For many Malaysians, the memories of our school years are filled with nostalgia.
We remember things like playing football with an empty plastic bottle, enthusiastic discussions of cartoons in the canteen and sneaking notes to each other when the teacher isn’t looking.
Unfortunately, not every Malaysian looks back on their school years fondly. In fact, for many of them, it’s an experience that left countless scars both physically and mentally.
How A Single TikTok Video Shook An Entire Country
Back in April 2021, 17-year-old Ain Husniza Saiful Nizam sat down for what was supposed to be a normal lesson with her physical education teacher.
However, in the middle of a discussion about how to prevent harassment, her teacher made a “joke” about how there were laws protecting minors, so if any boys wanted to commit rape, they should target women that are above the age of 18.
“He really said that, and the girls were quiet,” she recalled. “But the boys, oh they were laughing like it was so funny to joke about, about raping someone.”
Shaken by her experience, Ain made a video on TikTok calling out her teacher. In response, she’s received countless threats and insults — not just from the general public, but even from her own headmistress!
“When I spoke out about it, I got so much hate towards me and I don’t know why,” she said in an interview with AFP. “It’s just making schools a safer place. What is there to debate about?”
Since her video went viral, Ain has stopped attending her school in Puncak Alam out of fear for her own safety.
Ain Isn’t The Only Victim
While Ain’s video got a lot of hate, it also inspired hundreds of other people to come out and recall their own experiences. As of the time of publishing, a page called Save The Schools MY on Instagram has collected at least 480 stories from both current and former students who have experienced sexual harassment during their school years.
As a side note, when I first started writing this article, there were only 472 stories. By the time I was done, it’d already jumped up to 480!
Incensed by the negative responses that Ain had received, founder Puteri Naraaina Balqis said that she wanted to provide victims with a safe place where they could anonymously tell others about what they had experienced.
“What particularly struck me on the morning of April 27 was when I learnt how a few teachers started a rumour on Ain that she’s autistic, therefore her allegations shouldn’t be taken seriously,” she said in an interview with the Malay Mail. “That to me is super messed up because so what if she is autistic, that doesn’t mean the rape joke didn’t happen.
“So I thought maybe if people can learn more real time stories about the horrible culture, then more people will believe in the cause and resonate in solidarity.”
For Puteri, the most surprising part of all the responses she’s received so far isn’t just how many there have been, but also just how young some of the victims were.
“Approximately 30 to 40 per cent of the stories took place in primary schools, KAFA classes and even kindergartens,” she said, referring to extra Islamic classes outside the normal public schools.
Aside from that, girls aren’t the only ones being harassed — more and more male survivors have stood up to tell their own stories, especially involving assaults of the same gender.
“More and more male victims are speaking up and because it’s commonly a man-to-man event, the details were more brutal,” she said, adding that some of the victims are still seeking help from mental health institutions to this day.
Just How Widespread Is This Problem?
For local organisation All Women’s Action Society (AWAM), Ain’s video served as the spark which ignited an issue that has remained in the shadows for far too long.
“It was outrageous enough to make people take notice… at the same time bringing attention to the normalisation of rape culture in schools,” said Executive Director Nisha Sabanayagam, who added that urgent reforms were needed to address the “toxic culture” that had taken root in many Malaysian schools.
Recently, AWAM did a survey on bullying and sexual harassment among primary and secondary school students. After analysing the details of 311 incidents, they found that abusive teachers were responsible for four out of five incidents.
“Perpetrators were predominantly figures of authority. Out of 311 perpetrators, 247 of them (79.4%) were teachers, ustazah, ustaz and wardens…”
“While not all teachers and wardens are perpetrators, the number that are perpetrators will cause long-term negative effects to the school system and the children’s future,” AWAM warned.
Many of the incidents involved “period checks”, when teachers would force students to strip down or show their sanitary pads in order to prove that they were on their periods.
How Did Our Schools Get So Bad?
To be brutally honest: lack of care.
According to Ain, some of the most surprising reactions from her video have come not from anonymous trolls and netizens but from the authorities.
“There are a lot of kids my age and activists spreading more awareness about these kinds of issues,” she explained. “But it really shocked me that the actual officials, people in power… they don’t care about it.”
Puteri also hit out at the lack of action from Malaysia’s authorities.
“Pro-bono lawyers have reached out to me with offers for legal aid just in case the page gets sued for defamation, or if people attempt to hunt down the victims,” she said, adding that she had yet to receive any feedback from the Ministry of Education regarding the incidents listed on her page.
“The authorities are good at what they do — doing nothing.”
For many victims, it’s easy to feel like the government is more interested in keeping them quiet than actually solving their problems. Back in April, Senior Education Minister Radzi Jidin even went so far as to declare that there was no such thing as period spot checks!
“If it happens, tell me at which school, so actions can be taken,” he said, claiming that there was no sign of any such practices in the boarding schools that the ministry had investigated.
3 Warning Signs that Parents Should Keep in Mind
Currently, the lockdowns have been helpful as a way to keep every student physically separated from any would-be harassers. However, these lockdowns won’t last forever.
At some point, the schools will reopen once again. As a big brother, I have to admit that I can’t help feeling uneasy about letting my younger sister return to school. For an actual parent, this stress is probably a thousand times worse!
Fortunately, while sexual harassment can come in many forms, there are some red flags that every parent should be aware of and take note of:
1) “I don’t like this teacher!”
For many children, this is their first way of telling you that something isn’t right. If they come to you in order to complain about a specific teacher, try to figure out why your child is feeling this way and reassure them that you’re taking their opinions seriously. If you simply brush them off, odds are that they’ll shut down and try to hide their feelings in the future.
2) Fear of a specific class
For many kids, it’s natural to have a favourite and least favourite class. However, if your child starts showing actual fear of going to a specific class or activity, don’t force them to go. Sit your child down and try asking them why they’re so afraid.
3) Unusual behaviours
Sexual harassment victims often show several unusual behaviours, including:
lack of appetite
new or unusual fears
not wanting to be touched or hugged
unusual knowledge of sexual language or behaviour
Making Schools Safe Again
The best way for schools to deal with sexual harassment is to prevent it from occuring in the first place.
“Schools ought to be a safe haven for their students,” said President of the Malaysian Bar A.G Kalidas, who added that the authorities needed to stop victim blaming and instead target those who are actually responsible for the harassment.
“A zero-tolerance policy towards bullying and harassment in schools, whether by the caregivers or by students, is essential to curb any unlawful interference with the rights of children.”
From the parent’s side, the most important things that you can do are being involved with your child’s life and encouraging them to speak up.
Remember: if your child doesn’t feel comfortable talking to you about little things, they won’t feel comfortable talking to you about serious issues either.
The Importance of Speaking Up
One of the big reasons why sexual harassment still exists in Malaysia is that nobody feels comfortable talking about it. However, this silence only serves to protect the harassers while stifling the innocent victims.
If we want to put an end to sexual harassment in our schools, the first step is to provide victims with a way to speak up and report their harassers without the fear of being attacked.
No matter how bad it feels, remember that you are not alone. By sharing your past experiences, you can help to drag this issue into the light and pave the way for schools where students can actually become safe from sexual harassment.