BY THE ALL WOMEN’S ACTION SOCIETY
MARCH 8 — This International Women’s Day, we note with pleasure the international upsurge in public condemnation of influential individuals involved in cases of sexual harassment. This marks a great step forward in tackling an issue that has long plagued the public sphere, and we hope that more people are encouraged to step forward and speak their truth.
However, pinning the blame on individual perpetrators is not enough. These incidences of sexual harassment cannot be isolated from the social and cultural norms within which they are rooted. Sexual harassment is also just one of the ways that the patriarchy exacts violence against women.
We focus on some instances of violence against women that have occurred in Malaysia during this year.
Though not as widely publicised as the Harvey Weinstein cases, Malaysia deals with its share of sexual harassment issues.
In April, it was reported that female candidates for Malindo Air were required to undress as part of their interviews. Though the airline initially denied the claims, a company spokesperson later stated that “the employers had a right to make such a request in order to check for visible marks due to the semi-transparent nature of Malindo’s uniform.”
Female employees should not be subject to such double standards that reduce their bodily autonomy. Instead of asking female candidates to change into the uniform in private or re-designing the uniform, the airline’s justification of the matter serves to legitimise such behaviour and enable its continuation.
To add insult to injury, other Malaysian budget airlines decided to cash in on the scandal. AirAsia ran an advertisement with the tagline, “We won’t ask you to strip down. Just zip up and be a part of the world’s best low-cost airline team.”
This opportunistic behaviour makes light of an issue that is prevalent in the workplace: Sexual harassment and abuse of authority by employers and management. Victims are often disbelieved, stigmatised, or fired when the matter emerges. Turning these traumatic experiences into publicity stunts grossly trivializes the issue and effectively deters others going through similar experiences from speaking up.
In last year’s letter to the editor, Awam raised the issue of moral policing. It is with great regret that we must do so once again this year.
In March, Utusan Malaysia published a cartoon of a Muslim woman titled “Kesalahan dalam berpakaian” (translated: The errors in dressing). The illustration depicted a woman dressed in a short tudung (headscarf), crop top and tight jeans, with statements pointing out criticisms of each element of her dressing, and how it was inappropriate to expose her aurat.
Another incident of moral policing occurred in the parliament when Meera Samanther, a lawyer by profession, the current assistant treasurer of the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) was prevented from entering the building by a security guard due to her knee-length skirt.
Meera had worn the same skirt to court without incident. Her colleague, Tan Heang-Lee was also stopped at the guardhouse where the guards peeped into her car window to check on her skirt length to see if it was “appropriate” to for her to enter the parliament building.
Moral policing in all its forms boxes women into rigid categories. As both these cases illustrate, moral policing restricts women’s freedom of expression, ability to work, and capacity to engage in the public sphere. Those policies are also linked to victim-blaming, which places the responsibility for rape and sexual assault on the victim’s appearance and behaviours, rather than on the perpetrators of such crimes.
The Sexual Offences Against Children Bill was passed early this year, a significant milestone in child rights in Malaysia. It imposes harsher punishments and stricter protections for convicted abusers of children.
The bill fails, however, to mention child marriage. This is a glaring and dangerous gap through which child abusers can continue to operate.
The political commentary on the issue of child marriage brought to light its misogynistic and patriarchal underpinnings. Child marriage was often cited as a solution to “social problems.” These “social problems” were vaguely defined but consistently implied that young unmarried girls and teenagers needed to be protected, if not by their families, then by their husbands. At one point, child marriage was even suggested as a “solution” for rape.
It goes without saying that child marriage is an impingement on the agency of children, especially girls. It should also go without saying that rape is not an issue of purity or honor of a woman’s body, but a violation of a person’s bodily autonomy. Once again, women and children are made to bear the brunt of their own trauma, while rapists and abusers escape unscathed.
Violence against trans women
It would be remiss to not highlight the appalling rates of violence against trans women in Malaysia. Three trans women were reported murdered in 2017; the actual number is very likely higher, as hate crimes against trans women often go unreported.
Trans women in Malaysia are also often subject to violations of dignity by all levels of society. The media regularly misgenders and mocks trans women when reporting on cases involving them; the police place the trans women they arrest in men’s incarceration facilities; on top of that, transwomen also face a much higher rate of assault by wardens and other inmates.
We strongly support the work of our sister Joint Action Group (JAG) organisation, Justice for Sisters, in dispelling myths about the queer and trans communities and advocating for their welfare and rights.
When we speak of human rights, we talk of granting all humans equal dignity and worth. And yet, as we have shown, women are not granted these, both in the public and private spheres. Women should be granted freedom of expression, safety and security, respect and dignity, without fear of judgement, stigmatisation, or violent repercussions.
In each case, we have shown how patriarchal mindsets hinder our progress towards equality. Advocacy and education are the strongest tools in dismantling the structures that hold us all back. We must also remind ourselves to be vigilant and aware of our own words and actions and continue to work on improving ourselves as we move forward in our journey towards achieving gender equality.
We wish you all a very happy International Women’s Day, and we look forward to continuing to work with everyone on making our world safer for women.
* Awam is the All Women’s Action Society