SHARIFAH Shakirah heads the first and only Rohingya women’s group in Malaysia, convinced that gender equality is the key to lifting her community.
“For a community to be successful, women make the decisions as well. Like I always say, Allah has given us two hands – one man and one woman
“If both hands are not clapping together, we can’t make sound.
“In my community, one hand is very low and not empowered and pressed by the men, so we need to teach our men how to respect women, give them rights and make him understand the importance of women,” says the 23-year-old Rohingya woman who founded the Rohingya Women’s Development Network (RWDN) in December 2016.
Convincing her community to rethink deeply entrenched cultural norms that subjugate women has been an uphill battle. But Sharifah also fully grasps the cultural and historical complexities that impede the changes she wants to effect.
The Rohingya women, she says, face double restrictions – firstly from their government and military, and secondly from the men in their community.
She believes her community is the most persecuted in the world, and they have lost everything, even their identity. But even though the Rohingya had had to flee their homeland and begin anew elsewhere amid turmoil and trauma, gender roles remain unchanged. Men still lead, and women obey silently.
“The only thing the Rohingya have to hold on to, that is our own, is our culture. So, it’s all the harder to challenge cultural practices. There are many things I like about our culture, but also many things I disagree with, such as child marriages and keeping women at home.
She decided to take the lead to lift women’s lot after listening to a Rohingya community leader berate women.
“He had promised to give us sewing machines for a project, and then decided against it. For two hours, he went on and on about all that was wrong with Rohingya women. I told him it was men who kept our women like that. And if he were to call himself a leader, then it’s his responsibility to change our women,” recalls Sharifah.
The leader didn’t agree with Sharifah’s assertion, and she realised that the state of Rohingya women will not change, if it were left to the men in her community.
So, she decided she’d take the lead, and set up RWDN soon after this encounter.
Becoming babu, the role model
Sharifah, the oldest of six siblings, came to Malaysia as a child when her family fled Myanmar to find safety in Malaysia. She says she grew up the “most protected girl” under the dictates of this culture. But her parents sent her to school, though Sharifah had to stand up to them many times to remain there.
In 2012 she took part in a performance organized by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, where she narrated her story in English. A male relative always accompanied her for rehearsals and her mother did not allow her to leave home without a long lecture on safety.
But when they saw her performance, they were so proud, and began allowing her to participate in activities outside of her home.
Back then, she did not envision herself as an activist.
“There was no female leader in my community who could be a role model. So, I never saw women lead,” says Sharifah who is now recognised as a role model in her community.
Although only 23, many in her community – women, and even men older than her – calls her bubu, which means big sister, in respect of her leadership.
As Sharifah got more active in community work, she realised that it is vital for Rohingya women to speak for themselves.
RWDN, which she self-funded, aims to teach women to harness their abilities and provide them with opportunities to lead.
“We need women to represent women. It’s enough, men have been representing us for too long.”
These days, she and her RWDN colleagues sit in meetings alongside men to voice their views.
RWDN seeks to empower Rohingya women by giving them a space to expand their circle and thinking … “to get them out of the house.”
Most Rohingya women marry in their teens and are fully dependent on their husbands.
Sharifah organises classes for women, from literacy to sexual reproductive health to Quran-reading. She also sources for aid for the needy.
“But it’s not enough to do classes because you cannot see the benefits in the short term,” says Sharifah who recognises that the most tangible result they need to produce is to help women make money at RWDN.
“Last year, many women dropped out of the workshops because we were not selling the products.
We had just started and haven’t established our networks.
“But things are better this year. My youngest student, a 15-year-old, is rejoining us because she sees other women making money. Now she can give her husband a reason to allow her to come to RWDN.
“It’s not to make the women believe what we are doing. It’s to make the men believe that their wives are doing something good,” says Sharifah who believes it’s important to win men’s support in empowering women.
And she knows men can be vital allies because her Rohingya husband is her biggest support pillar.
Though she is sometimes disheartened by her community’s resistance to her mission, especially from male leaders, she believes empowering women is her cause in life … “it’s what I was born to do.”
“God is the best planner but you also need to plan. You plan for small things and he will guide you in the big things. It will be difficult but God will guide me.”