Faster, Better, Stronger: Meet Three Malaysian Women Who Bent All The Rules

Three women share their experiences dabbling in 'unusual' careers and hobbies

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Faster, Better, Stronger: Meet Three Malaysian Women Who Bent All The Rules

It’s International Women’s Day – a huge shout out to all the amazing women out there!
Women have come a long way since the feminism battle started, but even now, there are spheres where there are few women representation, if at all.
We spoke to a three strong women who’ve made their mark in areas that are, unfortunately, not as popular among Malaysian women.
One was welcomed with open arms, one faced the usual skepticism and one faced outright rejection, but all of them never gave up on their passion.
Let’s see what the awesome women have to say about their journey!

#1 The girl who just wants to fly

The balloon sisters - Atiqah (left) and Izzati (right)
Flying a hot air balloon in Malaysia is almost unheard of, but sisters Atiqah and Izzati Khairuddin became the first female hot air balloon pilots in Malaysia, following in their father’s footsteps.
The sisters now run AKA Balloons Sdn Bhd, the company behind the annual Putrajaya International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta.
We caught up with half of the balloon sisters, Atiqah, who shared her experiences and struggles with us.
How did your interest in flying hot air balloons start?
I’ve been involved in the business since the first Putrajaya Balloon festival in 2009. 
I was still studying then. Once I was done with my studies, I joined the company full time. Even when I was studying I used to take two to three weeks off during the festival.
I think the interest sparked even since I was first involved in the fiesta.
So that’s when my sister and I joined. He (father) never gave us any direction. He’ll just ask us for our opinion and we used to brainstorm and he’ll be like… "you try it".

So, we tried it, fell in love with it and never stopped.
But learning to fly was a purely business decision. When father passed away, and my sister and I decided to take over the business, we felt like we needed to learn everything about it.
But we didn’t know we'll fall in love so deeply with flying. Now we don’t feel like organising anymore. We just want to fly.

Where did you learn to fly and get your licence?
We don’t have a school here so we went to Spain.  You have theory and practical classes just like any other type of aircraft.
My sister and I, when we went for the training in Spain, we bought return tickets. You know lah. It’s cheaper to buy return tickets.
But this was before knowing how intensive it’ll be. The normal duration, on average, to get a licence is six months. We did it in a month.

It was a crazy month. We were in Spain but it didn’t feel like we were in Spain. We couldn’t even go jalan-jalan and sightsee.
We woke up at 4am every day and we fly till 11am. ‘Cos in Spain, they have the weather that allows us to fly longer.
In Malaysia, we can only fly from 7 a.m. to 8 or 8.30 a.m. If not, it gets too hot and dangerous. So we train for five hours, then we went for our theory classes.
It was intense but it worked for us because we practiced daily. The habit gets to you faster.

Share with us one of your most unforgettable memories.
There were times… imagine being sisters, and the basket is pretty small, with our instructor inside. Me being the younger sister, and she (Izzati) the elder, she was always protective over me.
I become a bit rebellious. So, every time we wanted to fly - you cannot have another person telling you what to do - we always fight. Our instructor just let us be till one time we were talking, and didn’t realise we were descending and we just crash-landed.
And my instructor was like, “Did you learn your lesson?” and I was like “Yeah…we learnt not to speak to each other while flying”.
I apply that now too when I fly commercially. Whenever my passenger - sometimes they just want to talk to you - they don’t care what you’re doing. I understand they don’t understand the procedure; we make sure we tell them.
Going up is easy, that’s fine. But when I’m landing I tell them I need the silence and the focus.
Everything that we do, if there’s any hiccup, you learn from it.
Has being a woman ever come as an obstacle in your chosen career?
Surprisingly, no. People actually encourage women to participate. To run a hot air balloon… it’s not a one man show.
For us, we feel quite privileged to be women, because guys being guys they want to protect you so whenever there are heavy stuff and all… they’ll be like, "No, no, no we’ll do it". Which is great for us.

What would you say to others who wish to fly?
 Just go for it. Come to us, but go for it.
We’re living in an era where everything is possible. We can get so much of knowledge at the tip of our fingers.
All we have to do is try. There will be a lot of failures but it’s how we look at it after and learn from it is what’ll make the difference.
For you to try something that’s never been done before… it’ll take lots of perseverance and patients. But at the end of the day - you won’t realise it till you look back one day - that you’ve made it.
Besides organising the annual balloon festival, the sisters also have a sister company, My Balloon Adventure, where they offer rides to customers and you can even advertise your own products on the balloons.
The price is a little steep, but worth it for a once in a lifetime experience.

#2 The girl who fights her way to the top

Jihin (right) has made the country proud on multiple occasions
If you follow the Mixed Martial Art scene, you’d definitely have heard of up and coming talent Jihin ‘Shadow Cat’ Redzuan.
Don’t be fooled by her sweet smiles and gentle looks. Jihin is fierce on the mat, as she’s proven time and again.
If, like us, you’ve been interested in knowing more about the Johor lass, here’s what she has to say.
When did you first start getting interested/involved in martial arts?
When I was in kindergarten, our teacher made us join silat but I stopped practicing during primary school. Then, when I was 16, I came across a Korean drama that had MMA as part of the storyline; needless to say I was inspired and never looked back.
You've mentioned in your interviews that your love affair with the sport started when you watched Korean fighter Sun Ga Yeong on TV. Did you follow the sport before that? What about that particular fighter that got your attention?
After I watched the Korean drama, I started to find her fight videos on YouTube and it immediately got my attention.
There were a few fight videos about her, and I was mesmerised by the way she moved and her confidence.

Not one to be messed with.Can you tell us a little bit about your journey to becoming a professional MMA fighter? What are your goals?
I started by competing in amateur Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu bouts then moved to amateur MMA.
I was fortunate enough to attain multiple championship titles in Kickboxing, Muay Thai and MMA.
I made the transition to pro MMA because it was getting harder to find opponents. To add to that, I’m the kind of girl who likes to challenge myself.
Honestly, it was quite hard at first to go through the journey, but it was all worth it. 

What are some of the biggest challenges you face? How do you overcome them?
Injuries and mood swings. I train smart and avoid training with partners that have huge egos or try to prove something in training.
As for the mood swings, I’ll try to eat ice cream or chocolate during training (but not during fight camp). It really helps with my mood.
Who has been your biggest supporter in pursuing your passion?
 All my family members, especially my mom and of course, my coach and my team. Everyone play his or her own important role in my life.
Has being a woman ever been an obstacle for you?
I do not feel any big obstacles so far beside the lack of time for myself due to work, studying and training.
I’ve definitely been called a judgmental person, but I stay positive and pay them no mind.
What do you think about participation of girls and women in MMA locally?
I’d really like to see more local women participate in MMA because there are only a handful of us. I hope by actively competing and putting on a show, I can inspire girls across the country to put on a pair of gloves and step in the octagon.

What can be done to encourage more women to participate in sports and particularly MMA?
More awareness about how martial arts, especially MMA, is a good way to keep fit and stay protected. Self-defense should be more prominent among women as they are often victims of violent crime.
What do you do when you have free time?
Try something that I’ve never done before and food hunting. But most of the time, I’ll be around my cats!
What's your secret indulgence? 
Sleeping in and lazing around! 

Wow! She is not just fierce, but also wise as well. We hope people like Jihin can inspire more young girls to get involved in sports that are not yet popular in Malaysia.

#3 The girl who writes on walls

Miyo wants to be known for her work more than anything else
Over the years, street art has become more acceptable, and some would even call it ‘mainstream’. However, graffiti writing still has a little bit of a bad reputation.
However, that didn’t stop people who are passionate about it from pursuing the art form.
One of them is Dewi Emilia binti Iskandar, also known as Dewi Miyo or Tha Black Cat from Sarawak.
The 33-year-old single mother wears multiple hats – graphic designer, mural artist, the woman behind Borneo’s Hip Hop Movement Tha Project and graffiti writer.
Among all the hats she wear, graffiti painter is probably the least conventional, and also the most challenging.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your involvement in street art.
I was bitten by the graffiti bug when my lecturer back in university suggested that I do graffiti since I love hip hop and been doing a lot of typography-style work since I was 13 years old.
I joined a graffiti competition in my university for the first time in 2006. That was my first time painting using a spray paint on a plywood and had “spraygasm” (the love for spray cans as my art medium) ever since.
A few years later, I met my friends Dhiya, Twenty Fifth And Shaff. We then started to paint together until they moved to Peninsula Malaysia to further their studies.

Do you remember your first-ever street art? What was it about and when was it done?
My first legit graffiti painting was in Kuala Lumpur, in the year 2013 under the Jelatek Bridge.
I saw Jin Hackman’s post on Facebook about a graffiti jam called “Sembur With Friends: Hati Jalanan” coordinated by Mile 09.
I took my chance and joined an unknown bunch of old and new writers in the Malaysian graffiti scene for the first time without knowing anyone - I just heard some of their names and talked to a few online.

That was when I started introducing myself by the name of “Miyo”.

What attracted you to the whole street art movement?
Graffiti... is the coolest form of art that attracts my soul because it screams “hip hop” through it’s flow and brazen statement of “I was here” by just writing our names for the world to know that we ‘own’ the streets with our artwork.
There’s no price to graffiti except for pride and street cred. We are only getting paid by doing murals, doing art for other people be it on the streets or somewhere else. Graffiti is only for self-expression and satisfaction.

What is your style? What is it inspired by?
I used to love playing with Hiragana (Japanese writing)-style block letters formed in alphabets but then, after a while, a few people pointed out how much arrows suit my flow.
From then on, I practiced drawing arrows while falling in love with my Sarawakian roots of art with the spiral motives. I then combined them together as I flow- be it on paper, through graphics or on the walls.

Do you have any favourite street artists that you look up to?
Too many of them! But the one that really made me feel that being a woman is not an obstacle in being a graffiti artist is MadC (a famous German graffiti artist and muralist).
Also, most of the graffiti writers I met in Indonesia - they are inspiring beings who helps me out a lot with my graffiti through their guidance, positive criticism and support.
Basically, all great international and local writers I’ve heard of or met before had inspired me a lot.

Which ones of your own work are your favourite(s)?
The current one I did for “Womxn”, specially dedicated to all the women who have been discriminated in any male-dominated industry.

What was it like when you first started getting involved with street arts?
I got all the attention because not many women would choose this path.
Some saw my passion for graffiti, some chose to doubt me. I was told that there is no way that I would last longer than two years but hey, it has been seven years now and I am still doing graffiti.

Even though I’m not an active writer, still here I am- writing graffiti wherever, whenever I want to.

Were there any opposition and criticism from your family, friends or the street artists themselves?
My mum and family were totally against it at first, with thoughts of me getting into trouble with the authorities.
Some friends back then call me “itchy hands” but say nothing; some supported me from day one (y’all know who you are).
As for the graffiti writers in Malaysia… some hate my guts, some don’t want to paint with me, some call me “whack”, some treat me like I do not exist or don’t even deserve to be in the graffiti scene, some only know how to criticise.
But there are also those who guide me every now and then and still support me until today no matter what.

What were the main opposition and criticism you faced?
Malaysian graffiti writers who don’t accept me as one of them: With the fact that I am a single mom, (they think) I should just take care of my daughter and that graffiti writing is not meant for me.
There were those who said I am not good enough, slow to improve, a “toy” (a graffiti slang used on rookies and on someone who doesn’t know how to write graffiti).
I even did graffiti workshops and was teased that my level doesn’t qualify me to teach anyone yet.

When I did a simple old school style of graffiti writing, they told me to start getting on to wild style. When I get to wild style, I was told to keep it simple.
But excuse me; I am here to express, not to impress. So, I just did my thing in my own pace, space and phases.

How did you handle the issues that came from being a female street artist?
Honestly, it got me depressed for a bit when I was being criticised a lot, yet still they say that I do not belong in the graffiti world.
I stopped ‘seeing’ my “boyfriends” (spray cans) for a bit and took some time to reflect on what they said.
It took a toll on me and then I went to Indonesia - that was where I got my passion back.
That was when I learned that I really wasn’t good enough and started learning again from the basics.
I also realised that maybe because I was the only female in Malaysia doing graffiti letters, it made most of the other writers treat me the way they did, to see if I can handle the tough 'war' of graffiti.
I came back with a new spirit and method to keep my passion alive - whether I am active or not, I can’t and won’t stop writing graffiti.
Ignoring negative comments that are meant to bring me down or to stop me from doing graffiti really helps.
What can be done to encourage more women to get involved?
Creating awareness like doing an article like this, getting more support and guidelines rather than spewing negative criticism, getting the support from others to empower women in choosing the path that is less taken by females.
Do you have any last words for our readers?
I wish to see more women in Malaysia being inspired to write and have passion for graffiti.
Hopefully, no matter what challenges that they might face along the way, it won’t change their love for what they believed in and that they keep flowing through it all.
At the end of the day, it is our own souls we have to satisfy. “Graffiti is not for everyone”, they said, and “giving up on what I love, is just ain’t my style”, I say.

Dewi is proof that there’ll always be challenges when you’re trying something new but perseverance and the passion to keep learning can bring you far.
We wish you all the luck!

You go ladies! 

To all the women out there...Happy International Women's Day! Keep being the amazing you that you are.

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