READY FOR CHANGE

Dr Hal­iza Zu­rah opens up to Poon Li-Wei on how she’s chal­leng­ing our misog­y­nis­tic cul­ture that breeds do­mes­tic vi­o­lence.

Herworld (Malaysia) - - CONTENTS -

One woman’s jour­ney of es­cap­ing do­mes­tic abuse and re­dis­cov­er­ing her­self.

It ’ s th ree in the af­ter­noon on a week­day when a woman pulls up in front of a po­lice sta­tion in Sarawak, bruised and bat­tered. She lodges a re­port and no, she hasn’t been robbed – she’s been beaten by her hus­band, and it isn’t the first time. Hail­ing from a fe­male-cen­tric back­ground with a lov­ing fa­ther fig­ure who was never once above house­work, and hav­ing pur­sued medicine in Ire­land, Dr Hal­iza Zu­rah is the last per­son you’d peg to stay on in an abu­sive re­la­tion­ship. But for eight long years, she took it all. “I didn’t know bad men ex­isted; that showed how naive I was,” she sighs, driv­ing home the fact that our re­al­ity de­mands it be com­mon knowl­edge. Per­haps it’s more com­fort­ing to think that abuse hap­pens in a blink of an eye – that an in­di­vid­ual you love merely had his switch flipped for a re­gret­table sec­ond. But the more dis­turb­ing truth is that the seeds of an abu­sive per­son­al­ity have been sown long be­fore, you just chose to turn a blind eye to them. It was truly only when he re­quested that she take a per­sonal loan so that he could buy a mo­tor­bike, which would even­tu­ally snow­ball into a re­quest for a car and cap­i­tal to open his own busi­ness, did the warn­ing bells re­ally sound off in her head. As she tells me, chip­ping away and re­strain­ing the fi­nan­cial means of an­other is also very much part of an abu­sive cy­cle. To­day, those are the nafkah ter­tung­gak claims she has filed in syariah court. What most peo­ple don’t un­der­stand is that abuse isn’t just phys­i­cal. You don’t wear the bruises on the out­side... at first – it can be pre­ceded by years and years of psy­cho­log­i­cal build-up. And when I ask her of that mo­ment when he crossed the fi­nal bound­ary, her words are un­flinch­ingly raw and dev­as­tat­ing: “I be­lieve the first phys­i­cal act for every woman is the slap. The first time he hits you, you’ll be shocked, and he’ll say sorry and buy you flow­ers. He’ll prom­ise you he won’t do it again. But what every woman has to un­der­stand is that it will only get worse, it never gets bet­ter. Once he lays his hands on you, it will never stop.” By the time she re­alised just how abu­sive he had be­come, she was five years into the mar­riage with three chil­dren to think about and a RM200,000 loan to shoul­der. For those won­der­ing why women choose to stay, she gives a blow-by-blow ac­count of what went on in her mind: “Be­fore mar­riage, I was so clear that if you get beaten, you need to get out. But dur­ing our mar­riage, there were com­mit­ments and I thought of all the has­sle and com­pli­ca­tions I’d face if I were to go through a di­vorce. So, I de­cided that I might as well live with this guy as I’d been beaten any­way.” Such is the dam­age of psy­cho­log­i­cal abuse that she’s adamant most women don’t leave be­cause they don’t know what to ex­pect af­ter. “They think that if they did a bet­ter job of be­ing more obe­di­ent, he wouldn’t do it again,” she ex­plains. But the truth is, it took be­ing kicked

in the back, stepped on her stom­ach re­peat­edly, and hit and slapped across her face, head, and body, for her to re­alise that this was no way to live – as stated in the po­lice re­port she filed. Grab­bing her purse and keys, she fled to the po­lice sta­tion with only RM13 to her name. “I was a doc­tor for eight years and only had that much in my bank ac­count!”

“Noth­ing can com­pen­sate for the abuse I suf­fered”

In 2016, she won her case in The Mag­is­trates’ Court in Sabah and Sibu, Sarawak. The RM1,500 fine and a com­pen­sa­tion fee of RM400 may be dismal to many, but she’s happy that it served as a sym­bol of jus­tice. “I spent that RM400 right af­ter court, treat­ing the women who came to sup­port me to a meal! I didn’t want to keep his money – it was the ac­knowl­edge­ment that mat­tered,” she de­clares, her eyes crin­kling up. Even then, she tells me that her vic­tory al­most never came to be, as she balked at the thought of press­ing charges. “Can you imag­ine I told the po­lice ‘ ke­sian dia’?” Re­port­ing the abuse even­tu­ally proved to be the right de­ci­sion, as she won full cus­tody of her chil­dren. “My eldest daugh­ter was ter­ri­bly traumatised at first. She was al­ways scream­ing and draw­ing grue­some im­ages. I had to send both her and my sec­ond son for coun­selling, but they’re do­ing okay now.” None­the­less, her daugh­ter’s ha­tred for her fa­ther is so deeply rooted that she re­fuses to write the patronymic binti in her name. And de­spite past mis­giv­ings, it’s some­thing Hal­iza hopes to change. “I want her to un­der­stand that what he did to me wasn’t right but I’m do­ing al­right now – so, in the fu­ture, she doesn’t al­low that to hap­pen to her. I don’t want her hate for him to af­fect her fu­ture re­la­tion­ships.”

“The loud­est voice comes di­rectly from the vic­tim, the sur­vivor”

Beam­ing in con­tent­ment as she sits across from me, she’s a far cry from the woman who spent two nights sleep­ing out­side the po­lice sta­tion – sim­ply be­cause there wasn’t a women’s shel­ter in Sarawak and it was the safest place she could think of. Thank­fully, through­out her mar­riage, she had sought out the ser­vices of the Women’s Aid Or­gan­i­sa­tion (WAO) – specif­i­cally, their SMS helpline, Think I Need Aid (TINA). This prompted her to reach out to WAO, which saw them fol­low­ing through with her court pro­ceed­ings, as they had ex­pe­ri­ence in deal­ing with district at­tor­neys. In­spired by that, she’s now pres­i­dent of a non-gov­ern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tion in Sarawak, Women Or­gan­i­sa­tion for Change (WOC), that’s recog­nised by

the gov­ern­ment. It fo­cuses on help­ing, via text mes­sages and a hot­line, women suf­fer­ing from do­mes­tic vi­o­lence. She’s also held talks, which have given nu­mer­ous vic­tims the courage to come forth and they’re now part of WOC.

I ask her how she’s man­aged to do it. How did one woman who had no more than RM13 in her pocket come to not only re­build her life, but help oth­ers do so as well? The cor­ners of her lips turn up as she shares with me the mo­ment when the sur­vivor su­per­seded the vic­tim in her: “Right be­fore the judge an­nounced his rul­ing, he asked if there was any­thing I’d like to add. Com­pletely un­planned, I said, ‘I be­lieve once I stand up for my­self, I stand up for other women too.’ And it’s only grown from there.”

“I hope to change this pa­tri­ar­chal sys­tem”

But beyond her con­crete ef­forts in help­ing bat­tered women, she’s also ad­dress­ing the root of the prob­lem: our cul­ture. By writ­ing for The Iskan­dar­ian, she hopes to shed some light on how tra­di­tion and the me­dia de­value women. “For ex­am­ple, I never un­der­stood why men get to eat first at a kenduri, whereas women have to wait and clean up af­ter them be­fore get­ting their turn!” she huffs. And to make mat­ters worse, the me­dia hap­pily churns out con­tent that weaves a ro­man­tic web around the topic of abuse: “This very pop­u­lar movie in Malaysia had a girl fall in love with her rapist!” Un­afraid to rock the boat, Hal­iza read­ily re­minds us that these are the sex­ist no­tions that per­me­ate all ar­eas of our lives; the val­ues that will be in­cul­cated in the young and im­pres­sion­able. “When I was 16, I was at a board­ing school and was shocked when I was taught I had to cover up my au­rat be­cause I had to keep it for my hus­band. I raised the point and said that we should be keep­ing it for our­selves and our own dig­nity, not for any­one else.”

“I want women to be more in­de­pen­dent”

In that sense, she hopes that women are able to be more dis­cern­ing and as­sertive – not meek, docile, and ready to fit into stereo­typ­i­cal gen­der roles. “Yes, there are phys­i­cal dif­fer­ences be­tween a man and a woman, but all we’re ask­ing for is to be given equal op­por­tu­ni­ties and rights,” she main­tains. And for those look­ing to wish her well in landing a good man, she’ll laugh and gladly tell you that sin­gle life is great. “I don’t need a man to com­plete me! I’m very happy and my only prob­lem now is get­ting enough sleep,” she chuck­les. And as her face lights up, I hope that every vic­tim, every sur­vivor, sees that she’s liv­ing proof there is life af­ter abuse – a big­ger, bet­ter, and beau­ti­ful life.

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