THE CHALLENGES OF BEING A WOMAN WRITER IN MALAYSIA
There is an English saying (or is it a proverb) that goes something like “ Girls should be seen and not heard”. When I was a young girl I took it as an advice of the elderly on manners and etiquette, given in good intention of making us sweet and adorable as girls should be. As a grown up I look back at the proverb and understand more of the massage it conveys: since you are a female please shut up because nobody is asking for your opinion.
I grew up in a village in the northern part of Malaysia at the time when girls were kept indoors and this saying might as well sound: girls are not to be seen and not to be heard. Luckily there was a radio in the house that supply some remedy from boredom. I listen to songs and songs in those days have beautiful and meaningful lyrics. The more traditional tunes used pantuns (a traditional Malay poetry) as lyrics. Listening to them I come to learn and appreciate the beauty of words and encountered the poetic value in my language. I roam about in the gardens, the seas and mountains described in the songs and picked up beautiful expressions which kindle my imaginations and nurture my love for poetry. That is how I began to write. As I have said earlier I was brought up to think that a girl should not speak or exert her voice. But I have so much to say and therefore the only way out is to write them down. I began writing pantuns and some simple rhyming verse and I have not stop writing until today.
I went to the village school when there were still debates among parents whether it was worthwhile to send daughters to school, especially whether they should be allowed to continue schooling after standard six. This is partially because secondary schools were only to be found in towns. To send girls to secondary school would involve too much trouble and too much risk. Luckily I became the first granddaughter that my grandmother allowed to go to secondary school. That was around 1960.
I commute everyday to school in town. It was not easy having to get up early to catch the six a.m. bus, and to take a bus home in the hot afternoon. We spent hours travelling and have limited time to study and do our homework. Many of us did not do well in class and failed the Form Three exam that we have to take to continue into Form Four, which further discouraged parents to send their daughters to secondary school. Then my aunt (my adopted mother) passed away and my grandmother grew older and weaker. My grand aunties were always giving advice to my grandmother “We pity you sister, you are old and always sick. We think you better stop Zurinah from schooling. She should stay home and look after you”. Luckily she did not listen to them. ( Later I wrote a short story on my life with my grandmother and the relatives’ advice to terminate my schooling in a short story entitled Nenek or Grandmother. This story won the National Literary Prize).
I found and frequent a book store next to the bus station. I saved money to buy newspapers and magazines to follow the development of writing and literary activities in my country. There was a special page every Wednesday in leading newspaper called Student Page where students can send their poetry. I become a regular contributor. In between school work and especially during long school holidays I devote much time to writing poetry. I like to be alone sitting under the trees and walking around in the compound especially in the evenings composing poems. I was too engrossed in my artistic activity to realize that the elders were watching. Then one day I overheard my grandmother telling a few members of the family that I have been acting strange, walking from tree to tree . Could I be possessed by some spirit that call me to the trees in the late evening, the time they believe ghosts are roaming about.
With the enthusiasm I read literary coloumns and magazines to update knowledge of national literary scene, especially to keep in touch with activities of other women writers. When I started writing to the media there were already a handful of female poets and short story writers but I could not find serious reviews or study on their product. All attention and praises were paid to male poets like Usman Awang or A.Latiff Mohidin. Occasionally some male writers will write articles specially on women involvement in writing saying the same thing over and over again like:
1. Women writing is of lesser quantity and quality compared to men.
2. Women writers did not write on important issues. They only write about homely or domestic affairs and not international affairs.
3. Women writers are not committed. They do not last long and disappear after marriage
Of course I have made observations and reservation regarding the above statements but need lengthy discussion to prove that they are just sweeping statements. We will only go to the third statement about disappearing women writers. This is something that cannot be denied. Most of women writers who began earlier than me have been inactive due the odds and setbacks against their aspirations of becoming great writers. What are the odds? There are many. First let us look at what has been said by Mary Eagelton , in the book she edited Feminist Literary Theory: A Reader (1986) Eagelton pointed out the constraints faced by female writers. “The catalogue of material problems is long, inequalities in the educational system, lack of privacy, the burdens of child bearings and rearing, domestic obligations and the equally decisive restriction of family and social expectation.”
So, what you see in front of you today is a survivor. There are more who can write and have started but failed to overcome the obstacles against them. My own true story is a clear indication of the unequal opportunity for education. My grandmother’s worries of my roaming about in her wide compound only show the believe that girls should not be alone by herself. She gave some clear instruction that I should be watched and not be left alone. My habit of spending too much time with books did make them happy for I should be cooking and sowing like other girls who were pride of their mothers.
The customary and domestic obligations and the burdens of child bearings and rearing are well known factors that suppress artistic talents. I too have the experience of having to stay home with my little toddlers during which it was impossible to produce anything of literary standard. Later, when I managed to break away I sum up those depressing situations in a short story entitled Catatan Di Meja Makan ( Writing on the Dining Table) first published in 1983 in our national newspaper. I have attached a translated version of the short story to illustrate a writer’s creative process giving an example of how personal experiences are put to literature. The protagonist is named Hamima, an upcoming short story writer who left her job to look after her small children. She became desperate when routine of a housewife took her away from her writing and herself. Indeed . the protagonist is speaking my own desperation in a life that offer no sense of satisfaction and purpose. Those were the times when I considered myself a failed poet and a failed person. During the period, I wrote very little partly due to fatigue of household chores and attending to small children’s constant needs and the fatigue of suppressed anger and dissatisfaction. I lost contact with the world and the contact with my own being.
THE PAPER SHALL BE CONTINUED