Women empowerment is at an all time high, and it is due to the voices of untiring activists such as Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir. An example of Marina’s frank and open voice was in January 2018 when she warned that the Islamisation of Malaysia would tear the country apart following a viral incident of a Muslim man slapping a Muslim woman for not wearing a hijab.
Besides being a voice for feminism, the eldest child of Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad is also an active socio-political blogger and patron of the Malaysian AIDS Foundation. In 2010, she was awarded UN Person of the Year for her good work in combating HIV/AIDS. The founder of Asian women traveller’s portal Zafigo.com, she exemplifies the undying fire of fighting the good fight. She is also on the board of Sisters in Islam.
“No one really looks at the real issues of women who are having a difficult time,” says Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir, referring to her work with Sisters in Islam. “Instead they are looking at us and commenting about how we look and how little religious knowledge we have. Basically they don’t like women who talk back and that’s what we do.”
The organisation refuses to accept notions of Islam being a religion of inequality or injustice.
“We are fighting against that and some people don’t like it,” she states. “Not because they know anything about those issues but simply because they don’t like the idea of women speaking up.”
Sisters in Islam, she says, had to deal with so many attempts to silence the organisation. Their books have been banned and legal suits have been aplenty but these “ups and downs” are part of the process.
“When you have these challenges, you grow as a person, you grow as an organisation. It’s nice to have an easy life but if you never get challenged, you are never going to grow and test the limits of what you can take.”
Nonetheless, advocacy has its moments of frustration. And this has to do with obstinate people who are unwilling to really understand what’s going on, on the ground. Marina points to the recent case of a woman who was attacked in the lift. The suggestion that the victim should not have been out at all left her dumbfounded.
“I really can’t believe people say that. Someone said, you shouldn’t be out walking alone. So it’s the fault of the victim? That’s so 1950s. This is 2019 and we are still talking like that.”
Marina counters this frustration through her many encounters with young people. They give her hope, she says, and that means this “frustration” can be brushed aside as she looks to the future.
Marina describes herself as an “accidental activist.” It all started when she was invited to join the Malaysian AIDS Council. Through her involvement, she discovered that HIV/AIDS is a particularly difficult field. But she embraced the challenge and led the AIDS council for 12 years.
“I really grew as a person and learnt how to do advocacy for certain causes, how to communicate with people, how much knowledge you need and what leadership needs.”
Being an advocate for HIV/AIDS was difficult, she says, because it dealt with a lot of taboo subjects – sex, sexuality, gender equality – a lot of things that people don’t really want to think about. But in some ways, she says, her work with Sisters in Islam can be harder because of the limited space for women to air their views.
In the context of “Malaysia Baru,” she says it is important for civil society, including activists like herself as well as the general public to call out those who are not doing things right.
“We are all part of this project,” she says. “And we should all be working to make it happen.”
Marina received the Prestige achievement award in 2016