IN 2009, Indira Gandhi, a Malaysian kindergarten teacher, temporarily lost custody of her three children. In March that year, her estranged husband embraced Islam and converted her children without her knowledge or consent.
In January 2018, after a long, drawn-out legal battle, the Federal Court declared the unilateral conversion unlawful. Yet, Indira cannot possibly be placated.
She has yet to regain her court-mandated custody of her youngest child, Prasana Diska, who her ex-husband has absconded with. He is being (belatedly) pursued by the police.
This is not just a story of religion and whether secular or religious courts should regulate private lives.
It really is a story of a woman who fought nine long years for her family.
Indira’s saga reflects the tenacity and determination of all Southeast Asian women. They are successful despite almost insurmountable discrimination on many fronts—including having to work twice as hard to get where they are.
And yet—they have blazed trails repeatedly—including in politics.
Take for instance, Surabaya’s first female mayor, Tri Rismaharini, dubbed “Ibu Risma”. One of Indonesia’s most dynamic politicians, she was named one of the world’s Top 50 Leaders by Fortune magazine in 2015.
Since taking office in 2010, she has helped boost Surabaya’s economic growth to 7.5% and allocated 35% of its budget on education. On her second day as mayor, she refused to leave the Vice-President’s office until she had answers on a port development project that had been shelved for many years. She has also confronted gang leaders and pimps in her successful crusade to close down Surabaya’s infamous “Dolly”, formerly Indonesia’s largest red-light district.
Across Southeast Asia, sisters are doing it for themselves.
In Yangon, twenty-nine-year-old Wai Thit Lwin, founder of Bella Cosmetics and creative director, Anna Sway-Tin, craft home-grown products for Burmese women that are priced between USD2-4.
Prior to Bella, Myanmar’s rising middle-class had to make do with expensive imported brands or low-quality counterfeits.
Bella, for its part, sought to combine old and new: its Thanaka line was a recreation of the eponymous traditional paste processed with the latest in Korean skincare technology. Today, Bella is the largest cosmetic brand in Myanmar, with a 65% market share in the country’s USD318 million beauty and personal care industry.
We also have women such as Neelofa and Dian Pelangi revolutionizing the region’s Muslim fashion industry. Twenty-seven-year-old Indonesian “hijabster” (a stylish, young hijab wearer) Dian Pelangi has a cult-like following with 4.8 million followers on Instagram. Likewise, Malaysia’s Neelofa is a popular and unconventional businesswoman making her name in the Muslimah fashion circles. In 2014, the twenty-nine-year-old actress and entrepreneur launched her own line of affordable stylish headscarves – Naelofar Hijab – catering to women of all ages.
In 2016, the brand raked in MYR50 million in sales, with 10% of it coming from international purchases. Neelofa was on the Forbes 30 under 30 Asia list in 2017 and has more than 5 million followers on Instagram.
It has not been all smooth sailing: her latest line, BeLofa, courted controversy for being launched at a nightclub (for which she subsequently apologised).
Nevertheless, it served its purpose: the product went viral and the scarves sold out within 24 hours.
Young women like Neelofa, Wai and Anna have all successfully taken advantage of the social media landscape to bring local customs to the modern world stage. Their brazenness and forward-thinking demonstrates the creativity and resilience of Southeast Asia.
They represent a bold future for our women.
But more can always be done. Despite increased access to education, it is still difficult for young women in the region to forge their own way forward.
The fact remains that in our region, there are only 30 women for every 100 men in leadership positions on average. According to the UN, globally women are paid on average 24% less than men and are deliberately kept in lower end roles.
Societies hold back women to their own detriment. A McKinsey report found that the economies of ASEAN could add USD400 billion or 9% to their GDP if all countries were to match the progress of the best-performing country in the region.
There are some encouraging instances. Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s cabinet for example, has 8 female ministers (by comparison, France has 11). This includes the widely-revered Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti and the stalwart Sri Mulyani Indrawati who was named by Finance Asia as the best finance minister in the world.
But a few ministers don’t make for gender equality. For the progressive country it claims to be, Singapore is lacking in its representation of women in politics. Only 23% of its MPs are women. The number is even smaller in Malaysia (10.8%) and Indonesia (17.1%).
Glass ceilings are yet to be smashed, though steps are being taken to address this.
In Malaysia, the government has set a goal of having at least 30% women on the boards of public-listed companies by 2020. While top-down initiatives are all well and good, this must be accompanied by a cultural shift in how we view women.
Women don’t belong in the kitchen and childcare should be shared responsibility by both parents.
Our women need to play a larger role in the region’s future and not just in the economic arena. They need to be at the forefront of progress in every field.
This is something we all can and must fight for. NOTE: Follow Karim Raslan on Twitter @fromKMR / Instagram @fromkmr