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A pioneer in life and in politics - comment - A pioneer in life and in politics

June 07, 2007

By Haroon Siddiqui

KUALA LUMPUR–She created history in 1999 by becoming the first female leader of a political party in Malaysia.

Dr. Wan Azizah inherited the job, as had several others in Asia: India's Indira Gandhi, daughter of a prime minister; Sri Lanka's Sirimavo Bandaranaike, wife of an assassinated prime minister, and her daughter, Chandrika Kumaratunga; the Philippines' Cory Aquino, widow of an opposition leader shot dead upon arrival from exile; Benazir Bhutto, daughter of a hanged Pakistani prime minister; Bangladesh's Hasina Wajed, daughter of an assassinated president, and Khaleda Zia, also wife of an assassinated president.

"I thanked God that at least my husband was alive," Azizah told me, recounting her meeting with Aquino in Manila, after Anwar Ibrahim had been sacked as deputy prime minister and jailed in 1998.

Aquino, as anchored in her Catholicism as Azizah in her Islam, was "very welcoming, almost motherly, and gave me moral support and advice."

Azizah, however, is unique in this dynastic circle. She wears a hijab and had a career of her own.

An ophthalmologist – gold medalist from the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin – she quit her practice in 1992 to become "a reluctant political wife."

Six years later, Anwar was fired, mainly for challenging his boss, strongman Mohammed Mahathir.

"Police raided and ransacked our house and took him away.

"The next day, a friend called, `I must see you, I must see you,' and came over to tell me that Anwar had been beaten ... in custody and may have died.

"We were not allowed to see him. I saw him only when the rest of the world did," nearly a week later, in court with a black eye and bruises.

Azizah, then 47, inherited his reformasi movement. "I had a husband in jail and six young children. I felt that as a Muslim woman, I must have the strength and resolve to fight injustice."

She formed the multi-racial National Justice Party. Against high odds – little media access, a questionable electoral roll and election irregularities – the party garnered 11.2 per cent of the vote in the 1999 election and won five seats, including hers.

In the 2004 election, with the new prime minister, Abdullah Badawi, sweeping the polls, Azizah's was the only seat her party retained. She beat the imam of the National Mosque, parachuted into her riding to unseat her.

Anwar has since been released but remains barred from politics until next April. Last weekend, Azizah was re-elected party leader.

Being in opposition in Malaysia is tough. The family is monitored, and "people shun us because if they come and see us, they get harassed and lose power and perks. Nobody wants to rent office space to our party. Our political rallies are disrupted."

As with her politics, Azizah was a pioneer with the hijab.

Her mother, the wife of a top Malaysian secret police official, did not wear one. Azizah went to a Catholic convent – "we recited the Lord's Prayer all the time." When in Ireland, "the hijab was given to me by a Dutch convert in 1973. I have worn it since."

Her five daughters wear it as well – as also an increasing number of Malaysian women. It is an individual choice, says Azizah, who does wear lipstick and shake men's hands.

"I hope I project an image of Islam that's compatible with modernity – that Muslim women can be educated, can stand on their own, face the odds and fight oppression. If I've achieved that, I am happy."


Haroon Siddiqui, the Star's editorial page editor emeritus, appears Thursday in World and Sunday in the A-section. Contact him at hsiddiq@




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