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The names and faces of Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tun VT Sambanthan and Tun Tan Cheng Lock are known across the country for their contributions, but what about Malaysia’s female freedom fighters?
Professor Dr Shakila Parween Yacob, a lecturer at the Department of History, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, University of Malaya tells TRP that there are many female faces that have been overlooked in Malaya’s fight for merdeka.
I think the role of the women must be highlighted in our nation’s history when we talk about independence.Professor Dr Shakila Parween Yacob, Department of History, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, University of Malaya to TRP.
Here are the women, the hidden figures who dedicated their, blood, sweat, tears and more for our independence.
1. Janaky Athi Nahappan – founding member of the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC)
Puan Sri Janaky Athi Nahappan, also known as ‘Janaky Thevar’, was strongly anti-British from the very beginning, as one of the earliest women who joined the Indian National Army and worked for the Malaysian independence.
Born in 1925 to a Tamil family in Kuala Lumpur, Janaky left home at the tender age of 17 to join the Indian National Army (INA), and quickly rose to the rank of Captain and Second in Command of the Rhani of Jhansi Regiment, the only women’s regiment in the INA.
During World War 2, she bravely took up arms against the British at the Indian-Burmese border in a bid for India’s independence.
This badass freedom fighter also rescued soldiers during the bombing of the Red Cross hospital in Rangoon, Burma and trekked through dense forests to bring back the INA soldiers to safety.
We may be the softer and fairer sex but surely I protest against the word ‘weaker’. All sorts of epithets have been given to us by man in order to guard his own selfish interests. It is time we shattered this chain of man along with the chain of Indian slavery.17-year-old Janaky Thevar via Singapore: A Biography.
Once the war was over, she returned to Malaya and joined the Indian Congress Medical Mission in Malaya and visited rubber estates throughout the country where she witnessed first-hand the living and working conditions of the labourers.
This motivated her to establish a political organisation that would tend to the betterment of the Indian immigrants in Malaysia. In 1946, she helped John Thivy to establish the first Indian political party in Malaysia, Malayan Indian Congress (MIC).
No one talks about her but she’s very instrumental in the fight for independence.Professor Dr Shakila Parween Yacob, Department of History, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, University of Malaya to TRP.
According to Professor Dr Shakila, the spirit of nationalism and freedom amongst Malaya’s Indian community were largely influenced by the independence movement in India itself.
Once India gained independence in 1947, the Indian leaders in Malaya then focused on their new home’s freedom.
These leaders had witnessed the freedom for struggle against colonial rule in India and were inspired to fight for the cause of Indians in Malaysia who were reeling under the effects of British colonial rule as well.
Most importantly, they perceived Indians in Malaysia as a part of the Malaysian society and often joined hands with other political parties to hit at British imperialism.
Janaky’s fight didn’t stop with Merdeka in 1957, though.
This bold woman was also one of the earliest fighters against child marriage in Malaysia, joining the 1972 commission set up by the Malaysian government for reviewing the existing laws and determining the possible reforms in light of the UN conventions on consent to marriage, minimum age and registration of marriages.
She also held the post of commissioner of the Selangor Girl Guides Association and was an active member of National Council of Women’s Organisations.
Later in life, she became a senator in the Dewan Negara of the Malaysian Parliament.
In 2000, she became the first woman of Indian descent outside India to be awarded one of India’s highest civilian honour, Padma Shri.
Puan Sri Janaky Athi Nahappan passed away at her house in Taman Tasik Titiwangsa at the ripe old age of 89 in May 2014.
2. Khadijah Sidek – warrior princess & first vocal feminist in UMNO
Khadijah Sidek, aka Puteri Kesateria Bangsa, was a member of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and leader of the Kaum Ibu wing (now Wanita UMNO) in 1954.
But, she was also a highly vocal critic and feminist within the party who was fierce in campaigning for women’s rights.
Not one to be treated as an afterthought, Khadijah was the one who demanded for the increase of women representatives on the national platform and that women be granted the right to vote as well at the 1953 UMNO General Assembly.
Helen Ting of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) writes that she could not accept that female members should just play an auxiliary role as membership-fee-collectors and vote-gatherers for male leaders only. She felt that it was an insult to the status and capability of women members.
Her fiery attitude and criticisms made her a controversial figure among the party’s conservative members, who called her “extreme”, “hot-tempered” and an ill fit for the party and was unceremoniously expelled from UMNO in 1956.
However, she was instrumental in rallying women to the cause for independence.
In her memoirs, Khadijah explained that she travelled tirelessly across the peninsula to recruit more members, reactivate defunct Kaum Ibu branches and establish new ones.
Wherever she went, she rallied Malay village women to UMNO and stirred up their spirit to fight for the independence of Malaya from the British.
Khadijah won support largely in her approach, treating villagers as equals, and tried to train some of the women members to take up the responsibilities and functions of local leaders.
She was especially critical of the “feudal” attitude of some of the UMNO women’s wing members, describing them as “usually stuck up, and had nice clothes, big houses and cars, and did not talk easily to the people.”
You must not be proud, be humble; listen to criticism but don’t be depressed; treat everyone equally, rich or poor, like sisters. If your attitude is like this, then you will be successful wherever you go.Khadijah Sidek via Memoirs of Khatijah Sidek: Puteri Kesateria Bangsa.
Raised in the matrilineal Minangkabau tradition of West Sumatera, she never considered herself to be lesser than a male, and did not see the primary role of a woman as necessarily being a wife and mother.
Instead, she saw women as equal partners to men in political activism and the anti-colonial struggle.
Bangun melur bangun melati,Khadijah Sidek via Malaysian Digest.
Kembang bunga petang dan pagi,
Biar lebur biar mati,
Namun tak mahu dijajah lagi
Her anti-colonial consciousness began from schooling days in Indonesia. She was expelled from school in 1933 for getting involved in political activities in school.
After Japan surrendered in World War 2, Khadijah mobilised and trained young girls to form the paramilitary women’s section of the anti-Dutch revolutionary army, the Puteri Kesateria (warrior princess) and was a wanted woman by the Dutch colonial police in Indonesia.
She then travelled to Singapore to expand her women’s military school but was jailed briefly in 1948 on accusations of plotting to overthrow the British government in Singapore.
After her expulsion from UMNO, she joined Pan-Malayan Islamic Party (now PAS) and was elected as a Member of Parliament, during which she spoke on various issues such as girls’ education, rural economic development and health infrastructure in rural areas.
She rejoined UMNO in 1972, but did not go on to play a major role in the party.
The Warrior Princess passed away at the age of 65 in July 1982.
3. Suriani Abdullah/Eng Ming Cheng – anti-Japanese fighter & MCP member
Though the role of communists in the journey to Malaya’s independence is highly controversial, one can hardly ignore the fireball that is Eng Ming Cheng (later known as Suriani Abdullah) whose soul blazed with anti-colonial fire.
Born in Sitiawan Perak in 1924, her radicalisation began in school when anti-Japanese resistance was popular in Chinese schools in the early 1940s.
That was also when she met Chin Peng, who later became leader of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP).
Eng Ming Ching joined MCP at the age of 16 and played a leading role as a women’s activist in the ‘open’ organization of the party after 1945.
In 1941, before the Japanese invasion of Malaya, Suriani succeeded in mobilising a women workers’ strike in Kampar.
Professor Dr Shakila explained that she had very strong anti colonial sentiments, be it the Japanese or the British.
She was even caught by Japanese soldiers at one point and stabbed by them.Professor Dr Shakila Parween Yacob, Department of History, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, University of Malaya to TRP.
In her memoirs, Suriani recounts how she was captured by Japanese troops on 28 January, 1945 and sent to Ipoh for incarceration and severe torture.
For her valiance, she was granted the moniker ‘Serikandi Anti-Jepun’.
After the war ended, she was also elected by MCP to work as a government official with the British Military Administration (BMA) in Perak.
Her charm and passion was notably documented by a British official in 1945 who stated:
She has a quite good figure beneath her dowdy blue cotton dress, but the fountain pen stuck in her bosom is a sharp reminder that she puts business before allurement. Her most remarkable features are her eyes. At one moment they are flat, brown and dull, at the next revealing in baleful flashes the smouldering fires of fanaticism…Victor Purcell, the Chinese affairs adviser in the British Military Administration (BMA) via Malaysiakini.
But soon thereafter, she took to the jungle in 1948 to fight the British.
In 1955, she married the Chairman of the MCP Abdullah CD and took the name Suriani Abdullah.
Her anti Japanese and anti British sentiment was very strong, she’s also instrumental in our journey to Merdeka but people don’t know much about her. She eventually died in Thailand after seeking political asylum.Professor Dr Shakila Parween Yacob, Department of History, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, University of Malaya to TRP.
4. Siti Rahmah Kassim – independence fighter who spurred massive donations for the Merdeka movement
Datuk Siti Rahmah Kassim’s name is eternally intertwined with The Golden Bangle – from that one moment she displayed a spontaneous act of stunning selflessness for her budding nation.
It all started in 1957, when the young woman attended an UMNO rally in Melaka where Tunku Abdul Rahman, who later was to become Malaya’s first prime minister, gave an impassioned speech.
He tearfully told the crowd that the Merdeka delegation to London was in jeopardy due to a dire lack of funds. This delegation was on its way to make a final push in the negotiations with the British for Malaya’s independence.
Tunku was so frustrated by the predicament that tears began running down his cheeks.
Spurred by this sight, Siti Rahmah immediately took off her prized gold bangle, wrapped it in a red shawl and placed it in Tunku’s hands.
This was a gift from my father for my wedding, but use it to aid in your fight for the country.Siti Rahmah Kassim to Tunku Abdul Rahman via The Star.
Then, she turned to the eager Malayans and urged them to do the same for their country. “Gold can be bought again, but not our independence,” she told the crowd – and that sparked a wave of donations.
Women handed over pieces of gold jewellery, while men gave away their watches and rings.
There was a woman with a gold tooth. She wanted to give it away, so she went to the back (of the hall) to take it off in order to make a contribution.Siti Rahmah Kassim to Utusan Malaysia via Going Places.
Siti Rahmah’s simple gesture led to the Merdeka Mission having enough funds to negotiate for our independence.
The spirit of love for the country is not the same as the feeling of love for fellow human beings. Our struggle is followed by a sense of responsibility to the trust, requiring sincerity and the spirit of defending what is enjoyed.Siti Rahmah Kassim to Berita Harian.
Even after Merdeka, Siti Rahmah continued to be involved in politics.
She was one of the first women to contest in the 1959 general election, winning the state assembly seat of Terentang, Negeri Sembilan – and successfully held the seat for two consecutive terms until 1969.
She also served in several non-governmental organisations, including the Islamic Welfare Organisation of Malaysia (PERKIM), Negri Sembilan Single Mothers’ Association and as the Malaysian Single Mothers Council deputy president.
In 2016, she was awarded the Tokoh Wanita Negri Sembilan for her contributions to the country.
This inspiring Merdeka fighter may have breathed her last in March 2017, but her legacy will always be remembered.
5. Shamsiah Fakeh – Angkatan Wanita Sedar (AWAS) leader & anti-British fighter
Born in 1924, Kuala Pilah, Negeri Sembilan Shamsiah Fakeh is one of Malaysia’s earliest female political leader.
As the head of AWAS (Angkatan Wanita Sedar), a women’s wing of Parti Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya (PKMM), she supported the cooperation between PKMM and MCP in their struggles to overthrow British colonialism in Malaya.
Her independence spirit began after listening to speeches by UMNO and PKMM leaders as a young woman.
Her drive was so phenomenal that a particularly rousing speech she gave during a PKMM conference in Seremban even made it into Utusan Melayu.
However, with the Malayan Emergency declared in 1948, all left-wing parties were criminalised by the British. So, Shamsiah and several leftist nationalists fled into the jungle to continue their fight.
This was when she became involved with the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) and fought in their all-Malay 10th Regiment.
As the fight turned violent and British started cracking down, she herself got lost in the jungles alone several times, even while carrying her newborn child who was eventually killed by three other members of her team. Although she was accused of killing her own child, she strongly denied the allegation for decades.
She and her husband soon ran to China as the communist party weakened and lived there for 40 years in exile.
Shamsiah wrote in her memoirs, “Memoir Shamsiah Fakeh: Dari AWAS ke Rejimen ke-10”:
In actual fact, I am not a female leader of MCP or a famous female public figure, I am just a pejuang wanita who struggled against the British for the independence of my homeland, and for the emancipation of women.Shamsiah Fakeh.
She also stated that she was proud of what she had done and urged readers to differentiate between the colonial era under the British and the era after independence.
While the communist party’s violent struggle for independence cost many lives, the British soon agreed that Malayan independence was the answer to the communist claim that they were fighting to free the Malayan people.
In 1994, Shamsiah and her family were finally allowed to return to Malaysia and went on to live a relatively quiet life until she passed away in October 2008 at the age of 84.
6. Aishah Ghani – Malaysia’s earliest female politician & first female senator
Tan Sri Aishah Ghani was another one of Malaysia’s earliest female politicians, and in fact, she was a contemporary of Shamsiah Fakeh and the two actually worked together in AWAS.
Shortly after the end of World War 2, Aishah was employed as the lead writer for PKMM’s party organ, Pelita Malaya and led AWAS. She was highly enthusiastic about their anti-colonial cause.
However, Aishah left PKMM after 10 months due to disagreements over using arms struggle as a method of independence, as well as her rejection of the communist ideology.
Shamsiah Fakeh took over as leader of AWAS after her departure.
She said in her memoirs that she had lost faith in PKMM’s struggle and that the party leaders were too ambitious, describing it as “cita-citanya ingin menjangkau awan.”
Still burning with patriotism to support her budding new nation’s journey to independence, she joined the March 1946 rally at the Sultan Sulaiman Club in Kampung Baru – the first-ever Malay Congress, organised by the Selangor Malays Association that led to the birth of UMNO.
However, she was also determined to succeed in her own right and shortly thereafter left to continue her education in London.
Aishah mentioned in her autobiography that Tunku Abdul Rahman had actually met her in London in 1956, and asked her to head the women’s wing of UMNO after the expulsion of Khadijah Sidek from the party.
But she immediately rejected the request, as she was determined to equip herself with as much knowledge as possible to become an effective leader.
She then joined UMNO upon her return and became the women’s wing leader after independence.
In 1962, she was elected as Malaysia’s first ever female senator, as well as Malaysia’s first woman representative to the General Assembly of the United Nations Organisation (UN).
Then in 1974, Aishah was appointed as the General Welfare Minister in 1974 and held on to the post for a decade until she retired from politics in 1984.
She is actually well known for promoting Syariah legal reform by overseeing a high-level committee that put together a comprehensive set of family laws based on an enlightened interpretation of Islamic laws.
Helen Ting in the Women in Southeast Asian Nationalist Movements book writes that “unfortunately, these laws were subverted by conservative religious scholars and officials in various states who were unhappy that she made polygamy almost impossible for Muslim men.”
Though she had retired from politics in 1984, Aishah remained quite active and was chairman of the Malaysian Handicraft Development Corporation (Kraftangan Malaysia), member of the Tun Abdul Razak Foundation, and Chairman of the Centre for Protection of Women Darsaadah.
After nearly 7 decades of dedication to her country, Aishah passed away at the age of 90 in April 2013.
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