Rape is a crime. It is certainly not fodder for jokes and threats about rape should never be taken lightly. However, when a 17-year-old student recently highlighted inappropriate comments and “jokes” about rape made by a teacher, she was not only gaslighted on social media but threatened with rape by a male schoolmate.
Though shaken by the threat, Ain Husniza Saiful Nizam isn’t backing down.
Supported by her father, she has lodged two police reports, on the teacher’s alleged comments and the threat to her safety that she received. She’s also continued to be vocal in the media and on her own social media platforms about the issue and has even started a hashtag campaign, #makeschoolasaferplace, determined to spearhead change in schools.
“Ain’s courage in speaking up against rape culture is exemplary and should be commended. Rape is not joke, and should never be treated lightly. It is deplorable that Ain has now to face rape threats as a way of silencing her.
“This shows the level of impunity towards sexual violence, which is all the more saddening because it is happening in schools, among our children. For centuries, rape has been used as a weapon against women and it’s become so normalised in our culture that people thing it’s ok to joke about it and take it lightly. I mean, would we make jokes about murdering someone?, ” questions Women’s Centre for Change programme director Karen Lai.
What horrified Ain in the first place was the “joke” her teacher allegedly made in class: That it would be better not to rape someone below 18 years because of the laws protecting minors. The male teacher allegedly then suggested that rapists go for those over 18 instead. He also allegedly said that most boys don’t report if they have been raped because they “like” it.
After the classroom incident, Ain spoke about it on social media and shared how she’d gone to the school’s counsellor to report the incident but her complaints were dismissed. Instead, she said she was told she was being too sensitive, emotional and reading too much into the teacher’s “jokes”.
But Ain knew that rape is no laughing matter.
Deep-rooted and cultural
The statement on rape made by the teacher, the backlash received by the student who courageously spoke up shows that this is a cultural issue, says Women’s Aid Organisation executive director Sumitra Visvanathan.
“It is an institutionalised perpetration and protection of rape culture. This is dangerous, especially in a school setting because it allows and propagates acceptance of gender-based violence and sexual assault, ” she says.
Rape culture is a culture that normalises sexual violence and trivialises the harm and trauma brought on by it. It is a culture that demands that women make unreasonable sacrifices (not going out alone at night, avoiding dark, deserted places, dressing a certain way, etc) to avoid sexual assault and then blames victims for their own assaults. It is a culture that does not teach boys not to rape but perpetuates cultural norms and institutions that protect rapists and exempts them from accountability.
In rape culture, jokes and flippant comments about rape are not taken seriously enough.
Since she spoke up about the incident at her school, Ain has received support from the public but she has also continued to be gaslighted and derided, clearly showing how those who speak up against the patriachy are bullied, threatened and do not feel safe.
“Rape culture is a product of gender inequality biases and practices,” explains Sumitra. “It is rooted in archaic and patriarchal beliefs of power and control. In Malaysia, rape culture is a huge problem because more often than not, violence is normalised and justified. The ‘jokes’ and dismissal of very real concerns for safety of the girls involved is an example of this, ” she says.
Rape culture, she says, stems from the idea that women are “weaker” and “submissive” and therefore deserve to be violated.
“This is everyone’s problem because we should care about the kind of environment women, girls and other vulnerable groups are living in. We make up half of society and we do not deserve to constantly live in fear and worry about our human rights being violated. However, there is a reluctance to talk about the fact that rape culture does not exclusively affect women. These ideas are underpinned by patriarchy and toxic masculinity, which are archaic interpretations of gender that depicts men as the ‘dominant gender’.
“What many do not realise is that these affect the safety of men. For instance, male survivors of violence often feel unsafe speaking out due to the stigma they receive from doing so. Hence, doing away with such a damaging culture would allow for a safer, and fairer society for all,” she says.
Lai agrees that the attitudes about rape is symptomatic of a bigger problem in society.
“How is rape culture manifested in our society? Victim-blaming, slut shaming, the sexual objectifiication of women and girls and the way we trivialise rape and refuse to acknowledge its harm. Even though we have some pretty good laws that criminalise rape and sexual assault, these laws don’t operate in a vacuum. They operate within structures, systems and a culture that is, sadly, dominated by certain ways of thinking. And we need to address these ways of thinking that are still very patriarchal.
“We all have a role to do something about it, especially when children are involved. 80% of sexual crimes in the country involve children and this is something that we really need to pay attention to. And these cases, we are talking not only about a vulnerable group but people who are in a position of trust like teachers that are supposed to protect the child’s interest which makes it all the worse,” says Lai.
Making a change
Change isn’t going to happen in a flash, acknowledges Lai, but it needs to happen and the government has to make its stand clearly on the issue.
“The Education Ministry must make it clear that it will not tolerate the trivialisation of rape or sexual violence. Stern disciplinary action must be taken against the teacher and also the student who threatened Ain,” says Lai.
Ain’s case must also be investigated fairly and the young student needs to be protected from harm.
“We really need to applaud Ain for speaking up. For victims its powerful to know they are not alone in this and that they will be believed.
“Now, the government’s response is critical as it will send a clear message that there should be zero tolerance of such actions and conduct,” adds Lai.
As a signatory to Cedaw (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women), all arms of the government have the responsibility to end violence against women, adds Lai.
“And that includes the executive arm being the government, the judiciary and also all public institutions,” emphasised Lai.
Society too needs to play a part. To begin with, says Sumitra, we should all be a lot more conscious about stereotyping gender roles in our society.
“The numbers being reported today do not capture how pervasive sexual harassment, assault, and violence against women actually is. Survivors of violence are still afraid to speak up due cultures of victim blaming be it in schools, among law enforcers, and even among one’s peers.
“As a community, we need to do better in ensuring that survivors of violence, irregardless of gender feel safe, supported, and heard when they speak out.
“There is also an urgent need to dismantle and resist the idea that power can only be gained through violence. Those who have faced harassment and/or violence must be believed when they speak up, we must encourage them to speak their truth.
“We must hold perpetrators responsible for their actions. There should be legal reform to ensure that the justice system is built to protect and support survivors. The most urgent thing for the government – in particular – the Women, Children and Family Development Ministry to do is to table the Sexual Harassment Bill as promised. Together, we have to make Malaysia a better country for women,” she says.
Ain and her father, Saiful Nizam are speaking up not only for themselves but for all school children and parents in the country.
Putting a spotlight on the harmful messages that are prevalent in schools will hopefully bring about a change in schools.
In his Facebook post, Saiful says that he has a lot of respect for teachers and that it is unfortunate how a few bad apples are sullying the profession.
“It is not our intention to attack the school or teachers. But we want to bring attention to the flaws in our school systems that have brought about this. We want to make schools safer for everyone,” he said in a FB live post with Ain.