For years the excuses of humour and sensibilities have been thrust around as a means of justifying inappropriate remarks regarding sexual harassment and assault. These harsh statements masked behind attempts at comicality become even more complex to disassemble when they are employed by authoritative figures such as educators, making its recipients inclined to remain silent due to the imbalance in the power dynamics as well as the risk of severe consequences. Nevertheless, recent revelations have proven that many actions can be taken in order to combat these injustices and silence is no longer an option in the face of rights transgressions, especially once solidarity is achieved.
On the 24th of April, Ain Husniza Saiful Nizam, a 17-year-old girl took to the social media platform TikTok to post a video revealing that her male physical education teacher had joked about rape during their class. In the video posted, Ain detailed how her male physical education teacher was talking about sexual harassment and abuse as well as the laws protecting minors. However, soon the teacher started commenting about how if you want to rape someone make sure they are 18 and above. While all the girls in the class were shocked and remained silent, the joke prompted laughter from the rest of the male students in the class. Ain also posted the video on Twitter(as shown above) and it began garnering the attention of influential people.
Although she brought up the subject to her school counsellor, the school counsellor simply told her that there was nothing that could be done. With the support of her parents, Ain launched a police report against the teacher. At the same time, she also created the hashtag #MakeSchoolASaferPlace that enabled those on social media to show solidarity.
The next day (25 April) upon returning to school, Ain received a rape threat from one of her male classmates. She and her parents also filed a second police report against the male classmate. The former education minister, Mazlee Malik also called for the school’s principal to investigate the matter.
Although many on social media stood in solidarity with Ain on Twitter and the hashtag #MakeSchoolASaferPlace started trending on Twitter, Ain did not receive the same support from those around her. Instead, there was an increase in the number of threats that she received and some of her teachers even threatened to spread rumours about her being autistic.
4 days after making her post regarding the rape joke, Ain gained widespread attention from the media and soon became a household name. She also appeared on Astro Awani to talk about her movement. Major NGOs like AWAM and WAO stood in solidarity with Ain and at the same time, they also organised the Nationwide School Walkout Day. Not only did she gain support from NGOs but at the same time, 20 women MPs, opposition party PKR and former deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and National Diver Pandalela Rinong also showed their support for her.
After garnering media attention and launching two police reports, in August, Ain received a letter demanding that she pay RM1 Million as monetary compensation for defaming the teacher as well as apologize for her actions. Ain, together with her father were given 7 days to do so. However, upon consulting with a group of pro-bono lawyers, the family decided to counter sue for RM5 Million. Ain’s father, Saiful Nizam Abd Wahab stated that he strongly believes the decision to lodge a police report was a right one and had no intention of creating slander or defamation.
Gaining Insight Into Malaysia’s Situation
As the #MakeSchoolASaferPlace campaign garnered more attention on social media, so did Malaysia’s situation concerning sexual harassment as many eyes turned to fixate on the magnitude of the issue in Malaysia.
On 14 February 2019, Hannah Yeoh—the former Deputy Minister of Women, Family, and Community Development—revealed data from the Royal Malaysian Police reportedly amassed to 1,218 cases of sexual harassment in the workplace from 2013 to 2017. According to a survey conducted by YouGov Omnibus in 2019, 36% of female respondents and 17% of male respondents had experienced sexual harassment, with only 53% of them reporting the incidence. Alarmingly, 54% of respondents who did not report the sexual harassment they faced stated that embarrassment was their main reason for doing so. These numbers emphasise the weight of the situation revolving around rape jokes as it trivializes the experiences of so many individuals who may in actuality remain silent due to the lack of an accepting environment.
However, the All Women’s Action Society (AWAM) reported that 62% of women who participated in their survey experienced some form of sexual harassment in the workplace, with 39% of their experience being with offensive sexual jokes and innuendos. Despite the lack of surveys conducted for sexual harassment in schools, AWAM recently carried out a study in 2021 to analyse students’ experiences with said matter. It was reported that out of the 275 testimonials the organisation received, 91.6% of the victims were children and 79.4% of the perpetrators were educators.
The Legal Protections
Many have been quick to point out the legalities of the situation and question the legal protection that minors and students have under Malaysian law. As one of the countries that acceded to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child back in 1995, Malaysia already has two legislations implemented specifically to protect children from harm. These would include the Child Act 2001 and the National Child Protection Policy, both of which place significant emphasis on safeguarding children from exploitation, abuse and violence. The ratification of these acts have secured Malaysia’s moral high ground in recognizing children’s rights, but in light of recent events, it has also placed the nation in a tense position for the alleged lack of legal transparency in sanctioning the educator responsible for violating students’ rights to freedom from violence and bodily integrity.
There also exists a provision in Malaysia’s Penal Code that directly touch on offences related to verbal sexual harassment, namely Section 509 which states that:
“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.”
Following the incident, the Ministry of Education took accountability for the educator’s actions by transferring him to the Selangor Education Department whilst awaiting police investigations and subsequently announced zero-tolerance for rape jokes in the educational environment. Nevertheless, many parties still insist that these measures are not sufficient and are calling for more drastic measures to be taken to prevent future occurrences. According to The Sun Daily, several stakeholders like parents, teachers, and women’s organisations have taken the initiative to advocate for safer school environments by urging the ministry to implement an extensive code of conduct for educators, which would reinforce the legal accountability that educators would be subjected to should they transgress boundaries of integrity.
As reported by Malay Mail, further proposals for legal reform have been propagated by the All Women’s Action Society (AWAM) to implement a whistleblower policy in educational systems, whereby individuals would be granted protection in return for information regarding the involvement of school authority figures in any form of sexual harassment. To ensure transparency and continuous efforts, AWAM also propounded that independent third parties like the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) participate in the inquiry process and that the investigative outcomes be dispensed to appropriate authorities in order for holistic policies to be ideated.
Discussions regarding legal reform have also resurfaced, with AWAM at the forefront of its dissemination. For approximately 20 years, AWAM has been working with other NGO’s under the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG) in efforts of tabling a Sexual Harassment Bill in Malaysia in order to create more legal protection and accountability. This bill would act as a response to the gaps in the current policies, namely the Employment Act which does not address sexual harassment that people may face in public spaces, thus leaving perpetrators without any repercussions. Moreover, the bill would aim to expand the concept of sexual harassment to other forms apart from physical to ensure equal safeguarding.
Steps to make schools a safer place
Schools are the second home for most teenagers as they spend a large portion of their time there. Well, at least that was the case before the COVID pandemic hit. However, even then it is important that various steps are taken to ensure that a school not only exist as an educational institution where children go to garner knowledge but also as a safe haven. As individuals, a community and a nation everyone has the responsibility to ensure that schools are a safe place.
Leo Buscaglia, an American author once said, “Change is the end result of all true learning.” One of the many steps that we can all take as individuals to ensure that schools are a safe place is by educating ourselves. Regardless of our age, gender, ethnicity, we should all take the step to educate ourselves about rape culture, sexual harassment, boundaries as well as consent. With the knowledge pertaining to such topics, we will be able to educate our friends and spread awareness regarding the matter.
The decision to use one’s voice in order to stand up for this cause is crucial. Victims should not have to remain silent due to the fear of embarrassment or shame. Instead, they should be given the opportunity to speak about it if they are comfortable doing so. A safe place to do so would be through the Instagram account @savetheschoolsmy. This Instagram account, in particular, provides victims with a platform to share their stories but at the same time remain completely anonymous. With over 500 stories shared to date, it simply goes to show that sexual harassment, abuse experience and rape culture in schools might not be as rare as we think.
As an individual, we should always strive to take the active step and be there for our friends who are victims. In order to show our support for them, we can start by listening to them and not dismissing them. Standing up for our friends if we have witnessed it is also a great way. Last but not least, schools and legal authorities should take the complaints seriously and investigate the matter.
Conversations about sexual harassment or rape culture in a school or the workplace should not be avoided. Instead, there should be more conversations about such topics in order to ensure that every single person out there is aware of their rights as an individual. Boundaries should also be made clear to ensure that nobody will overstep them. If there is any lesson that we can take away from Ain’s story, it would be that one should never be afraid to speak up whenever they feel uncomfortable.
Written by: Julia Rosalyn and Sumitra Cheong
Edited by: Maki