To conclude her talk at the Claremont School of Theology’s Mudd Theater, women’s rights activist Ivy Josiah said: “It’s not enough to be a feminist in theory. You have to be a feminist in praxis.” Indeed, Josiah has taken an active role in the fight for female empowerment. Josiah is the former executive director of the Women’s Aid Organization (WAO), the first organization in Malaysia to provide counseling and shelter for abused women, and has taken an active role in demanding legislative action and political reform in Malaysia.
Josiah’s words about the importance praxis harken back to the namesake of the lecture series that brought Josiah from Kuala Lumpur to Claremont. The yearly lecture series was created in honor of Dr. Patricia A. Reif, an educator, former nun, and activist, who founded the M.A. Program in Feminist Spirituality at Immaculate Heart College Center before eventually retiring in Claremont. Reif built a legacy of activism, addressing issues like domestic abuse, poverty, and immigration. The speaker series aims to honor Reif’s commitment to social justice and, in particular, explores the intersection between spirituality and feminism.
Many in the audience had been attending the lecture series for years. Others knew Reif personally and expressed the importance of seeing her work continued.
“It’s been one of our signature programs for many years now,” said Patrick Mason, chair of Claremont Graduate University’s Religion department. “We’re grateful to build on her foundation.”
As a part of the Pat Reif Series, Josiah addressed the role of religion in Malaysia’s problems with domestic violence. Malaysia is about 60 percent Muslim and an Islamic state, but guarantees religious freedom. When advocacy groups lobbied for a law against domestic violence, they faced significant backlash from the government, which did not want the law to cover Muslim women due to a single line in the Quran about the discipline of a wife. Ultimately, the law was passed after nearly 10 years, but religious and political institutions were manipulated to slow progress significantly.
Josiah centered Malaysia’s victims of domestic violence by screening an 18-minute documentary called Survivor’s Speak Up– Domestic Violence in Malaysia, which featured the experiences of three Malaysian women with domestic and sexual violence. A recurring theme throughout the video was the lack of institutional support from the police, the courts, and Malaysia’s Welfare Department.
“The inaction of the police was our biggest challenge,” Josiah said. “The authorities that were supposed to help us did not want to. Of course, not all policemen were bad, but a lot of policemen were not good.” Advocacy groups lobbied for domestic violence laws for the better part of a decade only to see no enforcement from the police. This resulted in a 1996 protest where activists were, in fact, scared of the very institutions designed to protect them, fearing arrest or the shutdown of the WAO shelter. However, Josiah noted, “if we live in fear of police, we are just like battered wives, only battered by police rather than husbands.”
Josiah is currently advocating for institutional reform in Malaysia. After 56 years under the rule of the same political party, the Bersih coalition is being led by women advocating for clean and fair elections. The movement has been growing since 2007, and last year, Bersih called for the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Razak.
JungJa Joy Yu, a Ph.D. student at CGU and author of Breaking the Glass Box, a book about gender oppression in South Korea, was in the audience at Josiah’s lecture and noted the importance of Josiah’s work.
“This is great women’s activism that we need to really consider, because these are women who are victimized both by the system and by the culture,” Yu said. “We need to continuously talk about it. A solution doesn’t come about in just one day, but continuous conversation can help people work together to find answers.”