#MeToo and the deafening Malaysian silence

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.

The emotional labour of dealing with sexual harassment

Since 1st June, I had been implicated as a complainant in a sexual harassment allegation in the local progressive activist scene, details of which I will provide soon here. But in the subsequent days after making allegations on social media about a serial harasser of women, my corroborator of the allegations who had gone semi-public with a statement on Facebook has experienced intimidation, bullying and blackmail from the harasser. For women who’ve become aware of these allegations and likely to have experienced sexual harassment themselves, some will still feel afraid to come forward and continue to shoulder what I call the emotional labour of keeping silent due to fear and shame.

This post was published in The G-blog on 16th May 2016 prior to the allegations on 1st June, but I feel it was prescient and relevant enough for all times:

There is a man who has a history of harassing women but always got away with it. His friends and colleagues know about it but remain steadfast in their loyalty towards him. Close friends vouch for his good behaviour. Yet, stories about his behaviour travel far, into the living rooms of people who have never met him, into the coffee sessions shared between friends. Some do not know his name yet tales of his behaviour have achieved the status of legend. In the meantime, the voices of the women he had harassed are quashed. They stand by close to the scene of the crime – the circle of friends who protect the perpetrator and his reputation. They watch and wait in vain for laws and attitudes to change beyond their own lifetimes.

Rethinking the discourse of sexual harassment

Published on The F-Word UK blog on 14th August 2013


After following Everyday Sexism on Twitter and reading its website for nearly a year, there are times when reading their continuous flow of sexual harassment stories becomes too painful an experience. I have contemplated unfollowing Everyday Sexism’s Twitter account because there are entries that became too much to bear. On the one hand, I am reminded of the series of harassments I had suffered. But on the other hand, which will become the main thrust of this post, I was becoming tired of sexual harassment as a ‘victim’ narrative.

In the discourse of sexual harassment of popular feminism (found in mainstream media and new social media), women, and it is nearly always women, come forward to talk about their experiences. This in itself is a powerful thing: women have historically been denied a voice to express gender-based injustice in private and public spaces. Facilitated by new forms of media technologies, the new age of twenty-first feminism has granted every woman (with a phone and/or access to the internet) the opportunity to tell their stories. And what stories they are.

Online spaces like Everyday Sexism allows women to share and seek support from others who have shared similar experiences. Such spaces, without a shadow of a doubt, help recuperate the disempowered feeling when a harasser finds pleasure and amusement in debasing women. There are many initiatives across the UK such as the Hollaback! project that reaches out to women who have faced street harassment with information on how to respond to their attackers. But as Everyday Sexism has shown us, those who have dared to challenge their harassers are faced with some serious repercussions for their courage. For that reason, these spaces must continue to thrive and bolster support.

However, there is something missing in this discourse of sexual harassment. The glut of women reporting sexual harassment clearly underline the enormity and how commonplace it is, but we hear too little of a semblance of justice done to women who report incidents of sexual harassment. As a discourse of sexual harassment, a way in which we talk and define it, the perpetrator is a shadow-like figure and rarely embodied as a complete person.

The reason why the discourse of sexual harassment is victim-oriented lies in the nature and legal framework of sexual harassment as a crime. Victims of sexual harassment at work are encouraged to make an informal complaint and collect evidence. Formal complaints involving a police report meanwhile are discouraged as it will make the work environment for the victim ‘uncomfortable’.

I have been informed by lawyers that women can always leave their job and seek work elsewhere after experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace. In this economic climate, that is far easier said than done. Harassers, meanwhile, enjoy the relative anonymity of not being subjected to much public scrutiny of their motivations and why they have been allowed to commit sexual harassment in the first place.

How do we transform the discourse of sexual harassment to make perpetrators more accountable for their actions and set the terms to stem future harassment? But more importantly, how do we redress the imbalance of the victim-heavy narrative of sexual harassment and in the process neutralise anger and trauma into hope?

Perhaps the welcoming of more men into feminism as allies and pro-feminist supporters can help rebalance the discourse of sexual harassment. But this welcome is not without prior knowledge of the abuse of influence and male privilege by men who call themselves ‘feminist’. The recent implosion of Hugo Schwyzer is a cautionary tale of men who are lauded for not just wanting to be part of popular feminism but also wanting to be a voice within it and a very loud one, too.

The sudden, rapid and ongoing demise of Schwyzer’s credibility as a ‘feminist’ was satisfying but may then make male participation into feminism an ideological mine field. Or will it? because I highly doubt it. There will be a queue of men who would love to take Schwyzer’s place. The adoration that men get for claiming to be feminist is hard to resist.

There is great resistance from men who think that feminists regard all men as potential harassers. In a similar way, commentaries calling on the examination of masculinity in light of child abuse cases have stoked anger in men because they think they, innocent men, are accused of being potential rapists and abusers of children. But the truth is, straight men are socialised into thinking that female bodies are for looking and possession. Also, entitlement to bodies creates an illusion that men can get away with it.

Also, there is an assumption that female feminists have a liberal attitude towards sexuality and are easily ‘up for it’, if men ask nicely and impress female feminists with their knowledge of second wave feminism. Such an assumption is easily exploited by self-proclaimed ‘feminist’ men resulting in harassment and abuse. Reminders to ‘be aware’ and ‘stay away’ from these men are not enough to protect ourselves as they can easily take their abusive behaviour and create damage elsewhere.

An example of a successul take-down of a harasser is pertinent here. The recent dressing down of British ‘star’ philosopher Colin McGinn is one of the few but crucial victories for women in academia. Evidence of Colin McGinn’s sexually inappropriate messages to a graduate student bolstered a campaign to make him accountable for his misconduct. McGinn’s defence of his actions, consisting of intellectual prose, was rubbished by the majority of his colleagues.

McGinn’s fall from grace is an example of justice of a more stubborn order whereby a highly esteemed man of ideas is brought down to his knees by the power and pressure emanating from his ranks. However, his accuser’s identity may never be revealed because in the sensitive and precarious universe of academia, one’s name and its associations are everything.

As female feminists vulnerable to sexual harassment, we need to be savvy, strategic, and informed both on a factual and emotional level on how to tackle harassment while preserving our privacy and dignity. Learn how other women have won their case against harassment. Justice is a process that requires support from the highest level of authority possible, not just the law but other institutions that the harasser’s privilege relies on.

Ironi adalah …

PTTM 2011. Copyright protected.

Beberapa bulan yang lepas saya terserempak dengan sebuah kumpulan di laman Facebook yang bernama “Hentikan ganggguan seksual terhadap lelaki”. Kerana saya mengambil pendirian tegas tentang gangguan seksual terhadap sesiapa pun saya klik untuk maklumat lanjut. Saya kaget, terkejut besar, dengan apa yang saya lihat; pakaian Muslimah yang cukup menutup aurat selama ini mengganggu kaum lelaki Melayu secara seksual! O.O

Apa yang perlu dilakukan kepada golongan perempuan yang tidak perasan lagi tidak prihatin tentang cara pemakaian dan sifat semulajadi mereka sebagai perempuan? Perlukah mereka dihukum, didenda RM100 kerana menyeksa lelaki dan membuat tempat-tempat awam tidak selamat untuk lelaki lagi?

Setahu saya gangguan seksual melibatkan taktik membuli untuk menakutkan atau meresahkan seseorang dengan niat yang seksual. Saya yakin kebanyakan perempuan tidak berniat langsung untuk mengganggu lelaki yang lemah pedoman dengan pakaian mereka walau bagaimana seksi ataupun tidak.

Maka, kita tiba di sebuah kesimpulan: masalahnya adalah lelaki yang tidak boleh mengawal mata mereka yang meranjang dan memanggil diri mangsa. Mengkritik pakaian perempuan dengan ayat-ayat suci Al-Quran adalah contoh penyalahgunaan agama dan sebuah taktik untuk menguasai pergerakan orang perempuan. Akhir kata, gangguan seksual itu bukan isu murahan yang boleh dieksploitasi buat kepentingan diri.

Egypt tackles sexual harassment

Sexual harassment, particularly on the streets, is a deeply rooted problem when there are economic, social, and even religious disparities between the sexes. This creates a culture of machismo and disrespect for women, and sexual harassment is a by-product of this culture. Egypt has reported an alarmingly high number of such incidences committed on women, however they were dressed.

Faith from Muslimah Media Watch discusses the news reporting style used in the issue.

While on Comment is free today, Khaled Diab writes about how the country tackles the probem.