#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.

Unless we respect sex workers, we will never respect all women

First posted on Loyar Burok’s LoyarEqual Feminist Week on 17th to 21st October.

Credits: Jessicamera11 via Flickr Creative Commons

Being called a “slut”, “thevadiya”, “sundal”, “whore”, or “jalang” are probably the worst forms of verbal abuse anyone, woman or man, can inflict on a woman or girl. But they needn’t be. One only needs to unpack the toxicity in the abusive usage of the word which will expose some uncomfortable truths about our relationship with sex and sexuality to understand why. Every time a person uses it as an insult they perpetuate an ancient double standard that refuses to go away – that a promiscuous or sexually active unmarried woman is worthy of disrespect while a man who leads a similar life is likely to receive macho backslaps of praise. Women and girls are seen as the “moral guardians” of society and pose as a sexual threat regardless of age and marital status she may be, whether she’s a virgin or not.

This means that a female-identified person are in danger of being called a slut or sundal for any reason; when she speaks her mind she’s a slut, if she doesn’t wear a tudung she’s a slut, when she breaks a rice bowl she’s a stupid slut. It is no exaggeration that these are the words used to bully women and girls into silence and submission.

Truth be told, many women and girls do not like words like “sundal” and “slut” despite the Slutwalks that are take place across the globe. And that is mainly because no one wants to identify as or with sex workers or to use the stigmatising term, prostitute. But we little do we realise that the history of female sexuality in Malaysia is intimately linked with the dehumanising laws regulating the colonial sex industry in Malaya.

British colonialism in the late 19th century Malaya was mired in racism against migrant labourers brought in from mainland China who were deemed as lacking morals and homophobia against homosexual activities that occurred between them. To curtail homosexual practices, the colonial authorities introduced female sex workers, trafficked or otherwise, to the labourers and colonial officers alike. By 1900, there were around ten thousand female sex workers in the Straits settlements. Numbers in the Malay states were less easy to estimate due to lack of surveillance and regulation.

Viewed as vectors of venereal disease, female sex workers in British Malaya were subjected to the Women and Girls Protection Act (WGPA) that stipulated compulsory medical examination and detainment followed by forced treatment if women were found with disease. Today, along with various other colonial legal relics, the WGPA 1973 is used to detain young women under 21 for up to three years for “immoral” activity. According to the WCC, the act has mainly been used to round up young women in karaoke bars and leaving their male company unscathed. The assumption behind such arrests is that young women’s sexual morality need to be “protected” from the deathly threat of moral corruption.

The intertwining histories of the colonial sex industry and the sexuality in present day Malaysia urge us to close the gap between the virgin-whore dichotomy that gives words like “jalang” and “slut” their potency. We can start with respecting sex workers as workers and as women who are more than just what they do in a sexual/business transaction. We can end the stigma behind words like “pelacur” and disarm the slurs inflicted on people who are not sex workers.

Malaysia is not unique in our relentless punishment against the women and men in the sex industry.
In countries where prostitution is illegal and / or penalises its clientele, sex work often ends up persisting anyway but in more deadly and dehumanising forms. Outlawed sex industries go underground, increase the trafficking of women and girls and incidences of sexual violence, making it impossible for them to leave the profession, deaths and abuse go unreported, sex workers do not get medical treatment or health checks which increases the likelihood of dangerous sexually-transmitted diseases – all because the criminalisation of sex work purports to “shield” women, girls, and society from the “evils” of sex work. The evil is not inherent in sex work itself but rather in the abuse perpetrated by violent pimps, johns, traffickers, and the law.

Respecting sex workers allows them to leave the industry as they wish through humanitarian laws and anti-discriminatory employment practices, destigmatises paid sex, turn them into our sisters and brothers, and welcomes them into the fray of society as people. Women and girls must refuse playing hostage to the toxicity of words like “sundal” or “whore” and end the moral double standard that punishes us for having the conceit to have sexual desire.

The reason why we hate or use these words as terms of abuse is because deep down, we still think that being sexual outside of marriage is “bad” and “shameful” and that healthy female sexuality is “unnatural”. And as we discuss the topic of gendered slurs, the global Slutwalk marches on, neutralising and reclaiming the word “slut” at the heart of its anti-rape agenda. What Slutwalk does to the word “slut” is taking the negative power from sexist cultures and having the freedom to twist, subvert, reclaim, and/or detoxify it. Make gendered terms of abuse obsolete and we will disarm the simplest act of abuse against all women and girls whether they are sex workers and not.

What Malaysians can do to end rape

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Malaysia is fast becoming one of the rape capitals of the world. With an all-time high in cases of sexual assault last year, there is much finger-pointing toward law enforcers and the government who stand idle on the matter, but surprisingly little towards society itself that ultimately has the power to end rape.

Women and girls in Malaysia live with the knowledge that we are targets of sexual assault on a daily basis; we are never safe in the daytime nor at night, not on the streets, indoors, and certainly not in our own homes as reports suggest. There is more information foisted upon women and girls on how to prevent rape – from locking their car doors, not walking alone at night, never accepting an invitation to meet with a stranger, to never parking their cars in poorly-lit and isolated places – but little to no information on how to tell men – and women – to stop raping.

The issuing of preventive measures but not tough reminders to would-be rapists suggest that women and girls are responsible for our own safety. If we get raped it becomes mainly our fault for getting ourselves in compromising situations. Rapists may or may not get their legal comeuppances, but the damage has been done for both sides of the assault. Before we become a brutalised society baying for the blood of retribution, we should at least place heavier responsibilities on members of society who have greater access to committing violence – those with capital, social, and physical power.

Many people often assume that rape will continue to happen no matter what; there is an assumption that rape is committed by one lone violent person who is not normal, not one of us, is mad or whatever psycho-pathological characteristic one cares to describe. But this is not true. Most people will never commit rape in their entire lifetime, but are complicit in the prevalence of rape in Malaysia by not taking rape seriously enough. Some may even commit rape without even recognising it as such.

The following are 10 steps Malaysians can take to stop rape. Since women and girls make the majority of rape victims and survivors, at times I will address certain steps as male privilege issues. In such cases, the steps are directed at men, but women and girls are encouraged to be supportive of said measures.

1. Stop trivialising rape.
Do not joke or laugh about rape. Do not consider some forms of sexual violence as less serious than others. Do not threaten someone with rape when you are angry, even if you think you won’t go as far as to rape that person.

2. Speak up against daily injustices
Rape emerges out of a continuum of violence in society, it is not an isolated act of violence. It occurs because there are other social injustices and other forms of violence – such as sexual harassment, physical and emotional abuse, poverty, homophobia, transphobia, classism, racism, and xenophobia (especially against domestic helpers), that contribute to the aggression, hate, and dehumanisation of people.

3. Express and promote a healthy attitude towards sex
Because sex education in Malaysia is inadequate, people learn about sex from pornography, abstinence is promoted, and hardly anyone talks openly about the naturalness of sexual desire but instead frame sex in the context of shame and deviance, Malaysians in general have an unhealthy attitude towards sex. The myth that male sexual desires cannot be controlled must end and replaced with the idea of mutual respect and informed sexual practice.

4. Stop the vilification against sex workers
When sex workers are raped because of their profession, ALL women and girls are implicated in this act of violence. How? Sex workers are assaulted and abused because they are viewed as ‘damaged goods’ or sex objects who do not deserve society’s respect. This means that all women and girls have to be careful about how they behave and dress, because the line between ‘pure’ and ‘slutty’ blurs and changes beyond our control and exposes us to a similar abuse perpetrated against sex workers.

5. Trust survivors of rape.
One of the major setbacks in rape convictions is the lack of trust in a survivor’s account. But no matter what she wears or has done, it is never a woman or girl’s fault they are sexually assaulted. Men and boys who do become survivors of rape often find it more difficult to come forward about their assault for fear of insult, humiliation, and even disbelief. Only when survivors of rape are taken seriously and supported, society can understand the severity of the crime.

6. As men, challenge other men
This is a step that men have to be responsible for, and that is to speak up against the misogynistic and chauvinistic things other men – primarily their family members, friends, religious leaders, and work colleagues say or do.

7. Listen to women and girls
Listen and do not talk over what women and girls have to say, because a male perspective on rape that has never been deeply informed by the experiences of women is doomed to be narrow, arrogant, and ignorant.

8. Respect what women and girls have to say
We live in a society where what women and girls say are not taken seriously. Men dominate conversations, take charge, make decisions, and lead both women and men. The indirect effect of this discursive imbalance is the assumption that women and girls are emotional, scatterbrained or less capable enough to engage in serious issues.

When the words of women and girls are not respected, we find ourselves silenced and sometimes end up silencing ourselves. Valuable perspectives are lost and we end up drafting paternalistic measures that ignore input that arise from the concerns and anxieties of women and girls.

9. Contribute your time and money to rape crisis centres or any women’s organisations that have an interest in ending sexual violence.
Donate or volunteer at women’s shelters or at helpline centres such as the Telenita at AWAM and WAO in Petaling Jaya, Tenaganita for migrant workers in Petaling Jaya, Shelter for refugees and children at risk in Petaling Jaya, PT Foundation for transwomen, sex workers, and drug users in Kuala Lumpur, the WCC in Penang, and Pusat Kebajikan Good Sheperd in Perak. Volunteering can emotionally taxing for many people, but it will offer an insight into the kind of care provided for survivors of sexual assault and abuse. Unfortunately, crisis centres are concentrated in bigger cities in Malaysia, but that does not suggest that rape only occurs in urban areas.

10. And finally, do not have sex with someone without their consent.
When someone says ‘no’ to your sexual advances, they really mean ‘no’. You do not have sex or sexually violate someone in their sleep or when they’re unconscious.

2010 – the year in rape reports [Trigger warning]

Most annual retrospectives look at “big” stories that grabbed the year’s headlines: war, natural and environmental disasters, celebrity “news”, famous deaths, the busting of confidential US diplomatic cables, to name a few. Few however would chart both the shock and banality of sexual violence committed by men against women and girls in the year gone past. Shocking, because most stories of rape are sensationalised, dehumanising, and strike a collective moral chord about the human capacity for evil. In the shadow of the Julian Assange allegations, rape becomes banal or rather banal-ised by the media when cases involving nobody particularly famous are accorded a few lines of mention, a postage stamp-sized acknowledgment, buried underneath other more “worthy” news and quickly locked up with key thrown away in the annals of a sick society. Indeed, crimes against women’s bodies, particularly of a sexual nature, happen year in and year out with routine-like mechanicality. But there is a rise in trends, showing rapid increase since 2005 (925 cases): over 2,400 cases of sexual violence against women were reported in the first 8 months of 2010, out of which only 119 have resulted in conviction. That’s something worthy of mention for the year 2010, I reckon.

So let us recall the year’s reports on rape in Malaysia as a sobering reminder of what is a fundamental symptom of a patriarchal and misogynistic society, shall we?:

January

  • A man rapes his teenage neighbour in Terengganu after “being overcome by lust over her beauty.”The rapist is reported to have been arrested for investigation. [Berita Harian Online, 18 January 2010]

February

  • “Good looking” serial rapist pleads not guilty in Melaka. [Utusan Malaysia Online, 2 February 2010]

March has a bumper crop of gang-rape reports

April

May

  • 27-year old Ahmad Muhaimin Abdullah faces 7 years in prison and 3 lashes for a sex offense committed 6 years ago. [Utusan Malaysia Online, 24 May 2010]

June

July

  • A nod to the appalling handling of the sexual assaults committed against Penan women and girls. Sarawak government officials continue to deny, dismiss, and make light of the abuses, claiming that the alleged victims were “very good storytellers“. [Ekklesia, 20 July 2010]

August

September

October

November

  • A woman has been recorded being raped to protect her daughter in Kampung Melayu Subang, Selangor. The police have reported that they are “investigating the matter.” [The Star Online, 27 November 2010]

December

  • In Johor Bahru, a tuition teacher was detained for sexually assaulting his 17-year old male student on two occasions at his tuition centre in Taman Desa Skudai. [The News Straits Times, 14 December 2010]
  • A rubber tapper, Che Mohd Nor Che Long, was sentenced to a total of 24 years’ imprisonment and six strokes of the rotan by the magistrate’s court yesterday for raping a minor in Tanah Merah, Kelantan, two years ago. [The News Straits Times, 15 December 2010]
  • And finally, a man pleads guilty but pulled the classic victim-blaming get-out clause by claiming that the 15-year old girl he raped was “wild” and not even a virgin. [The Star Online, 17 December 2010]

While I can understand that listing down these news reports by month may seem like I’m highlighting way too much on the murkier aspects of our society (read: straight men and their male privilege, and an immature attitude towards sex and sexuality) and fuelling yet more fears which are perhaps unnecessary when there is enough awareness particularly where date rape (and subsequent victim-blaming. WCC Penang offers a handy list of myth vs reality of rape to counter all that victim-blaming and shaming nonsense) is concerned, demonstrating a calendar of sexual violence in Malaysia allows us to put the state of gender relations in perspective and throws the enduring question “why?” into sharp relief. Many more incidents I believe go unreported in a victim-shaming culture such as ours, which is why a compendium exhibiting the extent of rape in our country is important not only as stark reminder, but also as a simplified social barometer. What will this year’s calendar of events offer us?