Labour and Beauty: Looking Back on My Grandmother’s Life

By Shazlin Rahman

Over the next few months, we will be featuring articles and conversations from our Behind the Dust Visual Series Mediamakers. This is the second in the series.

In my ten years of living in Canada as an immigrant, a woman of colour and a Muslim, I’ve experienced various forms of discrimination. I’ve had someone tell me I don’t have to wear the hijab because I’m “in Canada now.” I’ve had to start my university studies all over again because my five years of postsecondary education from outside of Canada weren’t recognized. I’ve had people curse and toss a cigarette butt at me when I was out walking with my visibly Muslim friends. I now work at a nonprofit that addresses issues of race and inclusion, where I vicariously  experience the trauma of others on a daily basis.

All of this took an emotional, mental and physical toll on me. I began searching for representations of strong, trailblazing women as role models as a source of strength and healing early in 2017. Little did I know that I’d find it in someone close to me: my late grandmother, Mok.

Mok died of old age in 2012. Given the distance between here and Malaysia, returning for her funeral was out of the question and I never got the closure I needed. In grappling with my fear of forgetting her altogether, I began asking my mom about Mok—about her childhood, her marriage to my grandfather, and what she was like as a young mother. That was when I became fascinated with the collection Mok’s old batik sarongs my mom had brought back with her from Malaysia. The sarongs were valuable artefacts of Malay culture—my culture—in general and of Mok’s life in particular.

A little over a year ago I began reflecting on Mok’s resilience and ingenuity in the face of poverty through short stories; I also created artwork and sketches based on her collecting of batik sarongs. The more I explored what she meant to me, the more I discovered there were lessons hidden among different moments of her life that are deeply relevant to who I am today.

There are no records kept of her birth—which is common at the time— but Mok must have been born sometime in the early to mid-1920s. The fifth child of fourteen, she was born into crippling poverty, in one of the poorest parts of British-occupied Malaya. With a husband who was largely absent, her mother was kept busy providing for the family and Mok had to learn to fend for herself from an early age. She married my grandfather in her late teens, had three daughters and fostered multiple children despite being very poor. Working from home, she took on different jobs to make ends meet, including making batik sarongs.

I discovered that the adversities Mok overcame in her life–starting almost a century ago–are now sources of strength for me as a millennial Muslim woman of colour living in Canada today. Aspects of her life illustrate what resilience looks like for women like me. Here are three of them:

Mok’s house, viewed from the front yard. (Photo by Asad Chishti)

Mok’s House

Both my grandparents had very little when they met each other, and they brought even less into their marriage. My grandfather was a rickshaw driver and Mok helped out at her mother’s food stall at the city market in Kota Bharu, Kelantan on the east coast of Malaysia. Their first house was a simple wooden platform with rattan-woven walls and a thatched roof, built on stilts about four feet off the ground to protect against the monsoon floods. There was no electricity, no indoor plumbing and housed a single space that was sectioned off into areas for sleeping, cooking and dining. My grandparents and my aunt, the eldest of Mok’s three daughters, gradually saved up and expanded the house to include more rooms, a bathroom and a kitchen. After my grandfather passed away in 1989, Mok kept the house in pristine condition for decades after, often making necessary repairs herself. “Mok’s house” as my cousins and I called it, was our favourite refuge from the city during  school holidays.

Mok’s house, viewed from the back yard. (Photo by Asad Chishti)
One of the two original school buildings of the “People’s school”. (Photo by Asad Chishti)

The “People’s School”

Although Mok never learned to read or write, all three of her daughters went onto become university educated. This is an incredible achievement, considering how poor the family was and how so many families did not educate girls beyond the primary (grade school) level.

This Sekolah Rakyat or “People’s School” was built in 1949 and it was the first school in the village where Mok lived. It was a community effort spearheaded by activists who would later become part of the fight for the country’s independence from the British in 1957. The first school building was a simple wooden rectangular building with a thatched roof, and it was divided into sections for different grades. A terrible storm later destroyed it, and the school was rebuilt in 1950 as two buildings—one for classrooms and the other as a canteen—not far from Mok’s house.  There were no fees, and everyone in the village was encouraged to attend. The teachers included those who had been educated up to the second or third grade, were able to read and write and were therefore qualified to teach. My aunt, the eldest of Mok’s three daughters, remembers standing in the corner of a classroom listening to the lessons before she was old enough to attend. She was always welcomed by the teachers and was never told to go away. Following Malaysia’s independence, the school was absorbed into the public school system, rebuilt and renamed Kampung Sireh Primary School. The original school buildings, rebuilt in 1950, still stand there today.

One of the two original school buildings of the “People’s school”. (Photo by Asad Chishti)
Close up of one of the two original school buildings of the “People’s school”. (Photo by Asad Chishti)
My aunt Hasiah, and Mok’s eldest daughter, shows me a few of the many batik sarongs from Mok’s personal collection. (Photo by Shazlin Rahman)

Batik Sarongs

Batik sarongs are the quintessential clothing item for women in the Malay archipelago. Batik is a technique where motifs are drawn or printed on fabric in wax and later filled in with fabric dye. Parts of the fabric that is covered in wax will resist the dye, thus creating a clear outline of the motifs. My curiosity about Mok’s life was sparked by the collection of batik sarongs she left behind. I learned about Mok’s work in colouring batik sarongs at home when she was a young mother, like many women like herself at the time, and later involved her three daughters to supplement the family income. Batik manufacturers would typically employ men to draw or print the motifs, and women like Mok would do the work of colouring the motifs in the comfort of their own homes. According to my aunt, it was this work that generated the surplus income that helped them slowly break out of the cycle of poverty. On my recent visit to Mok’s and my hometown of Kota Bharu, Kelantan in east Malaysia, I discovered the industry has remained largely unchanged: batik-making still came out of small, home-based operations, men were still primarily hired to draw the motifs and the colouring was done by women, often those who lived close by and were therefore able to care for their children and their homes while working.

A batik colourist at work at one of the many small batik workshops along Pantai Cahaya Bulan road, a popular tourist attraction in Kelantan, Malaysia. (Photo by Asad Chishti)

Although batik is one of the state of Kelantan as well as Malaysia’s most popular cultural exports, this value is not reflected in the remuneration given to the women in the batik industry, nor in the conditions in which they work. I explore this gap in the relationship between Malay women’s labour, beauty and the batik industry through my upcoming photo essay with photographer Asad Chishti. You can see more of my reflections on Mok’s life, batik sarongs and the batik industry at and @hersarong.

When I began my journey over a year ago to reconnect with my late grandmother and, by extension, to my Malay culture, my connection to those two aspects of my identity felt tenuous at best. Now, I’ve found a reservoir of beauty and life lessons that will remain relevant regardless of whether I’m in Canada or Malaysia.

Shazlin Rahman is a Malaysian-born, Toronto-based freelance writer and artist. She has six years of architectural education from Malaysia and Australia, a degree in Journalism from Wilfrid Laurier University and M.A. in Communication and Culture from the interdisciplinary joint program at Ryerson/York. Shazlin uses photography, abstract art and creative nonfiction to engage her audience in conversations about the resilience of women of colour.