I’m Every Woman: Why Sufiah why?

2008/04/02

Sufiah (inset) when she was younger, and her mother Halimaton
File Pix: Sufiah (inset) when she was younger, and her mother Halimaton

ZAHARAH OTHMAN had been in the home of Sufiah Yusof witnessing how her parents had hot-housed the math prodigy and her siblings — and her heart goes out to the mother reeling from her daughter’s tragic downfall.


THE last time I met her, we were both in the surau.

It was the Ramadan of 2005. She was in her black jubbah and hijab and was a picture of sweetness and confidence.

I was truly glad that I had met her after all this time, and after all the publicity surrounding her disappearance.

The Sufiah Yusof that I met then was a married woman fully in charge of her newfound life as a student at a London university. She proudly introduced me to her husband.
But she had also assumed another name. She introduced herself to me as Fatimah instead of Sufiah, the identity that she has now forsaken.

This week I saw her again in pictures depicting her in various stages of nudity adorning the pages of a British Sunday tabloid.

Now a divorcee, she had again assumed another name — that of Shelpa Lee — advertising her services in a website, apparently for £130 (RM822) an hour to make ends meet.

Three years had made a lot of difference in the life of Sufiah Yusof, who shot to fame when, at age 13, she was offered a place at the prestigious Oxford University to study mathematics.

Her parents were the equally clever and talented Farooq Yusof and Halimaton, a Malaysian, who both gave up their jobs to home tutor their children.

The Malaysian media in the United Kingdom were alerted to the story of this child genius mainly because her mother was a Malaysian from Johor. Because of this, she was also offered financial aid for her studies by the Malaysian government.

It was a shy and quiet Sufiah then who posed nervously with a mortar board at the lawn of St Hilda’s College for a world media hungry for stories about how a child so young could make it to university.

And although the media respected her university’s request to leave her alone during the years she was there, the interest was always there.

There had already been a lot of talk about the successes and failures of child prodigies like her.

Prophets of doom predicted about how ill-equipped such children were in facing the world in spite of having the gift most parents crave for in their children.

The media was back baying at the front door of her parents’ house in Coventry when Sufiah failed to return home one day.

It sparked off a massive hunt for the child genius who had proven the cynics right about how the girl who had been brought up in a strict regime of study and no fun was seeking the childhood she had been denied.

As a Malaysian parent, I was at first quite envious that Sufiah’s parents had been blessed with so many clever and gifted children.

I had been in their living room-cum-classroom with mathematical formulae on the boards and walls where little Zulaikha, the youngest who was then perhaps three or four, was playing under the table, drawing the human skeleton and singing the rhyme about what bone was connected to which bone.

I had also been in the kitchen where their mother told me how she would teach the children in a fun way.

But the fun stopped with the strict regime imposed by their Pakistani father, who not only formulated the accelerated learning theory, but also dictated who the children played with. I was told that Sufiah’s only friends then were her tennis mates and those she tutored.

Later at university, she was again isolated, living not in the halls of residence like other students, but in a flat where her parents took turns to accompany her.

Then one day Sufiah decided not to turn up at the station.

She was found later at an Internet cafe in Bournemouth where she regularly dispatched e-mails, sometimes venomous ones and sometimes ones that were very telling about her life at home, which she described as a living hell.

I am very sure when her parents had set out to home school their children, they had their offspring’s best intentions at heart.

Now with the media back hounding Sufiah and her mother, fingers are being pointed at the parents once again for hot-housing their children.

Sufiah’s fame and now notoriety were compounded by that of her father’s. In the same week that Farooq was jailed for molesting girls he was tutoring, Halimaton was coping with the news of her prodigal child.

My mind wanders back to the time in the kitchen when she told her children about how the water in the boiling rice would turn into steam.

As a mother, as a woman, my heart goes out to her.

* Zaharah Othman is a Malaysian writer who lives in London.

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