Activism and Motherhood in Asia

What does a woman sacrifice for the cause she fights for? How are her children affected by persecution taken against her? This post explores briefly the lives of women activists in Asia who are also mothers.

Irene Fernandez is a women and migrant rights activist in Malaysia. For more than ten years, Irene has been faced with a ‘criminal defamation’ charge (which has now been dropped) for having published a memorandum, asking the Malaysian government to look into alleged atrocities taking place in migrant camps in the country.

Aside from being an activist, which had led to her receiving the Right Livelihood Award in 2005, Irene is also a mother to three children, Camverra Jose Maliamauv, Tania Jo and Katrina Jorene, and several foster children. It is hard to imagine what goes on the mind of an activist like Irene, when she thinks of her children. During her sentencing at the initial trial in 2003, Irene was reported to have said:

I want my children and the children of all the people I work with as head of Tenaganita to enjoy and live in a society that is peaceful, where we do not fear state violence.

Irene’s role as a mother perhaps can best be reflected in the eyes of her daughter, Katrina Jorene, who wrote on the Micah Mandate (a Christian-based blog seeking to raise public interest advocacy):

I celebrate my mother who brought me up to be constantly vigilant in life and to be clear and maddeningly persistent for the truth and for what is just, true and right. I celebrate the countless heroes who have been present in my life especially my family members and the family at Tenaganita [the organization Irene Fernandez leads]. I celebrate all who have worked silently, tirelessly and with so much care all these years for the greater good of others.

It appears Irene’s teachings have caused at least one of her children to take on the same activist mantle as herself. Now Katrina writes advocacy pieces dealing with minority rights and protection.

Unlike Katrina Jorene, unfortunately, Alexander and Kim Aris, sons of Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, have not had the opportunity to learn from their mother for more than a decade. So strong was Ms Suu Kyi’s passion for Myanmar, she has spent close to fourteen years under detention in a lakeside villa in Yangon, choosing to stay for fear that the military junta would not allow her in again if she left. Womensphere, a blog by and about women, writes:

[Ms Suu Kyi] British husband, the Oxford scholar, Michael Aris, died of cancer in 1999 at the age of 53. She was unable to see him as he was dying – the junta refused to give him an entry visa, and she feared that, if she left Burma, she would not be allowed back in. She has not seen either of her two sons, now men in their thirties, for a decade.

Little has been written about (or by) Alexander or Kim. However, in 1991, Ms Suu Kyi’s older son, Alexander, accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on her behalf. Again, looking through the lens of her child, we might be able to better understand Ms Suu Kyi as a mother:

Speaking as her son, however, I would add that I personally believe that by her own dedication and personal sacrifice she has come to be a worthy symbol through whom the plight of all the people of Burma may be recognised. And no one must underestimate that plight.

We must also remember that [her] lonely struggle taking place in a heavily guarded compound in Rangoon is part of the much larger struggle, worldwide, for the emancipation of the human spirit from political tyranny and psychological subjection.

Although my mother is often described as a political dissident who strives by peaceful means for democratic change, we should remember that her quest is basically spiritual.

It is my hope that soon my mother will be able to share this feeling and to speak directly for herself instead of through me.

Meanwhile, many activist mothers in Asia still face persecution. For example, Fan Guijuan, whose house was said to have been demolished as a result of the Shanghai World Expo project, was arrested in Beijing and sent back to Shanghai, placed immediately in detention. Her son has no place to live, due to the demolition. Meanwhile, in the Philippines, Dr Edita Burgos, mother of Jonas Burgos, fights for justice for her activist son, who is said to have desaparecido (“disappeared”). Dr Burgos is the chair of Desaparecidos (Families of Desaparecidos for Justice), an organization seeking justice for the many unaccounted for, said to be a hallmark of the Arroyo regime.

Now, in Iran, humanitarian activist mothers are fast becoming global icons for human rights causes worldwide. In silent public protest, the ‘Mourning Mothers of Iran,’ known in Tehran as the ‘Mothers of Laleh,’ peaceably seek justice for their dead or incarcerated children.

A mother is a mother as long as she lives.


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