Dozens of influential Malaysian civil society groups have expressed dismay and alarm after a 17-year-old student who took a male teacher to task for allegedly joking about rape in class was served with a defamation suit and called up by police for “breaching the peace”.
Ain Husniza Saiful Nizam in April became a national talking point after she called out the teacher – without naming him or her school – and sparked intense conversation about sexual harassment in schools and entrenched misogyny in the country’s culture.
The teacher in question was summoned for questioning and subsequently transferred from the school while a probe was pending.
Authorities this week said they were classifying the case as “no further action”.
While the teacher was “insensitive towards the feelings of schoolgirls who were there, what he did was not enough to satisfy the element of crime to charge him in court,” the news website Malaysiakini quoted an official with knowledge of the investigation as saying.
On August 4, Ain Husniza’s family was served with a letter of demand from the teacher’s lawyer seeking an apology and monetary compensation of 1 million ringgit (S$321,144), among other things.
To compound the student’s ordeal, officers called her in for questioning in relation to a police report the teacher filed against her when the saga erupted four months ago.
Speaking to reporters outside a police station near Kuala Lumpur on Friday, Ain Husniza said she had been solely interested in raising awareness about harassment in schools.
In her video, she had expressed shock about a classroom discussion about sexual harassment which inexplicably led to the teacher cracking a rape joke. He allegedly told the class, “if you want to rape someone, make sure they are above 18”.
The remark drew guffaws from the boys, while female students like Ain Husniza stayed silent, aghast. The teacher allegedly then added that boys were unlikely to complain if they were raped because being subject to such an act was, in fact, sedap, or delicious.
Since Ain Husniza’s April 23 video went viral, thousands of young women have posted similar encounters on social media about acts of harassment they were facing or had faced in school using the hashtag #makeschoolasaferplace.
“I just want to tell you all that what I want is safety in schools, nothing more,” Ain Husniza said, flanked by her parents Saiful Nizam Abdul Wahab and Niza Sharifudin.
“I don‘t mean to insult any parties, I don’t mean to defame or degrade certain teachers. I just want schools to be safe.”
She said it was her right as a student to demand that schools are a safe place, and to galvanise to speak out like she had done.
Ain Husniza was questioned for 30 minutes under Section 504 of the Malaysian penal code, which criminalises intentional insults in a manner that will cause the person “to break the public peace, or to commit any other offence”.
The offence is punishable by a jail term of up to two years, a fine or both.
Ain Husniza’s lawyer Sankara Nair said he believed the student had a case against the teacher for insulting her modesty – a crime that is punishable with up to five years imprisonment, a fine or both. The lawyer said he would be advising the student’s family to file a fresh police report to make this case. The family is also planning to file a 5 million ringgit countersuit in response to the teacher’s initiation of a libel suit.
Ain Husniza’s ordeal has elicited sharp reactions across Malaysia’s vocal civil society.
Abinaya Dhivya Mohan, head of campaigns at the Women’s Aid Organisation, told This Week in Asia that prosecutors’ decision to categorise the case against the teacher as “no further action” was “extremely concerning” as it reflected the nonchalance with which sexual harassment was treated in society at large.
“This is very dangerous and detrimental to the rights of survivors and in this case, children,” said Abinaya.
“[The precedent set by the case] may be used in the future to prevent girls and women from speaking out on the harassment, assault and violence they may face for fear of repercussions that could impact their future,” she said.
Several elected representatives from the opposition Pakatan Harapan alliance were present outside the police station where Ain Husniza gave a statement on Friday.
Maria Chin Abdullah, a noted activist and MP, said the case perpetuated the perception that rape was acceptable in Malaysian culture, when that was not the case.
“Malaysia‘s women’s rights groups have for a long time been fighting against rape, all the myth about rape, and have been trying to stop jokes about rape,” she said.
Meanwhile, 14 groups from the country’s Joint Action Group for Gender Equality said in a statement released late on Friday that they were “appalled” by the use of libel laws against Ain Husniza.
They noted that this was not the first time where the “law of defamation has been used against women or girls experiencing sexual harassment”.
The use of defamation suits against complainants “make a travesty of justice”, they said.
The groups urged the Ministry of Education to publicise the outcome of the internal inquiry on the incident it undertook soon after Ain Husniza’s complaint.
In the past, there had been instances where teachers accused of sexual misconduct “were simply transferred to another school or position without clear disciplinary action being taken against them,” the groups said.
In addition, “out of respect for the integrity of the teaching profession, we urge the teacher in question to retract his letter of demand to Ain Husniza, and to issue an apology accordingly,” said the statement, which was endorsed by dozens of NGOs.
There was no immediate comment from the Ministry of Education.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.