Timeline of a movement: Sexual harassment in Malaysian schools

How one TikTok video uploaded by a teenage student sparked a nationwide debate and shed light on an institutional failure in crisis management.

Ain Husniza Saiful Nizam, a 17-year-old Malaysian high school student, single-handedly sparked a highly divided nationwide conversation, one that has dominated the news cycle for over three weeks. Let’s take a look at the timeline of Ain’s movement. 

April 24

Ain, a student at a public school, posted a video on TikTok reveals that her male physical education teacher had joked about rape in class. Loosely translated, the comments Ain alleges her teacher made were: “If you want to rape someone, make sure they’re above 18”. This comment apparently prompted laughter from the boys in the classroom. Upon cross-posting her TikTok video on Twitter, Ain’s Tweet begins to make the rounds among journalists and activists—most of whom use Twitter as their primary channel.

Ain brings the issue to her (unnamed) school counsellor, and shares a screenshot of their conversation. In more or less words, the counsellor told her that they’re not able to do anything besides advise the incriminating teacher to not repeat his mistake. The counsellor added that this area of education in school is still ‘new’, and opinions will vary depending on the individual.

In her thread, Ain says that her parents support her in this matter and an official police complaint is made against the teacher. Ain expresses that she is worried about the backlash she might face at school the following Monday. She also creates the hashtag #MakeSchoolASaferPlace for those on social media to show solidarity.

For context, just days before, an expose on ‘period spot checks’ in public schools was reported in the media. Ain’s case, therefore, added to the conversation about systemic sexual harassment in public schools.

April 25

Upon returning to school after a very public weekend, Ain says she received a rape threat by a male classmate. Ain and her parents filed a second police report against this classmate.

“This is exactly the reason why we need to continue this fight,” she says in a new TikTok video. “We need to reform the education system.”

Hereon, two schools of thought begin to form. Ain reveals that many in her school–including students and teachers—feel that it was unfair to taint the name of their school while others on social media hail her as a hero for her bravery in calling out the issue and lodging a complaint.

By this time, former education minister Maszlee Malik calls on the school's principal to investigate the matter.

April 26

Ain says that she would not be going to school the following day following increased threats. She says that a teacher at her school has been attempting to spread rumours about her being autistic, which Ain says is false. The hashtag #MakeSchoolASaferPlace trends on Twitter and hundreds of Tweets pour in with many expressing their own experiences about the normalisation of rape culture in schools.

Deputy Inspector General of Police Acryl Sani Abdullah Sani appears to make light of the second police report at a press conference. He said: “The second report is regarding what may be a joke from her classmate, which she couldn't accept.”

PKR leader and former deputy prime minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail expresses concern about rape threats directed at Ain. “This (alleged) incident reinforces the need to allow Parliament to sit so that the Sexual Harassment Bill can be tabled and become the law to be referred to for such cases in future,” she says in a statement.

April 27

Acryl Sani’s comments the day before sparks a furore on social media. The corporate comms chief at Bukit Aman Police says that the comments the day before were ‘misconstrued’ by the media, and called out Malaysiakini and China Press. Meanwhile, the principal at Ain’s school as well as the Education Ministry are yet to comment.

April 28

Ain is now a household name across major news outlets, and she appears on national television including a spot on Astro Awani to talk about her movement. As Ain becomes more public-facing, she reveals that she has been receiving lewd comments about her body from those on social media, some who are teachers themselves. Some also criticised her for not wearing a tudung or hijab.

The Education Ministry makes its first statement. Education Minister Mohd Radzi Md Jidin says that the ministry does not tolerate teachers who make jokes about rape. Radzi says the ministry is investigating the case and promises “stern action” if her claim is proven.

Malaysiakini and China Press are summoned by the Home Ministry over their reports quoting the DIGP on the matter. 

May 1

Major NGOs in Malaysia—including AWAM and WAO—join forces to form the Nationwide School Walkout Day (NWSD) Alliance, urging students and teachers to skip school or walk out from classrooms the following week to protest sexual harassment in schools. Alternatively, students are encouraged to show solidarity by wearing a white ribbon with a red stripe or pattern or make use of the #MakeSchoolASaferPlace hashtag.

May 3

The school walkout receives backlash from some groups including education associations. Gabungan Pendidikan Sejahtera Malaysia, for instance, says that the Education Minister should take action instead. The Ministry hasn’t yet commented on whether the issue of sexual harassment in schools will be looked into more broadly outside of Ain’s case.

May 4

A group of 20 women MPs urges the government to review existing policies around sexual harassment in educational institutions. The group adds that they wrote a letter on May 3 to Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin to voice their concern about the incident involving Ain, urging him to take this matter seriously and to take action immediately. At this point, Muhyiddin hasn’t yet commented on the matter.

An Instagram page compiling anonymous anecdotes of sexual harassment in schools begins to gain popularity. The page links to an open Google Doc which students can use to talk about their incidences.

May 6

Ain appears in a live Facebook session with leader of the opposition party PKR and former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim. Accompanied by her father on camera, Ain makes a passionate plea for leaders to take action towards making schools a safer place. At the session, Anwar asks the Education Minister to do more on this matter. The Education Minister, since April 28, hasn’t commented further.

“I urge the headteacher, teachers, the Education Ministry and the minister, who has been rather lembap (ineffective), to take action on this one case,” Anwar says. “Why has this dragged on for so long?”

Ain’s engagement with politicians including Anwar is being used to label her a “political tool”.

Harry Tan, the secretary general at National Union of the Teaching Profession, invites criticism following his comments on Astro Awani that challenged Ain’s movement. While he says that Ain’s case was rightfully being investigated by the police, he adds that there is “lack of data” to indicate that is a widespread issue. 

May 9 

Because of Ain’s absence from school due to her feeling unsafe, her school issues a warning letter which could lead to expulsion. For context, the incriminating teacher and the student who made the rape threat have not yet received warnings. Ain expresses heartbreak following the news of her possible expulsion. National diver Pandalela Rinong expresses solidarity with Ain, and advises Ain to stay alert.

Screenshots show that a headmistress at Ain’s school had called Ain a “hypocrite” on Facebook for wearing a tudung during a live session, and proceeded to call her “anak setan”, translating to ‘child of the devil’.

May 12

A small segment of educators begin to publicly show solidarity Ain by using the movement’s hashtag, and vowing to do more. At this time, 11 MPs and 27 assemblymen have called for an urgent review of safety in educational institutions. Meanwhile, the headmistress that made the comment on May 9 claims that her Facebook account was hacked.

The Education Ministry makes a follow-up comment, its first since April 28. In a statement, the ministry says: “Since the incident is under police investigation, the MoE did not issue any statements during the investigation period. Currently, the MoE has placed the said teacher at the Selangor State Education Department, until the probe is completed.”

The Prime Minister hasn’t yet said a word on the matter.


 

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