By Elliot Cheah
“Hey, why are there two head prefects? I thought the boy is the head prefect and the girl is the vice head prefect,”
“What? No, of course both get to be head prefects,” my 7-year-old brother replied as a matter-of-factly.
That’s when it dawned on me that I have internalized patriarchy and sexism. Until that day, I was completely unaware about it. As far as my 15-year memory serves me, no one has ever told me explicitly that women are less capable than men. So why do I have such thoughts?
Fast forward to my university days, I realized due to lack of proper exposure, sexist behaviours could be happening right in front of our face but we fail to recognize it – from “women can’t drive” jokes to casual comments that women are “too emotional”, “too bossy”, or “too meek to be a leader”.
I found out about the feminist movement and how it has helped women have a more equal standing in society. In a local sense, one can also easily observe women’s rights advocacy here in Malaysia. It includes campaigning against child marriage (GGAM), providing legal and emotional support to survivors of domestic violence (AWAM, WCC), providing information to recognize abuse and steps to take, promoting women’s participation in politics (EMPOWER) etc. Needless to say, I stand for it.
Nonetheless, my casual observations throughout university has made me concerned about the spread of resentment and dissatisfaction, mostly among boys and men, towards this movement. It does not bring good if half a segment of society feels alienated. I hope to be able to address some in a local context –
1. Parking lots and train coaches for women
Some people pointed out that women-only parking lots and train coaches perpetuate inequality, because men do not enjoy the same privileges.
As commonly known, women are more at risk of physical and sexual harassment than men. The YouGov Omnibus’ survey in 2019 found that 36% of Malaysian women have experienced sexual harassment compared to men (17%), and only half of those experienced sexual harassment reported or told someone about the incident.
Observing the results, men have also experienced sexual harassment and this should not be dismissed. However, based on the concept of gender equity, since women are twice more likely to experience sexual harassment, it seems justifiable that extra effort is taken to address this. The facilities designated for women were because they are a category of people who face a higher risk of harassment, in other words a preferable target for harassers.
2. That men are always blamed
Some people have expressed resentment that there is this belief that men are more likely to be harassers, stalkers or aggressors compared to women. My first instinct was empathizing with these individuals, they must have felt rejected or demonized for things that they are not at fault.
Nevertheless, I questioned myself later – is it a prejudice to think that most harassers are men, or that men are more likely to be aggressors? I do not want my male counterparts to feel demonized, how do I address this?
Here’s an example of men (or boys) being unfairly treated under the law. In Malaysia, if an underage boy and an underage girl had consensual sex, the boy can be charged under Section 375 of the Penal Code for rape; whereas the girl can only be charged under Section 507 of the Penal Code for insulting the modesty of a person, which carries less punishment in comparison to rape. Though if both are minors, they may be tried in the Court for Children.
Under our archaic law, “rape” can only be committed by a man towards a woman. ‘Rape’ is defined as a man having sexual intercourse with a woman without her consent – section 375 of the Penal Code; and ‘sexual intercourse’ is defined as penile penetration into the vagina – explanation to section 375; Bunya Anak Jalong v Public Prosecutor (2015).
It follows that section 375(g) which lays out the offence of statutory rape i.e. sexual intercourse with a girl under the age of 16 whether or not she has given consent, the perpetrator must be a boy and the victim must be a girl.
The rationale of the offence of statutory rape was to protect minors, where there is unequal power dynamics. However, it fails to take into account this specific scenario where both parties, who are of the same age or maturity, consented.
Before bashing me that women are blamed for many things too! Perhaps this distinction may help. Although in many situations, men are unfairly assumed to be the wrongdoer; women are also unfairly assumed to be the provocator. This is a result of sexism and there needs to be more dialogue to dismantle this.
3. The lack of voices when men are at a disadvantage
Continuing my point above, some people have expressed discontent that only women and children’s welfare are being heard, how about men’s?
Currently, in Malaysia, there seems to be only organizations that focus on women and children’s welfare, but none for men. My take is that these bodies were created, because a large number of women were experiencing various levels of violence and discrimination. Because most victims were women and most perpetrators were men, accordingly the attention shifts towards the party who needs urgent help i.e. women.
Further, this argument about the absence of voice for men’s gender-based concerns is not exactly accurate. In November 2019, Women’s Aid Organization (WAO) created an online petition and called on the Ministry of Human Resources to introduce at least 7 days paternity leave in the private sector. WAO advocacy manager Yu Ren Chung said,
“Fathers want to play a role and want to support their wife in being part of the process as well as to bond with their newborn baby. Looking at gender equality and gender roles, we want to move away from the idea that childcare and childbirth is solely the responsibility of mothers.” This is a great initiative that promotes both the welfare of men and gender equality.
Another example can be observed from All Women’s Action Society (AWAM). In October 2020, AWAM reminded that the Sexual Harassment Bill should provide protection not only to women and girls but to transgenders, boys and men, acknowledging that men face unwanted sexual advances as well. They also pointed out that due to the belief that only women suffered sexual harassment, there is a lack of research on the harassment of males.
Before concluding, if I may, it is not that society does not care about the welfare of men or hate men. It is that in the current circumstances, women bear a disproportionate burden, hence the voices for the protection and empowerment of women.
Moving forward, I wonder if men who want their gender-based concerns to be heard would want to form their own community or advocacy group. It would be splendid to have them in the conservation and progress for gender equity and gender equality. For instance, redefining masculinity, acknowledging rape culture, and empowering men in abusive situations.
Men have always been in decision-making positions. They are free to advocate their gender-based concerns like existing women’s groups. However, it must come with good faith. Are they speaking up to drown the voices of other quarters or are they speaking up for the betterment of all genders? Or if not all, would they at least voice their concerns without the expense of causing harm to other segments of society?
I believe there are well-principled men who silently stand for gender equity and gender equality. We need your voice and participation not only to defuse resentment against the movement, but to also work towards a society where everyone is cared for according to their respective needs.
Elliott is a CLP student graduated from the University of Essex, UK. They have an interest in human rights and are often fascinated by the multiple facets of human rights. Despite multiple experiences in human rights NGOs, Elliott is looking forward to the general practice of law in the near future.
Reviewed by: Wayne Cheah