Often it seems as if the role played by women in the struggle towards Merdeka 1957 and the building of our nation is overlooked, laments Adrian Lee Yuen Beng.
This Merdeka day, I have a simple question. The question is neither difficult nor daunting. Can you name me at least five women who have contributed to Merdeka? Can you name at least three? At least one?
When we think of Merdeka, instantly the image of Tunku Abdul Rahman declaring independence comes to mind. When we think of Merdeka, almost instantly images of our victorious and fallen soldiers come to mind.
When we think of Merdeka, we often think of the alliance of the Tunku, Tan Cheng Lock and VT Sambanthan, which as history mentions successfully negotiated for Merdeka from the British.
I then pondered upon the phrase: “Behind every great man there’s a great woman.” Since 1957, how many times have we actually celebrated these “great women” who have contributed to the founding of our nation?
While history textbooks and archives remind us that they were indeed great men in their own right, the great women who stood by their spouses and their nation often go unrecognised.
Does anyone actually know the name of Tunku’s spouse, Sharifah Rodziah, or the names of the spouses of Tan Cheng Lock or VT Sambanthan?
A quick glance through our history textbooks and encyclopedias would show that almost all, if not all, of those associated with Merdeka are men, for it is often the legacy of men that is remembered.
I then turned to our trusted Google and searched for the term “Merdeka 1957”. Surely, the internet, which has provided a platform for equality and liberation, would mentioned women’s contribution to Merdeka.
Yet, almost all, if not all, the information, news and images of the Tunku declaring independence and our victorious and crestfallen heroes again depict men.
Even in school, we were constantly reminded that Merdeka was achieved through the struggles and sacrifices of our forefathers. Note forefathers and not foremothers.
We have been told that it was men who contributed towards Merdeka 1957, regardless of political affiliation – men such as Onn Jaafar, Ahmad Boestamam, Mat Salleh, Tok Janggut and Burhanuddin al-Helmy amongst others, who battled foreign colonialism through wits or brawn.
While their contributions are carved in stone, history only reminds us about the roles and leadership from a patriarchal perspective.
And while there exists calls for the recognition of the roles played by individuals such as Chin Peng and Ibrahim Yaakob and left wing political groups and parties such as Angkatan Pemuda Insaf (API) and Parti Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya (PKMM) towards Merdeka 1957, nothing is said about women.
Often it seems as if the role played by women in the struggle towards Merdeka 1957 and the building of our nation is overlooked. It is as if these women were never there.
The term bapa is constantly used within the context of our nation building (Bapa Kemerdekaan, for example). But the only time the term ibu is used is through writings about Pergerakan Kaum Ibu.
So if Tunku is our Bapa Kemerdekaan, would that make Tun Sharifah Rodziah our Ibu Kemerdekaan? If not, why not?
Unless we suffer from historical amnesia and continue to rewrite history, we should realise that women too have contributed towards Merdeka 1957 and the building of this nation. And in 1963, this nation we call Malaysia was formed and women too have contributed towards the founding of Malaysia.
In 1987, Tunku stated that “a woman could lead the nation”, which is an acknowledgement that women continue to shape and define our nation.
Such recognition needs to also go beyond women in politics such as Khatijah Sidek, Shamsiah Fakeh, Aishah Gani, Suriani Abdullah and Fatimah Hashim.
As a child, I saw photographs of women bearing arms in resisting communist threats and of the first batch of women teachers who departed to Kirkby College near Liverpool.
How proud and brave they must have been in fighting for the security and welfare of our nation in terms of national security and education. The legacies of these women, however, are slowly being forgotten as time goes by.
Prominent names such as Sister Enda Ryan, Fatimah Hashim, Mother Mangalam, Puteh Mariah Ibrahim Rashid, BH Oon, Saleha Ali, Rasammah Bhupalan, Cempaka Kontik Kamariah Ahmad, Ramani Gurusamy, Halimah Taib, Lily Abdul Majeed and Zainun Munshi Sulaiman are amongst the many women who deserve recognition for their contributions.
And what about those who have quietly contributed to our nation? In the future, would the contribution from prominent women of today be forgotten or erased simply because they are women or because they are not from the ‘right’ political party?
Malaysian women of today continue being active participants in the development of our nation. They have also made inroads and are captains of their respective industries.
Yet, the glass ceiling continues to subject women as the gendered Other. The low number of women representatives in Parliament and the state assemblies is in itself distressing.
The way women are objectified in the media and society because of the way they dress or behave or because of who they associate with shows that we have not progressed much in terms of gender relations since 1957. Do we truly understand gender equality through a liberated mindset?
This Merdeka day, as we continue to struggle to search for our national identity and for a greater sense of unity, women continue to be marginalised, abused and discriminated against in society.
So instead of debating who or when our nation’s independence should be celebrated, we should instead celebrate, commemorate and appreciate the contributions of our ibu-ibu, foremothers and women who have contributed and continue to contribute towards the building of this nation.
Selamat Hari Merdeka, everyone!