I’ve talked about sexual harassment quite a bit. In light of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the global domino effect it had across other industries and institutions within and outside the US, it seemed inevitable that Malaysian liberal circles felt compelled to join in the conversation, albeit in small-scale curated debates and scattered hashtag activism on social media rather than full-on exposé of the scale of misogyny in Malaysian institutions of power and privilege. Early last December, I was invited to speak on BFM, a radio station known for its progressive programming, about the ‘post-Weinstein effect’, how it might irreversibly change men’s behaviour and more importantly, why it hasn’t left an impact in Malaysia.
But let me share how it all started and unfolded. In November 2017, the host of Feminist Fridays on BFM, Juliet Jacobs, invited me to be a guest on the show and handed me a carte blanche on any topic. I suggested the Weinstein scandal and how it might play out in Malaysia. She had instructed me to listen first to an earlier recording of Feminist Fridays on that very topic featuring ‘three feminists’. Unfortunately, the episode didn’t pull back the curtains of unspoken abuse prevalent in Malaysian culture. Although the three guests discussed with great nuance sexual harassment in Hollywood and the social media activism it generated, they did not speak as victims themselves, an irony when #MeToo is really about that.
I felt that there was a reluctance to steer the discussion inwards, towards our own deeply problematic society, right down to the women’s respective industries and professional circles. There were certainly no empirical examples, much less names of people or organisations, divulged in the episode. Perhaps it would put the guests at litigious risk. So the conversation between these ‘three feminists’ was left mostly in the abstract and reduced to personal views, far from an attempt to interrogate the systemic sexism that runs insidiously deep in our culture. To put it rather bluntly, the discussion was consigned to irrelevance the moment it started.
To that, I volunteered to step into the ring and identify the possible stumbling blocks facing Malaysian women from opening up beyond using the hashtag and taking calculated risks at naming perpetrators of sexual harassment, sexual assault and sexual violence:
1. I am pretty certain, though a national survey will have to confirm (or nullify) my suspicions, that ‘sexual harassment’ as a criminal category is not widely understood in the public consciousness. Sexual harassment is fundamentally instances of unwanted sexual attention whether in the form of speech, text, or actions. A person can lodge a police report with reference to Section 509 of the Malaysian penal code, although its Victorian language requires an urgent update:
Whoever, intending to insult the modesty of any person, utters any word, makes any sound or gesture, or exhibits any object, intending that such word or sound shall be heard, or that such gesture or object shall be seen by such person, or intrudes upon the privacy of such person, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to five years or with fine or with both.
2. Malaysia is mired in an all-consuming culture of male impunity. Men implicated in crimes of high profile corruption and murder walk bold and free in the open, confident that their reputation will be rehabilitated soon enough. They may be lambasted as pariahs abroad and in private, but in Malaysia criminal men of wealth and power will shamelessly criminalise others who speak truth to power. Sexual harassment, especially when it is wrongly understood as a lesser crime, will be deemed both a luxury and risk to conquer in such a culture.
3. Although women shouldn’t have to shoulder the moral responsibility to stand and suffer for speaking out publicly against men’s bad behaviour, women protected by power, wealth, and connections should not stay silent. That said, high-profile women, female politicians and even prominent feminist activists in Malaysia have not participated in the #MeToo movement in any meaningful way. They have not used their status and platform to name and shame perpetrators of sexual harassment and violence. It would be implausible that they have never been victims themselves and that all men in positions of power in Malaysia are innocent of sexual harassment and violence. If anything, I would argue that the women in question see little political expediency for the time being to use their voice and legitimacy in the service of local and transnational feminist struggle.
Men can’t flirt or pursue women anymore? A perversion of the debate
My BFM interviewer, Chua Ern Teck, who stood in for Juliet while she was away for the Christmas break, was apologetic that he, a man, was interviewing me. I didn’t think much of it at the outset but when the questions came in, I quickly sensed the ‘male aftermath’ framing of the debate used in the interview. The ‘male aftermath’ of the Weinstein scandal can be characterised in three ways:
• First, that men now have to deeply reflect on and be accountable for their past and future behaviour
• Second, men’s silence and reluctance to engage meaningfully with actual rather than hypothetical instances of abuse and violence against women
• Third, a preoccupation with the so-called witch-hunt of men who are condemned for ‘being men’ and proving their masculinity through the sexual pursuit of women
The ‘male aftermath’ occurs alongside male backlash, of men fighting back with defamation suits and proclaiming the dangers of false accusations. Consequences that follow such a high profile reckoning is currently framed as bad news for men, who all expect to be rounded up for past behaviour that was never consciously registered as bad or criminal. A profession of blameless male ignorance becomes a familiar chorus: “I had no idea”, “I didn’t know you felt that way”, “I’m sorry if what I did offended you”. Meanwhile the reckoning machine is portrayed as merciless as it continues to claim high profile resignations, dismissals, and suspensions – a mere disruption to the careers of powerful men who have annihilated entire lives of women.
In my BFM interview, I was asked about how men should manage the prospect of being friendzoned by women now that so many men have been accused of grievous sexual misconduct. Rather than respond to a trivialising line of questioning, I questioned why the pressing need to reflect on the potential epidemic of friendzoning at this important cultural moment. Jessica Valenti in her article for The Guardian has an answer:
There’s a reason so many people are conflating bad and sometimes criminal behavior with romance: traditional ideas about seduction rely on tropes of women witholding sex and men working hard to get it. It’s a narrow notion of heterosexuality – one that does a good job excusing abusive behavior.
Men’s humiliation at being friendzoned takes its cue from a sexist culture that rewards men’s entitlement to women’s bodies. Friendzone has a tragic connotation because it results in men (read: Nice Guy™) being denied sexual access to women. There’s a reason why the perversion of the debate is so degrading. Men’s fears in light of the widespread reckoning and women’s fear of what men can do when denied sexual access have no equivalence. There is enough evidence to show that men are known to inflict extreme violence and kill women who reject them. To make them equivalent is an insult to women’s pain and trauma and to the long history of women’s pain and trauma.
From the ashes of annihilation
So what to do now? A global indictment of patriarchy at this present moment will not be complete when male perpetrators of sexual harassment and violence are not named and shamed. Women need to corroborate and use their whisper networks to identify, warn, and protect other women from future abuse.
To exact even an iota of change, manifested in the rise of women shattering their silence and men dragged down from the pedestal of impunity, we need to be reminded that sexual harassment and sexual violence do not occur in isolation. Rather, they happen because they are deeply embedded in a rape culture that shames women, discredits their testimony, and constructs victims as liars. Rape culture is web-like, connected to all discursive and physical spaces, public and private.
#MeToo is unlike previous reckoning of male violence against women. It is a rapid-fire public indictment of men after men of power whom hitherto were protected by money, connections, and their ability to make or break women’s careers. To be ignited by its passing torch means to be part of a global conversation and struggle.
But we need to be mindful that #MeToo has its limits and of the cultural, race and class specificities that made it possible and successful in the first place. To transplant #MeToo in the Malaysian context and expect similar results is a pipe dream that ignores previous Western feminist ideas and campaigns that have failed to take root in non-Western contexts.
Something exciting is afoot in Iran. Since 2014, women have been wanting to throw off their hijab and live more authentic lives. Led by journalist Masih Alinejad, many have taken to social media to protest against compulsory hijab. Using the slogan ‘My stealthy freedom’, they post photos and videos of themselves defiantly unveiled. In response more than 7000 undercover police officers were deployed to apprehend women in ‘bad hijab’ and for the removal of hijab inside private vehicles.
The Guardian has published photos of Iranian women throwing off their hijab as an expression of their desire for liberty and equality. Their faces are obscured by the hijab flying in mid-air but they are not voiceless. Each has a powerful critique of body policing and religious hypocrisy. One of them raises our attention to the limits and doublespeak of ‘equality’:
From the time I went to school I always heard that we all are brothers and sisters, that we are all equal. But in real life there was no equality – I had to cover up for the men. How is that equal? How come they didn’t have to cover up for me?
Perhaps the tide of dissent was too hard to quell. In late 2017, the Iranian president Hassan Rouhani announced that the moral police can no longer arrest women for ‘violating the Islamic dress code’ which includes using nail polish, heavy make-up and loose headscarves. This sounds like a step forward since the heavy-handed imposition of the hijab in 1979. However, violators of ‘bad hijab’ are ordered to take lessons from the police on ‘good Islamic’ behaviour. Hardly a feminist progress.
The ‘My Stealthy Freedom’ movement is particularly poignantly resonant to me and my own research on unveiling in Malaysia. While women in Iran cannot as yet live their lives unveiled in public, they can find solidarity with Malay-Muslim women in Malaysia who also desire to unveil, succeeded to do so, and live the rest of their lives without the hijab.
In my research, I am interested in what motivates every individual to remove the hijab. The hijab is not enforced in toto in Malaysia however young girls are introduced to it in school as part of the school uniform. If we regard schooling as a systematic process of socialisation and discipline to produce docile bodies, then the hijab-as-uniform is incorporated to such bodies making its removal difficult. Although the state and its institutions (the school and religious bodies) impose a ‘one-size-fits-all’ Muslim identity – one that is ethnocentric, anti-women, anti-LGBT, anti-diversity – women who turn their backs to the hijab each have different, complex reasons to unveil.
‘Free hair’ is the term used to describe a Malay-Muslim woman who doesn’t wear the hijab. It’s a great term with a double meaning; ‘free’ as in the absence of the hijab but also free to mean liberation from imposition. ‘My Stealthy Freedom’ also uses the adjective ‘free’ in both meanings constituted in ‘free hair’. It also articulates a liberal ethos of equality with men. Men do not need to cover, so why do women? I have developed ‘free hair’ as a concept to be used for more universal reflection in my forthcoming article, ‘Free hair: Unveiling and the reconstruction of self’ (2018):
It can be argued here that ‘free hair’ is more than simply about being non-veiled and in opposition to the hijab as it often is in popular representations. ‘Free hair’ constitutes a personal aesthetics and ethics that is in such an intimate reflexive relationship with the hijab as to redefine the privileged meanings of veiling. Put another way, ‘free hair’ is the materialisation of a subjectivity that re-orders the prestigious associations with veiling in order to construct a more harmonious non-veiled self.
However, I would be hard-pressed to argue that the removal of the tudung and being ‘free hair’ comes from a critical rejection of Islamic consumer culture and capitalism. Women may replace one idealised femininity with another version of femininity with its own accoutrements of consumer beautification.
‘Free hair’ as a critical subjectivity that aspires for authenticity and perfection of personal aesthetics is conceived not simply as a practice of self but also as operating in an affective economy that processes feelings of failure and negativity into radical expressions of liberation.
Not all women who take off the tudung feel completely liberated initially. Being free hair is a process, it takes time to come to terms with a new identity and status. Women who choose to remain free hair will be beset with perpetual internal and external conflict. Their lives become open-ended, a series of acts and articulation of both joyful defiance and dispiriting negotiation. ‘Free hair’ is indeed a style of life, a life as an obstacle course for women who dare to dissent and live more authentically.