Cécile Castilla (CC) is an experienced journalist from France and has previously worked as the editor of Dua Minggu. Nicola Lynskey (NL) is British and a qualified lawyer by profession. Both of them are married and living in Brunei with their families as expatriates. They met each other two years ago when their children started in the same class at JIS and since then have become great friends. Wanting to use their skills to help raise money for local charities, they decided to work together and write a book about women in Brunei; ‘Women of Brunei, Inspiring Life Stories’ will be launched nationwide in June 2014. We had the good fortune of being able to interview them for Inspire Magazine to talk about this unique book about Bruneian women, their perspectives on the women of Brunei and what they have learnt through their extensive research.
How did the idea of the book come about?
CC : Whilst I was living in Indonesia, I had written a similar kind of book about expat women. As a journalist, I have always written stories about people and shortly after working at Dua minggu, I had this idea to write a book about the women of Brunei.
What is so fascinating about Bruneian women that made you want to write a book about them?
CC : I think that every single woman in the world is fascinating. Every woman has their own amazing story to tell; not just in Brunei. Whilst I was living in Tripoli, I had started a project writing about the migrant women who were living there. Unfortunately, we had to evacuate the country after only five months because of the war and so as soon as I landed in Brunei, I decided to continue with the project, but this time I wanted to to write a book about the women in Brunei. It is a big project even for a team of two people.
NL : Yes, it has taken us nearly a year to put the book together. We interviewed a total of twenty two women, but the hardest part was deciding on the kind of women we wanted to feature in the book and then which women to interview. The women had to be Bruneian to be in the book and we wanted to include women from all parts of the society. The aim was to give the reader a really good idea of what the women living here are like and the vast range of jobs that they are doing. We had to get the right balance to ensure it was an accurate portrayal of women here as well as an interesting book.
The unique and interesting aspect of Bruneian women is that they not only play an important role in the working community but they have also been able to get to the top of their field, in a way that perhaps doesn’t happen so much in the Western world. Within such a small population, women have really excelled here.
Are you saying that in terms of their professionalism Bruneian women are on par, if not, better than their Western counterparts?
NL : Certainly on a professional basis, I think Brunei is on par. It did surprise me, initially, to see such a huge amount of women working at very high levels in their careers here.
What are your thoughts on the fact that each year there are more women UBD graduates than men?
NL : It doesn’t surprise me at all, the pattern in the UK is very similar. Girls are excelling academically and are often getting better results than the boys in their school and university exams, but the number of women that drop out of the workforce after they have children in the UK is significantly higher than here in Brunei. I think it comes down to the cost of affordable childcare and the closeness of the family support network that allows women to continue to work full time in Brunei compared to the UK.
What is the most significant thing you have learnt about Brunei from interviewing these twenty two diverse women?
CC : There is no question that the women in Brunei want to work and have a career. They are determined that they will carry on working, to have their own career and an independent life. We have encountered women who are students, who have young babies to look after and still continue to study and work; they do not let any of this hinder their progress or their careers. Bruneian women are extremely determined to achieve and to succeed.
Let’s talk about one of the most powerful woman in your interview, Datin Paduka Hajah Adina, the Deputy Minister from the Ministry of Culture Youth and Sports. What do you think has enabled her to get to such a high position in the government?
NL : She has an incredibly strong determination to succeed. She has a great strength and she uses it to help and influence the younger generation which is both amazing and admirable. It’s not just about being ambitious, it’s also about having the will to want to make a difference.
Education is the key to success for the majority of the women in the book. So many of the women’s parents were adamant about their daughters having a good education and succeeding in the classroom. In our interview with Datin Adina, she told us about her father’s words to her: “Education is my gift to you. You have to work hard at school and make the most of your education because it is the only way that you will succeed in life.” This message was repeated over and over again throughout our interviews.
What do the women in high level positions symbolise for future generations of women in Brunei?
CC : At the outset, this country seems to be a male dominated society, but when you look closely, this is not necessarily the case. Women are stepping up and working hard to get into the key positions in the work force.
Your book covers a wide spectrum of women. Tell us about your choices. And what we can expect from your book.
CC : In the book, we have tried to be as diverse as we possibly could with regards to the women’s demographic backgrounds. Our aim was to give the reader a very good understanding and insight into Bruneian women of all ages from all backgrounds who are living and working in Brunei today, as well as the issues that they face.
It will be available on newsstands and bookshops in June, and we will be dedicating part of the proceeds to women’s charities here in Brunei.
Share with us some of the most inspiring stories of the women you interviewed.
NL : One of our most favourite interviews was with Dr. Datin Lim Meng Keng, who today is the top Pediatrician at RIPAS. Dr Lim came from a very poor family in Temburong and when she was four years old her father was killed by local Iban tribesmen. Both her and her mother were badly injured in the attack and she still bears the knife scars to this day. Her mother was forced to take on sole responsibility for raising her and her siblings and to keep the family her mother took on the running of her husband’s shop.
Dr Lim has risen up to become the top pediatrician in Brunei from this very difficult start. Not only that, she is now taking care of the future of Brunei on every level. She is addressing so many different issues with regards to the children here; she is trying to raise the profile of child abuse and child neglect and making sure that there is a balance between the education of the children and their emotional development through play. She is completely dedicated to looking after the children of Brunei in the most caring and unbelievable way.
In Tutong, we interviewed Dayang Sahi Binti Talip, who sells her home grown produce at the market. She was widowed at a young age and overnight became responsible for raising their nine children. She told us how she has had to work so hard to keep the family going and how she wakes up every morning at 3.30am to cook lunch for her children so she can go and work in the fields all day. It was very emotional for her to tell us her story and for us to listen to it. As she told us about the really hard times we were all crying.
What surprised you about Bruneian women? What did you learn?
NL : For me, the most surprising thing was how these women were able to juggle their often most impressive careers, their studies and their families and are still able to enjoy their lives.
The women here in Brunei have a life that in a way western women have lost. We quite often move away from our families and support network and have to work and look after the family without any help. It makes it very hard both financially and emotionally for women to continue to work in the UK. When we interviewed these women we realised that they have the opportunities here to have it all!
What has been the most rewarding experience about writing this book?
CC : Just yesterday, I received a call from one of the ladies that we interviewed. It was from the lady working at the market and she wanted to invite me to her son’s wedding. The friendships that we have made along the way have been unbelievable. It has been the most incredible journey and a privilege to interview and get to know all about the lives of these amazing women.
They have very generously given up their time for this charitable book and opened up themselves and poured out their life stories to two perfect strangers. A truly unique life changing experience for us all, which we want to share with all of Brunei.
The book will be published and launched in June by Pentagram Designs Sdn Bhd. For further information and full book details please contact CEO, Siti Kaprawi on 821-8853.