Challenging Narratives that Erase Sexual Harassment:

My Experiences As An Advocate For A Campus

Environment Free Of Sexual Harassment.

Sis. Lai Suat Yan, Deputy Chair, MOVE / GERAK

The past two years my activism in the academic staff union have focused on the issue of sexual harassment, particularly in institutions of higher learning. In the discussions and workshops organized the age-old narratives that triavialize and normalize sexual harassment persist as follows: “take it as a compliment that he finds you attractive”, “did she cover herself?”, “we must exercise caution as it could be a false report” or “what is sexual harassment?”. Students are not the only ones who share one or more of these thoughts but also academics themselves including those in management, security officers as well as a female human rights lawyer. These comments reflect a culture that condones sexual harassment and neither our class nor position in society nor gender and even one’s work as a human rights advocate provides the immunity against such ideas.

Contrast these narratives with cases of sexual harassments we read in the newspapers or those we have knowledge of or come across. Instead of experiencing it as a compliment, the victim or complainant cringes, feels uncomfortable, violated, and cries while retelling the incident. Writing this I vividly remember a sharing that was punctuated with sobs and tears in one of the workshops, “he commented how my facial skin look so fair and wondered how much fairer the skin beneath my blouse is as I was wearing a baju kurung”, a traditional Malay costume for women with long sleeves and knee length loose blouse worn over a long skirt with pleats on one side. For those who cautioned that a report may be false when the issue of sexual harassment is raised, the case involving the Hollywood mogul, Harvey Weinstein and locally in Malaysia the one that implicated the Orthopaedics Head of Department in Sungai Buluh Hospital unfold a different story; a serial predator who preyed upon younger and less powerful women and men and get away with it for years. The result: numerous victims; in the Malaysian case 35 who are mainly women while in the Harvey Weinstein’s case over 80 women have accused him of sexual harassment, sexual assault or rape. Typically, such cases see the light of day because of those who are brave enough to step forward first and persevere regardless of the possible personal cost to their reputation and livelihood.

I write this article as a tribute to their courage and to stop the erasure of such experiences through the sexist narratives that attempts to paint it as normative.

However, this is not to deny that there may be false cases. The problem is the spectre of false cases is much more likely to be raised in sexual crimes than in other crimes though the rate of a likelihood of false reporting is similarly low. Moreover, when we hear or discuss about sexual harassment cases should we not ask for more details first rather than conveniently waiving it off as false reporting in addition to making other victim blaming statements?

Acknowledging the existence of a culture that normalizes sexual harassment, the roadshow that I spearheaded as the Deputy Chair of the Malaysian Academic Movement (MOVE or GERAK, its acronym in Malay) last year focuses on changing the culture that condones sexual harassment at the same time it engages with men as allies to intervene and change or stop such narratives. As part of the road show, at University Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS) a two-day workshop was organized from 26-27 September 2018. In University Malaya (UM), a series of events were organized starting with a social media campaign in early November that culminated in a flash mob followed by a workshop and a forum in December. The forum also invited a Member of Parliament Ram Karpal Singh as a male ally to be part of the panelist as he was instrumental in assisting the sexual harassment victims in the Sungai Buluh case. The main stakeholders that we engaged with at both places were the university management, the Secretariat responsible to investigate such cases, the academic staff association, and students.

In addition to raising awareness on sexual harassment and challenges attempts to legitimize it as normative, some of the other immediate tangible results of the campaign were as follows: a victim who approached us for help was given support and assistance to navigate the complaint mechanism, the contact number for a complaint hotline was updated, more publicity on the policy and avenues to lodge a complaint, and providing safe spaces to discuss about sexual harassment and support each other via social media. Unexpectedly, the campaign also resulted in securing more information of cases occurring on campus. As our work became known, a women’s non-governmental organization that runs a hotline and provided support for abused women also consulted us during this period on how best to support their client who is a student in a public university given our familiarity with the processes and procedures in dealing with sexual harassment in an institution of higher learning.

In ending the article, I would like to shine a light on the organizations that contributed to creating a campus environment free of sexual harassment by co-organizing the campaign. In UNIMAS, MOVE co-organized the event with the Academic Staff Association of UNIMAS. In UM the co-organizers involved three main parties; namely, the academic staff, students and non-governmental organizations. The co-organizers with MOVE in UM were the Academic Staff Association of UM, Gender Studies Program (both academic staff and students), Democrat (a student group), Safe City (an NGO) and Sisterhood Alliance (an NGO). Lastly, my utmost appreciation to the CTF and Education International for being co-sponsor of these events.