Hersarong: A Story of Labour and Legacy

By Shazlin Rahman

Over the next few months, we will be featuring the projects from our Behind the Dust Visual Series Mediamakers. Hersarong by Shazlin Rahman is the first in the series.

This is my maternal grandmother; I call her Mok. In this photo she is preparing a dish—the one called seri muka, I thinksurrounded by my cousins and me, keenly observing. In other photos Mok can be seen holding one of my cousins when they were babies, bouncing my little brother on her knees, tending to the yard while my cousins and I played behind her, serving up some food or posing for a photo on Eid while we sat cross-legged obediently around her. More often than not, the faded sepia and yellowed Kodak prints usually show Mok tending to our surrounded by one or more of her grandchildren.

Mok surrounded by my cousins and I (front, second from the left). Photo courtesy of my aunty Hasiah Kadir.

For the last few months, I’ve been carefully digitizing old photos of Mok. These images  show, in my mind, the strength and resilience with which Mok navigated her life—as a young girl in British-ruled Malay peninsular, as a teenager during the brutal WW2 Japanese occupation, as a young mother in newly-independent Malaya and, up until her death, as a grandmother to a predominantly female brood of grandchildren. I needed to preserve her legacy for posterity and to remind myself of what strength, beauty and resilience looked like for Malay women like my grandmother and me.

When I google women’s labour, the top three search results were the 1940s “Rosie the Riveter” poster, black-and-white images of predominantly white women working on assembly lines or marching with protest signs or white women who had just been in labour.

The Westinghouse Company’s “Rosie the Riveter” poster created by J. Howard Miller in 1942.

I find these images deeply unrelatable because, at the surface they depict mostly white women. They are also primarily framed from the feminist perspectives of the global West with women courageously demanding equal rights or taking their rightful place in the labour force. I feel the same way about images of women on the front covers of magazines and news spreads.

While these images are powerful and reflect, to some degree, increasing rights for a certain segment of the female workforce, they are not images that resonate with me as an immigrant Muslim woman of colour. This is why I’m driven to explore what labour looks like for women like my grandmother. I found them in my grandmother’s legacy and in present-day women batik-makers in East Coast Malaysia.

Unsurprisingly, a different image of labour emerged.

Mok’s was a quiet kind of strength, less muscle-flexing like Rosie the Riveter and more like gentle strokes on a child’s head. Her labour is imbued with beauty, most evident in her work making batik sarongs, a work-from-home cottage industry still in practice in east coast Malaysia today. Mok never marched in the streets—at least, not to my knowledge—but she did tread a well-worn path between her house and the local batik manufacturer’s workshop, carrying heavy bundles of fabric printed with wax batik motifs.

My mother’s hands holding one of Mok’s old sarongs. Photo by Shazlin Rahman

Mok would walk across Sultanah Zainab Road to the batik factory owned by Haji Wan Abdullah (Aji Wé Doloh in Kelantanese) near her mother’s house and next to a tributary of the Kelantan river. She would come home with one kodi—a bundle containing 20 pieces of fabric printed with motifs in wax—carefully balanced on her head. The weight of each of those cloths and all the wax would bear down on her head, her neck and down her spine.

Mok would never send her daughters to the factory; most of the workers were men and the girls wouldn’t be able to stand up to their teasing. Instead, they would help out at home, colouring in the shapes of curling leaves, creeping vines, blooming frangipani and roses, and stylized peacocks and roosters. The pre-mixed fabric dyes supplied by the factory came in little jars and the colour palette was limited, but the three girls’ creativity was limitless. Mok would sometimes help with the more intricate techniques, like shading in the creases of a flower petal or the deep crevices of a bud. One piece of properly coloured batik earned the family ten cents Malaysian. Sometimes there’s a break in the wax outlines and the colours would bleed, ruining the fabric. There are several tricks to correct that, mama told me, and sometimes Haji Wan Abdullah would excuse it since it wasn’t the girls’ fault. Sometimes the fabric wasn’t useable, and he would have no choice but to deduct a few cents from their pay.

It sounds like a negligible amount today, but Mok and her three daughters—of which my mother is the youngest—were so industrious that they managed to make surplus income and broke the family’s generations-long cycle of poverty.

The batik sarong is one of the most common pieces of clothing for Malay women and can be found in different variations all across the Malay archipelago. A typical sarong measures between 100-110 centimetres wide, 180–220 centimetres long and is sewn together at both ends into a tube. Batik sarongs are commonly worn as a bottom for both everyday wear and special occasions.

Mok (left) and my paternal grandmother whom I call Nani, dressed in an identical ensemble of batik sarongs and traditional kebaya blouses on my parents’ wedding day.

This type of individually-made batik sarongs are difficult to find today. The ones I found in the markets of Kota Bharu were made cheaply in factories, mass produced in big quantities and sold by the bolt to retailers. The more profitable hand-drawn batik, or batik tulis, are now more popular. It can be made quickly and customized according to trends in colours, varying qualities of fabric, and a variety of motifs. Nevertheless, I found many things haven’t changed about women’s labour in the batik industry.

Gendered division of labour in the industry: men draw and women colour, just as they did during Mok’s time in the ’50s and ’60s. The same was the case at Zainab Hassan’s workshop, which seems to grow out of either sides of her house located along the touristy Pantai Cahaya Bulan road in Kelantan. To the left of her house was an area where Akmal, a quiet young man of 21 was quietly drawing batik motifs in wax on yards of plain white cloth.  To the right was the colouring area where Juliza (30), Ruhaya (34), and Suzana (39), were busy colouring their own pieces of batik, each stretched taut over wooden frames. Each piece measured approximately 10 feet long and 4 feet wide. At Zainab’s workshop, the women are paid RM6 (about $2CAD) for each completed piece, which retails at about RM100 or more. I was told that there are women who work in drawing batik motifs, but they tend to be the the exception rather than the norm. Women also work in selling, tailoring and embellishing batik fabrics.

Ruhaya, 34, colouring a piece of batik at Zainab Hassan’s workshop on Pantai Cahaya Bulan Road in Kota Bharu, Kelantan, Malaysia. Photo by Asad Chishti.

The arrangement of labour within the industry is largely informal. There are larger, more prominent batik companies whose employees are on a regular payroll. Nevertheless, there is also a cottage industry of small batik workshops across east coast Malaysia offering less stable and informal employment arrangements.

Most of the workshops I visited employed women who easily leave work to attend to affairs at home and come back without disrupting their work. Juliza lives right next to Zainab’s workshop and her children go to a local primary school just up the street. Suzana’s four-year-old Nurzawanah kept herself busy playing while her mother’s hand moved deftly back and forth between her paint jar and the fabric she was colouring. Zainab also helps some of her workers work from home (as Mok did) when they’re unable to be at her workshop. At Mohammad Nawawi Mat Arifin’s workshop Nur BB Batik—where all the colourists were women—seventeen-year-old Nur Farisa Mohamad Ghani left on a small motorbike to fetch her siblings from school in the middle of working on her piece. Siti Kasim, 41, has been working as a batik colourist for several years at several different workshops, indicating the entry and exit from the workforce to be quite fluid.

Nurul Asma Zakaria, 22, working at Nur BB Batik in Kota Bharu, Kelantan, Malaysia. Photo by Asad Chishti.

On the flip side of this flexibility is the absence of the usual benefits afforded by formal employment. Although the relationship amongst the women batik makers and workshop owners were collegial and relaxed, it’s hard to imagine any of the women I interviewed receiving healthcare benefits, childcare support or paid time off. This is most critical during the monsoon season when east coast Malaysia is besieged with heavy rains and flooding, which slows the traffic of tourists down to a trickle and hampers batik production.

Without infrastructure like indoor drying rooms with temperature control, these informal workshops remain dependent on the day’s weather, even when the monsoon seasons are over. This is why most batik colouring work starts in the morning. By late afternoon, most workshops will be winding down and the beautifully coloured fabrics are on outdoor clotheslines and drying racks, making the most of the day’s sunlight. Zainab told me that a hot, sunny day is the ideal condition for completing batik pieces; an overcast day can still get the dyed fabrics to dry, but work stops altogether on rainy days.

When I first arrived at Zainab’s workshop early in the morning, Juliza, Suzana and Ruhaya were sitting around a small coffee table at the corner of the workshop; I was worried that they might close that day but they told me that they were waiting to see if it will be hot and sunny enough to work. When I returned about an hour later, each woman was busy colouring their own piece of fabric.

Completed batik pieces which had been soaked overnight in a silicate bath are put up to dry in the sun. Photo by Asad Chishti.

I wasn’t surprised to find Hasmah Ismail’s workshop to be quiet and empty by the time I arrived at around two o’clock in the afternoon. She had around 40 completed batik pieces—with motifs drawn by her brother Ramli Ismail—drying on wires and racks around her workshop. Right next to it was her house, originally built by her grandparents, on four-foot-high stilts. Hasmah recalled one monsoon season when the entire village was flooded and she had to do her batik work in waist-high flood waters.

Hasmah Ismail, 60, at her workshop in Kota Bharu. Photo by Asad Chishti.

I shudder at the thought of what could be in the murky flood waters while Hasmah worked on her batik pieces. Given the small remuneration women batik makers generally receive for their intricate work, I was even more impressed by her dedication to the work.  Although batik is one of the state of Kelantan and Malaysia’s most popular cultural export, this is not reflected in the women’s working conditions.

I grew up hearing about Malay women described as gentle, demure and unassuming. To a large degree I still see that reflected in my grandmother’s legacy and in the women batik makers I met, but that’s just one part of the story. Mok’s work colouring batik from home while teaching her three daughters to do the same was what helped the family break their cycle of poverty. In much the same way, in many small batik workshops in Kelantan, the gentle swoosh of the paintbrush on stretched silk and little taps of brush handles against cans of fabric dyes is what’s keeping Malaysia’s batik industry alive.

These women’s labour is gentle, quietly resilient and intricately woven with beauty.

This is what labour looks like for women like me.

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.