Speech by Meera Samanther, President of AWL at the Methodist College Graduation Ceremony
Morning everyone. It is indeed a great honor to be standing here before all of you and especially to be seated with one of my former teachers Ms Moey . She was an icon at BBGS and loved by all of us.
Ms Moey had very eloquently informed you about my work with the women’s movement and the years spent working on human rights, in particular women’s rights.
Now, let me share with you the many challenges that I had faced and how these challenges molded me and strengthened me to become who I have become today.
For my parents, education was an all-important factor, whether you are a girl or a boy. I was the only girl amongst 3 brothers, whom I adored. My parents treated me as “ the special one” being the only girl. So I was given every opportunity in education. But there was always something nagging me all the time, which I could not put my finger to. There were always cultural inhibitions placed on me as a girl. It was always an effort to stand up against these restrictions. At that time, I could not articulate it as discrimination but I knew then that it did not sit well with me. Perhaps, unconsciously that was the start of my training ground, which set the base of my future work.
Schooling years at Bukit Bintang Girls school was awesome for me. Till today, I love to belt out my school anthem, to the shock and horror of my 3 children, who cannot fathom the way I love reciting the lyrics to them. Now, what do I remember learning from school days, apart from remembering the choral speaking competitions? It’s not so much the history, or the geography or the science or the maths. Apologies to the teachers here before me. It’s the moral values that stick in my head. The values I learnt from my elders and also from my peers are embedded in me.
At 17, I left for boarding school in the UK and for some reason my parents enrolled me in an all-boys boarding school with 28 girls. The transition was not easy for me for the first month. Cried everyday, wanting to come home. Being in a foreign country, the cold weather, only Malaysian and yes so many boys to deal with and adjusting to school food was difficult. I had no choice but to adjust. I had to buck up and kept telling myself surely it will get better. And it did get better once I started making friends, once I got comfortable adjusting to the teaching methods, the weather. I settled well. Being away, made me become independent at a young age and I drew strength from it.
I took part in most of the activities – football, netball, squash , tennis , archery , rifle shooting, horse – riding and the school choir. We had church service every morning before school commenced. Being brought up as a Hindu, my parents did not exempt me from church service, although they were given the option. They believed that moral lessons taught from any religious denomination were good for me.
In my second year at boarding school, I was elected as the Netball captain and Deputy Head of the School and that was my starting point of building on my leadership qualities.
I then pursued my Law degree at uni and obtained my Masters in Law. Taking part in moot competitions taught me how to project my voice and articulate my thoughts. At uni, I had a few relationships. How I wish someone had told me then, that the first guy you meet and fall in love is not the one you are going to marry!! A note to all of you being "in a relationship" in Uni and carrying it through to your working life is a whole different ball game . I am sure parents sitting here can resonate with this. The goal post shifts for both parties . Well most of the times.
So WHY did I return home to Malaysia?
Simple – I returned home because my then boy friend wanted to return home. It was such a lame reason to return home. But that is the truth. But I know NOW that I made the RIGHT decision for the WRONG reason.
Whilst working as a young lawyer, we face all kinds of challenges at the work place. I concentrated on my career, trying to find myself. As many working women, be it in the legal profession or any other profession, as women we are exposed to all sorts of challenges based on our gender . Women are often told that you need to balance your working life with home life. It's best to steer into the area of practice that will best suit you since you are going to get married and have kids. Well we don’t hear such messages being breathed down the boys, do we? . Statements like these undermine the ability of women to spread their wings and it did not sit well with me.
After 12 years in practice , I joined the Women’s Aid Organisation. It was pure chance that led me to WAO or perhaps someone guided me there. I had a complicated pregnancy and a hectic litigation schedule was not conducive for my well being. I thought I would just take a short break.
My world literally opened up for me after joining WAO. I met so many women and children who had endured so much pain and suffering, having left their abusive partners, having left their homes and having to stay in a shelter in secrecy. The children could not go to school as they were all in hiding and the decision whether to lodge a police report against their spouse for domestic violence is a terrifying decision. The people who volunteered and worked at WAO were making a difference in their own lives and the lives of others. They lobbied for changes in the laws and polices that discriminated women. They counseled the women that NO one deserved to be battered and it was NOT their fault.
My world of Feminism took a steep learning curve. Feminism is about Justice and Equality. I knew then, that this was my calling. I was led here to do something. I returned to practice only to do legal work on Human Rights , in particular Women’s Rights.
Great things are not reserved for just special people. It exists in you and me. We are all born leaders. We do not need titles to be a leader. I worked with the qualities I possessed . My legal background was put to good use. I pushed my boundaries, took risks and challenged myself.
When I joined WAO and the Association of Women Lawyers, I did not set out to be a leader. I joined as any volunteer who believed in their values of advocating for women’s rights.
I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to get involved in my home country. I knew that the change has to start with me. I cannot wait for others to do it. For those reasons, I am involved with the Bersih’s civil society movement of change.
I came home to Malaysia for the wrong reason but I know now it was the right decision.
People may influence you. The grass will always look greener somewhere else. Folks - the grass is only green because someone nurtured it, someone tended to it and made it green.
So MY challenge to all of you here is - Do you have it in you to make your grass green here in Malaysia?
Before I end – I want to share with you 5 pointers I wish someone had told me when I was your age.
- Hold tight to your real friends and don’t forget the closeness that you feel now.
- You may be smart but your brains aren’t done with maturing yet. Listen to your parents more than you want to. Your brains have not connected all the dots yet.
- You can say No to sexual contact. You OWN your body. Walking away is tough but your inner spirit will thank you.
- Trust the calling in your heart.
- Strive to be the best YOU, not a copy of someone else.
At the end of the day, the measure of a person is not how much money you make, what car you drive or the fancy titles to your name or letters after your name. It is your values, your compassion and what you do to make your world, your Malaysia a better place.