Dignity is under-rated
May 29, 2012
MAY 29 — I must have been 16 when Sister Anne, our student counsellor, asked me to participate in a public-speaking competition. Every government-run school in Kuala Lumpur had been asked to submit the names of two speakers to address a topic titled “To Dignify the Human Being.” My first reaction was “Huh?”
She smiled and proceeded to explain all that was considered dignified and much more that was not. The “huh” turned to “ohhh” within the few hours spent with her, and Sister Anne remains etched in my memory as the only person who was capable of dispensing wisdom with a twinkle in the eye.
I wrote about war atrocities and how dignity-stripping that was. In my five-minute speech I deliberated on prejudice, discrimination, apartheid and other forms of injustices. I pointed out some heart-wrenching examples of how poverty was often due to inevitable circumstances and not borne of personal choices; I spoke of how women and children were often abused by their should-be protectors, and in my naiveté, I ended with the quote “... for what is a man, what has he got, if not himself then he has not; to say the things he truly feels, and not the words of one who kneels ...”
Conveyed with the solemnity usually reserved for a Tennyson poem, the judges must have been suitably impressed, as they unwittingly awarded me the first prize.
My mentor’s guiding words must have left a deeper imprint than I realised. I have dedicated a large part of my adult life towards attaining a life of dignity for myself and others. My volunteering spirit was sparked in 1990 when our national dailies ran explicit pictures of Balasundram, a two-year-old boy, on its front pages. To be confronted by the visual of a child with tubes emerging from almost every part of his tiny face and body shocked me to the core — especially since my second son Khairi, who was of the same age, slept soundly in the comfort of his cot each night, with perhaps mosquitoes being the only threat .
Surely, children too, are entitled to lives of dignity — within an environment of love and protection. In my quest to find local organisations effective in helping stem this tide of abuse, I stumbled upon the Women’s Aid Organisation — its mission, objectives and goals were perfectly aligned with mine. After a tentative start or two typified by bringing food to residents of the women’s shelter and organising activities for their children, the tide of activities took on a life of their own.
As is wont to happen when one’s actions reflect one’s commitment, those efforts were noticed and I found myself repeatedly being nominated for the role of executive committee member, then later, office bearer. These senior roles merely implied greater responsibilities towards the women we shelter, and on a wider scale, all those affected by the advocacy programmes carried out by the organisation.
Whether it’s pushing for the Domestic Violence Act to be passed by Parliament or helping a woman obtain custody of her own children — I consider such deeds important steps in the process of helping our clients attain lives of peace, stability and dignity.
They say life occurs in phases — well mine certainly fits that, though some would argue that “spurts and stops” would be a more accurate description. In a recent period of resurgence, I obtained a degree in psychology. Fully aware that a mature student should no longer hold any compunction for not knowing whether music affected memory, or continue to be mystified by the effects different colours had on mood, I decided to carry out research in an area which was relevant and current: what was it like to be a member of a polygamous family?
By then, I had already been introduced to a seemingly radical group of women who called themselves Sisters in Islam (SIS). I had attended some of their study sessions in the late ‘90s and respected their knowledge and the positions they took on various Islamic issues — all stemming from scholarship, research and a strong conviction in a just Islam.
After eventually joining the SIS research team which studied the impact of polygamy on the family, I interviewed nearly 100 participants comprising men who were heads of polygamous households, a group of first wives, some “subsequent wives” (second, third or fourth wives) and the children of either the first or subsequent wives. My research elicited many varied emotions from the respondents as they were forced to recall intricate details of their daily lives. Many a time, I found myself empathising or fighting tides of emotion while struggling to maintain neutrality.
What struck me most was the intensity of negative emotions experienced by the women and young adults (the children interviewed had to be necessarily over 18 years of age) — unsurprisingly, not as much was expressed by the men. It’s all well and good for so-called learned Muslim scholars to stroke their goatees and proclaim that the rules governing polygamy were laid down centuries ago, practised by generations of Muslims and therefore can hardly be unjust. But does the Holy Book also not talk about being kind to slaves and marrying them — how is it that today’s followers have rejected the practice of slavery altogether?
During a particular interview with a 42-year-old man who was still bitter about his father’s second marriage (which had taken place when he was a young boy), I remember thinking, “Wow, if only every man who is thinking of taking on another wife could listen to these children expressing deep dissatisfaction and anguish, often caused by family rivalries, they would surely be deterred from taking the final step towards entering matrimony yet again.” But then again, when desire conflicts with duty, will a sense of responsibility, kindness and wisdom reign?
In my long chats with the interviewees, I found out time was far more important and valuable than money. I was told stories of neglect, and how hurtful it was to be shrugged off like a baju lusuh (faded, old shirt) after having invested so much time, energy and deep sentiments into a partnership. There were tales of crushed hopes and dashed expectations.
The first set of children felt abandoned, the second group wondered why they had to share their male parent — and all these feelings would intensify whenever they compared themselves to friends or members of their extended family who had never had to experience the pitfalls of polygamy.
It is only natural that my activism with women’s issues broadened into concerns for the larger issues of human rights and fundamental liberties. I am concerned about the state of the nation on freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and how we as a nation engage in a civil and informed discussion. Where is the dignity in dragging the dismembered carcass of an animal to a place of worship in order to insult people of another faith?
What particularly irked me was the audacity of the perpetrators to exalt the name of Allah the All Merciful and Forgiving while carrying out such a heinous act. How dignified is it to shoot tear gas and aim water cannons at your fellow citizens when all they were asking for was justice and fairness. The lowest point on the dignity meter though is reserved for the leaders who gave the command — as opposed to those who merely acquiesced for fear of being hauled up for insubordination.
In one candle-light vigil I attended, as soon as menacing-looking armoured personnel poured out in droves from their inelegant trucks, the traffic police whose duty it had been, up till then, to cordon off sections of the busy road, said in a gentle tone to my group, “Pergi lah, sudah lah” (that’s enough, just go). Now I thought that was respectful, dignified behaviour demonstrating concern for the safety of courageous, yet slightly nervous civilians.
On the personal front, my quest for a life of perennial dignity is a work-in-progress. I am happy to be associated with two organisations that advocate for human rights (women’s in particular), freedom, equality, justice and dignity. Being involved in research on issues pertaining to polygamy has grown into something of a life passion for me as I strongly believe for too many people, that family institution brings about more strife and suffering than it does benefits.
If a whole segment of people comprising women and children are desperately unhappy, ultimately, will not a feeling of disquiet imbue its male propagators too? Undoubtedly, a society filled with frustrated and disgruntled people cannot be a productive one. Choosing not to end with the words to a song this time, I’m stating instead my concurrence with Aristotle who said: “Dignity does not consist in possessing honours but in deserving them.”
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.
Vivienne Lee @ Lianah Abdullah is mother to Kazimir and Khairi Iskander. She is currently Vice President of Women's Aid Organisation (WAO) and Research Coordinator for Sisters In Islam (SIS).