Che Zahara binte Noor Mohamed
Pioneering champion of the rights of women and children
Che Zahara binte Noor Mohamed founded Singapore’s first Muslim women’s welfare organisation, the Malay Women's Welfare Association (MWWA), in 1947. A dedicated champion of the rights of women and children, Che Zahara spent her life looking after the poor and needy, and improving their prospects.
Born in Singapore, Che Zahara was the daughter of Noor Mohamed, one of the first Malays during British rule to learn English and work as a mediator and translator. Che Zahara married a businessman from Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, who was a strong supporter of social welfare. Stirred by her conscience, and encouraged by her husband, she began caring for poor and destitute women and orphans.
The Second World War left many women as widows. Some were forced to turn to prostitution to make money to survive. Against this backdrop, Che Zahara continued her work, and she sought to formalise it.
Ever resourceful, while sheltering women and orphans in her own home in Desker Road, she launched an appeal for $500,000 in donations. A firm believer in the value of education, her aim was to provide a home for Malay women and children, which would include facilities such as a school and mosque.
In 1947 Che Zahara founded the MWWA and her work became political as well. Angered by the exploitation of women by husbands who could easily divorce them, Che Zahara lobbied “to make Malay men guarantee, when they marry, to support their wives for life”. At the time it was legal for girls as young as nine to get married; Che Zahara campaigned to change this to 16.
Under her leadership, the MWWA planned the first public procession by women seeking to celebrate the 1947 Royal Wedding of Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen of England. The women finally withdrew from the march, but not before provoking extensive debate.
In 1955, Che Zahara represented Singapore at the World Congress of Mothers, in Switzerland. She also worked with the Singapore Council of Women (SCW) to help establish the Women’s Charter of Singapore, enacted by Parliament in 1961. Eventually the MWWA dissolved and Che Zahara joined the SCW.
Between 1947 and the early 1960s Che Zahara looked after 300 women and orphans, regardless of their race or religion. She died in 1962.
"Our Association’s ambition is to establish a Malay Women’s Home in Singapore, where orphaned, destitute and blind Malay children will be housed and taken care of, fed and educated, so that these poor unfortunates may be given a chance in life... the lots of our community in Singapore (are) far below that of our brethren in the Malayan Mainland and therefore our Association feels that a scheme of this nature... is long overdue."