Celebrating Sarawak’s pioneering heroines

I stand on the shoulders of heroines who never sought public acclaim but served as inspirations to the generations that came after them.

— Gina Haspel, ex-director of CIA

As the saying goes, the hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world.

In fact, many famous leaders had mothers who influenced their thinking with intrinsic values.

But 200 years ago, two Malay spinsters, Dayang Isa and her sister Dayang Ajar, chose to be different.

The two were described as ferocious old ladies who poisoned their chief Indra Lila and “claimed all the land as their inheritance and all the dwellers (both Malay and Sea Dayak) as their slaves.”

They even tried to poison Rajah Charles Brooke but failed.

Sabine Baring-Gould and Charles Bamfylde in “A History of Sarawak” (1909) wrote, “Though they were cruel and tyrannical in their methods, these masterful old ladies … were brave and attired in men’s clothing, with sword and spear, and led the men in resisting the attack of the Saribas (Sea Dayak pirates).”

A new breed of women arrived soon after who would change the mindset of Sarawak womenfolk.

It was Harriette McDougal, wife of Bishop Francis who initiated the emancipation of Sarawak’s women when she built the first school, St Mary’s.

In 1848, Harriette adopted three native Eurasian girls and a Sea Dayak from Saribas and they became the first females to have a formal education.

In 1870, Charles Brooke’s wife Margaret established the first Malay boys school and was determined to start a girls school without success.

Dr Bob Reece in “The White Rajahs of Sarawak” (2004) said, “Anxious to liberate the younger Malay women through education, she (Margaret) had to contend with the formidable Datu Isa (wife of Datu Bandar) who at first laughed at such an outlandish idea.”

However, almost 60 years later, the first Sarawak all-girls school was established by a Eurasian-Malay, Lily Eberwine.

Born in 1900, Lily’s parents were Sarawak steamship captain John Eberwine and mother Maznah Ali.

After a short stint at Singapore’s Raffles Girls School, Lily continued with her studies at St Mary’s where she passed her Standard Saeven exams, which was the highest level of education offered in Sarawak at the time.

In 1930, Lily became the first headmistress of Permaisuri Malay Girls school — the first girls school to cater for members of the Malay and Dayak communities.

One of Lily’s schoolmates at St Mary’s was Barbara Bay, who had a similar mission in life.

After passing her Standard Six in 1917, she was selected for a nursing course in Malacca before graduating as a qualified nurse and midwife.

Both Lily and Barbara were among 338 civil servants who resigned after Sarawak was ceded to Great Britain on July 1, 1946.

Another anti-cessionist was Ajibah Abol, a teacher at Permaisuri.

In the formative years of colonial Sarawak until the assassination of Governor Duncan Stewart in 1949, Lily and Ajibah spearheaded “Kaum Ibu”, the women’s wing of the Sarawak Malay National Union.

After Barbara’s contributions as social activist, she ventured into politics.

In 1957, Barbara founded the Sarakup Indu Dayak Sarawak — a women’s branch of the Sarawak Dayak National Union.

After two years, she was succeeded by Julia Linang followed by Gladys Janting, Tra Jemat, Vera Nichol Annie Jemat, Sarika Ferguson, Susanna Kitto and Empiang Jabu, who became president in 1985 and still holds the post.

Two years later, she joined the women’s wing of Sarawak United People’s Party, which led an anti-British campaign at a time of political change.
Tra Jemat was the fourth SIDS president. She was also the first female Council Negri member from 1960-1963.

As early as 1962, Tra fought for a native Near Year equivalent to the Chinese and Malay annual festivals without much success.

“Gawai Dayak” was finally recognised as Sarawak’s annual Dayak festival for several years in 1965.

In her later years, Tra, who was married to Eurasian Lesly Zehnder, wore several hats — she was the first female president of the “Majlis Adat Istiadat”, Welfare Council, Further Education Council, Rubber Fund Committee, Advisory Board of Youth Offenders, Juvenile Welfare Committee, Marriage Tribunal and the Women’s Advisory Council.

Later, she received one of Sarawak’s highest awards — the Pegawai Negara Bintang Sarawak, which carries the title Dato Sri.

In 1988, she was appointed the first female “Temenggong” and four years later, received the Tun Fatimah Wanita Cemerlang award. She was one of only three recipients of the Malaysian Eminent Propagator Award for national unity in 2007.

Tra passed away at the age of 84 on July 22, 2011, 10 days after the launch of her biography.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.