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Eight local women we should celebrate

These aren't fancy celebs, but real women making a positive change in our country

You might know their cause but you probably have never seen their faces. Here are the eight women who are pushing through incredible initiatives, changing social norms, enforcing environmental priorities and breaking down gender barriers – all in an effort to make the world a better place.

Diana Lui
Illustration: Anthony Lau
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Diana Lui

Artist, photographer, filmmaker
What is female identity? There have been countless debates and exhibitions by scholars and artists exploring this question; one of whom is artist and photographer Diana Lui. Exploring the issues of identity, more specifically feminine identity, through her photographs, Diana has documented women from all over the world, from countries the likes of Tunisia and Morocco to Malaysia.

Her photos were displayed in Wei-Ling Gallery last year in a solo exhibition titled ‘The Feminine Beyond’, containing portraits of veiled as well as nude women. Through this exhibition, Diana explored the concepts of present-day feminine identity in relation to a woman being covered, by her veil, and uncovered, without the distractions of any outer layer of clothing.

Diana believes that connecting with the women on a personal level is essential to taking a good portrait. That being said, she has discovered that the perceptions of female identity differ from country to country. And she seeks to demonstrate that in her photos, which she exhibits in galleries all over the world, thus contributing to the global discussion of what female identity is.

Dr Felicia Chang
Illustration: Anthony Lau
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Dr Felicia Chang

Palliative care doctor
When her first cancer patient died in pain and confusion, Dr Felicia Chang promised herself that she will not allow another patient under her care to die with such suffering and lack of dignity.

Despite being infected with polio as a child (Dr Felicia walks with a slight limp), the 40-year-old dedicates her time and energy to helping others rest in peace. A lesser known field of medicine that not many doctors venture into, end-of-life care, which helps to reduce the suffering of dying patients, is where Dr Felicia found her calling.

In her time as medical director of Assunta Palliative Care Centre (ASPACC), she and her team would sometimes travel more than 100km daily to see a patient. While also working with two NGOs concurrently, Dr Felicia comes face to face with the tough reality of death almost daily. Sometimes, her patients are as young as three months old.

This year, Dr Felicia has gone freelance, seeing about ten to 15 patients a month so as to devote more attention and care to them.

Jac sm Kee
Illustration: Anthony Lau
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Jac sm Kee

Women’s Rights Programme Manager with the Association for Progressive Communications
Bullying is still perceived as a problem that involves only physical contact, and it’s a deep-seated predicament that has preoccupied activists for years. Cyber violence against women is just as lethal as physical violence, which led Jac sm Kee, Women’s Rights Programme Manager with the Association for Progressive Communications, to help women and girls reclaim technology through ‘Take Back the Tech!’, (a global campaign on violence against women) and EROTICS (a research project on sexuality and Internet regulation).

While the media amplifies feminist hashtag campaigns and celebrity-endorsed ideals, Jac chooses to amplify the voices of women instead, by serving as a board member for the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) and the New York chapter of Creating Resources for Empowerment and Action (CREA). Back at home, she’s a freedom fighter, advocating freedom of expression and ethical journalism by co-directing Centre for Independent Journalism, Malaysia.

Jac’s sprawling body of work is a manifestation of her unswerving progressive vision on press freedom, human rights and feminism. If she’s not afraid to claim the F-word, why should you?

Mastura M Rashid
Illustration: Anthony Lau
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Mastura M Rashid

Co-founder of The Nasi Lemak Project
This veteran volunteer has put in countless hours with UNHCR Malaysia, established a mini-literacy centre in Sentul for Rohingya refugee children, and co-founded The Nasi Lemak Project, all before she graduated from university.

Instead of just giving out food for the homeless with The Nasi Lemak Project, Mastura and her team (300 volunteers and counting) befriend the poor with the eventual goal of lifting them out of poverty. The Nasi Lemak Project achieves that through a sustainable model of connecting demand and supply – corporate folk who need nasi lemak for meals and the urban poor who prepare it after undergoing training for food safety.

The manager of various poverty alleviation programmes has won numerous grants and awards (like the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award from the US Embassy) for her work with The Nasi Lemak Project, but that hasn’t stopped Mastura from launching more social initiatives, like Lepak Library (a mini library for children in rural areas), Edurangers (providing education for the urban poor), Unemployment Lab (helping the unemployed to brush up their résumés and their English-speaking skills), and more.

Pauline Fan
Illustration: Anthony Lau
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Pauline Fan

Managing director of Pusaka
Pauline Fan has dedicated her life to the search of the sacred – the authentic allure and aura of the traditional arts, for one, and the art, nuances and rhythm of literary translation. As the managing director of Pusaka – the nonprofit cultural centre she established in 2002 with director and founder Eddin Khoo – Pauline persists in the promotion of classic traditional arts at the community level: The ancient wayang kulit, for instance, is regularly performed at Pusaka events, along with kuda kepang, tarian asyik, and cultural dances and music by the Mah Meri of Pulau Carey.

The columnist, writer and literary translator has translated several German works to Malay, including Bertolt Brecht, Kafka and Kant. In a way, translating is in itself an act of preservation of cultures, ideas and literature – something of which Pauline surely knows more than a thing or two about.

Sarah Amer
Illustration: Anthony Lau
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Sarah Amer

Heritage and community activist
Sarah Amer is passionate about people and places. It’s tempting to throw lazy labels at her – ‘activist’, ‘feminist’, ‘community organiser’ – but the takeaway truth is that the 24-year-old is a doer and a go-getter, proving that youth, in fact, isn’t wasted on the young.

As a placemaker at Nani Kahar’s Lab DNA, Sarah conceptualises events that build and benefit communities through a collaborative, culture-shaping effort to reimagine, revitalise and reinvent public spaces; think better parks, the preservation of old buildings in the city, and people-centered events such as Buy Nothing Day.

Perhaps even more remarkable is that she injects the same amount of enthusiasm and energy into her personal projects: She organised Kota Wanita last March as well as ‘Bukan Sekadar Bicara’ – a series of talks at Gerakbudaya discussing the role of women in film. Late last year, she spearheaded the ‘Save Pekan Ampang’ campaign, an ongoing fight to save centuries-old heritage buildings in Pekan Ampang from demolition to make way for the SUKE highway.

Suri Kempe
Illustration: Anthony Lau
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Suri Kempe

Women’s and human rights activist
When she first started out with United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Malaysia back in 2008, Suri Kempe managed a two-year project on employment and disability, which led to a state-funded job placement unit in Johor for the handicapped – the first of its kind in the country.

Fast forward seven years and after a stint with Sisters in Islam (SIS) as Programme Manager building their communications strategy, she’s now back again at UNDP Malaysia as their Program Manager for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment.

In Malaysia, despite being relatively progressive for women, there’re still some who fall through the cracks of developmental efforts, for example women with disabilities or single mothers. And this is one issue, among others, that Suri is looking into to fully bridge the gap between genders. As Program Manager, she’s responsible for developing and executing programmes that’ll improve gender equality, which will optimistically become national policies undertaken by the government.

Yasmin Rasyid
Illustration: Anthony Lau
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Yasmin Rasyid

Founder, president and executive director of EcoKnights
Environmental efforts in Malaysia are like roadmaps without enough signposts – they’re getting somewhere, somehow, but pressing issues like reducing carbon emissions or even the banning of plastic bags are still buried under other national agendas. An ecological catastrophe is imminent, and the founder of EcoKnights, Yasmin Rasyid, is pleading with the world to go easy on the planet.

Yasmin is winning one small victory at a time – the marine biologist by profession started off in WWF Malaysia in 1997 as a scientific officer, heading the water quality research of the Selangor river basin before educating youth, corporate leaders and the community on sustainability through EcoKnights (an environmental organisation that supports all national and international programmes) since 2005. Also the chairperson for Malaysian Environmental NGOS (MENGO) from 2013 to 2015, she’s helped design projects like the conservation of Sungai Bunus with DBKL and PEMANDU, the livelihood programme for Orang Asal Seletar, and the construction of rainwater harvesting systems in marginalised homes. A global consciousness is vital to enact bigger improvements but Yasmin is confident that starting small – even by encouraging apathetic Malaysians – will eventually pay huge environmental dividends over time.

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