A story of hope

By Shanon Shah

A wonderful story can now be told. Last Saturday (March 8), Malaysians emerged in droves to make their voices heard, to make their decisions count at the ballot box. The Barisan Nasional (BN) government was ultimately returned to power, but with a shocking failure to retain its two-thirds majority – shocking because, even though armed with an array of repressive legislation, ownership of various mainstream media outlets and finances, they still could not convince a sizeable number of Malaysians to sign the BN a blank cheque.

But even in telling this wonderful story of how Malaysians finally made their voices heard, let us also not forget some other unresolved stories:

* In August 2006, human rights lawyer Malik Imtiaz Sarwar – a Muslim himself – received death threats for defending Lina Joy’s right to renounce Islam. Lina Joy’s religious conversion was ultimately rejected by the Federal Court in May 2007.

* In July 2007, Ayu, a transsexual Muslim woman, was beaten so severely by officers of the Islamic Religious Affairs Department of Malacca that she had to go for surgery.

* In the first half of 2007, a Hindu woman named Revathi Massosai was forced to attend six months of ‘faith rehabilitation’ by the Islamic authorities in Malacca – where, among other things, she says she was forced to eat beef – because her birth certificate showed that she was born Muslim.

* Most recently on March 5, 2008, Kamariah Ali was jailed for two years because she renounced Islam to worship a teapot.

The problems faced by these people have slipped out of the nation’s radar at the moment. Perhaps because votes by Malaysians like these do not amount to much in the grand scheme of things. They are marginalized either by race, religion or sexuality, and they are mostly women. More importantly, they have thus far been powerless to resist state machinery and laws that are increasingly inspired by rigid and unkind interpretations of Islam – the religion of the majority in Malaysia.

It is not easy to talk about religious freedom in Malaysia, especially as a Muslim. If you’re a Muslim and you talk about religious freedom, people will assume you want to renounce Islam. And then you will get punished for it. If you state that you’re happy being a Muslim, but you’re talking about religious freedom as a fundamental human right, then there are even more interesting consequences in store for you.

But given the wonderful story that only just started last Saturday, I feel it is crucial now more than ever to talk about this.

Wonderful stories have been told in countries like India and Iran, where after being sick of entrenched authoritarian regimes, the people decided to support mass movements that unseated those regimes. But these movements eventually opened the doors to Hindutva and Islamist fundamentalisms, respectively. And once those doors opened, these fundamentalisms entered and attacked the lives of women, religious minorities, lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transsexuals, and human rights defenders.

And yet, as a citizen and a voter, I remain hopeful. In fact, before polling day, I wrote for my Facebook profile: “Shanon Shah is shopping for a candidate that is not sexist, not racist, not homophobic, not a religious zealot, and is not afraid to say it!”

I received a few responses to my profile status from Malaysians whose basic message was, “Nice, Shanon, but such a candidate does not exist in our country.”

Their responses aroused my curiosity. What were they really saying? I think they were trying to tell me that yes, as ordinary Malaysians, they agreed with my sentiments, but they did not actually believe that there are any leaders in this country courageous enough to translate these sentiments into reality.

But here’s where I think they’re wrong. The results of the 12th general election might be viewed as the victory of a strategic and resilient coalition of opposition parties. But I choose to deepen my interpretation – it is the victory of ordinary Malaysians who dared to make a stand. The candidates whom we chose were beneficiaries of our courage in expressing the depths of our collective conscience.

Let us never forget that. And let us never forget that from now until the next general election, our voices cannot and should not be drowned. Doesn’t it feel good to have your voice heard, to have your voice make a difference? It certainly feels good to me.

It will feel even better when I continue using my voice to welcome the voices of those who until now have been silenced. To weave my story with those of the Ayus, Lina Joys, Revathis, Kamariah Alis and Imtiazes of Malaysia. To make sure that voices supporting inclusion, diversity and freedom grow stronger, not weaker, because the story of a more just, inclusive and democratic Malaysia has only just begun.