Whither Malaysia’s #MeToo movement?

JANUARY 19 ― While the #MeToo movement has brought down powerful American men in Hollywood, politics, and the media, the clarion call against sexual harassment is strangely silent in Malaysia.

#MeToo (or “wo ye shi” [#我也是]) has also failed to take off in China, although a former doctoral student’s sexual assault allegations against a leading computer scientist, who allegedly attacked at least seven other students, have gone viral and led to the professor’s suspension from Beihang University in Beijing.

Actresses in Bollywood and other Indian film industries have also spoken out against sexual harassment that is considered an open secret in Indian cinema.

Malaysian women, however, have yet to widely embrace the #MeToo movement, though several did use the hashtag when it came out several days after allegations of sexual harassment against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein broke last October.

One of the reasons could be that rape culture is normalised in Malaysia, where sexual assault and child marriage in Malay-language books and films are depicted as acceptable, and even seemingly preferable to consensual (premarital) sex. Marriage is considered to be more important than female consent.

Two female Malaysian journalists have come out with stories of sexual harassment, groping and propositioning by local politicians, including a government minister. One of the journalists went public with her name, the other stayed anonymous. But their alleged attackers were not named.

National Union of Journalists (NUJ) president Mohd Taufek Razak’s victim-blaming response against colleagues from his own profession, unfortunately, underscores Malaysia’s poor understanding of sexual assault.

He told women journalists not to wear clothes “that are too revealing or sexy” and said sexual harassment “can easily happen if both sides reciprocate”, especially among “attractive” journalists. Clearly, he does not understand that sexual harassment or assault means the lack of consent.

Mohd Taufek also fails to recognise the obvious fact that Malaysian women journalists usually wear trousers because of ridiculous dress codes in courts and government offices that prohibit even typical knee-length work skirts.

If the average Malaysian does not understand the importance of a woman’s consent in (straight) sexual relationships (we’re not even getting to gay or bisexual relationships yet) and consequently, fails to understand violations of that consent, then it’s no wonder that the #MeToo movement has yet to land on our shores.

In Malaysia, sex is perceived through a single dimension ― in or out of wedlock. Consent does not enter the picture at all.

While America and European countries like France debate the intricacies of courtship, sexual freedom, and how consent should be expressed before and even during intercourse itself, Malaysia remains stuck in its outdated marriage mindset that does not recognise the concept of consent. Ergo, the failure to understand rape and sexual harassment.

We do not teach our boys to respect girls, nor do we tell our girls that it is okay not to please everyone. When it comes to the topic of sex, Malaysian parents are still generally embarrassed to talk about it, while schools only teach the reproductive system in the context of biological science.

Nobody talks about courtship, the complications of sexual relationships, sexuality, and through it all, consent. There is hardly any discussion of sex itself as an activity ― goals (male or female-centric?), when it starts and ends (does it necessarily have to end with the male orgasm?), and the how (oral and anal sex besides the usual P-in-V). Not forgetting, the why (was it a one-night-stand, a fling, something with a little feeling, something serious, something in between?).

So before we can even talk about whether a bad date was just a bad date or tantamount to sexual assault, like the debate surrounding a woman’s alleged sexual encounter with US comedian Aziz Ansari, or how men should behave around women, we need to understand the concept of consent and rape itself.

But for that to happen, Malaysia must disentangle itself from the toxic framing of sex within marriage and centre it on consent instead. Haram must not only mean premarital sex, but also sex without consent, in or out of marriage.

Then we can start talking about women’s sexual agency, romantic interactions, and how consent should be expressed throughout that process.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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