Celebrating Tunku Sofiah Jewa, first Kedah princess to practice law

In the spirit of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, I turn the spotlight not just on the remarkable women who have made history, but also on the silent battles they fight within the confines of societal expectations and self-doubt.

My mother-in-law, Tunku Sofiah Jewa, is a profound example of individual merit and determination. Known affectionately as Mama, she humbly credits the supportive figures in her life for her accomplishments, yet it’s clear her success is deeply rooted in her pioneering efforts and resilience.

Despite her royal lineage, she did not rely on her status but instead charted her own path, becoming the first princess from the Kedah royal household to practice law. She was admitted as Barrister-at-Law of the Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn on July 16, 1970.

Her journey is marked by a rebellious streak, from volunteering to teach the blind in Kota Bharu to becoming a respected legal practitioner and educator – a testament to her ambition and hard work.

Such a legacy, however, also brings to light a common challenge many women encounter: the struggle to assert themselves confidently in professional settings.

Despite achieving positions of authority and expertise, a perplexing sense of self-doubt often persists. This experience can be significantly influenced by cultural, religious, and racial backgrounds, which shape our identities and perceptions in complex ways.

This paradox is further highlighted by the widespread phenomenon of imposter syndrome, particularly among female executives. Despite evidence of their competence and achievements, many women leaders question their skills and abilities.

Interestingly, while women are more prone to questioning their worth, they possess a natural inclination towards real confidence, more than men.

Yet, in the professional world, it is often observed that men overshoot their confidence, a trait that sometimes leads to setbacks or missteps.

This dichotomy raises questions about the support systems in place for women and the cultural narratives that shape our perception of confidence and success.

This phenomenon is not isolated. Across boardrooms and offices, women brimming with potential, grapple with the internal and external pressures that question their assertiveness and undermine their achievements.

The irony is that while women naturally have many qualities and traits that should make them confident, the world often makes them doubt themselves and keeps them from being fully represented.

Statistical insights from the World Bank and experiences of female executives underscore a persistent gap in labour force participation, business ownership, and political representation in Malaysia and beyond.

Despite progress, the shadow of imposter syndrome looms large, with studies indicating that around 70 per cent of female executives globally grapple with this form of self-doubt.

This pervasive issue cripples decision-making, risk-taking, and the pursuit of excellence, anchoring women in a cycle of questioning their worth and capabilities. [Note: This figure represents a general trend observed in various research]

The solution, however, lies within the problem itself. Role models like Mama, supportive networks, mentorship, and organisational transformations are beacons that light the way forward.

By creating an environment that truly values and recognises women’s contributions, we initiate the process of breaking down the barriers that impede self-assurance and professional achievement.

Reflecting on my career, I’ve witnessed first-hand the profound impact that exceptional CEOs and C-suite leaders can have when they act not just as superiors, but as mentors who genuinely believe in the potential of women.

Their transformative belief in our collective abilities instils confidence and courage, empowering us to excel and lead.

This experience has shown me the significant role that leadership plays in unlocking the potential of women in the professional sphere.

This kind of mentorship is essential for creating an environment where women can thrive and inspire future generations.

Hence, my involvement in mentoring undergraduates with my alma mater stems from a desire to pay this forward, offering guidance and support to the next wave of leaders, especially young women, as they navigate their professional journeys.

In this journey of advocacy and change, there is a deep commitment to not only highlight the challenges but also to actively contribute to solutions that empower women professionally.

Through our conversations with business leaders, we stress the importance of creating environments that foster women’s growth and confidence.

To this end, we advocate for and propose training programmes and social impact investment initiatives specifically tailored to meet the unique challenges faced by women in business, with a particular focus on those in the B40 category.

For example, we have identified that women who own SMEs often encounter barriers related to leadership skills and a reluctance to take business risks.

Such initiatives include mentorship schemes that pair aspiring female leaders with experienced executives, workshops that focus on developing leadership and negotiation skills, and forums for sharing experiences and strategies to tackle imposter syndrome.

These programmes aim not only to enhance skills but also to inspire and coach women to overcome leadership challenges, fostering ecosystems where women can excel, affirm their value, and confidently assume leadership positions.

The impact of these efforts is multifaceted. Beyond enhancing individual careers, they foster a more inclusive business environment where diverse leadership can drive innovation and sustainable growth.

Continuing to push for these changes, we draw inspiration from women like Mama, whose stories of resilience and achievement remind us of the potential that lies in every woman, waiting to be recognised and nurtured.

In our pursuit of empowerment, confronting the full spectrum of our interactions is essential. While the support and commitment of our peers are fundamental in overcoming systemic barriers, we must also candidly recognise that not all interactions are uplifting.

Occasionally, the actions and attitudes within our community can, whether inadvertently or intentionally, hinder the progress of fellow women.

Recognising and addressing these complexities enriches our understanding of solidarity and support, urging us beyond celebrating successes to actively addressing behaviours that may undermine our collective strength.

Such commitment ensures the inclusivity of our empowerment efforts, where the achievements of every woman are not only acknowledged but ardently championed.

A culture of genuine support and collaboration is pivotal. It’s the communal effort spanning organisations, communities, and individuals that embody the adage ‘it takes a village,’ cultivating an environment where encouragement and empowerment flourish.

As we honour and celebrate Women’s History Month, let’s recommit ourselves to the work ahead. Recognising and celebrating the achievements of trailblazing women is crucial, but so is the ongoing effort to ensure that every woman can navigate her professional journey without doubt or hindrance.

Main image: Tunku Sofiah (front row, fourth from left) was admitted as Barrister-at-Law at the Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn on July 16, 1970. In attendance on her call day, was her uncle, Malaysia’s first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj. 

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