Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – When a 17-year-old Malaysian student went on TikTok to call out her physical education teacher for a “rape joke” he shared in front of the class in late April, it triggered a firestorm of debate but also a backlash against the teen in the Muslim-majority country.
In her video, Ain Husniza Saiful Nizam, a student at a state secondary school in Puncak Alam near Kuala Lumpur, said the male teacher had made the comment as the topic of sexual harassment was being discussed.
The class had been talking about laws that protect minors from sexual abuse and harassment when the teacher suddenly interjected: “If you want to rape someone, make sure they are above 18.”
Ain was disgusted.
“He really said that, and the girls were quiet but the boys were laughing like it was so funny to joke about raping someone,” she said.
The video has been viewed more than 1.8 million times since it was posted and Ain’s social media post has reignited debate over sexual harassment, misogyny and violence against women and girls in the Southeast Asian nation, which is home to the majority ethnic Malays who are Muslim, and sizeable ethnic Chinese and Indian communities as well as various Indigenous groups.
Ain’s video came soon after another case that highlighted the victimisation and abuse of girls in schools.
A human rights activist with the Twitter handle @TerryDieHeiden brought up the issue of female students being subject to “period spot checks” – a practice where teachers conduct physical examinations of their pupils including touching the girls’ groins to see if they are wearing sanitary napkins or asking for evidence of their menstrual blood.
The abusive practice apparently evolved from teachers checking to see if their female students were really menstruating at that time as Muslim women are exempt from prayers and fasting during their periods.
The tweet – posted during the fasting month of Ramadan – was widely shared and several people on social media confirmed that the practice remained commonplace in schools.
Then several women spoke up, disclosing personal episodes of sexual harassment and trauma they had experienced throughout their formative years.
“By hardening students and children to invasive procedures such as period spot checks, and normalising it, kids grow up not questioning authority figures when they invade or dictate their personal life; from who they love, what they believe, how they think, and so forth,” TerryDieHeiden, who prefers to be known only by their Twitter handle, told Al Jazeera.
After Ain created the #MakeSchoolASaferPlace Twitter hashtag to highlight the hostile response she had received for speaking up, thousands of Malaysians from all walks of life took to social media to show their support for Ain, speaking out against sexual harassment in schools.
tw// R4P3 JOKES, VERBAL H4R4SSM3NT
— ain #MakeSchoolASaferPlace (@ant33ater) April 23, 2021
— Women’s Aid Org (@womensaidorg) April 28, 2021
Former education minister Maszlee Malik and other members of parliament condemned the backlash against Ain and the lack of any comment from her school and the Ministry of Education about the matter.
‘Child of Satan’
Ain’s experience showed her teacher’s misogyny was far from unusual and #MakeSchoolASaferPlace grew. Women and girls shared harrowing personal accounts of sexual harassment – from slapping and pinching to rape threats and body-shaming – all perpetrated by male students and educators.
Inspired by Ain, activist Puteri Nuraaina Balqis started the Instagram page @savetheschoolsmy, collecting and publishing hundreds of allegations of harassment from current and former students. Some 270 incidents have been posted on the platform.
In spite of the mounting evidence, conservatives openly criticised Ain for being “too emotional”.
In their opinion, she should have just kept quiet and resolved the matter privately.
Earlier this month, when Ain participated in a Facebook live discussion without a headscarf with opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim about the incident, some commentators condemned her for not covering her head and drawing attention to an issue that they claimed “wasn’t pressing”.
“This shouldn’t be happening. It really surprised me how our society is just letting this be, considering it normal, and simply shrugging it as if it were ‘just a joke’,” Ain told Al Jazeera.
Just three days after the original incident, Ain received a rape threat from one of her classmates.
A post on her school principal’s Facebook account also reprimanded Ain – calling the teenager a “hypocrite” and a “child of Satan wearing a hijab” – after a poster promoting Ain’s participation in a Facebook live interview organised by a Kuala Lumpur-based all-girls Islamic primary school showed her wearing a headscarf.
The principal later blocked her account, saying she had been hacked. The police are now investigating the claim.
“They are trying to silence me as they have done with all the other students before,” said Ain, who believes she is “privileged for this chance to voice out, which I must use wisely to make things right in our society”.
Ain’s family reported the rape threat to the police and her classmate subsequently apologised.
Nearly three weeks later, the physical education teacher was transferred to another school.
‘Pity the teacher’?
Child rights activist Hartini Zainudin, who co-founded Yayasan Chow Kit Voice of the Children, a crisis and drop-in centre for vulnerable children in central Kuala Lumpur, says the culture in government schools has become more misogynistic over the past few decades.
“It’s a system that has become more conservative, more divisive in nature and that is also very patriarchal,” Hartini told Al Jazeera.
“If you stray, question, disobey or go against the norm, then a child is at fault and will be punished or silenced in one form or another. That’s what is happening to Ain.”
Preeta Samarasan, a Malaysian writer said that gender-based discrimination and violence against women were an intrinsic part of Malaysia’s public education system.
“It protects teachers at the expense of children; the way it has allowed rape culture to thrive by empowering the most invasive and oppressive forms of modesty culture; the way it disrespects girls and disregards their bodily autonomy,” Samarasan said. “These things have been true for decades; if girls are speaking up loudly now, it’s because generations of girls couldn’t speak up at all, or were ignored when they did.”
Ain’s parents have been supportive of their daughter, but she says officials in her own school have tried to vilify her and intimidate her into silence.
On May 9, she tweeted that she had been issued a warning letter for not attending school from April 26 to 28, even though her father had informed the school that she would be staying at home as a result of the rape threat. Ain subsequently called for reforms to protect future whistle-blowers in schools.
A few days later, the Ministry of Education (MoE) finally addressed the furore.
In a statement on its website, it noted that Ain had reported the incident to the police on April 24 and that the ministry did not want to make a statement while the investigation was ongoing.
“Currently, MOE is placing the teacher at the Selangor State Education Department until the investigation is completed,” the statement said. “The next action will depend on the outcome.”
It acknowledged it had sent the letter to Ain after she did not come to school, saying a “first letter of notification is issued to ensure that parents/guardians as well as the school know and check the attendance and presence of students in the classroom,” and that between April 16 and 30, Ain’s school had issued her six such letters.
“Not receiving the support of other teachers makes me sad because I love my school,” Ain told Al Jazeera. “It’s hard because even the fact that it’s a 17-year-old to become a national mascot, the first to really voice out on this matter, just shows how our society has failed to protect our children.”
Despite the backlash against Ain, her case has been a catalyst for raising awareness about gender-based abuse in schools.
Stephen Isaac, a 35-year-old biology teacher at Methodist Boys Sentul, a government secondary school for boys in Kuala Lumpur, recently made national headlines for discussing sexual harassment and Ain’s case during a biology class.
“They believe it is only based on physicality, but I opened their minds to the fact that sexual harassment can also happen through words, and the way one sees things,” he said.
Isaac also explained that he invited his students to produce posters on sexual harassment that he then shared on social media.
“Once they leave school, these boys are going to be boyfriends, husbands, fathers, and they have to be aware of how to become better humans,” Isaac told Al Jazeera.
He also believes that introducing sexual education in schools and providing better teacher training are key steps to addressing and solving sexual harassment and cyberbullying in the education system.
Meanwhile, others say figures of authority in the education system need a better understanding of the issues and how they can ensure the children in their care are protected.
“For me, the single most important thing is for us to train our teachers and the school community to understand child safeguarding policies and what can they do to prevent any form of misconduct in schools,” said Cheryl Ann Fernando, the CEO of Pemimpin GSL, a Kuala Lumpur-based organisation focused on improving school leadership skills.
As a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Malaysia already has extensive legislation that is supposed to protect children from harm, including the Child Act of 2001 and a National Child Protection Policy, which was introduced in July 2009.
“Parents, teachers, school leaders, district officers and the ministry must all work hand in hand to find solutions to build our schools better.”