During World War II, when the Japanese occupied Malaya, my grandmother stopped wearing her sari when she went out of the house, donning instead a vaishti, the traditional sarong-like garment worn by men. She also coiled her long hair into a turban and disguised all other signs of femininity.
My grandmother was a deeply conservative and traditional woman. But she was also pragmatic and acutely aware of the dangers a woman faced. Stories were circulating how Japanese troops had seized and raped girls.
There are many stories of women posing as men or hiding their gender. Author J.K. Rowling, who wrote the Harry Potter books, deliberately chose to use her initials, not her feminine first name, Joanne, to better her chances of getting published and selling books.
To live, work and move freely as a woman has often been challenging. In some cases, simply even existing as a woman is dangerous. In many countries today, it is still difficult to walk in the streets; a study by Stanford University in California that analysed smartphone data found that in almost every country, women walk less than men due to safety concerns.
It’s not been easy for women throughout history – note the very word “history” tells “his story” not hers. In many societies, women had no rights, they were simply commodities.
When I compare my life with that of my grandmother’s, I’m amazed and grateful how much has shifted in the fates of women over the course of the last century. The lopsided power balance between men and women has levelled – mostly.
The levelling is still happening. Recently, one could almost feel the ground shifting, as countless women the world over told their stories of sexual harassment and assault under the hashtag #MeToo, prompted by the call from actress Alyssa Milano to speak out to give a “sense of the magnitude of the problem”. That magnitude was huge – in 48 hours, the hashtag was tweeted nearly a million times.
From Paris to Penang, from Egypt to Estonia (where a former prime minister was forced to resign over harassment allegations from an incident in Malaysia) people joined the chorus of #MeToo. I knew the problem was massive, yet was still surprised to see so many female friends declare “MeToo”. It seemed like every woman had a story, a wound or scar that had dented their confidence.
The floodgates opened in the wake of the allegations involving Hollywood movie mogul Weinstein. In an industry with a deeply unequal power balance, where young aspiring starlets beg to be signed up by big name male producers, such predatory behaviour was predictable.
Weinstein is not a monster, nor is he unique. In any setting where there is a huge imbalance of power, you can expect to find a Weinstein. Because sexual assault is not simply about sex, but also about power and control. When one person wields an enormous amount of authority and dominance over another, then even consent becomes meaningless.
And that brings me to the many cases we’ve been seeing lately in Malaysia involving older men and young girls, including some incest cases.
Tell me, how easy is it for a girl to refuse to do the bidding of an authoritative patriarch? It is no accident that these men choose victims who are young, obedient and submissive, girls who have followed orders all their life. And incidentally, most rapes occur between people who know each other – not between strangers.
All too often, we look at this from the male perpetrator’s point of view, not the victim’s. The girl is blamed for every reason thinkable. In one recent incest case involving a teenage girl and the father who raped her daily for years from age 13, there were social media commentators insisting that the girl must have wanted it.
By seeing sexual violence as simply sex, or a loss of control of desire, we are looking at it from the perpetrator’s point. From that point, it is about violence, humiliation, subjugation.
We need to protect girls by empowering them with the confidence to say no, and the knowledge of how to seek help and resources to protect themselves. But we also need a society that doesn’t accept such acts and takes strong action against perpetrators. Because as long as a rapist can get away with it, he’ll continue to rape.
Bystanders and witnesses also play a vital role. This is true with bullying too. Because inaction is also to blame for the problem persisting.
I’m glad that my daughter is a strong and confident girl. Self-protection requires strength.
I just hope that by the time she starts working and has to navigate her way in this world as a woman, there will be far fewer Weinsteins in the workplace. And that she’ll never need to dress as a man to protect herself.
Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health, but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health. Write to her at email@example.com.
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