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Tag Archives: Writer: Thulasy Suppiah

One of Us Needs to Be Kept Off the Streets, and It Isn’t Me.

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S had just stepped out of a bar with a girlfriend. Both ladies walked at a brisk pace to S’ car, a short distance away, clutching their handbags tightly. “Nice big backside ah…” yelled a taxi driver as he drove close by, leering. A nearby parking attendant looked at them and shrugged whilst other bystanders, affluent-looking pub-crawlers, appeared nonchalant or pretended not to notice.

V, a social worker, walked out of a police station with her client, a domestic abuse victim. The husband of the victim accosted them – harassing both women using obscene language and physically intimidating them. The husband was even bold enough to threaten to divorce his wife and “marry V forcefully” to teach her a lesson. All of this took place in the presence of security guards and other bystanders who were content to watch the drama unfold and laugh at the women whilst a man publicly humiliated them.

A young Muslim girl, still in her teens judging from her nondescript secondary school blue-white baju kurung and headscarf, was standing next to me in the train. We were in the middle of a relatively uncrowded train car. She was unremarkable in every sense of the word – her dress, her mannerisms, her general state of exhaustion – and did nothing to draw any attention to herself. The LRT en-route to Ampang stopped at Chan Sow Lin station – this time though, a little longer than usual with the doors to the train remaining open for passengers to walk in. Loud laughter erupted. Wolf-whistling and sucking noises followed – I look up from my book to find a group of Malay men attempting to “make eyes” at the girl. She looks dead-ahead and is unflinching – believe me, whatever tension or fear this girl felt… it was palpable to me. The men continue. “Tak nak tengok ke… alahai.” “Pergi mana lewat petang ni?” Their focus was on this young lady, mind you, a young schoolgirl, modestly dressed and in a train-car with adults – yet, they were unafraid, unabashed. I could have sworn the headscarf-clad lady seated in front of us was looking admonishingly at the young girl, as if to say, “Why are you going home so late?” or “It’s your fault that they are behaving the way they are…”

We’ve barely skimmed the surface when it comes to examples of public harassment, in the Malaysian context, of women and other minorities. Unwanted sexual (or just unwanted) attention from strangers, unwanted physical contact (touching, stroking, groping, grabbing) or any kind of pressure to cooperate sexually or show a favourable response to the harasser is street harassment. A distinction can be made when harassment manifests itself in a physical form – this becomes actionable in law, if and only if a victim is brave enough to pursue legal action against their harasser. What, then, of non-physical forms of harassment? Wolf-whistling, catcalling, crude sexual jokes or remarks by strangers – or otherwise sexist or discriminatory behaviours and micro-aggressions intended to make a person feel uncomfortable or fearful of being in public spaces?

What about the men who do not or would never harass a person, whatever his personal scruples about the way a woman or effeminate man dresses or behaves? A number of men express their disapproval (albeit tacitly, for the most part) of harassment only because they are able to relate it to a close family member or friend who happens to belong to a victim-group. “I would never do such a thing! Imagine if it were my mother/sister/wife/daughter?” Sound familiar? The trouble with this rationale is that men require a personal reference point when it comes to determining their attitudes and actions towards women or LGBTQ persons. The rationale fails simply because it tells us that men in our community do not regard women and LGBTQ persons as human beings with the right to occupy and enjoy public spaces without fear of embarrassment or any kind of harm, in the same way that men do.

We, Malaysians, pride ourselves on upholding ‘traditional’ Asian values. Respect for women and our elders in a family-orientated society would be consistent with this value system, one would say. What, then, would trigger a person (or a group of people) to engage in behaviours that are contrary to this value system? I have a number of male friends who swear that some harmless forms of harassment (catcalls, wolf-whistling) are really meant to compliment women. This, of course, is not much different from that all-too-familiar explanation for why men engage in crass and vulgar behaviour (even if it manifests itself in subtler, seemingly innocuous ways, but are essentially micro-aggressions) – that an unaccompanied young woman, or a person who dresses or carries themselves in a certain way (in our culture, an effeminate boy or man or transgendered person, for example, are not exempt from street harassment) or, is “asking for it” or “deserves it”.

Perhaps we are due for an examination of the problematic aspects of the ‘traditional’ Asian value system: paternalism (an anachronistic concept in itself) and male chauvinism . On the one hand, it emboldens and encourages men to publicly humiliate women or LGBTQs who do not conform to what is perceived to be consistent with our values. Some men consider themselves self-anointed moral policemen with the “power” and “entitlement” to chastise and humiliate victims they view as outliers – women who do not conform to “modesty” or ethno-religious codes and our social mores, for example, and LGBTQ persons who are viewed as deviants. In recent times, several campaigns by morally-conscientious men intent on warning women to dress/behave appropriately or suffer the consequences have received publicity. Think the Thaipusam spray-paint group and the National Muslim Youth Association’s warnings to avoid using emoticons and wearing perfume (amongst other haram activities) on Valentine’s Day.

On the other hand, you have men who may not directly engage in street harassment but, by their silence or non-action, fail to outwardly oppose or make it known that such behaviours are unacceptable, whatever the circumstance. This failure is untenable because it is tantamount to what street harassers may view as tacit approval or endorsement of their actions, and normalises their behaviour. This is the bystander effect: when passers-by who witness harassment and have the capacity to interfere or at least attempt to protect the victim fail to do so – and in some cases, join in. This includes those in positions to lawfully interfere – note the security guards and/or police officers in the examples above.

A measure of how civilised our society is, is how we treat those who are victimised and oppressed. We pride ourselves for being Asian-centric in our values, in observing customs built on courtesy, respectful and dignified behaviour. Or, don’t we?

It appears, in 2017, we are still battling the prevalent view that the victims are culpable when they find themselves in the path of harassers. Our society has a tendency to victim-blame and victim-shame instead of addressing systemic factors that continue to embolden harassers – and worse, inadvertently endorse harassing behaviour in an effort to regulate the private choices of women and LGBTQs. This is endemic of a society that has yet to achieve one of the most basic tenets of any civilised society – the freedom for everyone to live their private lives and occupy public spaces free from harm. Women and LGBTQs in Malaysia are especially vulnerable because they lack power and self-determination, and have been conditioned to view themselves as the problem.

We are not alone in our struggles, however. India, for instance, has had “eve-teasing” laws since the 1970s. Scotland, as recently as 2016, is attempting to make “wolf-whistling” a hate crime and Argentina is considering the criminalisation of “catcalling”. Some may view these measures as being excessive and harsh, as they involve penalties. A discussion on whether legislation may serve to adequately solve street harassment merits a detailed study. Laws may not be the be all and end all, and they certainly cannot effect meaningful change in our society if they do not go hand-in-hand with a socio-cultural re-engineering or reconditioning. However, it is an excellent catalyst to generating much-needed discussion on street harassment and how it must be viewed as impinging on the fundamental human rights of women and LGBTQs.

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