Ibu Zain handing a gift to Tunku Abdul Rahman for his 80th birthday in 1983. She was one of many women who played prominent roles in helping our nation achieve independence.

WHEN I was 17, my ambition was to be a Pulitzer-winning journalist. I wanted to be the person who creatively uses her investigative skills and nose for news to uncover scandals and highlight issues which can bring about social change. I dreamt to travel the world, explore hidden gems and sample exquisite delicacies.

My grand plan, however, did not fully materialise. Upon graduating from university, I became a journalist but slowly, my utopian ideas and dreams dissipated, and my needs and wants changed.

Instead of being an award-winning journalist, I am now sharing my knowledge with future reporters and writers. I forgo the possibility of getting that coveted front-page byline to pursue research, which I hope would one day change our media landscape. While I do get the perks to travel for meetings, conferences and workshops, the excitement quickly wore off because I cannot help but think of my small family whenever I am away.

I cannot help but wonder, did the path I chose turn me into someone boring, comfortable and too complacent? What has become of the once ambitious 17 year old? At a recent high school gathering — Sri Aman Girls’ School Class of 97, 20th reunion — I found out that I was not the only one whose dreams and desires took a different turn.

I met friends who amazingly replaced their crisp power suit with the comfortable baju kelawar to become stay-at-home mums. They left their jet-setting lives so that they can spend more time with their family. Ambitious, they still were, but they now choose to focus their energy on their children and family.

At times, I cannot help but feel envious of those brave enough to put their career on hold for the people they love dearly. It reminds me of women who selflessly put aside their wants and needs, and give way to the people they love to pursue their dreams.

In our patriarchal society, women are generally seen as nurturers and caregivers. This is exemplified by how our history books are generally filled with names of men who fought for our independence, such as Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tuk Janggut, Tun Tan Cheng Lock and Tun V.T. Sambanthan, while women’s struggles for then Tanah Melayu are hardly discussed.

Women, I believe, have always played a crucial role in the development of the country. When Tunku needed funds to go to London to discuss Malaysia’s independence, it was the unnamed women who pawned their precious jewellery to help pay for the trip. These great women who stood by their men, be they spouses, fathers or brothers, often go unrecognised.

A quick Google search gave me four names — Ibu Zain (Tan Sri Hajjah Zainon Munshi Sulaiman), Putih Mariah Ibrahim Rashid, Khatijah Sidek and Fatimah Hashim — who were listed as women who played prominent roles in helping our nation achieve independence.

Ibu Zain championed education and even has a college named after her at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. Khatijah was a Malay nationalist who was vocal about women’s rights. Fatimah played a crucial role in voicing out against the inadequate facilities and infrastructure, especially pertaining to health and education.

It completely fascinates me to read and realise how these selfless ladies did not let fame or fortune dictate their lives. They continued to fight for the things they believed in, despite the lack of publicity. In my opinion, these names merely represented a fraction of women’s contribution towards Malaysia’s independence and development.

There are many more whose names and faces are not recorded in books, but played significant roles in our society. These include women behind the scenes — those who took care of the household, and made sure food was on the table and laundry was done.

As Tunku once said, “a woman could lead the nation”. But, I believe that sometimes, they just choose to stay in the background because they are completely happy and satisfied to know that they have made a difference.

**The writer is a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, Universiti

Kebangsaan Malaysia. She is also the deputy director of UKM’s Centre of Corporate

Communications.

sabariah@ukm.edu.my

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