Malaysian Housewife Turns Living Legend

By Mei Mei Chu
The Star, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia / Asia News Network

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Meet the amazing woman who founded the “Mah Meri Women’s First Weave Initiative.” An organization that has played a pivotal role in empowering women of the Mah Meri tribe.

The Star, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia / Asia News Network

She brought along with her a suitcase full of pouches, bookmarks, and other traditional handwoven products she and the Mah Meri women in her small village of 500 people had made to sell at a bazaar.

Maznah found the big city lights frightening.

“I was scared, very scared. The bus left without me and I had to call the only friend I had there, Billy, to help me check-in at the hotel,” Maznah said as tears pooled under her eyes.

That was back in 2004 when she had just established Tompoq Topoh or the Mah Meri Women’s First Weave Initiative — a women’s group to sell and promote traditional handicrafts.

Tompoq Topoh may sound unfamiliar to city folks, but for the Mah Meri tribe, it is the story of how one housewife played a pivotal role in empowering women and breathing new life to a dying heritage.

Like most adult Mah Meri women, Maznah was a housewife. She would help her fisherman husband at work, earning a meagre income for the family.

She enjoyed a simple life of fishing, planting and harvesting, but she suddenly found herself helpless after undergoing a surgery that stopped her from performing physical work.

Maznah realized that she needed to find an alternative source of income for her family.

The opportunity arose one day when Gerai OA, a volunteer group that sells indigenous crafts, asked for a small order of Mah Meri handicraft.

She seized on the opportunity and started Tompoq Topoh with her then 79-year-old mother, sister and niece, and fulfilled Gerai OA’s order.

Other women in the village were not interested in the endeavour, nor were they keen on weaving although it is the cornerstone of their cultural identity.

As Maznah puts it, “if we don’t weave, we are not Mah Meri anymore”.

In the Mah Meri tribe, the art of weaving is passed down from generation to generation. Men carve while women weave pandanus, nipah and mengkuang leaves into household items, ceremonial items, ornaments and even toys, each with a fascinating myth behind it.

But this heritage was slowly being forgotten with each passing generation.

Even Maznah’s own niece was hesitant about starting a business to sell their craft.

“Let’s not do it, auntie. What if they want something from us every day?” she had lamented to Maznah.

However, Tompoq Tompoh’s first consignment was a hit and the orders started rolling in.

The group of four women couldn’t cope with the orders so Maznah went around the village convincing fellow housewives join their venture.

“It was difficult getting them to join Tompoq Topoh. I told them rather than sitting and wasting time, it’s better to make some handicraft products to sell for extra income,” she said.

Thirteen years later, Tompoq Topoh has an army of 50 women from all five Mah Meri villages in Pulau Carey who sell their wares to customers across Malaysia.

What started as a side business to make extra cash grew into a movement that changed the identity of the Mah Meri women.

No longer were they mere housewives or fishermen anymore. One by one, the women became artisan weavers — and this gave them financial independence and improved their standing in their society.

“The men respect us more than before,” Maznah said, adding that the women can make RM300 to RM400 a month from Tompoq Tompoh.

More importantly, the women developed a higher sense of self-worth as their craft found new homes around the country, some going as far as Singapore, Japan, and the United States.

The dying art of weaving quickly saw a resurrection.

“There were fears (of the weaving tradition dying) before Tompoq Topoh was established. We were not actively weaving back then, we just made floor mats. Now, we weave different products and they all sell very well.

“I’m not afraid that our weaving tradition will die anymore because Tompoq Topoh has been very influential,” she said.

Maznah’s role evolved from weaver to manager, promoter and then a teacher, travelling around Malaysia to teach weaving to other women’s groups.

As an orang asli woman who only received a Standard Six education, Maznah did not expect to make such a big impact in her small village.

Her late father denied her a secondary school education because the roads to the school were too dangerous to traverse by foot.

While other 13-year-olds studied, Maznah did housework. She spent the days taking care of her parents, cleaning the house and learning how to weave from her mother.

But her lack of formal education did not stop her from having big ambitions.

When she was 18, Maznah dreamt of becoming a businesswoman after reading a newspaper article about a weaving course. She saw a vision of her own business in the photos of the beautifully-woven products in the article.

However, her hopes of were dashed when she asked her cousin for help to apply for the course.

“How are you going to learn? You have a low education level,” he told her.

The determined woman knew she had to find other ways to quench her desire for learning. So, she took her education into her own hands.

“I didn’t just sit at home and do nothing. I wasn’t good at reading. To improve my reading, I started reading newspapers,” she said, adding that she would often read while she cooked dinner.

She would read the newspapers — even old ones her father brought home from work — to keep in touch with the latest developments and social issues.

Maznah said that taking the initiative is the first step to success.

“What’s important is our hunger to succeed and the courage to take risks,” said Maznah. adding that she learned about marketing and improving her designs from other business owners.

She said that she would introduce modern designs and fun colours to make the designs more attractive to urban consumers, but added that she would not compromise on traditions, such as a production schedule guided by a lunar calendar.

“We have to produce our raw materials according to the moon cycle and the weather, or the leaves we use will be eaten by insects,” she explained.

However, she is keeping up with modern marketing tools like Facebook and Instagram, where she promotes her products.

Tompoq Topoh may have revived the weaving tradition in the community, but the future of the Mah Meri culture still hangs in the balance.

Their biggest fear is the dwindling nipah and mengkuang plants, the raw materials used.

Every year, the Mah Meri people replant mengkuang plants during the annual Ari Muyang, or Ancestors’ Day celebration but it is not enough to keep pace with the rate they are disappearing.

The villagers fear that their way of life will not survive for long if development encroaches further into the jungles there.

According to village chairman Azman Sap, the five villages in Pulau Carey, including Kampung Sungai Bumbun where Tompoq Topoh is based do not have sufficient raw materials for their craft.

Just down the road from Kampung Sungai Bumbun is a golf course with acres and acres of grassy grounds where a natural forest once stood.

“I hope our heritage does not get swallowed by time and development,” Maznah said.

Despite the bleak outlook, she is optimistic about Tompoq Topoh’s future.

She hopes to recruit every Mah Meri woman in Pulau Carey and hopefully, expand internationally.

“As long as I have life in my body, I will take care of Tompoq Tompoh.My wish for Tompoq Topoh is for it to be sustainable and for it to be known worldwide,” Maznah said, adding that the Mah Meri culture can be better preserved by introducing themselves to the world.

Reflecting on her long journey from housewife to entrepreneur, Maznah said she has surprised herself.

“I did not expect to succeed and achieved all this,” she said.

She nonchalantly revealed that the Tourism and Culture Ministry had bestowed her a rare and high honour in 2015 — Maznah was proclaimed a national heritage and a living legend for reviving their dying heritage.

“I wanted to cry when I received the award,” Maznah laughed.

As the first woman in her village to start a business, Maznah has paved the way for other women in her community to break free from their personal boundaries.

Even when her husband left her for another woman four years ago, she accepted her new identity as a single working mother and did not let it break her.

“Tompoq Topoh has been very important in giving strength to the Mah Meri women,” she said.

There is a calm confidence in her voice as she speaks.

Despite her confident personality that she has built over the last 13 years, there is a sliver of shyness she has kept from her former life as a simple housewife.

“I was never good at talking like this,” she admitted.

After many years of training herself to speak to the media, she has learned to let her confidence shine.

Since that first trip to Kuala Lumpur, Maznah has travelled to Singapore, Germany and Morocco to showcase her culture, and plans to continue going places until the whole world knows who the Mah Meri are.

“When I was young, I wanted to be a model. Now, I am a role model,” Maznah said.

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