Profile– By TJ Aumua
After a busy morning speaking at a violence prevention forum and dealing with a batch of media interviews and countless handshakes, Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre coordinator Shamima Ali finally has a few hours to relax until her next meeting in the evening.
As a prominent and highly respected figure in the Pacific for her championing of women’s rights, this self-proclaimed feminist confesses she was really just a rebel growing up.
Coming from a family of domestic violence, Ali says she saw injustices among the women of her family at an early age.
“You know, the grandmothers and aunts that would say, ‘you can’t do this and you can’t do this – you’re a girl, don’t laugh too loudly…all of that’. For me, it was a cause to rebel.
“I missed out on being a prefect [at high school] because some of the male teachers thought I wasn’t a well-behaved girl, was not of good character, because of being mouthy and all that sort of stuff,” she laughs.
At university, Ali studied to become a teacher and taught science until she left for England with her former husband, who was studying at the University of Sussex.
In England, she followed feminist groups and began attending forums and seminars discussing women’s rights.
It wasn’t until 1985, upon her return back to Fiji, when friends convinced her to join the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre as a volunteer member.
“We were a collective. I underwent training by some feminist trainers from Australia, and then I never looked back. I continued that work. It became my passion in life and I joined in 1986 as a paid coordinator.”
The centre was initially established as a rape crisis centre but today provides crisis counselling, legal, medical and protection services for women and children who have been victims of all forms of violence and abuse.
Now, having been at the centre for almost 30-years, Ali has been the recipient of numerous honours, including the Women of Courage Award by the US State Department in 2007.
Then in 2009, Ali was honoured with the inaugural Amnesty International Aotearoa/New Zealand’s inaugural Human Rights Defender award for her work at the centre as well as her courage to challenge the Fiji military backed regime and the effect it has had on the country.
In 2011, she was named Person of the year by Islands Business magazine and in 2012 was appointed to the UN Expert Group on “Prevention of Violence Against Women and Girls”.
Her success is evidence that Ali has continued to speak out for a cause which she admits has not been easy.
“The challenges are of course the very patriarchal society; very male-dominated. The use of tradition and culture and religion to keep women entrenched.
“The more resistance you get, the more determined you become,” she says.
“You know, the more injustices I see, the deeper I get into this work, the more my understanding deepens of why these things happen. That really urges me on, and that really pushes me to the extremes sometimes, that I need to continue this work.”
The centre has seen more than 20,000 people in the last 30-years and Ali says the biggest rewards are seeing a woman “make it”.
“When a woman comes to see you and she comes into the centre with drooped shoulders; there have been so many who have gone back smiling or have made something out of their lives. Not totally, you know, I won’t paint a perfect situation, but they have empowered themselves enough to get out of it.”
Ali says other successes of the centre have included the implementation of new legislation such as the Family Law Act, the Domestic Violence Decree and changes to the rape laws in Fiji to provide for better protection for women.
But Ali says there is hardly time to celebrate as new legislation means continuous lobbying, implementation and monitoring.
‘On your toes’
“You have to be on your toes you can’t at any point in time sit back and say, ‘oh, let’s celebrate for a while’”.
Ali also says the 2006 coup has also affected the centre as they have to keep up with new and changing decrees.
Despite the setbacks Ali has made it her life’s pledge to improve women’s rights.
“I’ve gone through two divorces because I found it difficult to be restricted by marriage, and I don’t regret it for a moment.
“People say, ‘oh, she has sacrificed so much’, but I didn’t sacrifice anything really, this is my passion, this is my commitment in life and so for me I have learnt so much.”
Ali perseveres and works tirelessly to speak up for what she believes in.
“I don’t care if I’m right, the motto I use is ‘stand up for what is right, even though you are standing alone.”
TJ Aumua is a Bachelor of Communication Studies (Honours) student at AUT University writing for Pacific Scoop.