#MeToo goes global but is Malaysia ready for it?

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Source: The Malaysian Insight

THANKS to the power of the internet, the #MeToo movement has spread globally and in Malaysia, it has resonated with many, prompting people to speak up about their experiences of being sexually harassed or assaulted.

One of them is a 26-year-old Muslim man of mixed ethnicity, who asked to be identified as Peter. Standing 180cm tall, he comes across as a decisive person, but hides a dark secret.

Peter was sexually harassed when he was 15. In the years since then, until speaking out because of #MeToo, his mind would shut off whenever he the incident returns.

“When I think about that time, my mind goes blank. In the 10 years after that, until I decided to join the #MeToo movement and talk about my experience, I could not recall the incident.

“I was not afraid, but I wanted to forget the incident. I thought I forgot it as well, but when #MeToo started, I realised I had just been suppressing it all along,” the social media marketing executive told The Malaysian Insight.

Before Peter went public about his assault, he had been looking at #MeToo posts on Facebook. He realised that were many people who had experience similar trauma, even close friends, and their posts encouraged him to step forward.

“I became aware that I had not actually ‘forgotten’ the incident. I wanted to speak up but I couldn’t find the opportunity, so I suffered in silence.”

He finally found some closure when he posted about the rape on Facebook. But he was also saddened by the fact that others close to him had been assaulted, too and had kept quiet while still others stood by and said or did nothing.

“I know these things do happen, but I didn’t know that there were so many of us (victims). And I realised that it wasn’t my fault that it happened to me.”

For Ho Li Fang, 26, the catalyst was the suicide of Taiwanese author Lin Yi-han in April 2017.

Lin’s suicide was linked to depression, stemming from previously undisclosed sexual assaults.

After reading about Lin’s past, Ho was moved to write column in Malaysiakini detailing her own trauma.

Finding courage

Before she submitted the article, she “tested” the waters to see if she had the courage to step forward. First, she told several close friends and gauged their reactions. After a few times, only then did she send in the article.

However, the article was shared widely.

“It was repeatedly shared on my Facebook page, but I hid it from my family and relatives. It’s a small world, and I would rather not (go fully public). I used an alias for the article, so that was ok.”

Similarly, writing on social media provided a veil of security of sorts for Chong Yee Shan, who is a member of the civil group, Diversity, which advocates for the rights of sexual minorities.

“I cannot count the number of times I have been sexually harassed, from when I was still a child to my adulthood. There were numerous incidents, big and small. Then I saw a friend stepping forward in the #MeToo movement, and thought her trauma was remarkably similar to mine. Then it hit me, I can also step forward in Facebook,” said Chong, recounting how she first stepped forward to participate in #MeToo.

What has speaking up done for those like Chong, Ho and Peter, especially in a society that generally hushes up talk of sexual trauma and relegates it to the past?

For Ho, it was therapy, which she did through writing.

“At the beginning, I felt like I was about to collapse at any time, then gradually, the feeling was reduced to nothing. After stepping forward on the internet, I felt like this weight has been lifted off my shoulders.

“At last, this is not something I have to bear alone. If my friends ever mention this again, or if someone asks about it, I will not be as depressed as I was before,” she said.

For Peter and Chong, their posts have spurred others they know to share their own trauma.

Chong said even if victims did not write a #MeToo post or go public on the internet, just reading about others on social media provided them encouragement.

“This will let others feel like ‘I am with you’. They will no longer question what they experienced.”

Peter was surprised that his post has had a snowball effect.

“There were many others with similar experiences. They told me what happened to them. After that, we formed a small group to support each other, and we now have a deeper understanding of what we’ve been through.”

Although going public has helped victims of sexual harassment find comfort and knowing they are not alone, there has also been some backlash.

“#MeToo takes too much out of victims. They have to go through a lot. It really depends on the person,” Ho said.

“Even though I received many supportive messages, there were those who asked ‘why are you only coming forward now? Why didn’t you say anything before? Why didn’t you lodge a police report?’

“What happened has already happened, you can’t change it. These questions hurt, and there will always be those who will talking about ‘solving the problem’,” she said.

One friend told her to “take responsibility for her statements”, she added.

Peter received hate mail and personal attacks.

“I got hateful emails, telling me that ‘If you are a man, why did this happen to you?’ They went on to say that I must not be macho enough, that I must have been weak, or that I must have ‘consented’ for it to happen.”

Peter said if one wants to go public, he or she must prepare for the backlash.

Paving the way

Chong said Malaysia’s culture does not encourage survivors to speak up

“Our whole society does not encourage survivors to speak up, sometimes we are even asked not to say too much.”

Sex education is also lacking, causing people to be embarrassed when discussing anything related to sex, thus making it a difficult topic to broach

She added that Malaysians have a shallow understanding of sex and are unaware of their own bodies nor able to distinguish what constitutes “sexual harassment”.

“Some men think women like them to be overbearing and aggressive, and women are afraid to say that they are uncomfortable with it.”

There are also those who think that #MeToo will not result in legal action against perpetrators, but Chong said it will at least allow survivors to tell their stories.

Peter thinks the movement will help broaden the minds of Malaysians.

“Judging from the global #MeToo movement, we can see that Malaysia is still quite conservative. But I don’t think we should wait for Malaysia to become more open before victims can start speaking up. It is through their courageous exposes that they can open up space for discussion.”

Sexual assault, he said, happens not because of what people are wearing, or how they act but is due to the silence of others, which allows sexual abuse to go unnoticed. – February 5, 2018.