Ivy is dangling off a tree-trunk, pretending to be a Bollywood heroine.

Zainah is throwing a mock-tantrum. “How come she got falsies and I didn’t get any?”

Ambiga looks like anything but a rebel-rousing revolutionary in a feminine black and white saree.

The three have ganged up and are inciting Marina to “let loose”. She obligingly collapses like a ragdoll into Ivy and Zainah’s waiting arms.

If an ordinary Malaysian had walked in halfway through the photoshoot, he or she would have surely done a double take.

We certainly did.

Were these fun-loving females really Ambiga Sreenevasan, Ivy Josiah, Marina Mahathir and Zainah Anwar – ass-kicking firebrands whose courage has inspired women beyond Malaysia?

Even firebrands have off days – like today’s photoshoot for Women’s Weekly. The playful side of Malaysia’s most formidable feminists is a rarely seen but nice distraction from the intense, ugly side of the work.

Defending rights is serious business. All of them have paid some kind of price, but they learn how to take it in stride. Ivy, who was in jail for one day, had an epiphany in there: “When I thought I was going to be in there for life, I was already planning to do my masters out of jail.”

Humour (and fun photoshoots) helps them to deal with the dangers that are present every day of their lives.

They never let it derail them from their mission though.

When asked what advice they’d like to pass on to women, every one of them answered in a variation of, “Be brave.”

Marina says, “I’ve met young people who didn’t have much to begin with, but they had courage.”

Ivy shares, “Getting jailed was the scariest moment of my life. But after I came out, I felt different. Angrier. It strengthened my resolve. The hardest moment by far was calling my mum and reassuring her that i was in jail for doing right instead of wrong.”

How do their loved ones deal with the constant threat of danger?

Ambiga’s answer is surprising yet sensible.


“My children do take part in my rallies. When they go, I tell them to bring sunblock and wear their cap. They laugh at me and tell me, you’re the only mum who does this kind of thing.”

Are they proud of her? “You’ll have to ask them!” she laughs.

When it comes down to it, you realize, these ladies are just ordinary people trying to live a worthwhile life, like you and me. Only braver.

A whole lot braver.

My interview with Ambiga, Ivy, Marina and Zainah is out in the March 2014 issue of Malaysian Women’s Weekly 🙂