By Nicole Wong and Raeesah Hayatudin
“I was young and naive and a soft target. […] I felt violated and threatened and didn’t tell anyone for years.”
“He was allowed to prey on vulnerable male students knowing he was protected by senior staff.”
“As far as I know he has never been exposed.”
“I knew I could not complain. Even if I did, it would have been my word against his and I would have been the one to be retaliated against. The whole experience was just so humiliating and there was no one to turn to.”
The short accounts* of sexual harassments and assaults above speak for themselves.
Sexual harassment has become a prevalent social issue in Malaysia. It is an issue which many people speak about – but yet, most only seem to have an indistinct idea of what sexual harassment truly means. In a particular study by UTM, about 28% of the individuals questioned had difficulty understanding what constitutes sexual harassment.
According to Women’s Aid Organization Malaysia (WAO), sexual harassment refers to sexual conduct that is unwanted, unwelcome, or unsolicited. This includes requests for sexual favours which are inappropriate and offensive. In other words, sexual harassment is exactly the violation of an individual’s agency over their own body in the way that the victim is being forced to comply with the sexual demands of the perpetrator. Everyone has a right to their own personal space, and a right to feeling safe in their own environment. Sexual harassment and assault are two actions which infringe on these rights. It should be noted that they are severe acts which have psychological effects on victims and may have an effect on their health, especially when they have occurred repeatedly. This will result in a pervasive sense of feeling unsafe and fearful of their surroundings; a loss of appetite; an inability to sleep; having trouble performing well in academic or workplace settings; the development of symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and suicide attempts.
There tends to be some murkiness when it comes to the term sexual harassment, which is defined vaguely and the issue itself, seldom discussed by companies and organizations. As a result, actions which are inappropriate, such as cat-calling, wolf-whistling or casually-delivered obscene remarks, have generally become accepted as something normal, even though this should not be the case. Harassments, especially those which have been committed repeatedly, often wear down the victim over time. It’s horrifying to know that there are incidents where children, who can be as young as four or in their preteens, whether with their parents or simply walking to school, become victims of sexual harassment as well. People who commit these acts often don’t stop for a moment to consider how victims feel and how the experiences are recalled vividly for years. All too often, bystanders simply turn a blind eye to harassments which happen just under their noses. This is unacceptable; instead, sexual harassment should be seen as an issue that future generations should never have to endure.
It also should be noted that sexual harassment is not defined for any particular gender. However, it is most definite that females have endured sexual harassments and assaults more than males.
COMMON SIGNS OF SEXUAL HARASSMENTS
- Acts of public humiliation such as cat-calling and wolf-whistling. (In Malaysia, it is far too common for young girls to be called “leng-lui”, meaning “pretty girl”, and to be wolf-whistled at as they walk down the streets.)
- Inappropriate and unwanted touches from persons of the opposite gender.
- Uncomfortable acts from strangers, acquaintances, colleagues, etc. meant to coerce the victim into participating in sexual acts.
- Behavioral patterns that serve to establish the dominance of the harasser over the victim, making the harasser feel more powerful.
STEPS WHICH WE CAN TAKE AGAINST SEXUAL HARASSMENT & ASSAULT
- Do Not Take This Issue As a JOKE
It always starts with a jest, meant to be harmless, rousing laughter from others around you, which – initially – may have no significant effects on our mentalities. As time progresses and this continues, it can slowly and insidiously reinforce in us the false belief that sexual harassments themselves are harmless.
- Raising Awareness Through Media
Social media is a powerful tool to highlight sexual harassment and assault issues (which may be included under the umbrella term “gender issues”) to raise more awareness among the public.
For example, the annual Aiyoh Wat Lah Awards, a “tongue-in-cheek response to the acts and statements by Malaysia’s public figures and institutions that reek of sexism, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia”, driven by an Internet voting poll, is one way through which effort is being made to spread news about how gender issues are viewed by Malaysian government officials or public figures, as well as how cases involving gender issues are handled in the Malaysian court.
- Teaching Our Male (and Female) Friends and Acquaintances Not to Be Bystanders
Where would be a better place to start than those whom we know and those who know us? It is shocking to know that 38% of sexual harassment perpetrators are the victim’s friends or acquaintances, while 28% are their intimate partners**.
- Educating the Younger Generation
Children are very vulnerable to opinions and perspectives they find on social media, as well as to common behavioral trends in society. If they are not raised to think with consideration and respect for other people, they will think that it is acceptable to behave as though sexual harassments and assaults are every-day acts which are not worth a second mention, when it is indeed the opposite. Parents should not be the only people taking responsibility for this. Indeed, schools should also be tackling this problem – for example, by inviting local non-governmental organizations who work in the field of gender issues to visit schools and give speeches to introduce children to new perspectives and to teach them how to treat others thoughtfully, as well as to educate them on these issues, which are not broached in their educational curriculum.
- Changing the Way Managements in Universities and Workplaces Work
This would have a colossal effect on the way sexual harassment cases are treated when reported by victims. However, it is also a very difficult issue, as the questions that arise when we think of this are difficult to answer – should evidence be required to prosecute the perpetrator? How will the management take responsibility for such problems, and how can we ensure that victim-blaming does not take place? Victims of sexual harassment and assault may elect not to report attacks out of fear that they would be blamed for what has been done to them. If the management chooses to handle such cases with the seriousness they deserve and ensure that no such case goes unpunished, it would make academic and working environments a safer place for everyone.
- Stop Victim Blaming & Learn to Say NO!
This is a very common, and serious, occurrence: victim blaming. The fear of being the target of others’ blame is terrifying for a victim, often preventing the victim from reaching out to seek the help they need. It is always easier for people to point fingers at the victim when, rightfully, it should be the perpetrator who is made to take responsibility for their actions. It is time we start asking the right questions and stand up against perpetrators, as sexual harassment has unknowingly became a norm in our society. Protesting may seem like an excessive response to sexual harassments to some, but if we do not voice our honest opinions, sexual harassments will never stop.
Silence is what has made gender issues (such as sexual harassment and assault) part of what has become socially acceptable “culture”. As a result, it has made its way into our lives as something commonplace. If we do not take a stand against these issues, how will our society ever progress? When we think about it, it’s actually quite simple: communication and empathy are excellent starting points for us find solutions for many of the social problems we face today. Once a few people start to stand up for themselves and for others, this will have a ripple effect: as the numbers of those people doing the same build up, soon enough, more of the population will have more awareness about sexual harassment. It is of the utmost importance that these issues are regarded and treated with gravity to ensure that destructive cycles such as these are not repeated in the future.
*Quotations in the beginning of the article were taken from this article.
**These statistics are from this source.