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Sunday August 3, 2008

‘She was ripe for the plucking’

This was the reason some convicted rapists gave for their crime to two researchers who visited prisons to interview sexual predators. Their recently published book sheds some light on why Malaysian men rape.

EVERY day an average of four women are raped. But we don’t hear or read about most of the cases, only the sickeningly brutal ones involving a child or ending in murder or both.

The names and faces of victims like computer analyst Canny Ong, 28, abducted from a basement car park, raped, killed and set on fire; engineer Noor Suzaily Mukhtar, 24, raped in a bus by the driver who later strangled her with her tudung and children like Nurul Huda Ghani, five, abducted and killed by a security guard in a TNB station and Nurin Jazlin Jaziman, eight, sodomised and murdered, are etched in the public’s collective mind.

We tend to believe that rapists are shadowy strangers lying in wait of an unsuspecting woman. The reality is that most victims were raped by someone they know, a friend, former partner, even a relative. Even those trusted in authority like parents, policemen, religious leaders and community elders have been charged with rape.

Rape is riddled with myths. Many perpetuate the belief that women are raped because they entice men with their dressing or behaviour. Religious leaders and politicians have fanned such myths that turn the spotlight onto the victim instead of the criminal.

Dr Rohana Ariffin, retired associate professor of Universiti Sains Malaysia Penang, and her former student Rachel Samuel, currently a lecturer with UiTM Malacca, decided to focus their research on the rapist instead.

For 10 months in 2003, both women conducted interviews with 90 convicted rapists currently detained in four prisons in Seremban, Johor Baru, Kajang and Sungai Buloh aged 20 to 72. Each rapist was asked open-ended questions to solicit their perception and attitudes towards women, sexual history and experiences.

Their findings were published in a handbook, Rapist & Rape – Who & Why which was launched by Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Dr Ng Yen Yen last month. It is a follow-up on their earlier study in 1997 from interviews with rapists in Taiping and Penang.

Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Dr Ng Yen Yen at the launch of Rapist & Rape – Who & Why by researchers Dr Rohana Ariffin (left) and Rachel Samuel.

“We hoped that an insight into their thoughts, feelings, perception and attitude would help reduce the number of rape incidents in Malaysia,” says Dr Rohana at a recent interview in Petaling Jaya, Selangor.

“Our study offers a socio-economic profile of the rapists and understanding their family background. We wanted to know, what precedes their crime?”

She stresses that their research had limitations.

“We were only allowed to meet with each rapist once for two hours,” she says. “As such, our study only obtained some indicators of their background and reasons for committing rape. A psychological profile of the offenders would require more extensive interviews and research.”

Who, what...

From just 138 cases in 1980 to 912 in 1994, the number rose to 2,431 cases in 2006 and 3,177 last year. Between 2000 to 2006, Selangor and Johor recorded the highest numbers of rape while Perlis had the lowest number. For 2006, Selangor recorded 421 rapes and Johor 343.

These are just the known cases reported to the Royal Malaysian Police. Researchers believe there are numerous unreported cases of incest or acquaintance rapes.

Malays commited 66.3% of reported rape cases, followed by 15.3% by “others”, who are natives of Sabah and Sarawak and foreign workers comprising mainly Indonesians. Chinese are the perpetrators in 10.5% of the cases and Indians in the remaining 7.8%.

Universiti Sains Malaysia criminologist Dr P. Sundramoorthy at his office in Penang.

Many offenders are aged between 45 and 55. The most common types of rape they committed were incest and acquaintance rape. Ironically, 82% of respondents over the age of 50 raped girls aged 16 and below. The trend continues today with rape victims becoming increasingly younger.

The majority grew up in rural areas, including Felda schemes (71.1%), and had low education levels. Most are married and reported good relationships with their mothers but not their fathers. Their views concerning females are, in general, degrading and humiliating. They see rape as a sexual act rather than as a violent crime.


“They often cited, suka sama suka, meaning they believed it was consensual sex,” explains Dr Rohana. “Or they’d say, she was ripe for the plucking. One said the victim was manja (acting cuddly and pampered) with me. But that was the rapist’s granddaughter!

“Some believe rape is where force was used. So having sex with the victim isn’t rape to them. They are ignorant that rape is also caused by persuasion, coercion, manipulation and relationship power between an older person and a young victim.”

Indeed, some of the men convicted for date rape or statutory rape told the researchers that sex was consensual and it was the girls’ parents who reported them because they disliked the men’s low-income jobs.

The rapists also blamed pornography and uncontrolled lust as the main factors which caused them to rape. Only two of them said women were to blame but over 60% agreed that women were temptresses.

Asked why they did not turn to prostitutes to release their uncontrollable lust, the rapists replied that prostitutes were “repulsive” and “dirty”.

What was it like meeting 90 rapists face to face?

“I must admit it was depressing entering a prison, but we prepared ourselves mentally and emotionally each time we set off. We could not show our feelings and kept cool at all times,” says Dr Rohana.

“Even so, I could not help feeling heated during one interview. I raised my voice at a 60-year-old man who took his little granddaughter into a palm oil estate and raped her. Another said, Jika makanan sudah dihidang, kalau saya tak makan, lalat akan turun. Biar saya yang makan (If food is served and I do not eat it, the flies will come. Let me be the one who consumes it).

“Similarly, a 55-year-old who raped his teenage neighbour as his wife had reached menopause, stated, Nak tidur, bantal pun sampai, kita pun tidurlah (Want to sleep and the pillow is here. May as well sleep on it).

“It was hardest to speak to people who had abused their positions of power, like a religious head who raped the teenage girls volunteering to serve in the temple under the full trust of their parents.”

Samuel found most of the rapists forthcoming and willing to talk.

“Most said they didn’t use force to have sex,” she says. “A music composer convicted of statutory rape against his teenaged stepdaughter passionately declared, ‘I am a lover, not a killer!’.

“He said his stepdaughter is a ‘hot blooded teenager who needed to be taught the right way to enjoy sex’.”

Many of the men committed incest while their wives were in menopause, pregnant, or unavailable for sex. When the men couldn’t control their urges, they sought the easiest women they could find.

“Most of them had a propietary attitude of ‘she’s mine anyway’,” says Samuel.

Breeding ground

An interesting point unearthed was that the median age of the Malaysian rapist was 41.7, with incest rapists at 47 and date rape perpetrators at 37. In comparison, rapists in developed nations like the United States, 80% are below 30 and 75% under 25.

“In more developed nations we find younger perpetrators and stranger rape cases. With rapid urbanisation in Malaysia, will the category of rape and the origins of rapists shift due to the ‘overcrowded rat syndrome’, with younger men coming from high density flats and condominiums?” queries Dr Rohana.

She adds, “We are breeding a culture of poverty. People grow up resenting others and they transfer that aggression to the easiest victim they find. I hope our structure of housing can be more humane and not resemble pigeon holes in the sky. We need sustainable family planning especially among the low income group. Seldom do we find a sociologist on planning boards during development.”

PAM past president Dr Tan Loke Mun

Past president of the Malaysian Institute of Architects (PAM) Dr Tan Loke Mun disagrees that confined and crowded living quarters are breeding grounds for rapists.

“We don’t find an increase of rape in densely populated cities like in Hong Kong, Singapore, China, Japan or Scandinavian countries where land is scarce and expensive,” he argues.

“Rape is due to moral decline in a society. More rapes happen in rural areas. (Ironically) imposing an unrealistic and totally inhibitive moral standard on people is more likely to turn them the other way. We may have parks for recreation but most are under-used. The old gathering spaces were parks, markets or piazzas. These spaces have evolved into shopping malls, cinemas, waterfronts and food and beverage outlets.

“Developers allocate a minimum of 10% of land into recreational space. But once it’s handed over to the local councils, that’s when you see deterioration.”

Urban decay

“Rape is a worrying trend although Malaysia still has a low rate compared with other countries,” says criminologist and Universiti Sains Malaysia’s School of Social Science lecturer Dr P. Sundramoorthy, adding that for the first time, crime was an agenda for the March 8 elections.

“A major contributing factor is urbanisation which has led to dramatic lifestyle changes. Our crime rate is a typical symptom of rapidly developing nations. We have seen more crimes in the last 20 or 30 years than in the previous century.

“As our population grows, we have more accessibility to information including sex materials. There is no conclusive research that pornography leads to rape, but a higher number of rapists tend to view it habitually so it is a contributing factor.”

Is there hope of rehabilitation for the rapist? The Malaysian Penal Code Section 376 states that offenders shall be punished with imprisonment of a term not less than five years and liable for whipping. Despite the severe punishment, many are recidivists or repeat offenders.

“Back in the mid-1990s I took some students to work on research on rapists. We were startled to see some of these men being caught for rape again after their release from prison,” says Dr Sundramoorthy.

“There have been calls to rehabilitate rapists, or to chemically castrate them as practised in some European nations. But research has shown that even with castration, the rapist still rapes habitually. What we need is to impose maximum jail time for even first-time offenders and not leave it at the whim and fancy of a judge.”

Teach respect

Despite years of progress and change, women are still objectified as commodities. They are still blamed for rape from the way they dress, talk or behave.

In June, Munirah Bahari, vice president of the National Islamic Students’ Association of Malaysia, caused a furore by stating that school girls’ white baju kurung was too sexy and lured rapists. Similarly, the Kelantan Government forbade women to wear coloured lipstick or high heels as these are deemed enticing to men.

Dr P. Sundramoorthy points out that the media is also fond of magnifying cases where attractive women are raped. It perpetuates the idea that only beautiful women get raped.

Rape is committed against women all over the world including “honour killings” which these women are protesting against.

“Blaming women for rape is a worldwide phenomenon and not just in Malaysia,” he says. “Infants, the elderly and women from various ethnic groups and religions and in all shapes and sizes have been victims. Yet, people will continue believing that dressing sensuously will cause people to rape, or going out at 3am, or other stereotyping.”

While it is impossible to obtain zero rape as deviant acts can never be achieved, Dr Sundramoorthy says society can minimise the crime, starting with education from an early age.

“People must be aware of these social issues and men especially need this education,” he says. “We must start human social behaviour education from the age of 10. And boys especially must be taught to respect women.

“The age for statutory rape should also be raised from 16 to 18. Teenagers may be physically ready for sex, but are they mentally or emotionally prepared? The age for buying alcohol should also be raised to 21. There is no conclusive study showing alcohol is a cause for rape but directly or indirectly, alcohol accessibility has been a factor in many cases.”

Women themselves have a role to play.

“Some women also accept a patriarchal system in society,” explains Dr Rohana. “They are trained from young to believe that they have to be gentle, sweet and submissive. A man rapes a woman as a way of putting her in her place.

“Additionally, our capitalist economy sells women as the weaker sex. In a conservative society, the victim is blamed. But women cannot be responsible for men’s actions! If a shoplifter is caught, do we blame the merchandise for looking too attractive?”

Adds Samuel, “In conclusion, rape is mainly a question of unequal power relations and a distorted perception and attitude towards gender or women.”

‘Rapist & Rape – Who & Why’ is published by the Education and Research Association for Consumers, Malaysia (ERA Consumer, Malaysia), a non-profit and non-political organisation. Free copies of the book are available. Contact ERA Consumer at No 24, Jalan SS1/22A or call 03-7877 4741 / 03-7876 4648 or visit

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