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The Story of Dr. Jemilah Mahmood

The Story of Dr. Jemilah Mahmood

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Jemilah Mahmood is undoubtedly one of the most influential women in the Middle East. She inspires women worldwide with her selfless courage to help the needy and dying. Tan Sri Dr. Jemilah Mahmood founded and was the CEO of Mercy Malaysia, a non-profit humanitarian organization that helps people in poverty. She is currently an executive director at the Sunway Center for Planetary Health. She is an obstetrician, a gynecologist, a philanthropist, and an excellent wife and mother. But how did Dr. Jemilah Mahmood overcome the gender disparity and the lack of resources to make her organization profitable? 


The Early Life of Dr. Jemilah Mahmood:

Dr. Jemilah was born in Seremban, Malaysia, in 1959 and possessed a generous and caring nature from childhood. She learned how to help others from her parents.

She expresses,

“My parents had no hesitation in helping people, feeding them, and finding them jobs, so we used to have many people sleeping in our house.

Her father’s influence on her was dominant. She recalls being devastated by losing her father when she was just eleven years old. She was one of seven siblings. Her parents were an interracial couple, and Tan Sri Jemilah Mahmood grew up tolerating other people’s religions. She recalls celebrating religious events like Hari Raya or Chinese New Year. Dr. Jemilah often shared her food with her neighbors and was always willing to help others. She even recalls her childhood as the “Mini United Nations.”


Tan Sri Jemilah Mahmood, despite her academic abilities, brought her philanthropic heart to school and became more open-hearted. She studied at the Assunta Girls’ High School in Petaling Jaya. She further learned how to serve the community at her school and was always active in in-service work. Tan Sri Jemilah Mahmood had drenched her heart entirely in the compassion of others, and who knows what she had to endure in the future for this selfless approach?

How she decided to become a doctor:

Jemilah Mahmood did not become a doctor due to her compassion but because of a classmate who racially targeted her.  The classmate said that Malaysians like her only become clerks or teachers. As a young child, she took this to heart and decided to change careers. In her words, Jemilah Mahmood loves challenges, and she took her classmate’s words and overcame them with her sheer effort.

“I thrive on challenge and have a strong desire for challenge.”

The Start of Her Career and Organization:

She started her professional career in 1990 as a lecturer in gynecology. In 1995, she became a consultant at Ampang Puteri Specialist. But she thought of opening her non-profit organization one day under weird circumstances. She explains that during that time, a war was going on in Kosovo. Her kids watching it on TV told her to do something about it as she is a doctor.

Taking this advice to heart, Jemilah started to apply to different humanitarian organizations as an independent doctor. But she recalls that during the 1990s era, Malaysians only cared a little about humanitarian work. She found it extremely sad that her country was developing in terms of infrastructure but not as a society. Her husband advised her to do something on her own if she felt so wrong about it. That was the moment when Jemilah Mahmood stepped into the path of helping others. She founded MERCY Malaysia in 1999.


How she suffered as a humanitarian

Jemilah Mahmood started going to war-struck rubble and helping the stuck and injured there. At first, her organization did not gain much interest, and she was joked about, which was partly due to the misogyny residing in the 1990s and early 2000s. But this did not stop her, as she kept on going to her ventures. The budget for the first operations was so low that the members had to pay for their tickets and travel. But 2003 was the year when Jemilah Mahmood almost lost her life due to her selfless nature. 

How the 2003 Iraq tragedy unfolded:

The Iraq war is probably one of the most hurtful things that ever happened in Jemilah’s life, and despite being shot herself, she was still worried for the people and injured patients. Events were already out of control during a rescue mission to Iraq, as her driver had visions of the mission failing. The driver died in the war-torn deserted area. Jemilah, caught in the crossfire between two communities, was shot in her left hip. When she realized blood was pouring down her legs, she stitched the area without removing the bullet, which would remain in her hip for another five weeks. She got up and went to help the other injured doctor.

She forgot about her pain when an anemic woman was in labor and needed an immediate C-section. After a lengthy and painful operation, the woman took her newborn back to the dangerous region. When asked by Jemilah why she was going back, the woman gave the bone-chilling reply, “If the bombs drop on my home tonight, I want to be with my children.”

The mother’s response made Jemilah emotional, and she realized that her pain was nothing compared to that woman’s.

“Why am I complaining about this bullet in my hip?”

That day, Jemilah realized nothing could prevent her from doing her duty. And this moment was the breaking point when Jemilah truly accepted the harsh realities a rescue operation doctor has to endure.

The problems Jemilah endured to gain leadership.

It was clear that Jemilah Mahmood had to fight a lot to get her leadership position, and she was ridiculed and taken as a joke at the start of her career. It is because of the traditional belief that women are obedient and have submissive roles that do not require authorization. Especially in the East, many countries have a strict culture of favoring men over women in terms of careers and professionalism. It is a deeply rooted belief that either the woman is obedient or kind or a leader, which is in total contrast to a traditional woman.

Jemilah broke this notion, as she was an inspiring and kind leader, loving wife, and mother. She always paid attention to her family and her duties as the CEO and founder of MERCY Malaysia. So, this systemic and deeply rooted belief that women do not make good leaders or should not be leaders in the first place because authority is not in their nature is a senseless and misogynist statement. Thankfully, women like Jemilah Mahmood, who is not white and belongs to traditional societies in the Middle East, are breaking this notion and encouraging young women to stand up for themselves.

In her words,

“I’ve never felt my gender to be an obstacle. I’ve never found it an issue, even in difficult places for women. I am a feminist, but I am a feminist who believes there is more than one way to do things. If you can’t get it done through a man, you work through the women and the community to apply pressure. “I don’t have to prove a point just because I am a woman.”

However, she does accept that women in countries like Malaysia, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and many other Middle Eastern countries have to struggle much more than traditional Western women, as the latter receives more support from their people and government. But for Middle Eastern women to come forward and show professions of authority and leadership, they must shed their blood, sweat, and tears.

“I believe that for women to get to the top, in the corporate world or even in an international organization like the United Nations, they need sponsors to believe in them and push them up. “I think in Malaysia, there are not enough sponsors, so it is not easy to be in key positions of influence unless you work very hard and excel.”

How Jemilah overcame all of these obstacles:

Jemilah overcame these barriers and made a career inspired and respected by millions through sheer effort and hard work. Jemilah Mahmood solved the issue of being a woman by working hard and making her leadership not about her gender or how great she is for being a leader but by caring for the injured and poor. She had solved the issue of having a local organization and making it so plausible and committed to its work that many countries outside Malaysia require help from MERCY.

The Success of Mercy:

Under the leadership of Jemilah Mahmood, MERCY became an authentic organization that showed everyone that it was proper to its work. Her organization has gained tremendous support and attention overseas, and Mercy also works to help others in many Western countries. Her organization is professional at dealing with distress and handling challenging circumstances without letting their emotions rise. MERCY Malaysia trains other rescue organizations to deal with pain and stay calm. The president of Indonesia also applauded Mercy. Many countries want help from MERCY, and Ms. Jemilah Mahmood built a strong foundation out of a sheer effort to help others in just a decade.

Leaving MERCY:

Despite being the perfect leader for Mercy, Jemilah Mahmood decided to step away from the organization. According to her, she was never the center of the organization, and her purpose was always to make the organization seem authentic in the eyes of the world. She stepped away as she wanted to prove that Mercy wasn’t successful in its purpose due to leadership but because of the sense and sheer effort of all the people involved in the organization.

Jemilah Mahmood explains that the organization was associated with her more than its purpose due to her famous image. But upon leaving Mercy, it is still as successful as before, and she has proved that this organization is thriving only because of its sense of purpose and not because of her. Jemilah’s intelligence and innocence in stepping away from something she had spent her entire life building on proved she did not find the organization; the organization found her!

Accolades and Achievements:

It is clear from Jemilah Mahmood’s contributions in diverse humanitarianism and women’s empowerment fields. She has been awarded many accolades for her lasting contributions and earned respect everywhere. In 2009, a decade after she founded the MERCY organization, she was awarded “Commander of the Order of Crown Malaysia.”

In 2013, she was awarded the “Isa Award for Humanity by the Kingdom of Bahrain.”

Similarly, in 2015, she was given the “Merdeka Award” by Malaysia.

And in 2019, she won the “ASEAN Prize.”

Jemilah Mahmood is the Executive Director of the “Sunway Centre for Planetary Health” at the Sunway University in Malaysia. Jemilah Mahmood will continue to win many more accolades for her priceless contributions, and her philanthropic activities will not stop even if she is not part of the MERCY organization. Last but not least, Jemilah is and will always be an inspiration for many. She has proved herself a perfect leader, humanitarian, humorous, kind soul, responsible and loving mother, and caring wife.



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