Fighting the Good Fight
Renowned throughout the region as a Champion of Women’s Rights and Gender Equality, Dato’ Dr Wazir Jahan Begum Karim may be a woman of many hats but her goal is singular – to fight for the rights of the under-represented, underprivileged and under-appreciated communities of developing Southeast Asian nations. A graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science, Dr Wazir studied to be an economic anthropologist and a gender equality activitist, and has since been achieving her career ambitions in various ways. She is currently the Executive Chairman of Intersocietal and Scientific (INAS), an agency committed to gender, conservation and heritage issue, besides co-founding the Women’s Development Research Centre at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM). In this issue, Top 10 of Malaysia speaks to the feminist about her life-changing experiences, major achievements and her future plans.
Born to the royal dental surgeon of the 22nd Sultan of Johor father and a budding activitist mother, Dr Wazir had a simple childhood, climbing trees to suck marquisa fruits, collecting early morning dews and playing rounders. However, owing to her parents’ occupations and influence, the scholar was also exposed to various cultures and credentials from an early age. Her mother was the pioneer of the Women’s Institute, the most popular voluntary women’s movement in Malaya and as a little girl Dr Wazir had accompanied her mother to many of her events in the villages, including trips to Orang Asli villages. This early introduction to the vast world outside of the comfort of her home left a tremendous impact on Dr Wazir and has shaped her aims in life ever since.
Little did she know that her brush with Orang Asli villages as a little girl would come in handy many years later when she came to live with them for two years as part of her doctoral thesis requirements. “They adopted me and I became one of them, eventually speaking their musical onomatopoeic Mon-Kymer language. It was tonal, nasal and guttural and sounded like the sounds of the forest. I participated in their animistic rituals and shamanistic séances, hunted for crabs and crustaceans and could dance their jo-oh dances as well as any one of them. A test of my honesty and loyalty was eating monkey meat, skins of bats and caterpillars from banana trees. I had no idea of halal or haram since I had to survive – they had consumed my three months rations all in three days! I had no transport to replenish my supplies for months. The Ma’ Betise’ had a concept of munteh muleh – a kind of ‘primitive communism’ where everything had to be shared – ‘a little for everyone and not too much for one’. I was the first woman, Malaysian actually, to live with the Orang Asli and to speak Ma’ Betise’.”
The life-changing experience turned Dr Wazir into a different person upon her return. However, in the 1980’s when she had just started her academic career in Orang Asli and Minority Studies, the focus was more on Woman and Gender Studies, for the academe at that time was male-dominated and patriarchal as was Malay rural society. Before long, as a way to combat the inequality, the social activist formed KANITA, the first ever research programme on ‘Women and Children in Development’ in Malaysia with other women who shared her same aspirations. The centre’s strategy then was to empower women in the remotest areas of the importance of education, mainly mothers of young girls who would grow up to hold leadership roles.
Dr Wazir’s contributions to the local and international academe community have been aplenty. Some of the many issues that she has brought to light through her writings include the facts that gender equality was about the democratisation of knowledge and life; that the Orang Asli had far more to contribute to sustainable development and forest management through a timeless ideology of ‘life within the forests’; and that recognition of diversity among minorities should be celebrated but not upheld through racial politics.
Accomplished in a multitude of fields, Dr Wazir has received many notable accolades including the Raymond Firth Prize and is a well-sought-after speaker, as well as a distinguished fellow in several renowned universities worldwide, such as the British Academy, University of Oslo, United Nations’ University, University of Victoria and Sophia University. When she’s not busy teaching or researching, Dr Wazir writes and co-authors books about minorities, women and Jawi Peranakan food.
What does Dr Wazir want to do five years down the road? “I would like to complete my memoirs, my incomplete writings and give more talks to tell the stories and narratives behind my work, as a guide to others as to how to overcome the unimaginable and to be successful in academic and social activism.”