My Foray Into the Underground

As a girl of 14, sitting in the backseat of my dad’s car, I remember fuming to myself when I heard him say “Girls can’t do certain things.”

“WHY NOT!”” I screamed at him silently in my head. So fueled was I by angsty teenage hormones and self-righteous anger, I actually scribbled down in pencil, a stanza about what I thought of his infuriating comment, right then and there in the car. Anger, when used positively, can be useful.

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Fast forward almost 11 years later, and I still regularly fume to myself and yes, angrily pen down words of rebellion and oh, yes I will do exactly what you tell me NOT to do. I am a rebel, I cannot deny that. Perhaps it is this self-perception that led me to finding a voice in writing and activism.

I was first rudely awakened to the bitter world when I studied in Perth from 2008 to 2010. My interest in writing took me to journalism, and from then on, my path seemed to be one, not only of seeking the truth and reacting to injustice, but also one that aligned with my own journey within; of self-discovery and more rude awakenings.

I returned back to Malaysia, no longer the same girl I used to be, perhaps almost a woman, but that wasn’t important. There was more learning to be done. Almost immediately, I found a job and settled into a wonky routine of normalcy by day, truth-seeking by night. I spent a lot of time away from my home, from my family, still discovering who and what I was supposed to be. But I was restless, and bored of my own inaction. Hungry for an outlet for my rebellion, I attended a workshop on sexuality rights in town. It seemed to me that, like the black-dotted dominoes that shift and ultimately fall, the events that led up to me finding the event on Facebook was almost inevitable. My first encounter with a non-for-profit in Malaysia was this Facebook group called Eco-Warriors – a bunch of environmentally-minded people who not only believed in the principles of going green, takes the mindset one step further and plants trees to make Malaysia more green.

After that encounter, I kept a sharp look-out for similar events, which was when I saw this workshop, in August last year. My crazy, Facebook-stalking ways had paid off (yes if you need me to utilize Facebook for your business, I promise results!). I walked in, not knowing what to expect; certainly naive about who I was about to encounter. A bespectacled outspoken legal student, a spunky Indian girl with cool hair; people from all walks of life came to find out more about human rights.

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Do we only start to question our rights when they are violated? This was a question that I came to, over and over again. Hearing stories of gross abuse, sexual abuse, violence, discrimination – how do you not care? How do you not feel like you should do something about it?

“Why should I care?”

“I’m not involved.”

“I’m not related to refugees – I don’t care about their plight.”

Does this line ever work: What if this person (the abused) was your mother, sister, daughter, cousin, niece, grandmother, aunty etc?

These were the kinds of things that were raised at the workshop, which turned out to be a great platform for many voices to speak, in a safe space. The right to freedom of expression was frequently mentioned and served as a sad reminder that even that is denied to Malaysians. Young gay Malaysians eager to express their sexuality quickly find out that any expression that is out of the norm is almost always met with disapproval and shunned by the general population. It is not in the ‘culture’ of Malaysia to express yourself, and I find this is true even for expressing feelings. Any attempt to express oneself is hurriedly slapped with the label ‘Western’ or gets written of as overdone. In fact, it is a very Malaysian thing to say a person is showing off when expressing themselves. The irony can’t get any funnier: political activism is considered illegal and activists often operate underground and keep a look out for authorities.

As you can see, the workshop really stimulated me and I looked forward to the subsequent events that would take place for the week-long Seksualiti Merdeka festival. So aptly-named, Seksualiti Merdeka translates to Sexuality Freedom – a freedom which I think they achieved, even for those few hours that they ran the workshop. There was a sense of solidarity, we-are-all-in-this-together. I looked around and saw smiling faces and pledged to go back the next day. Two days later, the festival, which started back in 2008, was deemed illegal and banned for promoting ‘seks bebas’ – free sex. I can only imagine how crushed the LGBT community would have been, and how outrageous this would look on an international level. The organizers of Seksualiti Merdeka are, at this very moment trying to appeal for the ban to be lifted. I will keep you posted on that one.

The festival turned out to be one of the many dominoes that led to my resigning my day job as a writer with an expat company and making a decision to work in the non-for-profit sector. I am currently waiting, with crossed fingers and toes, for this women’s organization to call me back about their vacancy as Programmes Officer. If I don’t get this job, consider me up for hire.

Part of this organization’s celebration for International Women’s Day was a march, and I had the opportunity not only to go, but to carry the banner right at the front of the line. Exhilarating, to say the least! It was a humid day, and we used the white gloves on our hands (signifying our call for clean and fair elections) to mop the sweat off our foreheads. Cars whizzed by, some tooting their approval, some staring straight ahead, refusing to look at our bright purple banners, as if caring was a disease. A bad luck sign like a black cat. One man in his boxy Volvo, tooted his horn, and with his own white-gloved hand, put his hands up with his thumb sticking straight up. We cheered him extra loudly as he drove by. I remember hoping he was a politician and that if he was then there is hope.

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As we reached our meeting point, the Astaka field behind the ashram, our excitement died down – there was a referee confronting one of our fellow marchers. He was unhappy that his coaching had been interrupted. His voice was raised, and some girls started to boo him. One girl yelled out in Malay, “talk with a nice voice, and put on a nice face!”

It was probably wrong to boo him, but it was all in the spirit of the march. Just before the field, we merged with another group of marchers, and as if energized by each other, turned up the cries and rallying for and end to violence. A woman on the megaphone strained her voice until you could hear the hoarse ends of it, but she didn’t let off until we got to the field. The coach eventually let us pass (and it was all a misunderstanding; the field had been booked off for the march in advance) and we cheered, shrieking at the muddy grounds of Astaka, and running towards drier ground where the podium stood.

The leaders of the march had reached before us, and they introduced the crowd to a series of speakers. One particularly inspiring speech was by the Orang Asli women of Eastern Malaysia. Forgive me, for the name of their tribe eludes me now, but the expression on the woman’s face as she asked for justice will never leave my mind. Image

Determination, to fight for her sisters, to fight oppression, to remind the oppressors that they are NOT to be bullied.

Now tell me that I shouldn’t do what my heart tells me to. Because you know what? I cannot sit back and not do anything about what I’ve learnt in the past year, and what I’m still learning about now. And this is what my blog is about – telling you what I’ve learnt and how we can all put a stop to it. For now, please go read up on eco-feminism and get on Gender Across Borders to read their excellent post on this issue.

Did you know that women are collateral damage in most situations? Read about it here: http://www.genderacrossborders.com/2012/03/22/ecofeminism-is-the-movement-still-relevant/

To end on a feisty note, I can totally relate to this woman’s t-shirt, can someone get me one like that?

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Translation of words on t shirt: CAUTION: WOMEN OVERSTEPPING LIMITS.

2 thoughts on “My Foray Into the Underground

  1. Milan, i can feel your spirit soaring in the air as i read this. I feel that perhaps your sole purpose on earth has been found, and you will march until the rights have been won. As you continue to inspire others, i will march with you.

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