‘Call-gate’, sexual harassment, and the swift backlash of the Malaysian Spring

Calling in to a talk show featuring PKR vice-president Nurul Izzah, a caller who identified himself as 'Azrul' said she needed to take better care with her dressing. ― Picture by Miera Zulyana
Calling in to a talk show featuring PKR vice-president Nurul Izzah, a caller who identified himself as 'Azrul' said she needed to take better care with her dressing. ― Picture by Miera Zulyana

KUALA LUMPUR, May 27 — There is a hadith of the Prophet Muhammad (saw) as narrated by Abdullah ibn Abbas (radi Allahu anhu), where the Prophet and a companion Al-Fadl were approached by a beautiful woman from the tribe of Khatham seeking advice.

While the Prophet looked away, Al-Fadl was enamoured by her beauty and could not prevent himself from staring. The Prophet noticed this, and turned Al-Fadl’s face away from the woman to prevent him from gazing at her. (Hadith Riwayat Bukhari Volume 8, Hadith 247)

One does well to remember the behaviour of the Prophet Muhammad (saw) and how he dealt with matters both personal and affecting Muslims as a whole.

A man of his calibre never allowed personal insults to disturb him and consistently showed honour and nobility in the face of enmity and aggression.

Attacks against his character hardly had an effect, with the Prophet spending time and effort to reprimand behaviour against those who failed to respect women, and the marginalised by the ordinary people and what more, the privileged in society.

Certainly, our beloved Prophet utilised wisdom when chastising anyone — for the benefit of inculcating better behaviour, to uplift their culture and improve their environment for a society well known for its bigotry, prejudice, and deep-seated chauvinism.

We can see in his example that men — no less Muslim men — can and must act as allies to uphold the dignity of women, and to show through words and actions that they are to always be respected.

In what has now been known as “Call-gate”, I believe the harassment and deeply invasive intrusion to my being by the caller was important for its ability to remind us all that such unwarranted harassment takes place almost on a daily basis — even against men.

And when even an MP such as myself is not spared, what more can other women in Malaysia, unheard and unseen, expect on a regular basis?

For the sake of Malaysian women who have faced similar harassment and to prevent further incidents in the future, this issue cannot go unaddressed. Therefore, I would like to clearly and unequivocally state: In no way was that caller’s behaviour acceptable on any level.

Women everywhere, whether scarf-clad or not, deserve to live with dignity and respect and I call upon all Malaysians to defend women whenever an injustice has occurred.

I implore members of the society to be more sensitive in projecting comments directly linked to women’s issues.

Feedback on policy matters, critical ideas, and delivery is welcomed as consistently relevant topics to be debated, yet certainly not on personal appearance — which fall within the invasive domain — in line with the respectful teachings of Prophet Muhammad PBUH and the moral values integrated into our daily lives.

Where harassment against women is concerned, Malaysia is sorely lagging behind when it comes to dealing with this endemic problem. A culture of patriarchy, sexism, and toxic masculinity is all-pervasive in Malaysian society, from cat-calling in the streets to the abject lack of strong sexual harassment laws.

The failure to address this issue meaningfully and with wisdom reinforces our current societal norms, at the expense of women’s safety.

Special attention should be given towards women’s protection, based on a recent finding that 51 per cent of working women prioritise prevention of sexual harassment at work.

This notion is further solidified by Ipsos’ worrying statistic concerning a mere 25 per cent report rate among sexual harassment victims — thus Malaysian communities must rise and uphold the rights of women in this country.

There must also be amplified response towards sensitivity training programs in the society, to prevent sensitive women-centric issues from being discussed in inappropriate public spaces.

The “Rukun Tetangga” initiative should also be re-strengthened to help protect the women in a community. Members of the society must survey, observe and report any untoward incidents involving women to the highest level —allowing justified punishments to be meted out.

We should also recognise how education, or the lack thereof, has only succeeded in reinforcing existing gender dynamics. It is our duty to raise awareness on harassment with tact and poise as we take steps to address the issue competently.

This is not an issue restricted to women, it requires the active participation of all Malaysians. Men have an important role to play in rejecting existing norms and changing the way men and women regard each other.

Men have to endeavour to unlearn a culture that objectifies women, to be self-aware of their privileges by virtue of their gender and seek to achieve some balance. It is our responsibility as Malaysians to address toxic masculinity and machismo as detrimental to both men and women. Men do not need to behave a certain way in order to impress their peers or other women. As much as it may be incumbent on women to dress modestly, it is equally incumbent on men to lower their gaze should they start to feel uncomfortable.

Boys will not be boys, boys will treat women with respect and dignity.

It is imperative that we educate our sons, both inside the classroom and out. A new generation of Malaysian men must be equipped with decency and dignity, befitting of our society, instead of reverting to the tired patriarchy that has been so common in our public spaces.

In the Netherlands, workshops teach boys to recognise and respect the sexual boundaries of others as well as how to set their own boundaries. In Kenya, assault prevention training for the purposes of empowering boys to prevent this crime is mandatory for every secondary student.

It is time Malaysian civil society breaks from our past and finds its own appropriate methods for dealing with this serious issue.

These efforts should also be effectively supplemented by suitable legislation. For instance, section 509 of the Penal Code which deals with insults to one’s person or the invasion of privacy, should be revised significantly to include more specific protection against sexual harassment.

Additionally, the Code of Practice on the Prevention and Eradication of Sexual Harassment could be codified into law to protect women in the workplace. As of August 2010, according to Malaysian Employer’s Federation, only 400 of 450,000 registered and active companies have adopted and implemented the code, a statistic which is simply not good enough.

I reiterate my support towards the idea mooted by the Honourable Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Women and Family Development, Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, about the possibility of introducing tighter laws to uplift women’s status.

Implementation of strict yet relevant laws, for example the Sexual Harassment Act and Privacy Intrusion Act will surely play a significant role in preventing misdeeds against women, steps that should give us confidence in the Honourable Deputy Prime Minister’s upcoming actions and decisions to safeguard the interests of our women, in line with the aspirations of Pakatan Harapan.

With all the change our country is presently experiencing, it would be a waste if this positive energy was not harnessed to improve the lives of women.

It is my hope that our new Malaysia can begin to address this issue one small step at a time, as the road ahead is a long an arduous one but one achievable together, women and men, as Malaysians.

The new Malaysia put in place today will only continue existing for as long as the willingness to embrace change remains — starting off with greater efforts to inculcate better appreciation and treatment of women.

The fact that such severe backlash resulted from this individual’s brutish comments is a testament to how far we have come as a society which exalts and empowers women.

I cannot express enough my deep gratitude to all media personnel, professionals, colleagues, friends, women and men from all walks of life who have come out swiftly not just in defending me, but also the women of Malaysia. And in turn, defend what’s right.

*Nurul Izzah Anwar is member of Parliament for Permatang Pauh, Vice-President and Co-Elections Director of People’s Justice Party (Keadilan).

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