Bringing beauty beyond the eye of the beholder

(From left) Ambiga, Marina, Josiah and Zainah appear in a promotional image for the 'Be More Than Beautiful' campaign.
(From left) Ambiga, Marina, Josiah and Zainah appear in a promotional image for the 'Be More Than Beautiful' campaign.

KUALA LUMPUR, March 8 — When you think about it, the choice was pretty obvious: who better to be the “poster girls” of true beauty than Marina Mahathir, Ambiga Sreenevasan, Ivy Josiah and Zainah Anwar?

The four veteran social activists are the stars of The Body Shop Malaysia’s “Be More Than Beautiful” campaign in conjunction with International Women’s Day today.

It is a campaign the beauty and body care brand says is about giving young women alternative icons to look up to instead of the usual wealth-obsessed celebrities who offer a “narrow view of beauty.”

“These women represent true beauty – more than skin deep and having the ability to stand on their own and courage to fight for something they believe in which benefits Malaysian women,” The Body Shop Malaysia managing director Datin Mina Cheah-Foong told The Malay Mail Online yesterday.

Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir, who worked on HIV/AIDS issues for more than a decade before stepping down from the presidency of the Malaysian AIDS Council in 2005, is now actively involved in a citizens’ initiative “Malaysians for Malaysia” that promotes peace and moderation amid racial and religious tension in the country.

Former Malaysian Bar president Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan spearheaded the electoral reform group Bersih and faced tear gas, water cannons and sexist attacks in her fight for free and fair elections.

WAO executive director Ivy Josiah, together with other women’s groups, campaigned for 11 long years, amid opposition from some Muslim groups and the religious authorities, before the Domestic Violence Act was finally implemented in 1996.

For over two decades, Zainah Anwar, a founding member of Muslim women’s rights group Sisters In Islam (SIS), has been fighting for an end to people using Islam to justify gender discrimination.

Here, the four women talk about their participation in The Body Shop’s campaign, their experiences during the shoot, what beauty means to them, the endless public scrutiny of women’s looks, and their work.

Despite the advances of the feminist movement, do you think that women’s looks are still considered by many people to be important? And that little girls are still told that they’re cute or pretty, as if that is the most important quality they should have?

Ivy: The beauty and advertising industries, the beauty magazines… no matter how strong the feminist movement is, you’re still made to feel insecure. One thing in Malaysia, it’s all about the colour. Women are using skincare for fairer, brighter skin. You can see Malaysians are conscious of their own skin colour.

No matter how strong we are, we are always conscious about fat. And women attend gyms and fitness classes not because they want to be fit, but because they want to look like a supermodel. It is all around us, they are reinforcing this.

I want the word “fat” to be banned.

Ambiga: There is nothing wrong with appreciating what is aesthetically pleasing. That is normal. There is also nothing wrong with wanting to look good and feel good. What is important is that this does not become an overwhelming preoccupation, unless of course it is one’s job description for example in the case of a model.

It should not overtake other qualities that are more important. That is why children must be complimented more for displaying good qualities, than for how they look.

Marina: Yes, women are still judged by their physical appearances. You may have the voice of an angel but if you’re plus-sized, you’re not going to be as successful as a svelte singer.

You may get better jobs because you are prettier, rather than because of your abilities. Women face so much pressure all the time to live up to impossible standards of beauty while men don’t.

But this is true all over the world. Even at Harvard Business School, until they did something about it, female students in their MBA course felt that they were back in high school because they were judged so much by their appearance, rather than their abilities.

I think it’s a real disservice to tell our daughters that good looks are the best asset to have. Too much reliance on that will set them up for disappointment, because those looks will go some day. But a vital mind, a lively personality and a compassionate heart lives forever.

Zainah: If you look at the ads, at television, print media, the obsession with women’s bodies, it’s definitely very clear. What does selling cars have to do with women’s bodies? What does selling beers have to do with selling bodies? Everything is sexualised in order to attract attention and to sell.

The Body Shop campaign is important as a very public visible asset to change the concept of beauty. That’s why I supported it because it’s trying to do something that’s different, to get people to really define what beauty is. The media plays an extremely important role in how it portrays women as well, and not sexualise women or portray them as sex objects, when women play far more important roles in the world.

What does beauty mean to you?

Marina: A good heart, a kind soul is really what makes a person beautiful because it shines through whatever physical exterior that person has.

Ivy: I always maintain that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, how you feel and what you do. A beautiful person is confident and compassionate.

Zainah: When someone is confident, happy, knows what she wants out of life, she knows that she’s living a life of her choice, that contentment and that happiness actually shines through and makes the person very attractive and beautiful.

Ambiga: Beauty is about who you are as a person and not what you look like.

What were you trying to convey in The Body Shop campaign?

Zainah: For me, I think it’s wonderful that a business entity like The Body Shop has chosen to do this campaign to choose women like us who are outspoken, who are activists, who are controversial, that they have the courage to choose women like us to represent what being beautiful means.

Ivy: First of all, The Body Shop (campaign) is about key women leaders, women icons that reflect the philosophy. Beauty is really about what’s inside, I know it’s kind of cliche, but it’s about her confidence, passion, commitment. And women tend to apologise, a lot of women apologising for what we see as not perfect.

Marina: By sheer coincidence, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o gave the most brilliant speech on the subject and it fits exactly with The Body Shop Malaysia’s “Be More than Beautiful” campaign: that trying to live up to someone else’s beauty standards only makes you miserable, and stops you from discovering what’s truly beautiful about yourself.

Ambiga: I consider it an honour to be chosen for this campaign particularly so because of the fact that I am in the very good company of Marina, Zainah and Ivy, three outstanding women who are also my friends. I think the message of the campaign is that people should strive for more than physical beauty. That it is a “beautiful thing” to help your fellow human beings. That we should all value what people are and how they contribute to society rather than how they look.

What did you think of the experience, the shoot?

Ambiga: This    has been a very different experience for me. I am more familiar with being photographed as someone in a yellow T-shirt shouting,“Bersih!” But this experience has allowed me to subtly highlight what I have learnt from Bersih and it has helped all of us bring to the     fore, the work we do as activists.

Zainah: It was fun. I loved the photographer. A lot easier than I thought. It was nice that we were doing it in a group. For people like me who’s not into being photographed in that kind of manner, it was nice to do it in a group.

Marina: It was good fun, especially because I had my good buddies Zainah, Ivy and Ambiga for company.

Ivy: Look at us all, we’re old. Women think ageing is something you can stop. It’s time for us to take pride in ageism, really focus on what’s inside, to be kind and compassionate, treating people with decency and respect.

On their respective fields of work

Marina: I think it is important to have a different narrative in our public space than the one we currently see which is full of hate, vitriol and negativity. We know Malaysians are not normally this aggressive type of people, so we need a different type of face, one that speaks of peace and unity, understanding and compassion. Why are we afraid to be bridge-builders and peacemakers when that is so much better than being hatemongers?

So we organise these Walks in the Park to give people a chance to interact with one another as human beings, united as Malaysians. And it’s been wonderful! People who don’t know each other are coming together, those of different faiths are making friends with one another. People get nostalgic about what we once were but don’t know how to get those times back. We are trying to recreate that.

Zainah: The country of Malaysia in particular, so much of the discrimination against women is done in the name of religion. So women’s rights activists in Malaysia face this particular challenge—how those in authority use religion to resist the demands for change, and demands for equality and justice. They use religion, they use Islam to justify discrimination.

At the very start, amend all the Islamic laws that discriminate against women - the Islamic Family Law, the law on divorce and marriage for women. Both husbands and wives should have the equal right to marry, to divorce, but that’s not so for Muslim women.

Marriage should be a partnership of equals, and not a marriage of dominance where the man dominates the woman. The Islamic Family Law should recognise marriage as a partnership. The government can’t say it believes in a happy family, and yet all the man has to say is “I divorce you”, and you’re divorced.

Ambiga: Well, I thought I would have a break after Bersih but it seems I am more    busy now! I am presently helping a new organisation called C4 (which is a corruption watchdog), in an advisory capacity.

Ivy: We’re working with the Ministry of Women, Family, and Community Development for the [Domestic Violence Act] that will outline clearly the protocol of response for the police, the court, so that each agency knows what action to take. That’s our next step.

I find a lot of beauty in my everyday work. The women who have been bruised, raped, and beaten. They want to survive. They laugh and make fun of themselves sometimes. There’s true beauty in courage. A sense of generosity.

There are women who go back to their homes for the sake of their children and husband, although I don’t encourage it. But the courage to leave, that’s also very beautiful.

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