ON the heels of the “me too” hashtag (#MeToo) that flooded social media with women sharing the hashtag to emphasise how widespread sexual harassment is, a Malaysian tweeted that while men might tell off other men in private for sexually harassing women, they would not stand witness in sexual harassment allegations as men are supposed to be loyal to their friends (paraphrase mine, as the tweet was written in Manglish).
In 140 characters, this tweet exemplifies the crux of the problem.
For far too long, women have borne the burden of responsibility in such cases – being told that we deserve the harassment, assault and rape should we dress or behave a certain way, or even dare to claim our space in public. I wish to present arguments to the contrary, where harassment is instead about exertion of power, with sex as its tool.
While #MeToo generated a lot of talk on the issue of harassment, behaviour that objectifies women and exacerbates women’s experience remains unchanged.
Just peruse the comments following the reveal of Miss Malaysia Universe 2017 Samantha Katie James’ nasi lemak evening dress.
The fact that the dress equates a beloved Malaysian food item to a woman’s body that idealises the societal standard of beauty resulted in lewd, distasteful comments.
While a number of social media users attempted humour to gloss over the matter, the comments highlight how we as a society take sexual harassment as a given, something that is considered normal and that is only harmful if we somehow cannot justify it (almost always along the lines of “Was she dressed provocatively?”, “She shouldn’t have fought back” and “Was she out alone late at night?”).
I am not a fashion expert, but I personally would have loved to see the kebaya and batik sarong being showcased at such events. Putting aside the argument on whether beauty pageants objectify women and exclude diverse kinds of beauty, the designers could have elegantly showcased one of the many Malaysian cultural dresses, providing a beautiful background story on how such dresses empower women in exerting our cultural identities and preserving heritage.
Women experience sexual harassment despite our diverse choices in dress and behaviour. This is evident by the many niqabis and hijabis, girls who don’t conform to societal beauty standards, and both intro- and extroverts, who shared their sexual harassment experiences on social media with #MeToo.
Some men argue that women are too sensitive, that “it’s only a joke” when they make lewd comments and that most of them do not mean any harm. My question is: who decides what is harmful?
“Innocent” jokes could lead to normalisation of behaviour and are a slippery slope to not taking reports of sexual assault and rape seriously. Worse, it could also cause women to remain silent when faced with sexual harassment and assault.
Men rape women every 35 minutes in Malaysia, according to 2015 statistics on 2000-2013 data published by Women’s Centre for Change. If rape is that prevalent, why have we not talked about men taking responsibility for their behaviour that leads to rape?
Restrictive policies (such as gender segregation) or harsher punishments for sexual crimes would not solve the systemic problem. The way forward is for nudges in social behaviour that exemplifies positive masculinity and for women to finally have an equal, safe share of public space.
It can start with men acknowledging that merely telling off a friend in private would neither have any effect on said friend’s behaviour, nor would it prevent further harassment and potential assault.
Mr Dharm Navaratnam’s Letter to the Editor published in The Star on Oct 19 (https://www.thestar.com.my/opinion/letters/2017/10/19/metoo-hashtag-an-eyeopener/) is a reflection on men’s responsibility, and how there is a need for positive masculinity to gain traction.
The “No Means No Worldwide” campaign in Kenya and Malawi provides an example of how positive masculinity can be learned, adapted and advocated for. Targeting both boys and girls and using a skills-based, 12-hour-long curriculum, the programme has reduced incidence of rape by 51%, while a further success rate of boys who intervened to prevent an assault is at a high of 73% (see nomeansnoworldwide.org).
It can start with us believing women when they share their experiences of harassment and assault. The shift of blame needs to go towards the attacker, not the survivor.
What the #MeToo started is a platform for both men and women to collectively acknowledge that there is a prevalent, entrenched problem when we can gloss over lewd behaviour. The social media activism needs to be followed by breaking such tidak apa habits.
Personally, it has empowered me to no longer be ashamed to call out indecent behaviour for fear that I will be deemed “too sensitive” to join the boys’ club. I will stand up to fear, and I hope many more men and women will and continue to do so, too.
#MeToo, and I refuse to be victimised and vilified. Instead, I will be a part of the building blocks towards that gender-egalitarian society.
Lyana Khairuddin is a Chevening-Khazanah Scholar pursuing a Master of Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. The views expressed here are entirely her own.
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