It says a lot about our society when a majority of its women aged 18 to 30 are reported to be sexually harassed on a regular basis.
A recent national sexual harassment survey of 1,056 women revealed the respondents did not feel safe doing daily activities, such as walking to their car or on the streets or even when seeking treatment from male doctors.
The preliminary study, which is a collaboration between the Centre for Governance and Political Studies and the All Women’s Action Society, also recorded that the women felt insecure when driving at night alone or going to the cinema by themselves.
Of those surveyed, 57% of the women experienced verbal sexual harassment while walking on the streets, and 22% said they have been harassed at least once.
Some 71% said they have had to change their travel routes or routines owing to the fear of sexual harassment. This is certainly an unwarranted inconvenience and threat to women.
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In terms of sexual content, 44% said they have experienced their teacher making sexually provocative jokes, while 30% said they regularly receive unwanted sexual messages on social media.
These are some of the kinds of harassment women are subjected to. It is clear some men still perceive women as sexual objects.
In a society like ours that is still tainted with misogyny, the findings of the study may not be a surprise to many observers. Not that they should be regarded as normal and acceptable.
In fact, such forms of harassment must be taken seriously as they have caused hardship and fear in the lives of women who just want to be independent and free to do their daily chores and other things without fear of any kind.
In this day and age, the powers that be must face this issue squarely. That is why pressure has been put on MPs, particularly by women’s groups, to table the much-delayed anti-sexual harassment bill in Parliament to protect women’s interests and safety.
To be sure, we have seen many acts of disrespect for women in the public domain, which could send the wrong signal to men that it is all right to make sexual or sexist jokes about women.
In Parliament, for instance, male politicians have expressed sexist remarks or lewd jokes, supposedly meant to add flavour to their banter – all at the expense of their female counterparts and women as a whole.
Some Muslim preachers pepper their religious talks with sexist jokes, much to the amusement of the male segment of the congregation. These religious speakers have become popular as a result.
One wonders what Perlis mufti Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin, who has just issued a fatwa banning jokes that make fun of Islam or those that “can lead to immorality, sin and wickedness”, will think of such sexist jokes cracked by fellow preachers.
What is posed as humour may well convey a much deeper and troubling meaning: a contempt for women in general and a desire to humiliate them.
Sexual harassment can come about as a result of women being seen as secondary to men in a social context where there still exists unequal power relations between men and women.
Just look at how vocal teenager Ain Husniza Saiful Nizam was treated after she called out a male teacher who allegedly made a rape joke in class. As a result, she received a rape threat from a male schoolmate, as well as backlash from other teachers and social media users.
Schools should be a good starting point where mutual respect can be inculcated in boys and girls. They are not the place for toxic notions of women to be popularised.
Sexism is also manifest in the government. The overwhelmingly male composition of the federal cabinet leaves much to be desired. It appears the glass ceiling is hard to break.
Similarly, misogyny lurks in the government’s recent appeal against a Kuala Lumpur High Court judgment that grants automatic citizenship to children whose Malaysian mothers are married to foreign men.
In contrast, Malaysian men who are married to foreign women have over the years had the privilege of automatic citizenship being conferred on their children who were born abroad.
Such gender-based differential treatment is a setback to women’s rights and the nation’s progress as well as an injustice we can do without.
Nothing could be better than a safe and socially uplifting environment for Malaysian women – and men alike. – The Malaysian Insight