussed dress and modesty, the right to guardianship, women as judges, fundamental liberties in Islam, and apostasy and freedom of religion.
The organisation has exposed the diversity of interpretations of Islam, and through its research and discussions with local and international authorities, sifted through these to determine “which opinions we want to follow and codify”.
Through the years, Zainah drew barbs because she is atypical of the image of the “good Malay-Muslim lady”. Being single did not help. (See ‘Never a slave’.)
She stood her ground when the voices of Muslim officialdom, from the Islamic Development Department (Jakim) to state religious bodies to PAS, berated her organisation’s lack of formal Islamic credentials. On the plus side, some of the more liberal mufti (chief clergy in respective states) have addressed SIS seminars.
Zainah has received her share of anonymous hate mail. In the worst instances, someone downloaded pornography and e-mailed it to her; another took the trouble to cut and paste together various obituary columns, deleting the names of the deceased and scribbling in her name instead.
“It doesn’t bother me,” she says. “I have not lost any sleep over it. It’s an irritant. They have their political agenda, pushing for an Islamic state where Syariah law is their objective. And I disagree with that political objective.
“SIS is an organisation, with allies and friends in civil society. It’s much harder if you are an individual,” she admits before adding, “I was confident. I was not afraid of anyone’s criticisms.”
She was more upset, if disparaging, of attempts to rattle her and her staff when the SIS office was broken into twice within the space of a week in 2006. Petty cash and only Zainah’s CPU – minus the monitor – were stolen.
At one point, SIS was taken more seriously abroad than at home. Purdah-clad women from Iran who listened incredulously to Malaysian Muslim officialdom defend polygamy, found common ground with SIS on this issue.
Zainah has addressed prestigious overseas forums such as the World Economic Forum in Davos, and the Lee Kuan Yew School for Public Policy annual lecture series in Singapore.
On Tuesday, she will deliver the keynote address on Islam, Human Rights, and Activism at Harvard, no less.
“Doesn’t the Government realise that it is we (SIS) who are saving its reputation?” demands Zainah.
But this has changed. “The more extremist these (voices of Muslim officialdom) became, the more support we have received.
“There is a change in the mood towards us. Monetary donations have also been coming in,” Zainah says.
“I feel proud leaving SIS very strong, knowing that we have made a difference, and that we have so many allies in the leadership.”
Friendly critics have chided her for “speaking to the converted” (ie, those of the same mind, who already subscribe to the views that SIS holds).
To this, Zainah says, “It is not the urban women who lead cushy lives who most feel the injustices of the Muslim division of property upon divorce but the nurses, teachers, and single mothers in the kampungs, who had toiled for their money only to have it disappear when their husbands take a second wife.
“They understand immediately what we are talking about because they are living these lives.”
Zainah Anwar begins a monthly column in Sunday Star from today.
ZAINAH Anwar was not a natural leader. “I was a natural rebel,” she laughs.
School, both primary and secondary, was the Sultan Ibrahim Girls’ School in Johor Baru where Zainah was active in sports and debates, and her favourite subjects were English and English literature.
One day, she discovered on a chance visit to the school staff room that, against her name, a frowning teacher had scribbled: “Too high spirited, too playful, too talkative, too naughty.” With these four strikes against her, she never made prefect.
“I was always asking questions that they could not answer,” says Zainah. “Like why (Stamford) Raffles was considered the founder of Singapore when there were people (already living) there before.”
The traits that today serve her so well were already there.
“I was not scared at all,” she recalls. “I was a non-conformist, a disobedient child. I knew I wanted to be a journalist since Form One. I was single-minded about that. I wanted to quit school and work in a newsroom right after Form Five.”
Instead, she was persuaded to join the pioneer batch of aspiring journalists at the then Mara Institute of Technology in Shah Alam in 1972 (now Universiti Teknologi Mara, UiTM).
After making a name for herself as a hard-nosed journalist (at the New Straits Times), Zainah went on to do her masters at Boston University in the United States in 1978 and read International Law and Diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Diplomacy, Tufts University (also in America), until 1986.
Upon her return, she joined the Institute of Strategic and International Studies think-tank from 1986 to 1991, before becoming chief programme officer with the Political Affairs division of the Commonwealth Secretariat in London, where she launched her global networking and enhanced her political maturity. She rejoined ISIS from 1994-96, left, and freelanced for two years.
Today, family, friends, and work are her sources of happiness. She feels bad when her extremely busy schedule limits her time with family but “we do go on family holidays”.
“There’s never enough time,” she laments. “I can I only get to sleep at 2am when I answer my e-mails.”
On the upside, she travels a lot. And when the going gets rough, she is always encouraged that “the family appreciates what I am doing”.
“I feel really blessed that after all these years, it’s a continuous learning curve, the work is intellectually stimulating, an exciting work-in- progress.”
Never a slave
Zainah Anwar did not have a role model growing up.
“But I knew I didn’t want the life my mother had. I didn’t want to be a housewife because all she did was serve the family,” she says passionately.
“If she had been born in another era, she would probably have gone very far. She reads all the time, was a member of St John’s and Perkim (the Malaysian Islamic Welfare Organisation). But her primary role was in the home.”
Like many Johoreans, “I was brought up with religion,” says Zainah, who, despite her Euro-American worldview, continues to favour the demure baju kurung.
At one of the three sekolah agama (religious schools) she attended between the ages of 10 and 14, “Even my cikgu agama (religious teacher) didn’t wear the tudung (headscarf). It was such a different world then.”
Zainah and her elder sister (Datuk) Zarinah, a lawyer by training and now chairman of the Securities Commission, helped their mother with the “girls’ chores”. Although she rebelled then, Zainah is today a fabulous cook, in the style of the Johor woman.
In between, she also climbed trees.
“I was a happy tomboy” – plucking rambutan to be distributed to the neighbours well into her early teens, when her mother would have to look for her sarong dropped under the trees when she went in search of her daughter.
“My brother, of course, did not have to do any of these (chores),” she states flatly. “I could not understand why he could not help out with household chores just because he was physiologically a male. Mother would excuse him, saying, ‘He’s a boy’,” which infuriated Zainah even more.
“His role model was my father, the patriarch, who sat in the living room chair, reading his newspapers.”
Tan Sri Anwar Malik was credited as the man who gave Umno its name – initially United Malays Organisation –at a meeting in Batu Pahat when seven Umno founders from Johor Baru met Datuk Onn Jaafar to call for a unification of all the disparate Malay nationalist groups at the time. He later became Onn’s private secretary when Onn became Johor’s mentri besar.
Zainah had “total respect” for her father, whom she looked up to as having “absolute honesty”.
Nevertheless, this did not stop her from writing an eight-page letter to him from London once, urging his patience for his wife who, despite being 24 years his junior, was also ageing and tired, and whose knees were by then hurting her.
But she recognised that her father was born in 1898: “There was nothing you can do about it,” she says prosaically.
Despite this, her parents were very close. Her father passed on just two months shy of his 100th birthday in 1998; her late mother followed him just a year later at age 78.
One day, while the womenfolk were preparing beef for Hari Raya, her mother told Zainah, “Zai, tak payah kahwin lah. Jadi hamba orang aja.” (Zai, you don’t need to marry. You just become someone’s slave.) Zainah was by then in her 40s.
Yet, mum’s emancipated views went into reverse gear when it came to her only son, Ahmad Zaki, who was then in his 30s.
“Susah hati Mat belum kahwin. Bila tua esok, sakit pening siapa nak jaga dia?” (I worry that Ahmad is still unmarried. When he grows old and falls sick, who is to take care of him?)
That was one generation ago. Things have changed, and SIS has been part of that global awakening.
And Ahmad Zaki, by the way, is a successful artist, married, with two children of his own.