Actress Janna Nick was recently bullied on social media for her attire – an off-white shirt tucked into a pair of blue jeans – at a talk she delivered to students at a local university.
Commentators on her Instagram post of the talk – both men and women – took the liberty to tell off Janna for wearing an outfit that was “too tight” and inappropriate mainly because it made them feel uncomfortable.
Some even advised her to wear a headscarf or loose clothing which would be less distracting to them.
The criticism also included comments about the 30-year-old actress’ body.
One user said that even though her talk was informative, he couldn’t help “looking at her buttocks and thigh (sic)”, and that he “can’t move my eyes from there”.
Such reprimands, thrown so casually and callously, are reflective of a pervasive and toxic culture that polices what women wear and holds them responsible for leading men astray.
It is this very culture that enabled PKR Senator Mohd Imran Abdul Hamid to blithely suggest having a law to punish women for seductive behaviour and attire that seduce men into committing rape.
Not entitled to rape
It is a culture that has to change, say women’s activists.
Instead of policing what women wear, men need to police their own thoughts, words and actions and boys need to be taught to respect women, says Sisters in Islam (SIS) executive director Rozana Isa.
“Look away. If you see something that arouses you, lower your gaze or look away. The Quran is very prescriptive about this. Men have to be responsible for their own desires.
“Women don’t feel the need to police men and tell them what to do, how to dress and whatever. But men seem to have this entitlement to comment on how a woman is dressed. It’s unacceptable,” says Rozana.
Although Mohd Imran has since appologised, the comments he made in Parliament earlier this month reveal a prevalent partriachal mindset that places the onus of morality and sexual responsibility squarely on women, says executive director of Arrow (The Asia Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women) Sivananthi Thanenthiran.
“By implying that it’s the women’s fault, the senator is lending legitimacy to sexual harassment and encouraging more men to harass.
“We live in a society where we would rather tell women to change their behaviour and what they wear, instead of telling men what not to do.
“Women’s wardrobes are blamed for men’s transgressions. When young girls and women continuously receive this message, it is internalised and women sometimes, intentionally or instinctively, cover themselves up to avoid harassment,” says Sivananthi.
Society, she asserts, cannot place the onus on women to protect men from themselves.
“We cannot expect women to conceal their bodies because of men’s sexual transgressions.
“Victims of abuse or harassment are often questioned about what they wore and where they were, when in fact women and girls who are fully attired and in well-lit public spaces are also victims of abuse,” adds Sivananthi.
Rewriting the script
The culture of policing women – their clothing, bodies and behaviour – has become so ingrained in society that young boys too feel empowered to tell women how to dress, says SIS communications manager Majidah Hashim, referring to a recent report in projekmm.com of a tahfiz student who wrote a four-page note to a youth criticising her attire.
“This young boy scrutinised her and took it upon himself to tell her how she should be dressed. He told her that her tudung was inappropriate as it tayang dada (displayed her her chest), her sleeves didn’t cover her wrists, her clothes were too tight and suggested she wear socks to cover her ankles.
He described it as his “responsibility” as a fellow Muslim to make sure she cover her aurat.
“Is this what we are teaching our children to do? Scrutinise what women wear instead of valuing their capabilities. Nobody is teaching these young boys to respect women. If they truly respect women, they wouldn’t disrespect or objectify them this way,” says Majidah.
When a young boy feels empowered to tell a grown woman how to dress, he will grow up to use that power and entitlement to dictate what a woman should or shouldn’t do, adds Rozana, citing as an example, Skuad Badar, a Muslim vigilante group in Kedah that targets Muslim couples suspected of close proximity, nabs them and counsels them about committing sins.
Teach children about equality
To change the narrative, there needs to be change not just in people’s culture and personal consciousness but also in policy and law, says Universiti Sains Malaysia's Centre for Research on Women and Gender (Kanita) director Prof Dr Noraida Endut.
“We need to create personal consciousness about gender equality and the wrongfulness of violence against women. This is a very difficult task. We need to constantly unpack people’s views and attitudes, especially when they carry patriarchal and toxic masculine perspectives. We need to call them out on them when they articulate and express these perspectives.
“We need to teach our children from very young about the importance of equality and respect. Not to perpetuate gender bias,” she says.
Rozana wholeheartedly agrees, adding that more men need to stand up against misogyny and make their voices heard.
“We need men to stand up and call out their peers instead of staying silent. We need more men telling other men that it is not their right to tell a woman how she should be dressed. That their catcalling is not ok. Their violence is unacceptable,” says Rozana.
A good place to start, says Sivananthi, is with children, through comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) that can help youngsters navigate gender inequality, gender-based violence and empower them to make informed decisions about relationships and sexuality.
“In Malaysia and most countries in the region, CSE is limited in both concept and content. Sexual health, for example, is not fully addressed. We also need to integrate gender and human rights. Social norms and patriarchal family dynamics reinforce gender norms and CSE can tackle these from young and equip children and young people with knowledge, skills, attitudes and values that will empower them to develop respectful social and sexual relationships and consider how their choices affect their own well-being and that of others. It will help them understand and ensure the protection of their rights throughout their lives.
“It will also make sure that we produce better-informed and sensible leaders who can dismantle patriarchy and misogyny in our society and not perpetuate them,” she says, adding that Arrow has been strongly advocating for CSE to be taught in Malaysia from primary school, including for out-of-school young people and those with disabilities.
Leadership is key
For real and lasting change to happen, the country needs its leaders to represent gender equal ideologies, says Dr Noraida.
“Policies and laws need to clearly prohibit misogynistic behaviour. We need to encourage dialogue with community leaders about the importance of respect between women and men. We need to emphasise how gender equality and creating a culture of respect benefits all of society as it avoids violence. All this requires changes in our schools, workplaces, social organisation.
“We also need to promote gender equal division of labour and recognise that the work done by men and women as having equal value. Reproductive work is as valuable as productive work. It’s a very difficult task and it is something that Kanita is trying to do,” says Dr Noraida.
Leadership at home and in schools is also crucial, says Sivananthi. Parents and schools must provide an inclusive learning environment for youngsters.
“There are countries with schools that are adopting gender-neutral uniforms that allow children to choose what they want to wear, and gender-neutral toilets. These are small changes that can have a far reaching impact on our youngsters’ minds from teaching them gender equality, normalising sexual diversity and ultimately blurring gender binaries.
“Inside our homes, we need to foster gender equality, ensure gender sensitisation and raise our children without gender stereotypes. We intentionally and unintentionally perpetuate gender stereotypes in our homes and schools by wiring our children’s brains to create rigid rules and categories about gender.
“Particularly harmful are statements like, ‘Boys don’t cry’, “Don’t run like a girl’ and so on where we are setting the stage for toxic masculinity from a very young age, and are indirectly telling girls they are weak,” she says.