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