I have been covering stories of violence in Thailand’s Deep South for five years. I have grown tired and frustrated with what I have witnessed, but a story of a young woman, Khurosmor Tuwaebuecha kept me going.
Khurosmor lost her husband, Abduldayib Dolah in December 2015. A military group in the Pattani province detained him for they thought he was a member of the Runda Kumplan Kecilm, a militant Islamic insurgent group. He died after twenty-six days in detention. Khurosmor believes he was tortured.
I personally talked to Khurosmor in August 15, 2016. I met her three children, all of them in primary school age. She was also looking after her brother’s children—two boys—after he disappeared while under military custody.
One can only imagine the fear and pain she was experiencing. But Khurosmor had the resolve to act and decided to sue the army. She lost in her first court case but did not lost hope. She filed an appeal. Her family, she said, deserves justice.
As journalist, I considered this story of prime importance. Hers is a story not of a victim, but of someone who fights even when the odds are stacked against her.
I did further research and found reports documenting over sixty people who have fallen victim to torture and human rights violations in Southern Thailand. Human rights groups documented cases of suffocation using a plastic bag and strangulation, among others. More than 6,000 people are under custody, justified under Thailand’s state of emergency laws.
I sought the side of a military spokesperson and the Secretary General of the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre. They denied the allegations of torture. They told me I got the wrong information especially on torture. They told me not to report my story.
Their reaction was predictable. Politely, I told them I would like to help bring peace to the Deep South by doing my job as a journalist.
Inspired by Khurosmor’s courage, I continued investigating these cases. I read reports of Amnesty International, among others, and learned that the use of torture takes place in our neighbouring countries, including Vietnam and the Philippines.
After writing the script and completing the shoot, I sent my package to the organisation that commissioned my work. They told me to reconsider my story, perhaps change my script. They discouraged me from broadcasting my report for it portrays a negative view of Thailand to the international community. I rejected this request. Media organisations are not public relations companies.
On August 28-29, 2016, my story went on air in the evening news program on Thai PBS.
I share this story to you because I think we share similar problems of violence, intimidation, and suppression of speech. But we know we cannot solve a problem by hiding facts. Violence, whether it is in Thailand’s Deep South, or the Philippines’ secret detention facilities, cannot be eradicated without the press reporting these atrocities.
To bring truth is to bring peace.
Yours in solidarity, Hathairat (Wist) Phaholtap
Hathairat (Wist) Phaholtap (@Hathai_Thai PBS) is a journalist for Thai PBS. She is best known for her work on human rights in Thailand.
My name is Annabelle, and this March marks my first year as a journalist.
I work at one of the few independent newsrooms in Malaysia, a country ranked 144 out of 180 for press freedom last year (North Korea polled 180), where “mainstream media” is made up of mastheads owned by political parties that form the federal government.
When I began, I was repeatedly warned that I would be barred from events because of the supposedly “anti-government” organisation I represent. I was also told to be prepared for catcalls and sexual innuendoes by virtue of being a woman in the “dirty” field of political reporting.
When an article revealed that male politicians sexually harassed some of my female colleagues, to my horror, our journalist union chief’s advice to female journalists was to not dress “sex”.
“That’s just how things are,” I was told. Welcome to journalism.
I was lucky when allowed into events I was assigned to cover. On more than one occasion, I merely smiled when inappropriate remarks were directed at me.
Annabelle and team conducting interviews with local community leaders in rural Sabah about how oil palm plantations has affected their livelihood (Credit: Malaysiakini)
I would love to say I was unfazed by all this, but the truth is I was constantly considering self-censorship.
This negotiation was tiring and frankly, suffocating. It distracted me from pursuing the truth and held me back from holding those in power accountable.
It wasn’t until I shared my frustrations with other women in the field when I stopped worrying so much.
Despite being from different newsrooms, experienced female journalists encouraged me to press harder for answers when I considered holding back. They assured me that if anyone at work was inappropriate towards me, they would stand in solidarity as I reported it. Often, when on assignment together, we would work as a team to try and shake answers out from the powers that be.
I found a lot of comfort and strength in them. They became my mentors and friends.
Today, I don’t feel like I am negotiating press freedom as an individual anymore. We are a tribe, and we are fighting both battles together – for press freedom and against a deeply patriarchal culture.
This International Women’s Day, my hope is that women work together to record history through journalism. Journalism needs to prove that it can be a trusted and relevant source of information at a time when “truth” is an increasingly contested concept.
And as Malaysia decides her fourteenth government this year, I urge my colleagues to band together as we push to deliver truth to the people.
In solidarity, Annabelle
Annabelle Lee (@annabellybutton) is a journalist at Malaysiakini.com She writes about current affairs and politics.
There is no need to be alarmist, but we are in trouble.
We are in trouble because press freedom in Southeast Asia is on the decline. A political commentator was shot dead in broad daylight in Cambodia. Nations are ruled by strongmen who openly declared journalists as enemies. Media organizations are shut down and journalists are arrested based on obscure legal justifications.
We know what will happen if things do not get better. If the press is not free, power is left unchecked. If our journalists are silenced, the value of truth-telling is diminished.
But there is no need to be alarmed. On International Women’s Month, we at BroadAgenda, put together a series of letters from the field, written by the region’s most insightful journalists.
These women’s message is simple. We’ve got this.
This series features six letters from Malaysiakini’s Annabelle Lee (Malaysia), Rapple.com’s Pia Ranada (Philippines), Prachatai Online’s Thaweeporn Kummetha (Thailand), Thai PBS’s Hathairat Phaholtap (Thailand), and freelance journalists Amanda Tazkia Siddharta and Febriana Firdaus (Indonesia).
Each letter tells stories of overt intimidation and subtle forms of silencing. The gendered dimension of these stories could not be more pronounced. In this series, we will read stories of powerful men ignoring questions from female journalists, military officers instilling fear to inquisitive reporters, religious fundamentalists declaring one an infidel for covering LGBT issues, and a sexist head of state banning a young journalist from coverage.
The letters are written by female journalists for female journalists, although these messages are also for anyone who cares about democratic politics.
We are reviving the art of letter-writing because we believe in the subversive power of deeply personal reflections. They soothe anxieties in dark times. They inspire willfulness when it is time to act. They are reminders that the pressing for freedom is a collective yet deeply personal fight.
I learned a lot reading these letters. I learned that self-doubt is common but quitting is not an option. I learned the power of women from different newsrooms coming together to demand answers when they are ignored. I learned that despots feel threatened by women who refuse to back off.
To all women fighting for press freedom, don’t let tyrants grind you down. We know they won’t win.
Pressing for Freedom: Letters in the Field is originally published in BroadAgenda, the official website of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation. The series is simultaneously published in Malaysiakni (Malaysia), Rappler.com (Philippines), and Prachatai Online (Thailand).
Nicole Curato (@NicoleCurato) is BroadAgenda’s Guest Editor for the month of March. She is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance at the University of Canberra and holds Australian Research Council’s Discovery Early Career Research Fellowship for her work on democratic innovations in sensitive political contexts.
Armed with a ukulele, a raspy voice and a big personality, Hannan Azlan has had a meteoric rise in the stand-up comedy scene, making her television and international debut within six months of starting in 2015.
One day after her first anniversary in stand-up, she became the youngest and only female winner of the Hong Kong International Comedy Competition.
But the path she took in her career in stand-up comedy turned out to have been mostly a series of leaps of faith and happy accidents.
The 23-year-old bundle of enthusiasm, who brims with charm, said even her foray into stand-up comedy was an accident.
“I fell into stand-up in 2015. I am very clumsy, I don’t tie my shoelaces,” she quipped during an interview with Malaysiakini.
Hannan, who was born in England but grew up primarily in Ampang, had never originally intended to join stand-up, as she previously worked in theatre as an actor, musician, composer and lyricist.
But once she tried stand-up in October 2015, upon the recommendation of a friend, it was full-steam ahead for her as two months in, she self-funded a trip to perform in Singapore, booking shows wherever she could.
There’s just something different about going to a new country, nobody knows who you are, there is no context, no relationship, and then doing well and performing and doing the work.
“That was a beautiful experience, very humbling and I learned a lot,” she said.
About six months in, the comedian who incorporates music into her sets, had her international debut at the Singapore Fringe Festival in April 2016.
That was when she decided to quit her part-time jobs in theatre to pursue stand-up full-time, and she started performing in various places.
Eventually, she ended up in Hong Kong, “just to check out the comedy scene”.
But she then decided to participate in the Hong Kong International Comedy Competition 2016, which she ended up winning. She remains the youngest and only female winner of the competition.
Hannan kept the momentum going after that, continuing to perform in Hong Kong, and then returning to perform in Malaysia before going to Thailand and Singapore.
But with her prize winnings of HK$40,000, she decided to pay her way to perform in Melbourne, Australia during the Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2017.
The month-long Melbourne International Comedy Festival usually invites and sponsors comedians from all over the world.
But as Hannan was not part of the official line-up that year, she had to pay for everything herself. She still grabbed that chance, even though she only had shows booked for the first week.
Her gamble paid off. Not only was she consistently invited back to perform throughout the month, but a few months later, she was invited to perform in Edinburgh by other comedians she had met at the Melbourne comedy festival.
That then led to a series of opportunities to perform throughout Europe, such as in Berlin and Prague.
Hannan has since then performed in her first full-length music-driven theatre piece called “Losertown,” hosted and produced comedy shows and is currently nominated for the Women of the Future Awards: Southeast Asia under the Arts and Culture category.
This year, she has also been officially invited to feature at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, and she intends to make her US debut in Los Angeles and New York City in 2019.
This is her story, in her own words:
“A lot of comedians before they start doing stand-up, they have an interest in it and they watch a lot of comedy specials and things like that but I’D NEVER EVEN CONSIDERED IT.
(Fellow comedian) Harresh told me to do an open mic, I did an open mic and it went really well. I was really lucky, it was a very good first show.
“The second show that I did, it was just okay. It wasn’t a bomb but because the first show went so well, the second show felt lacklustre so I felt really frustrated.
THE THIRD TIME I DID STANDUP, I DID MY MUSIC, and that was quite magical.
I’ve been very lucky, not everyone has been given the opportunities that I did in such a short amount of time, it surprised me as well.
“(My comedy) has developed over the years. I started off with a kind of ironic distance, playing off big twists like a cute little girl but actually naughty and predatory.
WHEN I FIRST STARTED, MY PERSONA WAS POP STAR, PRE-SEXUALISATION.
Think Bieber before “Baby”; kind of raw, innocent and acoustic mixed with silly jokes.
This week on Malaysians Kini – The multi-talented stand up comedian, Hannan Azlan
MALAYSIANSKINI | Armed with a ukulele, a raspy voice and a big personality, Hannan Azlan has had a meteoric rise in the stand-up comedy scene, making her television and international debut within six months of starting in 2015.
“I’ve been doing a lot of jokes about my identity, as a mixed-race person, as a youth, as someone who loves this country and is scared and sad to see how not everybody is treated as well as they should be.
“I visited Hong Kong in June 2016 just to check out the comedy scene. Then I joined the competition in October.
I DIDN’T WANT TO COUNT MY CHICKENS BEFORE THEY HATCHED so I only bought a one-way ticket to Hong Kong. The day after my preliminary, I flew to Manila to perform there as well, and I only had a one-way ticket to Manila because I didn’t know whether I was gonna get into the finals or not.
“So I got into the finals and IT WAS THE DAY AFTER MY BIRTHDAY, so it was just my one-year anniversary of doing stand-up.
I started in 2015, I celebrated my birthday at an open mic on a Wednesday and then one year later, I celebrated my anniversary at the Manila airport because my flight got delayed and then I arrived at Hong Kong at 5am of the day of the finals.
“After the competition, I stayed on in Hong Kong for quite a while. I WAS STARTING TO FEEL COMPLACENT.
I WAS AWARE OF THE FACT THAT I’M SO RAW. I mean, come on, one year in? Comedy is very humbling so I didn’t want to just rely on the same five minutes so I threw in my old set and did a lot of improvisation.
THERE IS SOMETHING REALLY DIFFERENT ABOUT PERFORMING SOMEPLACE THAT IS NOT MY HOME.
I think maybe because I’m so familiar with Kuala Lumpur and I understand a lot of the cultural nuances and humour.
In Hong Kong, I don’t have that luxury, it’s kind of like comedy without a net, so I was doing a lot of improvisation. I am glad I did that.
“In March, I went to the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. It was my first time performing in Australia, it was incredible.
I WAS VERY NERVOUS, I WAS JUMPING INTO THE UNKNOWN and it worked out so well.
And I was there “illegally,” I was sleeping on (comedians) Douglas Lim and Jinx Yeo’s floor.
I was a poor 22-year-old up-and-coming comedian so I think they looked at me and they saw me as an investment… as a kindred spirit and they let me sleep on the floor of their living room.
That’s what I went there for. IT WAS NOT ABOUT SHOWBIZ OR GLAMOUR. It was about me going and performing four times a day and honing my craft.
“Because I was there (in Melbourne), there was another comedian who invited me to do a show in Edinburgh and I had no idea that was coming.
I TOOK A CHANCE AND IT PAID OFF. I had no idea that was going to happen but because I was there in Melbourne, it led to this opportunity in Edinburgh.
“So I was in Edinburgh for four weeks and that was the most I’ve ever performed. I think my total was 116 SHOWS IN 26 DAYS.
I really grew and developed and was really humbled. I felt very connected, like I was at my best. I FELT LIKE I UNDERSTOOD MY PLACE.
“(For my second anniversary in stand-up) I had a birthday show in Kuala Lumpur, we had a midnight show.
It was a midnight show and it was a full house, it was beyond my expectations. It has never been done before in Kuala Lumpur and I’m so happy.
It was an incredible experience. I guess I doubted I could pull off a show, I doubted myself.
“THE REASON WHY I TOUR (internationally) is because if you want to gain muscle, you work out a certain amount per week. In Kuala Lumpur, I can work out a maximum of four times a week, if I’m lucky. But when I’m at these festivals, I can perform more.
THE MORE I GO, THE MORE I GROW. The more I grow, the more I would have to bring home.
If I hadn’t gone to Edinburgh, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do a midnight show and have my own compilation show.
“I feel like it is beyond me. I feel like I have just been given all these opportunities and gifts at the right time and the right place.
“In December 2017, ‘Losertown’ debuted and it was cathartic. I really feel like I let go of a lot of personal things, a lot of things I wanted to talk about in stand-up but couldn’t because STAND-UP IS A CONTRACT YOU HAVE WITH THE AUDIENCE.
There were a lot of issues I couldn’t talk about in stand-up because I just couldn’t make it funny, so I kind of got to release a lot of that through this theatre show.
“In a lot of places, if you are not a straight white guy, things are just harder, like I’ve been sexually harassed.
The first time I have ever been verbally sexually harassed was by the owner of a comedy club who was drunk.
WHAT MADE ME SAD was this was someone whom I looked up to. It felt so disrespectful and I felt so sad that I was being treated this way.
I talked about that once on stage, just once. I just don’t know how to make it funny yet. Maybe because partially, I felt like I just haven’t found a way to talk about it.
“MY LONG TERM GOAL is to bring Malaysian talent to international festivals. The dream is to create opportunities for other artists.
Since graduating with a degree in medicine last year, Nadirah Babji has found herself at the frontlines of the Syrian refugee crisis several times.She has travelled to Turkey, Greece, Serbia and other parts of Europe to provide medical aid and disaster relief as a volunteer. Prior to that, she coached school sports teams in Kenya, helped fundraise for an NGO in Tanzania and taught English in orphanages in China, Indonesia and India.
However, the 26-year-old from Bandar Sunway admits she grew up largely ignorant of the world around her.
Growing up in a small PKNS (Selangor State Development Corporation) flat and the eldest of seven siblings, Nadirah was more focused on avoiding bullies while studying hard to obtain scholarships to fund her education.
After scoring all ‘A’s in her SPM results, she qualified for a government scholarship to study medicine in Bangalore, India in 2011. Travelling across India by herself is what sparked her penchant for relief and community work.
Realising such needs in the places she had visited, she would stay a few extra days to offer whatever help she could.
“When I helped them, people would offer me to stay at their homes. The longer I stayed, the more I felt part of the family and part of the community.
“I got to talk to people, listen to their stories and learn about how they think. I really enjoyed that,” the chirpy Nadirah (photo) told Malaysiakini in an interview.
After graduating as a doctor, she embarked on an “epic” volunteering trip to Africa, and then to the Middle East and Europe in the Syrian refugee crisis while awaiting her housemanship placement in Malaysia.“I used up all my scholarship money and travelled as cheaply as I could.
“I stayed in hostels and I couch-surfed. When I was in Europe, I ate once a day,” she said.
Her work has caught the attention of various NGOs, who have engaged her to help set up medical facilities in disaster zones.
On Dec 12, Nadirah will be funding her way to Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh to help upgrade a medical clinic for Rohingya refugees there.
Here, Nadirah relays her experiences in her own words.
WHEN I FIRST ARRIVED at the Syrian refugee camps in Turkey, the living conditions of the refugees were really, really bad; many of them were sick.
One man I met had just had a kidney transplant one month back and he was suffering from severe pain. But we could not get any medication for him because the Turkish government did not want to give any to the refugees.
I was the only medic available in my first week. I did a lot of acute healthcare like attending to fevers and colds. I also did a lot of dressings of wounds. Many people had been walking for a whole month from Syria and many did not have proper shoes, so they had frostbite. Before that, I had never seen frostbites because I lived all my life in Malaysia and India, where it is hot. I had to call someone to ask how to do dressings for frostbites.
One man told me how there was a sniper at the Turkish-Syrian border. Whenever someone crossed the border, the snipers would shoot at you, he said. So what they did was gather 1,000 people and just pack everyone to cross the border together. They would still shoot you, but the chances of you dying are lower. Another way is to go through the mountains; families would choose to go through the mountains.
At the camps, everyone was wearing life jackets as they had to walk to the crossing area to take a boat to Greece. But I never saw across the border with my own eyes, because they only did it at night. Their objective was to set foot in Europe.
A mother was crossing the sea to Greece two day after delivering a baby. A Turkish hospital had released her one day after she delivered, without any pain medication. I could not do anything except call someone on the other side to tell them about the situation, that there was this mother crossing with a one-day-old baby.
TOWARDS THE END of my one-month stay in Turkey, there was an urgent cry for doctors to help out at the Greek-Macedonian border. At the time there were 20,000 to 30,000 Syrian refugees stranded at the border. It was a real catastrophe.
In March 2016, I decided to go to Greece along with two nurses from the US. We joined a Greek NGO called Kitrinos and they had this ambulance, which they modified into a mobile clinic. The bed was used as an examination bed and the back doors of the ambulance had all the sheaths for medicines and stethoscopes. We moved around in that ambulance to open up clinics, and people would queue up for them.
I WENT BACK TO GREECE in June last year. This time, the Greek government had closed the camp I was working in and they had evacuated everyone into military camps. So I had to move there too.
In the mornings, I would do follow-ups and I would go around the camps and check my patients’ blood pressure and if they had any chronic conditions. I even spent one week living in the military camp. I slept in my friend’s tent.
IT IS HELPFUL TO BE MUSLIM when you are helping refugees who are also Muslim. But when you help, you are human first and you help regardless of race or religion.
In Greece, I worked as a mediator between the refugees and the other volunteers, who were mostly European. I could answer when they asked why the refugees were wearing their winter clothes even though it was summer time and many people had already fainted from heat stroke.
I explained that we needed to give them clothes with long sleeves for modesty’s sake.
IN SERBIA I helped an NGO set up their medical operations for the influx of Syrian refugees there.
I think it’s a great thing to be given so much trust by these NGOs and to be involved in decision-making. They take my words seriously. I think a lot of people do not take 26-year-olds seriously.
After that, I went Germany, Belgium and Bulgaria to visit some of my Syrian friends who have been relocated there. I traced them and went to see them. They are doing well and some of them have learned so much German that they have forgotten how to speak English!
VERY FEW OF MY PEERS are interested in doing humanitarian work like this. There is a lot of need, and there are always calls for doctors to help.
For me, I always think how it would be if my mom and dad were the ones who were the refugees. I am not from a rich family, so I know what it feels like to not have the things you need. It is hard enough to be poor in your own country, but it is different to be poor in someone else’s.
MY EXPERTISE IS DISASTER RELIEF AND HUMANITARIAN AID. Plus, I am a qualified doctor, so it is best that I do medical aid. What I learned when working in Greece is that you can serve communities best when you do what you know best.
I follow the refugee situation that is in Malaysia quite closely and I think the issue here is more about advocacy and getting refugees their rights rather than disaster relief. This is because we have not signed the UN high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) 1951 refugee convention.
NEXT, I will be spending one month beginning Dec 12 at Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh to help an NGO set up a clinic for Rohingya refugees.
Presently, the clinic only has four walls and is very small. It needs private rooms and a proper examination bed, even if it is just for primary health care. This will be my first time working with the Rohingya.
I am quite excited to learn what is going on, there because I think the refugee crises in different places have very different scenarios. I think it might be very challenging, especially when human rights are not so well established in that part of the world as compared to Europe. I am really looking forward to it.
Financing my trip has been a challenge. My target is USD1,000 (approximately RM4,080), but so far I have only collected RM500. My hope is once I get there, people would donate more because they can see me do things.
MY DREAM is to set up my own search and rescue team and be able to go to disaster zones. This is my passion.
Once I started working with refugees, I realised that this is what I want to do in life.
Beads of sweat break out on Linda Iskandar’s forehead. Amid the serenity of the Christmas displays at the mall, she’s carted along her two kids, six and 12, dressed in matching blue T-shirts.
Linda had walked over from her house, about 10 minutes away on foot. She considers herself lucky to have found a new home within walking distance of her place of work and her sons’ school. But as with everything else in the city, convenience doesn’t come cheap.
In August last year, Linda and her sons left home. Her friend, who had once sought refuge at the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) shelter, had called her a taxi. Linda only had time to pack two bags, RM15 and some buns to get them through the night. She left her computer, tablet, broken mobile phone, and her favourite sci-fi novels behind.
Linda hasn’t gone back since. Her friend told her that nothing much of value is left in the house, after debt collectors paid a visit. They took everything and put it up for sale. Only her old passport was left.
“I couldn’t stand it anymore,” she says. “I didn’t have any food at home. I was working at the time, but I had to quit my job.
“I don’t know what happened, people were coming to my house. They wanted money from me, and said he (the husband) borrowed something from them. They threatened to take my sons.”
Linda, 45, took shelter in WAO for about two and a half months. When she was there, she participated in the creative writing workshop conducted by Bernice Chauly. Now, she’s here representing domestic violence survivors at the book launch of “Tina’s Journey,” reading a poem of her own at the event.
“I am not afraid to speak out. Most of the women are shy. Not shy, they are still ashamed of what happened to them.
“But this thing needs to be voiced out. It happens everywhere, but nobody is talking. I know there are still people suffering, they are just keeping it quiet,” she says.
It is hard to believe that this confident woman with a brilliant smile and a sharp sense of humour barely looked people in the eye in her 12-year marriage.
‘I feel ashamed’
“It is the way we are brought up,” Linda says. “Women, no matter how high they study, have to get back to the kitchen.
“Same thing. Obey your husband, even if he is wrong. Oh my god, I never married again. Two boys are enough, two little men in my life.”
Her Pakistani ex-husband used to ask her to request salary advances from her company, two or three hundred ringgit each time. She made up excuses, like not having enough money for food. He would spend the money wantonly.
“It always like that. I was fed up, but I still kept quiet, I don’t know why,” she confesses.
“I felt embarrassed and ashamed.”
But her friends advised her to listen to her husband – because he was her husband. That’s the feedback she got and she learned how to be domesticated, as an ideal woman like many others did.
Linda worked at a construction company in Brunei for 10 years, starting as a data analyst and working her way up to company representative for overseas meetings and training. She met her Pakistani husband after she came back to Malaysia, and they fell in love and got married.
At the beginning, both of them started a small food business somewhere near Masjid Jamek. They had to wake up at 5am in the morning, and brought along four big chickens in plastic bags every morning because they couldn’t afford an ice box that time.
Business was good and they made some money. Her husband planned to expand the business by recruiting more people, and wanted his wife to rest at home. He had aspirations of giving his wife a better life, but that was when things started to come undone.
He neglected the business, and it eventually had to be wound up.
They then tried their hand at a clothes business in Chow Kit, but disaster soon struck. Their shop caught fire. She and an employee tried saving what she could from the flames, although she was pregnant at the time.
The fire made the news. She had lost everything.
They started not being able to pay rent and moved from one place to another. Her husband couldn’t find decent work, eventually settling on a job which required at least 12 hours a day. His temper changed, and their relationship along with it.
‘Never reveal the skeletons’
The memory of how he first beat her is still vivid. It was in 2005, just two weeks after Linda had given birth. She was happy. They went out shopping one day, but after advising him to stop playing with his phone, he looked up, turned around and slapped her across the face in public.
The shock numbed the pain. Her newborn baby was in her arms. When they got home, he locked her up in a room for two days, so she wouldn’t run away.
“Never reveal the skeletons,” Linda told herself, despite the escalating abuse. She was covering for him. When she was first locked up, she didn’t dare scream for help. And the silence grew.
Things never got better. He called her ugly and old, reminding her that she was lucky to be with him. Every time she threatened to leave, he threatened her in turn with violence. He would interrupt the rare moments of levity she had with her kids, never allowing them to laugh.
Even his Facebook posts were of him and the children, but not her. Linda was becoming invisible.
She learned not to look people in the eye, especially other men. She started wearing long sleeves to work to hide the bruises and breaks. Hospital visits were done on her own.
Linda never lodged a police report, not even when he hit her with his car. She was afraid of her real condition seeing the light of day. “Never reveal the skeletons.” She clenched her hands together at job interviews, hoping the bosses would never get around to asking about her home life.
The only thought in Linda’s head when she attempted to kill herself was how he would benefit from inheriting her EPF.
Like many survivors do, Linda stayed put, despite being at the end of her tether. But when he started to abuse the children, she knew it was time to leave.
“Do you know the first thing women will do in the shelter?” Linda asks. “Sleep.”
She says you can hear the women snoring from the rooms, after leaving their children to play in the shelter. They cannot sleep well at home, and remain half-awake in case something bad happens.
“But at night, you will always hear muffled cries,” she adds, or screaming into pillows.
When Linda first got to the WAO shelter, she cried too. But she didn’t want her sons to see her in that state, so she did her crying in the backyard.
Linda refused to talk much to anyone at the beginning, and was also reluctant to join in any of the classes on offer, like yoga or handicraft classes. But she found refuge in the kitchen.
“I only put myself in the kitchen. When they need volunteers to cook, I said I’ll cook. The kitchen basically became my centre.” It reminded of the house she left with no food, and the hunger pangs she had when she was locked up in the room 12 years ago.
“The kitchen is fully functional. There is a lot of food. The fridge is big. There is a lot of chicken. All the spices you need are here. This was heaven for me. So I focused there, I channelled my energy there.”
After a time, Linda began to notice that women in the shelter were talking about their husbands, comparing whose was worse. Her friend told her that the women dared speak out because of a creative writing class. Out of curiosity, she signed up.
Linda was taken aback because of this friend, who was always shy and quiet, spoke up confidently in the workshop. But Linda was still reluctant to share her experience, even during the icebreaker session.
Until she wrote a poem one day. Reading it aloud, the class broke down in tears. “I was scared,” she says. “Was my experience worse than theirs?” But even the friends she had made at that point, who already knew her backstory, were crying. It was then she understood the power of writing.
Slowly, the creative writing workshop managed to unearth happy memories from Linda’s past, especially her childhood in Sabah.
“After Chauly’s class, I learned to accept things. It opens your eyes and your mind. She also taught us to love ourselves.”
She recalled that she worked in a “depressing bakery” as a teenager. But she was still able to have fun. “I pretended I was working in Hollywood. Everyone walked in was a superstar.”
The silence she had been forced into due to domestic violence had suppressed Linda’s sense of fun and humour – until the workshop.
Leaving the comfort zone
After two and a half months, Linda decided to walk away from the shelter, knowing that there is a danger of staying safe. The shelter had become too comfortable, and it was time for her to get back out in the world and face it head-on.
Secretary jobs were hard to come by, because of her age. Her experience washing dishes at home or in doing accounts were insufficient for the restaurant and retail jobs she applied for.
To make things worse, her sons missed their father too much and begged to go home. Linda refused their request in the beginning but eventually relented for the sake of her children.
Somewhat inevitably, Linda emerged from the encounter with a broken finger bone and bruises on the back of her neck. But she wouldn’t be silenced this time. She called the police, and her husband was arrested.
He died in custody, awaiting deportation back to Pakistan, just a week before our interview. She was his only family member in Malaysia, so she was forced to delay reporting for her new job to sort out all the procedures for his return to his home country.
“I am upset. Strong man like him, who beat me up, just died like that because of a heart attack. It is really annoying.
“He was supposed to go back to his home and find a work and rebuild his… It is unbelievable,” she says, with one fist clenched.
“It was only after the class that I learned what happens. But it will not happen again.
“It is up to you. I choose to not let it happen again, and I will move forward. This feels like freedom.” Linda is due to report to work two days after our interview. In the absence of a national childcare policy, she’s thankful that her boss at least allows her to bring her two boys to work.
Linda says courage is something we need more of, especially when it seems like every step forward is followed by two steps back.
Walking back to the large Christmas tree, she says she wants to buy herself a diamond one day, to symbolise her marriage to herself.
In one of the assignments in the creative writing workshop, Linda wrote a letter to her future self, five years from now. In it, she said, “I have big dreams. I wish to have a small business on my own. I wish I could have a car, afford to go on holiday together with my children.
“It is very difficult but I will work hard on it.”