09 Jan Che Zahara Binte Noor Mohamed
Che Zahara was born in 1907 in Singapore. Little did she know that the impact of her action would be engraved in Singapore’s history and in the hearts of the people she helped.
Her first influence was her parents. Her father, Noor Mohamed, was a community leader in the Malay community during the British rule. He was among the first Malay men to study the English language from the colonials. This privilege was extended to her and her siblings, making them fluent in the language since an early age.
Noor Mohamed revolutionised the dressing styles of the Malay Men with his choice of wearing trousers instead of the traditional sarong. This earned him his nickname, Inche Mohamed Pantalon (‘Inche’ meaning mister in Malay; ‘pantalon meaning trousers in Spanish). It could be his bravery against the norm that inspired her with the same bravery to challenge social issues during her time.
The second influence was her husband, Alal Mohamed Russul. He was a businessman from Ceylon, known as Sri Lanka today. He fuelled her passion to care for those in need, especially when Singapore was still struggling to stabilise in the post-war years. No governmental agency supported her in her work. He was the one who supported her financially and mentally to pursue their shared belief in helping others.
During that time, women who were widowed by the war found great difficulties to survive and often sadly turned to prostitution as the last resort. This included those we were victims of marital issues such as unfair divorce proceedings and child marriages. Those women who dared leave home to seek education or employment were heavily criticised and stigmatised. Marriage with a girl as young as nine was lawful and some were also sold off for dowries.
At that time, she had yet to see any Malay woman in all of Singapore who fought for the rights of women and provided for the welfare of destitute orphans and women. That was how she founded Singapore’s first Muslim women’s welfare home, Malay Women’s Welfare Association (MWWA), sheltering over 300 women and orphans. They were mainly Malay and included other races and religions as well. More than just a roof over their heads, the welfare home gave moral support, money, skills training and education. She had always believed in the power of education to break the cycle of poverty so that they can create opportunities to bring at least a modest personal income.
She was also entrusted with the care of as many as 100 poor girls to marry off to suitable husband when the time was right. Together with many other volunteers, she joined the fight in setting up the Women’s Charter of Singapore to ban child marriages. In 1961, it was successfully enacted by the Singapore parliament. Reforms – not just charity – were on her mind when she set out to improve the lives of women of all races and the less fortunate.
People called herChe Zahara Kaum Ibu – Che Zahara Protector of Women and Children. But to her, she was simply a woman who did not want to see anyone sad. She liked to see people happy, so she came forward to help when she heard of someone in distress. To her children, she taught them to find the good elements in life.
“First, love yourself. If you don’t love yourself, you cannot love others.”
Che Zahara passed away in August 1962, aged 55.