Maria: A woman of courage — Loh Cheng Kooi

NOVEMBER 30 — By 5pm on November 28, the news of your release had gone viral. It was unbelievable. I shouted with joy when I heard the news! I had many sleepless nights as I lay on my comfortable bed with pillows thinking of you in detention.

How you were kept awake in your tiny cell with two light bulbs on 24 hours a day, with no sense of day or night. I worried about your health as you were being kept in solitary confinement, in a windowless cell. Why were you punished for leading a movement for clean and fair elections?

Malaysians know you for your courage and exemplary leadership in Bersih. In the recent Bersih 5, you stood undeterred as vicious threats of violence were inflicted on your sons and you. On the eve of the Bersih 5 rally, you were charged under the draconian Security Offences (Special Measures) Act (Sosma)!

Yet, you bravely called for people to proceed with the rally for democratic freedom and the right to dissent. Tens of thousands of people heeded your clarion call and walked the streets — for parliamentary democracy and for free and fair elections.

And then thousands attended vigils all over the country to demand for your immediate release.

Not many Malaysians are aware that before you became Bersih chief, you were already a veteran female activist, fighting the good fight for over 25 years. Your activism began in the mid-1980s when you helped organise the first ever public campaign on Violence against Women (VAW) in 1985.

This gave birth to the women’s rights coalition — the Joint Action Group on Violence against Women — which was later renamed the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG). As part of JAG, you were actively involved in lobbying for amendments to rape laws in 1989 and campaigning for the Domestic Violence Act in 1994.

Thousands of Malaysian women have benefited greatly from these legal reforms.

When you decided to start a family, your commitment did not waver. I was glad your husband Yunus, also an activist, supported you and together you raised your three wonderful sons. Sadly, Yunus left us too young. I worried about your devotion in fighting for women and human rights, and what it meant for your family.

I saw a woman who was steadfast and unequivocably committed to seeking justice for the marginalised and disenfranchised. To this day, this remains your vision and mission in life.

Your dedication to women’s rights and gender equality was never in doubt. You were part and parcel of the Malaysian women’s movement; having held key positions in women’s organisations like the All Women’s Action Society (AWAM), Women’s Development Collective (WDC), Sisters in Islam and the Women’s Centre for Change (WCC).

You finally formed EMPOWER, a feminist human rights organisation in 2005. You were and still are very much part of the sisterhood which campaigned for the Women’s Agenda for Change (WAC), the Sexual Harassment Bill and anti-sexism in parliament.

In 2003 when Canny Ong was brutally raped and murdered, you revived the Citizens against Rape (CAR) campaign and together with AWAM and others, led a series of activities to voice out the struggles of rape survivors and to demand for further amendments to the laws regarding rape. The list goes on.

We met in meetings, workshops and campaigns. On rare occasions when we shared a room, we were able to exchange stories about our family and our work. You were always cheerful — with boundless energy to do more. I remember your wonderful infectious laughter which always brought smiles to those present.

In the late 2000s, the women’s movement “lost” you to a bigger cause — Bersih. We are all very proud that you have moved on to serve the bigger community. You will always remain a woman human rights activist fighting for the democratic rights of Malaysians.

Now that you have been freed, your spirit and energy stand strong as ever in the struggle for a better Malaysia for Malaysians. We remain humbled by what you have done and will do in the future.

* Loh Cheng Kooi is a woman activist and executive director of the Women’s Centre for Change, Penang.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.

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