A former UN Person of the Year, recipient of the French government’s ‘Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur’ award, and daughter of former Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Mahathir Mohamad, Marina Mahathir is a socio-political activist and writer. She began her career in advocacy in HIV/AIDS, and went on to focus on issues related to Islam and gender. Previously a member of the Board of Sisters in Islam, Marina continues to advocate for justice and equality for Muslim women. She is the founder of Zafigo.com, a travel website for women in Asia.
Catriona Mitchell: Marina, because you grew up so much in the public eye [being the daughter of the former Malaysian Prime Minister] do you feel that you have the freedom to use your voice? If you courted controversial thoughts that could be offensive to some people, for example, would you censor yourself rather than speak out?
Marina Mahathir: I don’t call it censorship, but when I want to express myself I do think carefully about how I’m phrasing it. I think you need to be strategic about how you approach it, because in Malaysia, religion matters to a lot of people, even when they’re liberal and progressive. I don’t want to alienate all of them.
I try not to go into the realm of too much theology. We [Marina and her feminist Malaysian Muslim ‘sisters’ – ed] talk about interpretation all the time. We don’t actually argue with the Koran; we argue with the interpreters of the Koran who are putting their own biases on it. I think that’s the approach to take. It’s not easy, and we are easily demonized. I’ve seen my words twisted any number of times – there are people who spend their time twisting words. So you need to be careful.
Have you been trolled on the Internet for your activism, or even physically endangered for using your voice?
Not so much physically. I did have to take one group to court for defamation once, because they were distributing leaflets in mosques denouncing me and a group of other people as anti-Islam – because we wrote the shadow report for human rights in Malaysia, for the UN Human Rights Council. But I was actually not directly involved in that, and neither were a lot of people on the leaflet. They had our photos and everything, and I was the only Muslim.
You know, saying I’m anti-Islam, that’s a very serious charge. I took them to court, it finally went to mediation, and I kind of won – I got an apology from them. I really wanted to show that they can be sued; that they can’t be let off.
When you forge links between feminism and Islam, are you ever accused in that context of being anti-Islam?
Always. Not just me; my group. We are always accused of being Western agents, because of the word ‘feminism’. We are not shy about calling ourselves feminist, but we feel this should be rooted in our lived realities and not somebody else’s idea of what feminism should be. So yes, we get it from both sides really.
When you say ‘lived realities,’ what are you referring to exactly?
The practical implications are for example in the idea of equality in marriage. Usually the man is the head of the household, and he makes the decisions in the home, in the family, everything. But the reality now is that women are educated, sometimes they earn more than the man, so why is it that they can’t make any of the decisions and have their opinions heard?
We take the approach that you are not supposed to harm another person. And just because she’s your wife, that doesn’t exclude her from that. Our standpoint is that equality in the family will lead to equality in society.
Do you believe that equality in wages will lead to a true balance between men and women in Malaysia?
Yes, because it’s a recognition of equal worth, but I think more than that, you need to have equality in attitude. So a woman can earn the same as a man in her workplace, doing equal work, but she’s still working at home. She’s still supposed to do that, right? And the man doesn’t have to do that. So by right, she should have two wages. Double what he gets. That doesn’t happen. I think you need to address that, and address men’s responsibility in the home.
You could argue that if a woman is tired from her work in the home, that she won’t necessarily excel in the workplace to the extent that her husband might, because her energies are pulled in too many directions.
Yes, and if a kid gets sick, she’s the one who has to go to hospital, and that sort of thing.
How has the #metoo movement affected Malaysians? Are there sufficient laws in place to protect women in the workplace?
We have rape laws. We do not have a sexual harassment law and that’s what we need because at the moment. I think under the Employment Act, there’s a recommendation about sexual harassment in the workplace, but it’s not strong enough. Most women are afraid to talk about it.
If you’re the one to speak out, and then nobody else does, does that mean you’re really in trouble?
Yes. This is the problem with domestic violence also. If it’s unseen, people think it doesn’t really happen or it’s not as important. Our domestic violence act covers not just physical but emotional violence.
How do you measure emotional violence?
It leads to depression…there are symptoms. You just have to take it seriously, right? It comes out in other forms. You won’t see bruises. Before, it used to be that you had to see bruises. If you don’t report instantly and bruises have healed, it ‘hasn’t happened.’ So these are the sort of mine fields and traps that laws have.
Your mother is now 91, and she’s becoming an activist. Obviously your father has played an important role in your life, but did your mother have an effect on you, in terms of becoming an independent thinker and activist?
Oh, absolutely. My mother has always worked. She worked all her life until retirement, so I had this role model of a working mother all the time.
Was that unusual?
Yes. She was the second Malay woman doctor in the country, in the 1950s. And she worked throughout. She always had strong views on women, and women’s status – maybe because of her work in reproductive health.
Would you say she’s an inspiration to you still?
Absolutely. She’s become an activist, and now she wants to write a romantic novel. My kids swear that it’s not romantic; it’s erotic.
Catriona met with Marina Mahathir at the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival in Bali, Indonesia.
Cover image by Tara Sosrowardoyo.