MALAYSIAN WOMEN WRITERS

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Makalah yang saya sampaikan di dalam seminar di Universiti Chulalongkorn baru sahaja diterbitkan oleh pihak penganjur. Bahagian pertama ditulis oleh Dr. Norhayati manakala saya menulis bahagian kedua di bawah tajuk The Road I Have Taken. Saya turunkan sekali lagi di sini.
Malaysian Women Writers: The Road I
have Taken
Zurinah Hassan
Norhayati Ab. Rahman
Academy of Malay Studies
University of Malaya
Abstract
The first part of the paper is an introduction to
characteristics of women’s literature writings in Malaysia in the aspects of
content, language and style, and the need for gynocriticism or “the study of
women as writers.” The emergence, involvement and contributions of Malaysian women
writers in the development of literature and intellectualism in novels is
traced to the pioneering figuresfrom Ibu Zain, KamariahSaadon, Jahlelawati to Adibah
Amin, Khadijah Hashim, Zaharah Nawawi, Fatimah Busu and Azmah Nordin. Based on the
developments, methodologies and styles of novel writing among women writers in
Malaysia,the contributions of women writers are not limited
to enriching the Malay literature treasure, for they also introduce the
channeling of idea-thoughts from their own perspectives.Women writers make women’s experience their assets or important bases
in the construction of literary works.
The second part of the paper presents an account of
personal experience and creative process of a woman writer, focusing on
challenges in becoming a female writer in Malaysia, illustrated byher published
poems and short stories reflecting the plight of women in her society. This serves
as a case study on the growth of a female creative writer amidst traditional
and cultural constraints and on how personal experiences are put to literature.
It is a harsh journey to be awarded the South East Asian Writers Award (2004)
and the Sunthorn Phu Award for Outstanding ASEAN Poet (2013).
Introduction
            A
discussion of the emergence and involvement of women in the writing world in
Malaysia cannot be complete without addressing leading figures such as Ibu Zain
(Hajah ZainonSulaiman, 1903-1989) who strongly advocated education for
daughters through her writings in Majalah
Guru
or BulanMelayu. Ibu Zain was
an early prominent Malaysian woman figure who received English education and
became a teacher.In 1927, she was appointed the Supervisor of Malay Girls’
School in Johor.She established the first women’s magazine in Malaysia, BulanMelayu (June 1930), which played an
important role in creating awareness amongst women on the importance of
education.Creative writings in Malaysia (particularly modern fictions) began in
1934, with the production of a short story KesedihanPerkahwinanPaksa (The
Misery of Forced Marriage)by Hafsah, published in a magazine, Pengasuh.Later in the same year, a
fiction entitled WaktuIsyakMenangkapPencuri
written by SitiNurmah, was published.However, novels written by women writers surfaced
much later, that is, as late as 1941, about 15 years after the first novel
written by a man writer.
            An
early novel includedPanggilanIbunda(1948).It
portrayed the story of Halimah, a loyal wife left behind by her husband, Salim,
who had gone into battle to defend the country.Loyalty is amandatory virtue for
every good woman according to the religion and customs of Malay society.They aresignificantly
powerful elements in the way of life and thinking of the society.As such, religious
belief is an extremely important factor that influences women’s struggle in
Malaysia.Whatever the nature of that struggle may be, it should not deviate
from the said religious beliefs and customs. The depiction of Halimah in this
early novel highlighted the ideal characteristics of a woman who was loyal,
faithful, and conforms strictly to the marriage institution, that is, a
depiction based onwriting conventions.Although PanggilanIbundastill conforms to the specifications of the
traditions, the manner in which the writer tried to alter the position of women
in society’s conservative views could be detected.KamariahSaadon attempted to
tear down this paradigm by presenting women not only as confined to the
domestic sphere but also as projected into the public sphere as seen through
the character of Halimah in various environments and social movements in her
kampong. Through this novel, the writer also stressed the importance of receiving
higher level of education (just like men) by studying in Malay and English
schools.In this novel, the writer emphasized the value of consonance amongst
women and men in performing their roles towards the society and nation.Although
the wants and values of women highlighted were of moderate nature, yet through
this novel, the writer had incorporated woman’s soul itself into her character
building.The writer placed the woman in the public sphere so that women will no
longer be identified through traditional perceptions which is synonymous with
the personal sphere.
            Through
CincinKahwin (Wedding Ring,1948), the
writer, Jahlelawati, highlighted the emotional experience of a young woman,
Nirwani, who was forced to marry a man she did not love, Daruan.As a young lady
who faithfully obeyed her parents, Wani was pictured as an obedient
person.However, the marriage was not a happy one due to the arrogant and
philandering nature of her husband.Through this novel, the writer builton the
image of a good and honorable woman by portraying one who was patient and smart
in the face of domestic problems.Blessed with patience and intelligence, the woman
managed to free herself from her doomed marriage and returned to her boyfriend,
who loved and cared for her.Although this scenario accentuated conventional
features in writing, a more important element shown in this novel was the
author’s portrayal of the woman’s efforts in fulfilling her dreams and
aspirations. Through her novel, the author championed women’s wants and freedom
in determining their own marriage partners.At the same time, the author exposed
the disadvantages of a forced marriage or a marriage that is not based on
mutual love.
These are some of the early
literary works by women writers in Malaysia, which clearly introduced new ideas
to the society, particularly in the efforts to elevate women’s status.In this
case, the writer suggested a smart way out of an unhappy marriage without
rebelling or breaching social values and norms.The narrative strategies organized
by the writer suggest that the woman can achieve her freedom through means
which do not contradict the religious values, customs and norms of her society.
Such features were more prevalent
in post-independence literatures, in novels such as SerojaMasih Di Kolam(1968) by Adibah Amin, and Badai Semalam(1968) by Khadijah Hashim. For example, BadaiSemalam related the struggle and perseverance
of a woman to realize her dream of continuing her studies to university level.Through
the central character of Mazni, the writer focused on a woman who was
determined, patient and committed to achieving her ambition.This was seen as
somewhat advanced for a poor Malay woman at that time.Mazni’s earnestness to
continue her studies after marrying the only child of a wealthy familyincreased
the awareness amongst women to strive to develop and possess autonomous
qualities.Mazni was depicted as rejecting dependence on men (including her own
husband) to the extent of putting aside her feelings of love and emotions for
the sake of achieving her personal goal.Through this novel, the writer brought
to the fore the image of a woman of the new generation who is modern in her
thinking, ambitious, and willing to work hard to realize her dreams.
Based on the narrative technique
and style of this novel, it can be seen that the writer had begun to leave
behind the conventional featuresand instead adopted a feature of invention in
her authorship.This can be seen through the portrayal of the character of Mazni
which showsthat women can possess their own space, free from the shackles of
patriarchy;that they were becoming more vocal, high spirited; that they displayed
intellectual and rational characteristics, and were capable of discovering a
way out of their sufferings.Generally, this novel was regarded as successful in
breaking down the traditional social values which do not prioritize education
for daughters.By portraying the characters of women in this manner, the writer
brought to the fore the idea of producing highly educated women in the society.
As such, this first novel of Khadijah Hashim is considered an important
milestone in women’s struggle for rights and status in society from their own
perspective.The invention features are also partly exhibited in the writing of
this novel.
By the 1970s, women writers became
increasingly creative and innovative by deviating from the conventional
features of novel writing.The invention characteristics are increasingly
obvious as seen in Fatimah Busu’s writing of OmbakBukanBiru(1977). This novel manifests the writer’s courage to
break away from tradition by championing the wishes of a Malay teacher, Imrah,
in the 1970s,who vocally and firmly fought for the rights of women to determine
their own wishes and choices in life.However, these reforms pioneered by
Fatimah Busu did not leave an overall impact because such style was not
continued by subsequent writers.Fatimah Busu’scourage and strength were later
extended in Salam Maria (2004).The
direction of Maria Zaitun’s struggle was, nevertheless, different from the
struggle of Imrah.Through this novel, the writer brought to the fore solid as
well as attractive Islamic features, and provided a lot of information and
teachings to improve both the relationship between man and God and the
relationship amongst men.
Salam
Maria
tells the story of a woman named Maria Zaitun, an
unmarried woman who realized her love for God.The writer applied the woman’s
experience in a society that looks down on spinsters.They are called ‘anak dara tua’ (old maids), are prejudiced
against, and are hurled various slanders and insults at.Maria Zainal’sexperience
as an unmarried woman became more difficult because members of the society not
only isolated her but also considered her an enemy; she was hated by all.This
depiction reflects society’s fears of unmarried women to the extent that it denied
them the opportunity to conduct their lives normally like everybody else.Through
this novel, the writer came forward in defense of women by showing that this
particular group is sometimes nobler and of higher stature than others in the
eyes of God.Based on her narrative strategy, the writer’s thoughts are conveyed
to the reader that the status and position of an individual in this world are
not determined amongst men themselves, but instead by God.Also, the writer
hoped for the birth of a new generation of women who arecapable of voicing the
truth, of undertaking actions to prevent wrongdoings and of eradicating social
ills rampant in the society.In this way, the writer played the role of a
thinker and a social critic who helped developand refine the ethics of society,
in line with the demands of the Malay civilization.
The novelMenongkahLumrah(1996) by AzmahNordin was among the literary works
that depicted a woman’s intelligence in facing professional challenges in the
corporate world.The writer built on the character of Zakiyyah as an educated
woman who is active, creative, as well as ambitiousand highly motivated. Her
competitiveness and efficiency in understanding and solving problems enabled
her to surpass the achievements of her male colleagues.By introducing an
empowered woman, the writer obviously contradicted the subordinate attributes
of women as often portrayed in men’s writings. Zakiyyah’s presence and competitiveness
in the company was opposed by the male power majority, represented by the
various vice presidents of the company such as Thomas Bernet, Kamarul Arafat,
Rafaei, Peter Woo, Kundangai and Charles Abdullah.They represented a group who
refused to accept the fact that women are equally capable of being in a
position of the same level as men.In this case, the writer no longer conformed
to the traditional characteristics of a woman, such as inferiority, loyalty and
unquestioning respect towards her husband, that is, the desirable qualities of
a woman as determined and required by the Malay society(Omar, 1994, p.29).Instead,
the writer depicted Zakiyyah as aconfident woman, a wife who does not blindly
declare her loyalty and declines to respect her husband if he does not respect
her both as his wife and as a woman.Through this depiction, the writer revealed
how a woman produces a text based on the intelligence of the mind (in line with
feminists’ recommendations that women generate texts from the brain).
The author also showed that women
are capable of achieving success in a transparent and sincere manner, which all
at once warded off the prejudice that women manipulated their physical assets
as a means to acquire luxury and success in life.To challenge this prejudice,
the writer portrayed Zakiyyah as a woman who is diligent, hardworking as well
as very committed in handling her work.Her career started at the lower level as
a sweeper at the firm. She then continued her studies, and when she returned
with a degree, she was appointedonly as an office assistant. She carried out
her works with full commitment;her performance was outstanding and improved in
the course of time.Zakiyyah was depicted as a robust woman who was smart in solving
problems of the company.Her ability and determination saved the company millionsof
Ringgit in losses, which boosted her self-image to a ‘hero’ and gave credit to
her achievements in the company.Zakiyyah’s character showed that women’s involvement
in the public space was a stiff competition to male colleagues.This issue was
highlighted by the writer as a symbolic challenge of the unfair perception of
women.At the same time it emphasized the idea that women can also succeed and excel
in the corporate world.The efforts of the writer here was not only limited to
the perception of women in the literary world, in fact, it offered the hope of
elevating women to prestigious positions in the nation’s real corporate world.
Although most women writers in
Malaysia raise criticisms against men and the patriarchal society, their
criticisms are still found to be objective in their recognition of men’s status
quo.This is evident through the writer’s assessment that not all men have
negative attitudes towards women and not every man treats women unfairly.In
fact, the writer acknowledged the existence of men who are considerate, who
respect and appreciate women, as the characters of Datuk PanglimaBurhan and
PanglimaMukhlis in MenongkahLumrah, Rahim
in Isteri, Dali in JalurSinar Di CelahDaun, and Aziz and his father in Salam Maria.In such portrayals, the male
charactersare built objectively and are given important and distinctive social positions
as reflected in reality.The majority of women writers in Malaysia accept that
women do need men, just like men need women, in order for their lives to be
complete.
This stance illustrates the
compliance of women writers in Malaysia with the socio-cultural value system,
which is strengthened by the teachings of Islam according to which men and
women are mutually dependent on each other.Hence, as Malay women writers of the
Islamic faith, these writers obviously conform to the societal values, which
include, above all else, religious teachings.As such, what they expressed is
not a struggle to free women from men or from the existing social values.Instead,
they displayed the wishes and desires to expunge negative perceptions,
exploitation and discrimination of women, and to shift society’s perspectives
concerning gender justice.These desires underlie women’s demands for their
appropriate rights as provided by Islam and in the Constitution of Malaysia.
Based on the early novels discussed
above, it can be seen that women writers’ depictions of women were not too
drastically different from those of male writers.Although women were depicted
as highly educated and career-driven, after marriage these women were still expected
to play the five main roles as specified in the PancaDarmaWanita.However,
the women writers in the early 1930s attempted to apply specific features in highlighting
real-life experiences of women, i.e., in displaying the emotions of joys and
sorrows, and in expressingtheir desires and dislikes.However, these specific
features were not outstanding enough and were still peripheral in nature
compared to the other aspects of convention which had greater control over
writing styles. The features that were more noticeable in thesenovels were the
experiences of the women whose lives are subjected to the customs and values
which confine and oppress them.The writers showed that generally women at that
time were still not free to realize their own dreams and visions as they were
still bound by their domestic roles, the influence of men and societal
values.Hence, although the writers tried to voice their demands for the rights
and status of women, their voice and bravery at that time were still drowned by
the dominance of patriarchy.
            It
is therefore evident that women writers in Malaysia have endeavored to express
their experiences in the effort to elevate the status and prestige of women.At
the same time, repeated attempts were made by these women writers to deviate from
the male dominant system.For this purpose, they revealed a unique way of
narrating by not adhering to the conventional writing styles, specifically the
ones practiced by men writers.As such, women writers at this stage exhibited
attempts to dismantle the narrating style through the presentation of women’s experiencesas
well as through a different usage of language.
            Based
on the developments, methodology and style of novel writing among women writers
as discussed above, it can be seen that the contributions of women writers are
not limited to enriching the Malay literature treasure, for they also introduce
the channeling of idea-thoughtsfrom their own perspectives. From their novels,
it is found that generally the works of women writers in Malaysia include the
following characteristics:
1.      attempts
to possess their own space
2.      refusal
to submit to the influence of patriarchy
3.      expressions
of their desires and choices
4.      emphasis
on women’s intellectual and rational characteristics
5.      expressions
of women’s real-life experiences
6.     
projection of women into the public
sphere
This discussion wishes to stress
that it is only when attention is given to the products of women writers that we
can project women’s role as the presenter of textual meaning.Changes to the
search scope, by focusing on voice, vision, taste, dreams, instincts, and all
within the ambit of women’s experience, are important to know and understand
women and their authorship.This is because women writers make women’s
experiences their assets or important bases in the construction of their
literary works.Textual meanings that are produced by women writers are not only
related to their individual personal needs and wants, but instead reflect the
situation and condition of the society that produced it.At the same time, these
texts highlight the existence of literary products or art as the socio-cultural
documents of Malay society, which can be adopted in drafting the development of
a literary institution and society, now or in the future.
The
Road I Have Taken: A Case Study of One Woman Writer
There is an English saying (or is
it a proverb?) along the lines of “Girls are to be seen and not heard.” When I
was a young girl, I took it as an advice of the elderly on manners and
etiquettes, 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. It means 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. In that
environment, the above saying might as well have been “Girls are neither to be
seen nor heard.”Luckily there was a radio in the house that supplied some
remedy from boredom. I listened to songs, which in those days have beautiful
and meaningful lyrics. The more traditional tunes used pantun (a traditional
Malay poetry) as lyrics. Listening to them, I came to learn and appreciate the
beauty of words and encountered the poetic value in my language. I roamed the
gardens, the seas and mountains described in the songs, and picked up beautiful
expressions which kindled my imaginations and nurtured 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 was to write them down. I began writing pantun and
some simple rhyming verses, and I have not stopped writing to this day.
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 schools would  involve too much trouble and too much
risk. Luckily I was the first grand daughter that my grandmother had allowed to go
to secondary school. That was around 1960.
I commuted every day to the school
in town,twelve kilometers away.It was not easy, at twelve years old, to get up
early to catch the six a.m. bus, and later in the hot afternoon to walk among the traffic looking for a bus home. We spent hours traveling and had 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 had to take to continue into Form Four, which further
discouraged parents from sending their daughters to secondary schools. 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 had 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 frequented a book store
next to the bus station. I saved money to buy newspapers and magazines in order
to follow the development of writing and literary activities in my country.
There was a special page every Wednesday in a leading newspaper called “Student
Page” where students can send in their poetry and short essays. I became a
regular contributor. In between school work and especially during long school
holidays, I devoted much time to writing poetry. I liked 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 had been acting strangely, walking from tree to
tree. Could I be possessed by some spirit that called me to the trees in the
late evenings, the time they believed ghosts were roaming about?
With enthusiasm, I read literary
columns and magazines to update my knowledge of the national literary scene, and
especially to keep in touch with the 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 studies on their
products.All attentions and praises were paid to male poets like Usman Awang or
A.Latiff Mohidin. Occasionally some male writers would write special articles on
women’s involvement in writing ,repeating the same things over and over again,
such as:
1.     
Women’s writing is of lesser quantity
and quality compared to men’s.
2.  Women writers do not write about
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 had made observations
and reservations regarding the above statements, although it would need lengthy
discussions to prove that they are just sweeping statements. We will only focus
on the third statement about disappearing women writers.This was something that
could not be denied.Most women writers who began earlier than me had become inactive
due the odds and setbacks against their aspirations of becoming great writers.
What were these odds? There were many. First, let us look at what has been said
by Mary Eagleton in the book she edited,Feminist
Literary Theory: A Reader
(1986). Eagleton 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” (Eagleton, 1986:62) 
So, what you see in front of you
today is a survivor. There are more who could write and have started to, but
failed to overcome the obstacles against them. My own true story is a clear
indication ofthe unequal opportunity for education.My grandmother’s worries of
my roaming about outside the house only show the beliefthatgirls should not be
left alone.She gave some clear instructions that I should be accompanied, and I
thereby lost my privacy. My habit of spending too much time with books did not
make them happy. They said I should have been cooking and sowing like the other
girls who were the pride of their mothers.
The customary and domestic
obligations and the burdens of child bearing and rearing were well known factors
that suppressed artistic talents.I too have had the experience of having to
stay home with my little toddlers, during which period it was impossible to
produce anything of literary standard. Later, when I managed to break away,I summed
up those depressing situations ina short story entitled Catatan Di Meja Makan(Writing on the Dining Table), first published
in 1983 in our national newspaper. The short story is 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 the routines of a housewife took her away from her writing
(and from herself). Indeed,the protagonist was speaking my own desperation in a
life that offered no sense of satisfaction or 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 the 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.
When Hamima had no choice but to give
up her job to become a full-time housewife, she thought she couldmanage her
time:
So
I planned my schedule properly. I allocated time for the various tasks of ahousewife,
working the hours and minutes needed for cooking, sweeping, ironing ,washing
plates, tidying up the kitchen so that I could have sometime left for my
writing. I had to be careful if I were to maintain a writer and not die off like
so many of them before me.I told myself that I was not going to give up. After
all, isn’t there a saying “hendak seri budaya” (you will try a thousand ways if
you really want something)? [Zurinah Hassan 1987: 5)
translated by the writer.
And later she found out that there
is no such thing as time tabling in a housewife job because it is full of the
unexpected. There was no way of telling when the child would get sick, at what
time he was going to slip and fall,when anyone would smear tomato sauce on the
floor. She felt empty and depressed for not being able to write. She envied the
men, for it is so easy for them to do anything. For instance, a male writer
could sit at the table with his books as long as he wanted to.
Today
I managed to steal some time to read the Literature Magazine. There is an
interview with our leading novelist Amran Hadi.Bapa Amran was talking about his
commitments to writing and also his secret of success. He talked about
theunderstanding wife who kept the children away, preventing them from
disturbing him so that he could concentrate on his writing. [Zurinah Hassan 1987: 10) translated by
the writer.
The novelist, who was a
big name, said he was lucky to have such an understanding wife. Hamima sighed.
Yes,bapa Imran is lucky,but can she do the same? What would happen to the
children if she locked herself up in the room to write? The children would cry
for her. They demanded attention and disturbed her even when she wanted to
write, even when she was hungry and needed to eat, and even when she was sick
and needed a rest.
I was also disturbed by the fact
that women were usually isolated from their surrounding.They were usually
confined to domestic affairs. A short story entitledSepertiIbu (To Be
Like Her Mother)relates how a village girl, Tijah, was brought up to help her
mother and to become just like her mother. She got up in the morning and
followed the routines set for her. She lookedafter the younger siblings and was
responsible for everything that happenedat home while her mother worked in the
padi field. Tijah sometimes questioned why her elder brother Ahmad did not have
to do anything, and why their parents did not treattheir sons and daughters equally.
How
lucky to be Ahmad. He is older but need not wash plates. Ahmad need not carry
the younger siblings. Ahmad can play as he likes and can go anywhere he likes.
Ahmad will not be scolded if the house is messy and dirty. Tijah will be blamed
for any mishappenings. Mother always nagged at her and mother said all is done
for her own good because Tijah is a girl.Tijah will one day get married. She
will be a wife and a mother with a house and children to look after.”[Zurinah Hassan 1987: 78) translated by
the writer.
Tijah observed that whenever the
people from the government office came to give a talk at the open space near
the village headman’s house, father would go with the men folks to listen to
them. She envied Ahmad because he was free to follow them. But her mother and the
other women never went since they had so much to do at home.
Beside the short stories quoted
above, there are more stories on the problems of being a woman, and the problemsof
being a woman and a writer.SitiHawa Dan
Pengembara Yang Singgah
(SitiHawa and the Traveler Who Stop by) is about a
student anda promising poet named SitiHawa having a romantic relationship with
Andy, a visiting lecturer who is himself a poet and a literary critique.Andy
assured Hawa of her talent andencouraged her to pursue her artistic aspirations.
To be a successful writer, she should travel and see the world and break away
from social and cultural bondage. Hawa finally decided against it because she
could not leave behind a beloved and sickly mother.Apart fromCatatan Di MejaMakanand SitiHawa Dan Pengembara Yang Singgah,there are other stories that depict
the plight of female writers and women as a whole.Anita is about a dedicated school teacher who is often prejudiced by
the people around only because she is not married.PerjalananSendiri (My Journey) portrays a lady officer with a
stressful life juggling between her official workload and child rearing and the
need to please her in-laws andneighbors.
My main involvement in literature
is poetry. It is for poetry that I received the SEA Write Award in 2004 and The
SunthornPhu Award in 2013. There are many poems befitting the feminist voices
as analyzed by Dr.Suzana Muhammad (UniversitiSains Malaysia) in her paper “The
Development of Woman Identity: Feminist Approaches to Selected Poems
ofZurinahHassan.” One such poem is the “Message of the Princess of Mount Ledang
to Sultan Mahmud.” The Princess of Mount Ledang was a mythical
character,unearthly, magical, mysterious, and of course described as
exceptionally beautiful.She dwelt at Mount Ledangin the southern area of
Peninsular Malaysia visible from the palace of the Malacca Sultan. As the story
goes, the sultan was looking for a queen after the demise of his consort.This
time around, the sultan was determined to marry someoneor something different
from an ordinary human princess as he wanted to be different and far above
anyone else. That was how he got the idea of asking for the hand of the Princess
of Mount Ledang.
The Sultan sent his men up the
mountain to ask for her hand in marriage, causing much hardship and unnecessary
death to his subjects. It was a hazardous journey, and even Hang Tuah, the
famous Malay warrior, failed to reach the top. Only Tun Mamat succeeded to the
summit and entered the garden of the Princess. But he could not see the
Princess,and only conveyed the sultan’s proposal through Dang Raya Rani who was
the princess’s chief lady in waiting.The beautiful princess sent her famous
message to the Sultan through Tun Mamat.
            The
Message From Princess Of Mount Ledang to Sultan Mahmud
            Tun Mamat
            Convey this message to
the Sultan
            Bring these as my
dowry
            If he wishes to marry
me.
            Build me a bridge of
gold and another of silver
            Bring me germs and
mosquitoes seven trays of their hearts
            Vessels full of tears
and juice of young beetle nuts
            From the king and his
prince a bowl each of their blood.
            Honestly
            I knew from the start
            That he is willing to
construct the bridge of misery
            Let the people carry
the trays of agony
            And bear the burden of
heavy vessels of tears
            Rack their life with
flame of his own desire
            Provided he could
escape the fire.
            Tun Mamat,
            These conditions only
show my rejection
            As his queen I refuse
to be
            Seeing my life a murky
reflection
            I am not Tun Fatimah
            With the skill to
forgive cruelty
            I am not Tun Kudu
            Who could be forced
to agree
            It’s enough with Hang
Li Po
            Wrapped up as a gift,
a legacy
            Or Tun Teja who tripped
and fell
            The lover she followed
was only a shadow.
            Let Mount Ledang stand tall,
a reminder to all
            Of a flower that
survived and remained free
            Untouched by the royal
fancy
            Even a woman can
choose to disagree
            Even a king has his
turn
to admit being beaten.[Translated by the poet]
[Zurinah Hassan: 2010: 26,27) 
This proposal is an episode in the Sejarah Melayu
(Malay Annals). The story may not have been historically true. The princess may
not have existed. But the writer of the Sejarah Melayu has constructed the
story as a medium to criticize the Sultan for his unjust rule of the country
and his cruelty especially to women, treating them as if they have no heart and
soul.The Princess of Mount Ledang proposed these conditions of the dowry as a
way of refusing to marry him. As for the Sultan, this was the first time anyone
said no to him. The princess was the first woman to succeed in showing the
Sultan that he too must be able to accept rejection. The important point in “Message
of the Princess of Mount Ledang to Sultan Mahmud” is the exertion of a woman’s
right to decide and take control of herself and her life. That the princess was
able to speak her mind showed that women have freedom of expression. As I put
in my poem:
Let Mount Ledang stand tall, a reminder to all
Of a flower that survived and remained free
Untouched by the royal fancy
Even a woman can choose to disagree
Even a king has his turn
to admit being beaten.
Besides
the “Princess of Mount Ledang,” there are more legendary figures in the Malay
Annals
, one of which is Princess Hang Li Po.
The Voyage of Princess Hang Li Po(Original
title: Pelayaran Hang Li Po)
The beautiful Princess Hang Li Po
In the voyage to Melaka
Crying in agony
So young and so tender
To be torn from her mother
Like a shoot from its root
She’d rather die
Drowned by the ocean
Than to lose the loving touch of her parents
Is this her fate her destiny
To be delivered as a gift,
Wrapped as a commodity
Shipped to Melaka
As a bride and a donation
That would strengthen the nation
Her mother, Her Majesty, The Maharani
Had spoken in tears
My beloved Li Po, please be brave
This fact we have to face
You and me what we are born to be
As queens and princesses
We do not own ourselves
Marriage for us is not a personal decision
It is a state arrangement, a political mission.
Do not cry for your father
He is a man, and a king
He loves you as a daughter
But his kingdom is everything
He laughs and cries for the nation
The kingdom demands his attention
First the reign over his land
Family happiness comes second.
Yes Li Po
Look what history has written
Of empires and nations
Built and strengthened
At the sacrifice and tears of women
While many brought to the end
By misdeed and greed of men. ([Zurinah Hassan:
2010:32,33) translated by the poet)
Princess Hang Li Po was the princess of China
betrothed to the Sultan of Melaka as the show of support and protection from
the much feared Empire of China to the newly founded nation of  Melaka. The
Princess was taken away at a tender age when she still wanted to stay home and
be cuddled by her mother.I imagined Hang Li Po’s tears dropping into the ocean for
the people she loved. Her mother must have also cried in agony, but they both
were women facing patriarchal oppression. As a mother I was very much disturbed
and saddened by this mother-daughter separation.It would be heart-breaking for
any mother to have her daughter taken away and sent to a place so distant. Given
the condition of travel at that time, there was no guarantee of seeing each
other again.Hang Li Po was being treated as a commodity shipped to Melaka.
Marriage for queens and princesses is not a personal decision but a political
mission. Her father, as a man and a king, thought and talked less about family
happiness but more about nation building.Hang Li Po was not the only one
sacrificed for the sake of the Malacca Sultanate. There have been others, like
Tun Teja who ran away for the love of Hang Tuah only to find out that she was to be
bestowed to the king. Another known character in the Malay Annals was Tun
Kudu, a queen who was divorced by her husband and told to marry a statesman  in exchange for stability. Melaka was built
on the sorrow and tears of women, but it eventually fell due to the greed and
misdeed of men, as has been the case with so many other nations.
I
have written poems about women in the legends, but actually I was talking about
the present situation. What happened to them is happening to many women in our
time, though in different ways.Even today, there are marriages for reasons
other than love.There are marriages of convenience, marriages for family honor,business
arrangements, social commitments, and more often to save a woman and her family
from the social stigma. There is a high and often unaffordable price of living
up to one’s identity and carving one’s own destiny. This is what I said in a
poem entitled “Marriage”:
Marriage
-one woman’s
opinion
Marriage is the
difficulty
Of changing
routines and priorities
That make you
less yourself
And a woman has
to be less her self
In order to be
more a woman.
Marriage to a
woman
Isa protection
For her who
dares not live
On her own
identity
It is too costly
and too risky. [Zurinah Hassan: 2010: 97) [Translated by The Poet]
Marriage is a priority for many
women and societies, and the traditional upbringing instilled in women
the anxiety of remaining single. Even up to the present time some young girls
sacrifice advancement incareer for a marriage prospect much to the loss of
their nations.In a poem “Salam Perempuan Dari Penjara,” (A Woman’s Greeting
From Prison, 60-61[S1] )I
looked at a woman’s journey through life as a procession which no one dares to
divert from. It is a procession where everyone walked to a fixed destiny:
She and her sisters
in a procession to their
day
while within this wall
they have not lived at
all.[ Zurinah Hassan: 2010:71)
As I have mentioned earlier, there are women who
marry for the sake of freeing themselves from social stigma. As for choosing
their life partners, the elders told their girls not to be choosy and told
their boys to choose their bride properly.This depressing situation gave rise
to a poem“SatuCatatanSingkat” (A Short Conversation):
            A man is free to limit his choice
            A woman limits her choice to free
herself. (Zurinah Hassan:
2010: pp.104-105) translated by the poet.
To be born a woman, there is not much that you can
do but pray to God for his protection and guidance. As I wrote in “Nyanyian Menidurkan Halini”
(A Lullaby to Halini), in which I told a girl to be strong:
Don’t cry anymore
You must learn to value your tears
Don’t let it fall
on any wrong shoulders.
May you grow up Halini
With courage and confidence
Put your trust in God
Youwill really need him
Because you are born a woman. (Zurinah Hassan:
2010:94-95).
These are some poems and short
stories depicting female depression especially for those born at about the same
time and in the same place as I was. Where literary production is concerned,
things have changed. Gone are the days where you have to hurt your arms and
shoulders on the typewriter.You save the journey to the
post office and the risk of getting your laboriously prepared manuscript lost in
the post. The computer has arrived to the joy of all writers. The process
of producing manuscript is cut down drastically. Now it looks as if anyone can
be a writer by just typing on the keyboard and email it to the editor, or
directly publish it in their own blogs and numerous web sides open to anyone at
all.E-literature is in fashion. Your writings can be published online sometimes
even without having to go through editorial screening.In my country, there is
an influx of popular novels, and many women writers are making names and money.
Of course this look like a happy ending, if only we can be sure that we
are producing literature and not otherwise.
The road I have taken is long and
winding,paved with sharp and coarse gravels. If not for love and passion, I
would not have reached anywhere.

1 comments on “MALAYSIAN WOMEN WRITERS”

  1. Reply

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