This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on May 17, 2021 - May 23, 2021
What an eventful week it has been — and a most unusual one at that. And it had nothing to do with Covid-19. Amid the opening and closing of schools, school clusters and infected school children, there was a cry from female students — and rightly so — for a safer school environment.
It began with menstruation spot checks by female teachers, usually led by the religious ones, during the month of Ramadan to confirm that a student is genuinely menstruating and therefore exempt from the compulsory obligation of fasting and praying. Most teachers would merely ask whether the student is fasting. A “yes” or “no” should suffice. Whether or not a student is fasting is surely between her and the Almighty.
Some teachers go overboard, however, and demand physical proof, even though they may realise, or otherwise, that it is an invasion of privacy. Not surprisingly, many young women have come forth and shared their experiences in the past of how teachers would go beyond unimaginable means to seek proof of menstruation, causing immense trauma to the weaker girls, and sheer disgust of religious teachers and anything having any significance to religiosity by the stronger-willed ones.
Kudos to Yante Ismail, a Malaysian artist who also works at an international humanitarian organisation. She drew a defiant student “standing with arms akimbo”, in what appears to be a pool of blood at her feet, “facing down a mob of politicians, enforcers of patriarchy, defenders of religion, guardians of virtue, virginity and morality — all hell-bent on controlling her body”. In describing her artwork, she declares, “[Teach] our girls to be fearless. And then, start right back from the beginning, and teach our boys the same thing. For that is how we protect our girls.”
Days later, rape jokes by teachers became the flavour of the week, which drove netizens into a wild frenzy, with more coming forward to share their encounters with sexist jokes by students past and present. We salute fifth-former Ain Husniza, who is firmly supported by her father, Saiful Nizam, for leading the charge of the hashtag #MakeSchoolASaferPlace. So far, 173 encounters have been recorded — and still counting. We have your back.
Then there is Bulan Sisters, a non-profit organisation running “a youth-led campaign aiming to demystify periods and eradicate period poverty in underprivileged communities”. It very bravely penned an Open Letter to the Education Ministry with a strong message to “stop gaslighting survivors by choosing to believe in the one-sided testimonial of the abuser — a thief won’t admit to stealing, what makes us think a human rights violator would admit to their crimes?” It suggested a third-party investigation, gender-sensitive training and counselling, and a comprehensive education for all, especially to lay a foundation for students to speak up if they are placed in a situation that is uncomfortable and non-consensual.
And while all this is taking place, yet another incident was reported of a male principal molesting a female student in the school toilet. It is alleged that the principal tried to financially compensate the parents when the case was reported. While an investigation is being conducted, we understand that the principal, whose image was viralled, was mistakenly identified. We hope the investigation continues so that the student can seek justice.
There is now a “Public Calling for Accountability in the Ministry of Education”, initiated by The Child Rights Coalition Malaysia (CRCM) and the Education Cluster of CSO Platform for Reform (CSOP4R) (ED-Platform) over recent reports in the media, some of which had to do with basic human rights violation of students, along with strong recommendations for reform.
The National School Walkout Day was ingenious, although we do not condone missing even one class — physical or online — let alone a day, even with parental consent, as it sends the wrong message. However, wearing a white ribbon with a red streak or placing a digital or physical placard in the background is impactful. Nonetheless, we fully support the issue and the movement to #MakeSchoolASaferPlace.
As I am writing this, I read that Ain is being threatened with expulsion for missing school after the incident and for speaking out. Why is it that the victim is blamed for the predicament and then has to face the repercussions for reporting the incident? What will happen to the education ministry if it does not comply with UNHCR and violates the Child’s Act?
Even with the #TiadaGuru case, why did checks and balances fail at every level? Where can students and parents find recourse in cases of abuse and violation? Must it resort to legal proceedings? Why is it so difficult to get justice and ensure children are protected from being abused and violated? Why is it so difficult for the education ministry or an independent body to conduct investigations?
The Education Minister and Ministry should take heed of this grave issue, which may appear trivial to some but has serious repercussions for girls, women and women’s groups who make up half of the voting and working population. It is these girls who will largely make up the youths who are urging for the voting age to be lowered to 18 years of age.
Notwithstanding that, accept the fact that there is an existing problem to be fixed and recommendations offered by the dissenters are reasonable and not difficult to implement. Imagine the overwhelming good it will do to girls and women as they become wives, daughters-in-law and mothers as they nurture the young with self-confidence, self-esteem and pride in being the fairer sex. Look at the bigger picture.
Ain may have just opened a can of worms.
Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim is chairman of the Parent Action Group for Education (PAGE)
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