Ivy Josiah still fighting for civil rights


“I’ve always known how to deal with sexism, and now I’m learning to deal with ageism. Especially when you’re an older woman, that’s when it all converges. You’ve got sexism and you’ve got ageism and if you’re an older woman, people are very harsh on you. They might say, ‘She’s really grown old’ or ‘She’s looking her age’. We hardly say that of men.

“As much as I accept the compliment when they say I look young, I know that behind that compliment is that only young matters,” says women’s and civil rights activist Ivy Josiah, 61.

For a long time she was the face of Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) which provides shelter for abused women as well as advocates for law and policy reform.

Josiah joined WAO just a few months after it was founded. Her friend, lawyer and human rights advocate Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan, was the one who introduced her to WAO. The two girls were friends in Convent Bukit Nanas – Ambiga was head girl and Josiah was her deputy.

“For me, entering Women’s Aid was not charity; it was really about being a woman. Joining Women’s Aid, and working for Women’s Aid, and working with women, was about how I would eliminate discrimination in my own life. I never saw it as charity work. It’s activism,” says Josiah.

She has been a volunteer member for about 35 years. She led the organisation as a volunteer, president, treasurer and secretary. She has held every position within the organisation. It was only in 1996 that she became staff, and she was the executive director for 18 years.

“It has been truly the best experience of my life. I made so many mistakes as a manager but I learnt and relearnt and I would like to think I got better as a manager. I think that’s the trick about growing old. I think once you stop learning, then you’re ready to just fade away. I think the ability to learn from your mistakes and learn new skills is important. That inquisitive mind of mine is still there.”

She stepped down in December 2014 and then for a year she worked on a part-time basis for WAO to fundraise. When her contract ended, she opted not to renew it.

Now, she is no longer employed; everything she does is on a voluntary basis. She volunteers for WAO to fundraise, she’s in the executive committee of Hakam (National Human Rights Society) and Proham (The Society for the Promotion of Human Rights), and she is also in the steering committee of Global Bersih. She also sits on the board of the BRDM-Rotary Club Children’s Residence, which is a charity endeavour by BRDM and Rotary Club of Kuala Lumpur to open a children’s residence.

“The moment my WAO contract ended, and I stopped getting money I actually got into a panic, which lasted all of maybe two days. Never in my life had I not worked and earned a salary.

“So, I was in a bit of a panic. I came to question if I was measuring my usefulness by how much I earned. Obviously I was being very useful in all my volunteer work.

“In those two days of panic, I sat myself down and looked at all my savings and I said, ‘You know what, Ivy, you can give yourself a couple of years just to not work, but to write.’ In my third act, I really want to do something different. I want to write because I want to reflect on the work of 30 years.

“I want to write an insider’s perspective of women’s activism in this country. I may not have great writing skills, but what I do have is experiences, stories that are so inspiring, crazy, unbelievable and ordinary. I want to share those stories in a creative way. So, I’m exploring doing my Master’s degree and writing a book.

“I don’t want to have to manage people and be responsible for people. I just want to answer to myself and be my own boss, so to speak. For me, that is really important for my third act,” explains Josiah.

She has given herself two years. Then, it will be time to return to work, and this time she wants to return to teaching, which she left many years ago.

Next year, she is embarking on a creative project with Five Arts Centre founder dancer-choreographer Marion D’Cruz and Mac Chan, who is a lighting designer.

Josiah was a performer (dance and actor) with Five Arts and in recent years she has gone into the administrative and fundraising side of theatre. However, she still provides input and suggestions on how to shape all the performances by Five Arts.

All of her volunteer work and theatre commitments keep her busy. She has about three appointments / meetings a week. While Josiah seems to have a lot on her plate, she believes this pace is quite slow considering how much more she used to do.

“The words slowing down shouldn’t be in anybody’s vocabulary. When you see a 70 or 90-year-old, and she’s still getting up in the morning and taking a walk, that’s not slowing down; that’s her going according to her capacity. You should do as much as your body and mind allows you.”

What drives her to keep speaking up and fighting for civil and women’s rights in Malaysia?

“I get very angry when there is injustice. I get angry when people are treated unfairly. For me, when people are treated unfairly I am driven to action. It can be as large as civil and political rights of Malaysians or something as simple as someone mistreating a migrant worker at the supermarket or restaurant.

“It may go back to the fact that from young our parents always encouraged us to volunteer, but of course this was within the church.

“I think, how you are involved in the community, how you can make a change and you should be an agent of change, I got all of those from my home and also from Convent Bukit Nanas.”

With all that work has come many rewards as well, such as friends in various industries.

Josiah counts her blessings in having friends in the women’s right’s movement, as well as those from school, university, the neighbourhood, theatre and friends regionally and internationally.

“I read somewhere that happiness is really about having good relationships and friendships. If that’s the case, I should be the happiest person in the world,” says Josiah.

She believes that her greatest accomplishment is visiblising domestic violence and by so doing, Women’s Aid Organisation.

She took the organisation from five to 20 staff and grew it so that it would be able to handle services as well as look at advocacy and policy reforms.

“I’m very proud of how we grew from a service centre to advocacy at a national level, and regional and international as well. Drawing inspiration from the services, we used that experience to bring about constitutional reform, law reform and policy reform.”

Photo taken from YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DA1U-VU-RR4

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