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June 14, 2021

Che Zahara, Silent Heroine Of Singapore

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Aquila Style reveals the legacy of Che Zahara Binte Noor Mohamed, a Malay-Muslim woman who fought for the rights and wellbeing of women and children during a particularly turbulent period. As told to Sham Latiff through the recollections of her granddaughter Rita Zahara.

Singapore is a bustling island city-state. Roughly half the size of London, this cosmopolitan republic is a melting pot of diverse ethnicities, nationalities, faiths and convictions. Its intermixed cultural practices and backgrounds make living in Singapore a dizzyingly unique experience.

The nation has come a long way. For centuries it was a sleepy fishing village until it was roused from its slumber in 1819 by the arrival of the British, who established a trading port. Singapore became independent from the British in 1963 when, along with Sabah and Sarawak, it joined the Federation of Malaya to become Malaysia. But the unification proved problematic and prone to racial riots. Singapore was unanimously voted out in 1965; Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew declared it a fully sovereign country just hours later.

Fast forward 48 years and Singapore today is renowned as a developed, efficient, business-friendly country; its success has pushed it up the ranks to become the sixth most expensive city in the world. The picture of its rapid growth is, in many ways, complete.

It took countless movers and shakers to lay the foundation of the country. They challenged injustices, moulded socio-political environments and altered the course of the nation’s navigation to determine the right path for its people. Some of these people appear in the pages of history books. Others are gilded upon the moral fibre of those whose lives they have touched; their names may not be mentioned much, but future generations feel and appreciate their lasting influence.

One such name is Che Zahara Binte Noor Mohamed.

Guardian of the weak

In 1907, Che Zahara Binte Noor Mohamed was born into an illustrious family in Singapore. Her father, Noor Mohamed, was a prominent figure in the Malay community during British rule. Together with Sultan Ali of Singapore and Sultan Abu Bakar of Johore, he became one of the first Malay men to study the English language. This led him to roles as a mediator, translator and advisor to the British, as well as the liaison for locals who did not speak English. To be more mobile, he opted to wear trousers instead of the traditional sarong. Other Malay men soon followed. He inadvertently revolutionised their dressing style, which earned him his nickname, Inche Mohamed Pantalon (‘Inche’ means ‘mister’ in Malay; ‘pantalon’ means ‘trousers’ in Spanish).

Che Zahara’s husband, Alal Mohamed Russull, was a businessman from Ceylon (Sri Lanka). He also owned the Sri Rani Opera troupe which provided entertainment to the community. His strong advocacy of social welfare greatly influenced Che Zahara to pursue the same course.

Che Zahara herself was the epitome of selflessness, devotion and commitment. As a woman with a great cause, she spent her time looking after the poor and destitute, particularly orphans and womenfolk.

A woman with a purpose

After World War II, Che Zahara housed orphans and women in her house at 49 and 51 Desker Road. The area was a famous red-light district then, but it worked to her advantage as it gave her a chance to be as close as possible to women in dire need of help.

he Zahara made an appeal in the form of a booklet, requesting donations from local and international communities. It shared ambitions of providing a place to teach English and Malay and a venue to celebrate Malay weddings. The booklet also revealed a plan to shelter destitute Malay women.

She requested a donation of $500,000, a sum almost unthinkable at the time. But her appeals did bear fruit. In October 1947, she established the first Muslim women’s welfare home in Singapore, the Malay Women’s Welfare Association (MWWA) in the premises of her very own home. The donations were used to sustain her efforts in providing for those under her care.

Her relentless efforts to save women and children from life on the streets earned her the nickname ‘Che Zahara Kaum Ibu’, which translates to ‘Che Zahara who protected women and children’. The Japanese occupation during World War II and the post-war years were wrought with hardships. Many women became widows and saw their lives take a turn for the worse. Out of desperation, some resorted to prostitution to survive. Che Zahara became their beacon of light as she sheltered them, gave them food and education, and looked after their wellbeing. No governmental agency or organisation supported her in her noble work. It was her husband Alal who stood by her and made sure she had the means to pursue their shared belief in helping others.

The Malay Women’s Welfare Association

At the MWWA, she looked after 300 women and orphans from 1947 to the early 1960s. Despite the outline of her appeal for the home’s funding, the women and orphans at the MWWA were of different races and religions. Her belief in the power of education to break the cycle of poverty led her to create classes for the people under her care. From practical subjects like sewing to basic religious knowledge, she understood that these skills would create opportunities to bring at least a modest personal income. Singapore’s rapid progress and the growing importance of obtaining an education were not lost on her.

But she didn’t stop with workplace skills. Together with other MWWA volunteers, she lobbied strongly for the reform of social issues pertaining to women. Back then, marriage with a girl as young as nine was lawful. Che Zahara pushed the motion to raise the legal age of sex and marriage to 16. She attributed the high divorce rates of the time to the young ages of the girls, and recognised that the practice of selling off young daughters for dowries was contributing to the situation. This realisation led MWWA to become an unofficial ‘moral matchmaker’. They were entrusted with the care of as many as 110 poor girls to marry off to suitable husbands when the time was right.

Lasting legacy

Che Zahara believed that the female voice ought to be heard; that women could contribute in their own ways towards the betterment of society. A ban on Muslim women participating in politics became a target for her opposition. This challenge prompted a severe backlash from her male counterparts, who questioned her motives. But Che Zahara did not need to justify her convictions. She did her work not for fame or compliments, but with the belief that it was time for a change.

Her lobbying for the rights of women and children saw her travel to Lausanne, Switzerland in 1955 to represent Singapore at the World Congress of Mothers. There, she campaigned to garner international support for the rights of this vulnerable group.

She was also instrumental in setting up the Women’s Charter of Singapore with the assistance and input of many other volunteers over time. In 1961, it was successfully enacted by the Singapore parliament.

Che Zahara passed away in 1962, leaving behind three biological and several adopted children. Hers was a life dedicated to empowering women and children with skills to see them through their own life journeys. She rose to the occasion of giant challenges and spoke out on behalf of the weak and marginalised of society. What Che Zahara achieved at a time when ‘women’s rights’ was in its infancy is monumental. For her immeasurable contribution to women and children not only of her time but also of future generations, Aquila Style is humbled and honoured to name her one of its Fabulous Muslimahs.

About Rita Zahara

This article would not have been possible without the help of Rita Zahara, a granddaughter of Che Zahara. Rita is a passionate explorer of culture. She is a member of the Publications Consultative Panel, Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts of Singapore and contributes to Mendaki’s Community Leaders Forum, aimed at enhancing Malay/Muslim standings in education, youth, employability and family. Rita is also on the board of many government-aided agencies and is heavily involved in humanitarian work for communities in Asia, especially in Southeast Asia. Like her grandmother, she improves access to education for women and children.

Much of this article and its images were derived from her best-selling cookbook, Malay Heritage Cooking, which she attributes to her grandmother.

Rita herself stumbled upon Che Zahara’s story a few years ago when she was working on a report on the exhumation of a Muslim cemetery. After noticing a few graves that had been spared, she learnt that one belonged to a woman. Her research eventually led her to the realisation that this grave was the final resting spot of her own grandmother.

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June 14, 2021

About Che Zahara

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Bundle Blogs

Che Zahara binte Noor Mohamed (nicknamed Che Zahara Kaum Ibu, 1907–1962) was a Malay activist who worked towards women’s and children’s rights in Singapore. She was one of the first Malay women in Singapore to fight for modern women’s rights, according to journalist, Hajah Halizah Mohd Som. Che Zahara is the founder of the first Muslim women’s welfare organization in Singapore, the Malay Women’s Welfare Association (MWWA). Over the course of thirteen years, she “looked after over 300 women and orphans regardless of race or religion.” She not only gave people a home, but also taught them religious knowledge and basic economic skills, such as sewing.

Che Zahara was born into an “illustrious family in Singapore.” Her father, Noor Mohamed, was an important man and one of the first Malay people to learn English, which he taught his daughter. Her husband, Alal Mohamed Russull, was an advocate of social welfare and justice. After World War II, she and her husband housed orphans and women in need in their own home, which was located on Desker Road in the middle of the “red-light district.”

Che Zahara founded MWWA in October 1947 and used the group to focus on issues surrounding marriage reform. MWWA attracted eighty members, about fifty of which were teachers almost immediately after its founding.

In 1948, she wrote four short plays to be performed as a protest against traditional Malay marriage customs, which included the ability of a man to divorce his wife without legal inquiry. In addition, she fought for husbands to pay alimony to divorced wives until she remarried. Che Zahara also supported the Laycock Marriage Bill which created a minimum age for marriage in Singapore Another initiative that Che Zahara supported was to encourage women to give blood in order to help the Singapore Hospital meet demands for blood transfusions.

After the Singapore Council of Women (SCW) was founded in 1952, Che Zahara had a “wider network and more resources available to the MWWA.” In 1955, she represented Singapore at the World Congress of Mothers which took place in Switzerland. In 1961, Che Zahara, along with the SCW, helped establish the Women’s Charter of Singapore.

Che Zahara was inducted into the Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame in 2014.

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December 14, 2020

Tradisi Masakan Melayu Dibukukan

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CZ Blogs

Sejarah dan warisan bangsa Melayu sering diabadikan dalam bentuk penulisan ataupun persuratan. la berhasrat agar generasi seterusnya bukan sahaja dapat mengenali akan budaya mereka tersendiri, malahan, dapat meraih manfaat dari ilmu pengetahuan itu. Ia bukan satu perjelajahan merentasi lautan ataupun penaklukan negeri yang menjadi bahan catitan, sebenarnya warisan masakan Melayu yang drterapkan dalam sebuah buku. Bahan-bahan yang dijadikan isi buku ini dapat dijadikan ‘santapan’ bagi generasi akan datang.

Dengan berbekalkan semangat susur galur keluarganya yang merupakan perangsang utama bagi Cik Rita Zahara, sebuah nama yang tidak asing lagi dalam dunia media tempatan. Beliau telah berjaya mengecapi matlamatnya yang sudah kian lama diimpikan. Hasil dari usaha gigihnya dan juga sokongan padu dari ahli keluarganya, Cik Rita teiah berjaya menghasilkan sebuah buku masak yang berjudul Malay Heritage Cooking (Terbitan Marshall Cavendish). Di dalamnya diisi sebanyak 60 resipi turun temurun.
Bukan sahaja ia menceterakan resipi-resipi masakan Melayu yang unik sepehti roti mariam, laksa Johor ataupun boi kentang Hajjan Zabidah di mana ia merupakan hasil olahan unik arwah ibunya, Hajjah Zabidah. Apa yang lebih menarik lagi, ia juga mengisahkan tentang jasa arwah neneknya, Che Zahara Noon Mohamed salah seorang pejuang hak asasi wanita yang terdahulu dan juga tersohor di rantau ini. Selain daripada menjadi pengasas Persatuan Kebajikan Wanita Melayu (MWWA), beliau juga telah mewakili Singapura di sebuah konvensyen hak asasi wanita dalam tahun 1950an dan sememangnya ini adalah satu pencapaian yang boleh dikagumi oleh masyarakat Melayu setempat.

Dalam ucapannya di majlis peiancarannya yang di adakan di Hotel Marina Mandarin dan dihadiri oleh beberapa orang terkenal seperti tetamu kehormat, Profesor Madya Fatimah Lateef, Anggata Parlimen (AP) CRC Marine Parade, pengerusi Yayasan Warisan Melayu, Cik Zuraidah Abdullah clan juga pengurus besar agensi penerbitan Marshall Cavendish yang telah menerbitkan buku masakan ini dengan sokongan Lembaga Warisan Negara (NHB). Cik Rita Zahara memberi penghormatan kepada arwah ibu dan jugs neneknya sebagai pelita yang membakar semangat di dalam jiwanya untuk menghasilkan buku ini.

Perjuangannya dalam menghasilkan buku masakan ini penuh dengan ranjau dan duri seperti mana beliau harus mengubahsuai kandungan resipi asli yang telah ditinggalkan oleh ibunya kerana resipi-resipi tersebut sering diadunkan bagi hidangan yang besar memandangkan arwah ibunya adalah seorang katerer/penyedia makanan. Selain dari itu, beliau juga harus mencuba setiap resipi yang terkandung dalam buku masakan itu dan menguji secara terperinci akan kesahihan dan ketepatan susunan resipi yang sedia ada.

Tambahan pula, setiap sesi pengambilan foto mengambil masa selama satu jam bagi setiap hidangan kerana pihak penerbit ingin memastikan bahawa setiap foto yang dihasilkan berkualiti tinggi. Oieh itu Cik Rita dan beberapa antara pembantunya harus memastikan seni reka hias bagi hidangan mereka sentiasa kelihatan segar dan anggun, terutama sekali dari pandangan lensa jurufoto. Walaupun Cik Rita Zahara berdepan dengan jadual yang agak padat, beliau tetap cekal hati untuk menamatkan projek buku ini. Beliau kini masih mengambil ijazah kedoktoran di Universiti Teknologi Nanyang Singapura (NTU) dalam jurusan Anti­Pengganasan clan Penyelidikan Krisis. Kita sering menggunakan kesibukan kerja seharian sebagai satu alasan untuk melakukan sesuatu hobi, bagi Cik Rita, minat dan cintanya yang mendalam terhadap memasak itu merupakan satu dorongan kuat baginya untuk menulis buku ini.

Dengan berinspirasikan kata-kata Toni Morrison, seorang penulis masyhur yang terkenal dengan hasil karyanya seperti Beloved, ‘Jika ada sebuah buku yang ingin anda baca tetapi la tiada, anda mestilah rnenulisnya’. (If there’s a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it)

Bukan sekadar mahu berjaya dalam nnenghasilkan sebuah buku masakan itu, buat julung-julung kalinya, sebuah buku masakan telah dijadikan sebagai satu idea bagi penghasilan program masakan ala rancangan realiti Hell’s Kitchen terbitan Fox. Program realiti yang 
berjudul Queen Juara Memasak itu disiarkan buat pertama kalinya di Suria pada bulan November 2011 dan hingga telah mendapat sarnbutan yang menggalakkan dari para penonton tempatan. Apa yang menarik di sini adalah majlis pelancaran itu telah disilangkan dengan salah satu suntingan episod Queen Juara Memasak, 4 dari peserta separuh akhir rancangan itu telah dijemput ke pentas clan diberi cabaran oleh Cik Rita untuk menganyam ketupat dalam masa yang terpantas.

Di sini, kita dapat melihat kebolehan Cik Rita Zahara dalam kerja tangan di dapur apabila beliau dapat menganyam ketupat secara bersahaja sambil menguntum senyuman kepada para hadirin. Hasil daripada membantu ibunya di dapur sejak bertahun lamanya, beliau telah berjaya untuk menyelesaikan penganyaman itu jauh lebih pantas jikalau dibandingkan dengan ke empat-empat peserta lain. Diiringi tetamu kehormat dan juga ayahandanya, upacara pemotongan kek yang juga melambangkan pelancaran rasmi Malay Heritage Cooking mengakhiri majlis pelancaran buku. la juga melakarkan satu titik permulaan bagi Cik Rita yang telah menyuntik satu nafas baru kepada warisan seni masak-memasak Melayu. Usaha beliau dalam memartabatkan budaya dan bangsa Melayu seharusnya dicontohi oleh setiap usahawan muda Melayu tempatan yang bukan sahaja ingin berjaya dalam bidang perniagaan tetapi juga menyumbang kepada masyarakat bangsa Melayu. Agar usaha murni Cik Rita sentiasa diberikan sokongan padu oleh masyarakat Melayu dan juga badan-badan pemerintah supaya warisan kita tak lapuk dek hujan, tak lekang dek zaman.

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December 14, 2020

Healthy Eating For The Holiday Season

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CZ Blogs

“During the holiday season, we often indulge ourselves in heavy and delicious food at gatherings and parties. Of course we all want to let our hair down and enjoy ourselves during the holiday season, but we should not neglect our healthy lifestyle and eating habits!

So how do we enjoy these mouth-watering treats like cookies and cakes that are both healthy and yummy? My team of bakers and I have carefully researched and developed cookies to eat without guilt. My collection is carefully chosen. So here’s to a happy, healthy eating for the holiday season. Our last orders for Hari Raya 2013 close on 30th July” – Rita Zahara.

For more health tips, you can go to the Yakult Klinik Kita Edisi Makover page: “here“.

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December 14, 2020

Che Zahara Selected For The Inaugural List of Inductees For Singapore Women’s Hall Of Fame

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Bundle Blogs

Che Zahara Noor Mohamed has been selected for the inaugural list of inductees for the Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame by a panel of distinguished Singaporeans, led by Prof Tommy Koh. The ceremony was graced by President Tony Tan and Mrs Mary Tan at Shangrila. The Hall of Fame has been established to honour women who have made, or are making an impact on our nation.

The Second World War left many women as widows. Some were forced to turn to prostitution to make money to survive. Against this backdrop, Rita’s late grandma, Che Zahara, continued her work taking care of the welfare of the needy, orphans & women, and she sought to formalise it and founded Singapore’s first Muslim women’s welfare organisation, the Malay Women’s Welfare Association (MWWA), in 1947.

In 1955, Che Zahara represented Singapore at the World Congress of Mothers, in Switzerland. She also worked with the Singapore Council of Women (SCW) to help establish the Women’s Charter of Singapore, enacted by Parliament in 1961. Eventually the MWWA dissolved and Che Zahara joined the SCW.

Between 1947 and the early 1960s Che Zahara looked after 300 women and orphans, regardless of their race or religion. She died in 1962. 

Rita picked up the award of “Pioneering champion of the rights of women and children” on her grandmother’s behalf. 

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November 11, 2020

Women In Action Exhibition Highlights Singapore’s Malay Women Rights History

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CZ Blogs

SINGAPORE – When Madam Fatimah Azimullah, 72, started her primary education, her mother hid from her father that she was attending school.
 

The busy businessman only found out when she was in Primary 5 and by then he “couldn’t make me leave”, the former president of the Singapore Muslim Women’s Association (PPIS) recounted.
 

“To him, girls don’t need to go to school. When they come to a marriagable age, marry them off, and that’s it. That was the thinking of conservative parents of that time,” she told The Straits Times on Thursday (May 24).

Madam Fatimah is one of the women featured in the Women in Action exhibition, which traces the history of the Malay women’s rights movement in Singapore.
 

Organised by the Malay Heritage Centre, the exhibition will travel to five libraries, starting with the Central Library on Friday, and will run till Oct 31.
 

Said Madam Fatimah: “I was in secondary school when I realised education was so important. You see people who are educated, they are able to have better living standards and work, and they can be independent.”
 

After completing her O levels, she became an English and science teacher at a primary school.

She then joined PPIS as an honorary secretary when she was 25 and helped the non-profit organisation establish social and early childhood education services, as well as assisted in efforts to support single mothers.
 

“Some women don’t have extended families to help them when they’re divorced so they don’t get enough support. We see the difficulties women face when they’re divorced, and that’s one reason why we set up a centre to help single parents in the 80s.”

Exhibition curator Nasri Shah, 27, spent 2½ years on the project and compiled the timeline display through researching old newspaper articles.

He said: “We then identified some organisations and individuals because articles don’t talk much about emotions, the blood, sweat and tears behind (the women’s) initiatives.”
 

Apart from PPIS, he also interviewed the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations and Madam Rita Zahara, the granddaughter of Malay activist Che Zahara Noor Mohamed.
 

Madam Rita, 42, a former journalist turned entrepreneur, said: “When I researched about her, I found out about her involvement in the Women’s Charter, and she also raised the minimum age for girls to be married to 16. She lobbied for women to be educated.”

“She inspired me to be involved in humanitarian work around the region, to empower women and children to promote access to education.”
 

The exhibition will also be held at Ang Mo Kio Public Library, Tampines Regional Library, Jurong Regional Libary, as well as NUS Yale Library.

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