Interview - Power Shifts - Angela Kuga Thas

Tell us about yourself. How did you begin the work that you are doing now?

Hmm… good question. I think I allowed life to bring me where I am now. I never imagined that I would become an activist. While I was growing up, all I ever had drummed into me was government propaganda of how the country came to be, how nice and rosy it is as a multi-racial country and how we should not do anything to destroy this cosy, rosy picture. So speaking out, acknowledging and standing up against injustices, was something I only embraced much later in my life. It was around 1996, and even then, it was a slow process of growth, of finding myself in certain positions where I can actually make a difference, where I can actually help, and of testing myself in these spaces that I found myself in, of testing my own strength and perseverance.

Before that, I was very much a person who felt that if I had a reasonably good job and if I do it well, I’d be okay. In my earlier years, I seemed to be moving towards the government sector or the private sector, but in 1990, I entered the development sector, and this was probably the slow, invisible start of my journey as an activist. Often, I feel like my path has already been set out for me, but the how of it is left to me, how I do what I do, have been my choices and my making.

What led you to work with young people?

I had wanted to work with young people because of the increasingly challenging and narrowing spaces I see taking place in the name of morality and in the name of national security. When I was young, the issues of power and dominance were very stark realities. About the age of  and onwards, I remember I’d sit on a swing often in the night and wonder how come other children seemed to have parents that were different, happier with each other, compared to mine. I refused to believe that it was an incompatibility issue of culture or religion. Through the years, I found out so many things that complicated my parents’ lives as a couple, which had little to do with their own culture and religion as two separate people, but often, what was imposed by society. I was a very firm believer that if more families were borne out of mixed ethnicities, we’d have a better world, one would be more compassionate and less judgmental. I still believe that this is a good solution.

The protectionist approach as a solution to everything, camouflages the real issues, i.e. the extension of existing power and control over those less empowered. I feel that young people’s minds and attitudes can also challenge how we ourselves think and our approaches to the issues, as well as our analysis of the issues. So we co-founded Knowledge and Rights with Young people through Safer Spaces (KRYSS). Working within a gender equality and human rights framework, KRYSS enables young people to deal with identity-based discrimination and creative arts in its training and activities.

How does KRYSS work on the intersection of issues of young people, human rights and safer spaces?

My fellow founders and I were interested in facilitating spaces for discourse, by using creative approaches to do this, specifically using creative writ- ing and the visual arts. The arts have always been a very good space for subversive activities and expression.

From the beginning, we’ve used a very basic approach of ‘Heart-Head-Hand’. If we can get young people to feel the issues of discrimination faced by one another, they’ll at least start to question why discrimination takes place and then, hopefully, be ready to do something about it, and it doesn’t have to be anything big. Often, we’re working with young people who are not activists, and who are not oriented to activism or human rights issues in any way. Their knowledge and exposure is very limited. Hence, the ‘Heart-Head-Hand’ approach. Our emphasis has always been that ‘Creating safer spaces for all begins with each of us, and it’s a matter of grabbing the opportunities that come before us, to do so’. We facilitate such a space where issues of discrimination can be discussed and shared.

It’s not an easy position to be in or an easy space to bring about. It can be tough when emotions run high. We work on issues of religion, ethnicity, race, sexuality and gender.

In every country, these issues differ in intensity for different young people. For some, it’s more about religion and how they see themselves being discriminated against because of their religion. For some, it’s more about ethnicity and race issues. For others, it’s sexuality and gender.

What are the creative ways in which KRYSS deals with issues of identity based discrimination?

KRYSS facilitates spaces for expression, using the arts. To encourage a much richer discourse, we complicate the issues of discrimination, bring- ing forth its complexities and the values linked so closely to various forms of discrimination. Our fundamental creative approach is to embrace all the realities and biases, and then to turn around and to allow judgment to be made but to make the process of judgment, and therefore, the rationalisation that permits discrimination, difficult. We also work with the understanding that power shifts, can take different forms, and, in different spaces, can lie very strongly in the most unlikely people.

That sounds very challenging…

Yes, working with creative approaches has presented KRYSS with challenges, especially when we’re working in partnership with different groups. We’ve worked in partnership with rights-based groups and the arts-based groups. The arts-based groups and community find our approach too basic, too literal and not artistic enough. I appreciate their critique of how we’re working, and we’re also working with young people who are, as I said earlier,not necessarily activists, but also not necessarily artists.

I realise that we, as activists, can be too literal with our writing and our art as means of communication – we tell people what we want so that they will feel, think and act in alignment with our advocacy stand. But artists prefer to present complexities and are open to how people read the work that they do. It doesn’t matter if the interpretation is different from what was intended, or does it matter? I’m not sure.

The Films of Desire event that I participated in also reinforced this understanding, and it has forced KRYSS to take a step back to look at how we’re doing the work we do. How creative does the final work need to be, in stating the issues? Can we afford to be literal? What does it mean for us if we present our work and are open to what others will make of it – how they feel for it, what they think of it, what they’ll do as a result of those feelings and thoughts? What kind of risks would KRYSS be taking? Would such risks strengthen KRYSS or just make us more vulnerable and our work and approaches ineffective and therefore considered unsustainable? What does it really mean to bring about behaviour change through creative approaches?

These are questions and issues that we’re still grappling with. Bottom line, KRYSS feels there’s value in any of the young people’s work, irrespective of its literal translation or non-literal translation. But how others will value this work is, unfortunately also a necessary consideration, if our creative approach to advocacy is to be effective.

You were also creative in a different way in doing research with lesbians in Malaysia. Tell us more about how you did this first of its kind research in 2004. What did you find?

I used the snowball technique. It was the only way to get into a closed community, and I respect the closed nature of the community, I could relate to and appreciate their right to exclude, to not want to allow others into their space, and their sense of community. My research began to move forward mainly because of friends who played active roles in the community. My own engagement and interaction with the lesbian community was further facilitated through community-based mailing lists.

Young women are more sexually adventurous, and probably because of the Internet, have had more opportunities to be sexually adventurous. The myth that women tend to become lesbians if they go to an all-girls school, I dare say, is only that, a myth. In fact, the women I had interviewed, didn’t even cite that as a possible reason. Only one did. A number have had boyfriends before, or sexually experimented with boys or men. And they did want to talk. I feel that most needed that opportunity to talk, and to talk with someone who isn’t sexual with them but who could understand and wouldn’t judge.

For many, it’s about companionship – the right to choose whomsoever they want as a companion – and least about sexual health or even sexuality as an issue. This made me seriously consider the asexuality and bisexuality continuum as a more realistic continuum, rather than of one between homosexuality and heterosexuality. The research also made me realise that gender identities, roles and statuses have a very strong influence over the choices these women made, and that there was a need to capture in one framework, the dynamism of the process of exploring one’s sexuality and the spheres of influence on the individual. When constructing this framework, I found that the issue of gender became more central as a basis of formation and evolution for all of the other elements of sexuality.

You have taken your involvement with gender issues into the virtual realm as well. How do you see gender and information and communications technologies (ICTs) being inter- connected?

ICTs are often seen only as tools and technology. Very few people question why technology is designed a certain way or how and when it is used and by whom, because this is all gender-related, and gender hardly ever is important enough to be considered an issue when it’s about technology, unless it’s about the marketability of that technology. And then, when it’s about marketability, only those with a certain level of purchasing power are able to benefit.

ICTs are like public roads that can allow people to communicate with each other and move from one place to another safely. Can women get onto this road (ICTs) safely?

No, because not enough is done to educate women on how to protect themselves, and private data is stolen, shared or sold and women become victims of sexual harassment, or worse, violence. This kind of training, these tips and hints on how to use the ICTs and be safe, are like lights for dark roads.

Can women even think of using this road? No, because she has to consider how far away this road is (access to ICTs is not necessarily nearby; infrastructure is always urban- centred) before she can safely get to it. She has to think about who owns the road because even though it may be a public road, there are people who control access to the road or exercise ownership over it (public ICT- type facility centres). Can she afford to get onto this road? How much will it cost her? Not just financially but in terms of her pride, her integrity, her sense of self worth? Will I get to go where I need to go once I get onto this road? ICTs are often so English language driven, and demand a certain level of basic literacy, and so where are women in this picture? It is like a new road they cannot get on to because they don’t know where it will lead them, whether it will be where they really want to go or to meet who they really want to meet.

How do you address this?

I have been a member of the Association for Progressive Communications’ Women’s Networking Support Program (APC WNSP) since 00. At APC WNSP issues of access, affordability and ownership as well as control (the latter two quite different from each other) are addressed through advocacy, capacity-building, research and networking. Basically, we ask people to put on their gender lens, we encourage them to do so through different types of collaborative projects such as awards-giving (for example, Gender and ICT awards) and small seed grantmaking, and if they are interested but don’t know how, we show them how to do so through our various capacity-building projects.

My consultancy work with the WNSP has largely been in relation to advocacy, writing, capacity building, evaluation and research. Maybe you’ve seen the ICT and gender e-primer for the Asian Pacific Develop- ment Information Programme?

I also wrote an issues paper Paddling in Circles while the Waters Rise: Gender Issues in ICT and Poverty Reduction for the network. From March 00, I was a full-time research coordinator for Phase Two of WNSP’s Gender Evaluation Methodology project.

Currently, my work is largely on capacity-building in the design and conduct of gender evaluations for ICT projects.

What was the work that you did with IWRAW (International Women’s Rights Action Watch)? Was it connected to this?

I’ve been more of a friend to people in IWRAW Asia Pacific, working with them on very specific work, like their CEDAW training-of-trainers manual and then their toolkit for the Optional Protocol on CEDAW. This work was spread over the years 2003 to 2007.

Working with them, has been a huge learning experience for me as well, especially just pouring through all their training content. It’s incredibly amazing and a very well- developed set of resources. It gave me a tremendous amount of insight as to why if we work on any women’s rights issues, we do have to also try and work with groups like IWRAW Asia Pacific and ideally, their country partners, to strengthen the work behind CEDAW.

I’m more on the periphery of their work, but often, I do try and recommend linkages and paths of advocacy with other groups, to always link with CEDAW. This includes groups that work on communication rights and women’s rights in relation to information and communication technology, and women and HIV/AIDS. However, often people don’t know how to do this and so, soon forget the suggestion or immediately dismiss this.

Others, who are more familiar with all of the human rights instruments, tend to see the work behind CEDAW as largely ineffective. I don’t agree with them because I feel strongly that the instrument and the processes are things we have to make work for ourselves.

What are the kinds of challenges that you face? What gives you a sense of achievement?

Hmmm… the main challenge constantly for me is really KRYSS. Work with KRYSS is voluntary (as in quite a bit of my other work), but KRYSS is much more demanding than my other voluntary work, and because of this, KRYSS has taken a back seat due to the various demands on me. We also struggle because we’re still very small and located in a ‘developed’ country.

We’re currently working on ensuring a better outreach through an online platform for KRYSS. We’ve also been exploring different possibilities as to our institutional structure. What I feel would be ideal for KRYSS is not to be a legal institutional structure but to be able to just implement projects, something like the Seven Samurais. Did you ever watch that movie? Come together, do what needs to be done, then go off and carry on with your own life, till you need to come together again. That would be ideal! And that’s a big dream!

But donor-type funding demands an institutional structure, legitimacy and credibility are so much tied to institutional structures and rigidity. In most ways, we relate quite strongly with Anne Firth Murray’s belief, that if we can bring about even a small change through one small interaction in young people, especially young women, it would still be a change and sustainable in its own defined sense.

I believe that if KRYSS can continue to contribute to helping young people achieve a better sense of self and understanding and heightened appreciation of others, we would be bringing about much-needed change in a world where permanence is as temporary as life.

Malaysia is counted as one of the more ‘developed’ countries in this region. Do you think there is a more positive outlook on issues of sexuality in Malaysia?

Not at all! The development status of any country is measured mainly by economic productivity standards and conventional measurements which really just denote a capitalistic understanding of wealth. The overall well-being of citizens and non-citizens of a country is not considered.

The Malaysian government has been on a path of growing conservatism and arrogance in how they deal with the rights of citizens (and migrants and refugees), until the last elections this year in March, where for the first time in our history, we have a strong opposition in government.

We’re beginning to see some needed changes, but the changes haven’t yet even begun to broach sexuality rights yet. The efforts are now focused on freedom of information and the abolishment of the Internet Security Act.

How do you manage to wear so many hats?

I have many interests, but fortunately, they are all very much interconnected in one way or another. I believe the ability to continue dreaming drives me, and the attitude of ‘never say die’ and ‘one step at a time’

How have your family, friends, and colleagues reacted to your work?

Colleagues and peers have been extremely supportive and encouraging. Most of my friends are really colleagues, or peers, and fellow activists. My family doesn’t seem to really know what I do – all they know is that I work on human rights issues. It’s hard to explain when they’ve only known government employment (civil service, public sector, armed forces sector) or private sector employment (business).

The development sector is very new to them, let alone rights- based work. I don’t feel that I really need to explain the work that I do because they have never questioned my choices, but have always given me the freedom I need to do the work that I do. So in that way, they do give me affirmation and support.

It’s the complete sense of trust that I receive from them that’s made it so, so, much easier.

Angela Kuga Thas, a Malaysian, is a founding trustee of Knowledge and Rights with Young people through Safer Spaces (KRYSS). She has worked with IWRAW (International Women’s Rights Action Watch) Asia Pacific on the CEDAW and with other organisations on women’s sexual and reproductive health, and provision of microcredit. She monitors the local media on sexual discrimination with a small group of fellow malaysians. as a member of the association for progressive communications women’s networking Support program, Angela has been particularly active in gender and ICT policy advocacy. Angela is on the advisory council of the global fund for women, is a member of the International advisory committee for bridge at the Institute of development Studies in the United Kingdom, and is on the board of the association for women’s rights in development (AWID).