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Asia

A woman's fight to embolden Malaysia's voiceless

Embodying this year's International Women's Day theme of being bold for change, lawyer Siti Kasim has been striving to empower Malaysia's marginalized and oppressed communities to speak up for themselves.

Vociferous, unapologetic, doesn't suffer fools gladly: that about sums up Siti Zabedah Kasim.

The Malaysian lawyer and human rights activist has become synonymous with fighting for the customary land rights of peninsular Malaysia's "Orang Asli" (indigenous) communities and the oft-maligned and marginalized LGBT community.

Having often locked horns with politicians and conservative religious groups, she has earned a reputation for being a voice for the "voiceless."

"I could never see injustice or condescension of any sort since childhood. I cannot tolerate people who have no respect for others," she told DW.

After having lived in the UK for 17 years, the London-trained lawyer returned to Malaysia in 2004 and was quickly roped into the local Bar Council's human rights committee, eventually becoming co-deputy chair of the committee on Orang Asli rights. 

The right to fight

With neither prior knowledge of nor contact with this community who live in the remote jungles of the northeastern state of Kelantan in peninsular Malaysia, her initial contact with them was an eye-opener. "I couldn't believe then there were people still living in bamboo houses, with no clean water or electricity."

Siti Kasim Porträt Malaysien (Mooreyameen Mohamad)

Having often locked horns with politicians and conservative religious groups, Siti Kasim has earned a reputation for being a voice for the "voiceless"

Moreover, she discovered that the Orang Asli have been facing difficulties trying to hold on to their way of life in the only home they've known, the forest, as the state government has increasingly been encroaching upon it for logging and mining activities.

"They are very shy, humble and scared of authority and I realized that they really needed empowerment. So, together with others, including Orang Asli activists, we go in and tell them that they have rights, they can speak up and not be afraid. No one can arrest them if they have done nothing wrong," explained Siti, adding that they are often threatened with arrests for challenging such encroachments. 

Siti has since been digging in her heels alongside Orang Asli activists, creating awareness and updating fellow Malaysians on the Orang Asli's causes through social media.

Similarly, she has defended the rights of the local LGBT community, even getting arrested for demanding a warrant when Islamic authorities raided a transgender event to which she was invited last year. Her suit against the authorities for that arrest is pending.

Challenging 'man-made' Islamic laws

Recently, she has become increasingly known for her outspokenness against creeping Islamization in multi-religious Malaysia.

She achieved near-cult status at a forum last year for flipping the bird at hecklers for drowning out her protest against a controversial private member's bill to amend a law that could empower Islamic courts to enforce punishment, except for the death penalty.

"They picked on the wrong person. I never realized that that finger incident, that one action, was actually something many people have wanted to do all this while. And they were just waiting for someone to tell these 'Islamofascists' to leave them alone and get the hell out of their lives," she exclaimed.

Despite earning the wrath of conservative religious groups, Siti remains undeterred.

"Only fascists force others to follow their way of life, to adhere to their concept of beliefs, their dogmas. This I will fight! Who are you to say that we should believe your version of Islam, which is so cruel and all about punishment? What about corruption? You never say a word about it! They are making Islam look so bad in the eyes of others," she said agitatedly.

Dismissive of court rulings or edicts by local religious authorities that have prohibited non-Muslim Malaysians from using the word "Allah" and insisted upon "halal" certifications even for household items that cannot be consumed, among others, Siti - who is a Muslim herself - began studying the Koran to challenge what she labels "man-made" laws.

It marked a turning point for her.

"I realized that it's so different from what was being taught at schools or in the mainstream teaching. That's when I discovered that what I'd thought about Islam all this while was wrong. And that's why I dare to challenge these 'Islamofascists' and to say that their version is not the true Islam."

Attempts by detractors to smear her by publishing "un-Islamic" photos of her do not faze her, she says. "I'm not a hypocrite. I smoke, I enjoy my life, I go to pubs, I publish it. So what? This is my life. They think, 'Oh, it's so easy to attack this woman.' What they don't realize is that if I didn't want people to see these photos online, I would never upload them on the internet in the first place," she explained.

Advocate but no politician

Despite unsavory names hurled her way - including "murtad" (apostate) for questioning Islamic authorities - the increasing number of Malaysians speaking up helps neutralize the sting.

"A couple of years back there weren't many Malay-Muslims who spoke up against Islamization for fear of being branded apostate but now more and more of them - especially young Malay-Muslims - are speaking up and I'm really happy."

Entering politics, however, is out of the question as she "could never toe any political line."

Her purpose comes from the grateful messages she receives from Malaysians she's helped embolden. "Every one message I receive, I feel really good about it. Even if one person can stand up for their rights, it's the greatest achievement for me."