Marina Mahathir

Her father’s shadow

Marina Mahathir is more than just a daughter of former Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamad. We meet the bestselling author and strident activist on women’s rights

Marco Ferrarese
June 9, 2016
Her father’s shadow
Independent: Marina Mahathir is a key voice in Malaysia on women’s issues and LGBT rights. Photo: Cole Yew for SEA Globe

Marina Mahathir is more than just a daughter of former Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamad. We meet the bestselling author and strident activist on women’s rights

For the past 20 years, Marina Mahathir has been one of Malaysia’s most prominent female activists. Known for her steadfast campaigning for women’s rights in Islam and on LGBT issues, she has also authored three bestselling books on the tribulations of Malaysian life. As the daughter of Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s much-loved but controversial prime minister who was at the country’s helm for 22 years, Marina has long carried the weight of a powerful legacy. However, when she receives Southeast Asia Globe in her Kuala Lumpur office, Marina is casual and even jolly; more familiar friend than dynastic diva. The office is adorned with artworks by female Malaysian contemporary artists, and we begin by discussing how she developed her famed liberal attitude.

“I went to the University of Sussex in Brighton, England, the first university established to break the elitist university system. I was exposed to many things there… Sussex was quite a wild place, with a very left-wing reputation. It was the beginning of me opening up. I joined Amnesty International, I went to concerts, I saw the Stranglers, punk was coming up… It was a vibrant time for young people. When I came back nobody [in Malaysia] was talking about this.”

Well, you’re such a liberal person compared to your father…
“In Malaysian universities they don’t ask about your opinion, but over there [in England] they expect it. However, when I gave my opinion I could feel an echo in my voice, like: ‘Is this your opinion, or your father’s?’ For me, the turning point was attending a conference in Yokohama in 1994. I listened to Dr Jonathan Mann, who was the first person to articulate the link between human rights and health. For me, oh my God, it was so great. I started approaching everything from a human rights perspective, which is different from my father’s point of view, but I don’t have a problem with it. I keep telling people I’m not my dad’s PR person, he’s perfectly capable of taking care of himself… We have very different opinions.”

What do you think about the ‘Save Malaysia’ campaign, fronted by your father and calling for the removal of the current prime minister, the embattled Najib Razak?
“I think it’s good. I was there for the ‘People’s Congress’ on 27 March, where my dad was keynote speaker. Just seeing the lineup, the greatest achievement was having all these [political enemies] expressing different opinions, but as equals, forced to respect each other. You see, politics in this country is all about: ‘I’m right, the other side is the devil.’ It was great to see attendees listen to the opposition with expressions on their faces like: ‘Well, this guy is making a lot of sense, too.’ This allows for such a broader perspective, it’s a great achievement.”

You have voiced concerns over an Arab colonialism and a destruction of Malaysian culture. What do you think of the current status of Malaysian society?
“This is a huge issue because it’s not just a matter of dress, but mentality. When I said that, people were like: ‘What’s wrong with that? Malaysia has always absorbed different things.’ Yeah, but we absorb it normally, organically. These days it feels imposed. There’s so much pressure. If you work in the government sector as a woman you feel compelled to wear the tudung [headscarf] or you are sidelined… It’s something we should be concerned about. [The prevailing attitude seems to be that] it’s OK if [ideas] comes from the Middle East, but not OK if they come from the West. It’s a form of colonialism.”

As a Muslim woman, what do you think of the status of women’s rights in Malaysia?
“Malaysia is a funny place. Honestly, it’s not like many Muslim countries. Women here are educated and achieve high positions. But the mentality remains, especially among men, that a woman’s place is smaller. Especially at home, women always have to submit to the husband. That’s why my organisation, Sisters in Islam, works on family law: marriage, divorce, inheritance. If there’s no democracy, equality and justice in the home, it’s not going to exist in society at large. It’s hard to do, because women say: ‘We can go to university, we can work, become a CEO, work in central bank.’ But when you go home, are you at the same level or does something happen there? It’s a hard sell in many ways… and a lot has to do with the religious law.”

Marina Mahathir
Dominant figure: Marina’s father, Mahathir Mohamad, who employed dubious tactics against political opponents. Photo: EPA/Ahmad Yusni

There have now been four rallies organised by Bersih, the civil society movement that campaigns for electoral reform. Do you think that such protests play an important role?
I went to two editions of Bersih. When we had 30,000 people at Bersih 2.0 [in July 2011] we thought: ‘Wow, this is great.’ Then Bersih 3.0 [in April 2012] was 150,000! Many were first-timers and said they had seen people going for the previous one and were reassured so they wanted to join. I was lucky, I left when I thought it was over and didn’t suffer, but that was when they started the water cannons and everything. My daughter got caught up, she got gassed twice.

Many people come to me saying: ‘You say what we think.’ But you can’t just leave it to me. You need the numbers, you need to know there are people behind you. They cannot do anything against big numbers. Malaysians have been so lucky in the life we have had. We have become quite comfortable compared to other countries… It makes us complacent, everything is about: ‘I don’t want to give up my nice life. It’s difficult, I can complain, complain but things won’t change.’ That’s an attitude that is dispiriting to me. Looking at the gathering of yesterday, it was hopeful. And we need hope because it pushes you to action.

Do you have any political ambitions?
“The answer is no, and I’ve said it many times… I’m really quite an outsider. I’m interested in it, but I’m not interested in the parties. I think a political party is just like another organised religion. You have to abide to all these rules or you are considered an apostate – I can’t do that. I prefer if it’s based on principles, so I can criticise whatever party if they don’t meet certain standards, about women’s rights for instance. [I think] that’s
a much better approach than drawing political party lines.”

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