Malaysia’s Orang Asli women gain acceptance through filmmaking and grassroots activism

Apa Kata Wanita Orang Asli

Members of the Apa Kata Wanita Orang Asli at the Freedom Film Fest in September 2022 in Malaysia. Photo from Facebook

This edited article by Sabrina Aripen with contributions from WITNESS ASIA-PACIFIC team was published on March 8, 2023 by WITNESS, an international organization that supports people using video in their fight for human rights. It has been republished on Global Voices under a content partnership agreement. Read the article in Bahasa Melayu.

In Malaysia, a group of Orang Asli (First Peoples) women have been advocating to strengthen their representation in Malaysian society through documentaries and workshops. Orang Asli women face multiple layers of challenges and obstacles while advocating for their cause, and often, these barriers are entangled with their identities as women and Indigenous people. As a minority group in Malaysia, they have had their ancestral lands stolen and encroached upon, have had less access to health services, and have faced diminishing livelihoods, political and social exclusion, economic and education disparities.

Battling gendered norms

“We were accused of undermining the role of the Tok Batin [the village chief],” 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 shooting [our documentary] when this accusation was posted and became viral 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 support and blessings from their family members was the biggest obstacle when the women first began, as the project was perceived as challenging the role of male 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 began creating a film discussing Orang Asli rights and issues, she said they faced significant 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 some people believed in their efforts was what kept them going.

Apa Kata Wanita Orang Asli

Filming of Selai Kayu Yek (Roots of My Land). Photo from Facebook

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. After sharing about the impact they had made through their films, the women gained the respect of their families and communities.

Eliana said that they were inspired to raise awareness about Orang Asli community issues after participating in workshops organized by Freedom Film Network in collaboration with grassroots organizations, such as Jaringan Kampung Orang Asli Semenanjung Malaysia (JKOASM). In these workshops, they picked up some filmmaking skills and learned more about gender inequality and human rights.

Eliana and Yana both spoke on how underrepresented the Orang Asli communities are in the media. In fact, it is quite hard to find any stories about them on Malaysian 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. To date, they have completed three: “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 on their own land. This loss has massive implications for the Orang Asli and can lead to a broader disempowerment and alienation. 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.

“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 the 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 among the general public about the existence of these Indigenous communities, their identities, and the issues they face by highlighting the traditions, cultures, and lives of the Orang Asli communities.

Eliana emphasized that it is best if the stories showcase their lived realities and their own voices rather than from the perspective of non-natives who wouldn't be as aware of the issues they face.

If not us, then who?

During Yana’s 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.

Because of this experience, she feels driven to encourage other young people to stand up for the rights of the Orang Asli communities. “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. The change I want to see is for us to be able to claim our rights, equal to other races.

*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. Sabrina is former administrative consultant for WITNESS Asia-Pacific.

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