Baca versi Bahasa Melayu di sini.

With contributions from WITNESS ASIA-PACIFIC team.

In Malaysia, a group of Orang Asli women have strongly advocated for strengthening women’s representation for their identity and existence within Malaysian society. As a minority group in Malaysia, they often face ancestral land grabbing and encroachment, weakened livelihoods, political and social exclusion, economic and education disparities as well as access to health services, impacting their well-being. Orang Asli women suffer multiple layers of challenges and obstacles while advocating for their causes, and often, these barriers are entangled with their identities as women and Indigenous people. 

Battling Gendered Norms

“We were accused of undermining the role of the Tok Batin,” said Yaliyana, also known as Yana for short. Yana is a 30 year old Semelai woman from Kampung Batu Peti, Rompin, Negeri Sembilan. “We were still in the middle of the shooting when this accusation was posted and viralled on Facebook. “We haven’t even begun the process of editing our film “Selai Kayu Yek” (Roots of My Land), but there were people who were already discrediting us and saying we are doing wrong things,” she said. 

“As women, especially young women, we are often questioned about our capabilities,” according to Eliana, a 22 year old Jakun woman who hails from Kuala Rompin, Pahang. 

Getting the blessing of the family was the biggest obstacle when these women first began, as it was seen to be challenging the role of men as leaders in the family. “In our community, men are seen to be of a higher status than women, and they are the only ones deemed worthy to be leaders,” Eliana remarked. 

When Eliana and her friends started being involved in activism, such as filmmaking, where they started actively voicing out about Orang Asli rights and issues, she said that they were faced with objections from their families. “We were told that we shouldn’t be doing it, or that we can’t, or that we are making trouble.”

According to Yana, knowing that people believed in their efforts was what kept them going.

Using Media To Raise Awareness

Despite the challenges, the young women of Apa Kata Wanita Orang Asli, a collective of young Orang Asli women activists that Yana and Eliana are a part of, have completed a number of successful projects under their belt. After sharing about the impact they had made through their films, the women have since gained the respect of their families and communities.

Eliana emphasized that it was through the participation in workshops organized by Freedom Film Network in collaboration with grassroot organizations, such as Jaringan Kampung Orang Asli Semenanjung Malaysia (JKOASM), that inspired the women to raise awareness about Orang Asli community issues.. They picked up skills in filming as well as learning about gender and human rights there.

Eliana and Yana both spoke out on how underrepresented the Orang Asli communities are in the media. In fact, it is quite hard to come across any stories about them on national television.

The women first produced the book “Kami Pun Ada Hak Bersekolah: Wanita Orang Asli Bersuara” (launched in Kuala Lumpur in February 2019), an anthology of women and girls’ narratives from Orang Asli communities on their educational journeys, obstacles they’ve overcome, and hopes for the future.

They have since then moved on to producing short films. As to date, they have completed three, namely “Selai Kayu Yek” (Roots of My Land), “Klinik Ku Hutan” (The Forest, My Clinic) and “Rahsia Rimba” (Secrets of the Forest Guardian).  These three films  exposed the growing marginalization of the Orang Asli in their own land. The loss of their places and the disempowerment of the people are results of their alienation from their own land. Orang Asli women, in particular, have grown more and more vulnerable as a result of this strain on the available resources and loss of traditional livelihoods. 

According to Eliana, who is also the Programme Coordinator for Apa Kata Wanita Orang Asli, these films carry very broad, or general messages about the Orang Asli community. “Our issues are too deep,” she said. 

“Our problems, when put side-by-side, are very similar. It doesn’t matter whether we come from the Semelai tribe, the Temiar tribe or the Jakun tribe. We have the same experiences” Yana said, explaining that this understanding guided the scriptwriting of the short films.

To further introduce Orang Asli identity to a wider audience, the group has also created a Youtube channel, Apa Kata Wanita Orang Asli. The purpose of the YouTube channel was to raise awareness to the general public about the existence of these indigenous communities about their identities and the issues they face, by highlighting the traditions, cultures and lives of the Orang Asli communities.

Eliana highlighted that it is best that the stories come from the perspective of their lived realities, and the stories should come from their own people, rather than from the perspective of non-natives to their culture as they would not be as aware of the issues they face.

If Not Us, Then Who?

During Yana’s recent trip to Singapore to represent Apa Kata Wanita Orang Asli at the film screening at FreedomFilmFest Singapore, she realized just how many people from outside the Orang Asli communities are unaware of their existence. 

She, however, felt empowered when she observed the impact of the films on the audience. “I would not have foreseen that when we screened the films, some in the audience would be moved to tears,” Yana recalls.

Her desire to encourage other young people to stand out for the rights of the Orang Asli communities is boosted by this experience. “Although we come from different races or different tribes, we should unite and voice out the issues.” Her hope is that the Orang Asli will be more daring to speak out. 

“Because if we don’t, who else will highlight the issues of our own community?” she asks.

Eliana reflects Yana’s opinion that there aren’t nearly enough Orang Asli women up and speaking.

“I hope that all Orang Asli, regardless of age, will start actively using media. Even if it is an ordinary day, just record it (on video) and post to social media so that more people outside of the communities will be aware of the identity and culture of Orang Asli in Malaysia.”

“We will be waiting for a long time for the authorities to finally recognize our issues, such as land rights, if we do not act now,” Eliana adds. “The change I want to see is for us to be able to claim our rights, equal to other races”. 

Connect with Apa Kata Wanita Orang Asli: 

Sabrina Aripen is Chairperson/Founder of Society for Equality, Respect And Trust for Everyone Sabah (SERATA), plans, administers, and conducts gender equality programs and campaigns in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, and involves men and boys to eliminate gender-based violence. Sabrina is former administrative consultant for WITNESS Asia-Pacific. 

Photos by Apa Kata Orang Asli and Freedom Film Network.

Published on 8th March 2023.

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