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It’s not just about a sexist poll, it’s about sexism and gendered violence

You've probably seen the news about a sexist online poll promoting sexual assault against Muslim religious teachers. (I briefly mentioned it in a previous weekly wrap.) The police are now investigating it, but punishing these perpetrators isn't going to be enough to tackle the problem at its root. Today I'm sending out a guest issue that lays it all out really clearly—thank you Hikmah and Diana for working on this!

CW: Sexual harassment, online sexual harassment/assault

By Nur Hikmah and Diana Rahim

Last week, an online poll promoting sexual violence against local women Muslim religious teachers (ustazah in Arabic, asatizah in plural form) went viral after it was shared publicly and condemned by a few prominent male asatizah. The poll invited respondents to vote who among the list of women asatizah should be subjected to a “gangbang”. Collecting over a thousand responses, the poll of a violent rape fantasy evidently had a wide reach.

This incident bears a painful reminder of not only the sexual violence and harassment that women can be subjected to in their working life, but the lack of institutional support and care should they wish to seek accountability and justice—this was not the first time that sexual harassment within the asatizah community had been flagged.

After the poll was blasted online, many Muslim women—comprising of asatizah, undergraduates in overseas Islamic universities, and former Madrasah (religious school) students—have come forward on social media with accounts of their own experiences of sexual harassment by their fellow male Muslim students or religious teachers. Based on the survivors’ accounts, there were two separate cases of online sexual harassment against Muslim women undergraduates at overseas Islamic universities in Al-Azhar and Jordan respectively, in which the alleged perpetrators were among their male counterparts.

In the first case, which happened last year, images of Muslim women undergraduates at the Al-Azhar university in Egypt were obtained from their personal social media accounts and distributed in indecent online chat groups “sgmalay” and “sgtudung”. The term “tudung” in “sgtudung” specifically refers to the hijab or tudung (full head covering) worn by Muslim women, as the group only shared photos of women in such attire. The pictures showed the women in fully-covered clothes and hijab, and received sexual and objectifying comments from other users in the chat.

Several Malay Muslim MPs including Masagos Zulkifli, Raeesah Khan, and Rahayu Mahzam, and President Halimah Yaacob, as well as several Muslim institutions have published public statements condemning the poll. But this incident—and the others that have surfaced in its wake—can’t be seen in isolation within the Muslim community. Instead, they are connected to a larger societal problem of misogyny.

On a daily basis, we see cases of sexual misconduct, harassment and assault in local universities, Telegram groups that share photos of women (and sometimes even underaged girls) without consent, sexist and misogynistic comments made on podcast and radio shows... and this doesn’t even include unseen gendered violence.

The knee-jerk reaction to such cases is often to call for ever-harsher penalties for perpetrators, but the punitive approach isn’t enough to substantively address this problem. Punishing individual perpetrators may quell public outrage, but really dealing with this issue will take the more difficult and important work of addressing deep-seated, damaging beliefs and policies that leave women and girls vulnerable to violence.

Power relations and the myth of the “perfect victim”

Sexual violence is ultimately a crime of power. This is what makes the case of the online poll so disturbing. The perpetrators were allegedly expected to become future religious teachers, which would give them a position of power over young students. Imagine if this incident had not been blown up into a national issue, forcing decisive action unlike previous cases. What about the perpetrators who have escaped this level of public scrutiny and condemnation?

We’ve seen this before, after all. Victims are too often treated as collateral damage in favour of protecting the reputation of institutions and perpetrators. This could be seen in the case of a molester from the National University of Singapore who was given a light sentence partly due to consideration for their “potential to excel in life”, as if their “potential” was not also an indicator of how their future power and position could be abused to perpetrate more violations, should they not be held accountable and rehabilitated. Beyond this case are many others where perpetrators have escaped accountability, sometimes completely.

Victims often have to face up against the reality of institutional inertia and failure when attempting to seek justice. An issue that was brought up by a survivor of “sgtudung” was her experience reporting the sexual harassment to the police: the officer in charge questioned her choice to publish her photos online, implying that the survivor was partly to blame. Another survivor lamented how the police told her that since the pictures that were shared on the lewd chat groups showed her fully clad, it couldn’t be considered sexual harassment. It’s important to take note of the poor responses that survivors are met with, because they could potentially deter survivors from making a police report. It’s particularly unhelpful when survivors are partly blamed for the crimes of others. While there are programmes to train police officers in handling cases of sexual violence, these efforts have to be improved to ensure that more survivors can feel safer when reporting a case.

Responses to gendered violence are also dependent on power relations. Once made public, response to the poll was notably swift, decisive and unanimous in a way that’s almost rare for cases of sexual misconduct and harassment. In comparison, an earlier scandal involving the podcast OKLETSGO and misogynistic comments made on air across several episodes became a contentious and toxic debate. Women who called out the podcast were subjected to harassment as well as rape threats and it took about a week before an official statement was released by President Halimah Yaacob condemning the misogynistic “locker room talk” in the podcast.

In a patriarchal society, there’s no doubt that male asatizah, respected figures within the community, are seen as more legitimate voices than women, even when the subject is gendered violence. Because of their concerted expression of solidarity with their female colleagues, it was possible to raise the issue into a national discussion.

Additionally, survivors are subjected to the myth of the “perfect victim”, where the degree of belief they receive is dependent on whether they are seen to have “asked for it”; a catch-all term that can encompass behaviour, actions, clothing, and much more. A woman’s perceived “modesty”—again, usually subject to sexist assumptions—is a factor that determines whether she’s seen as a credible victim.

Female asatizah, as religious teachers who are highly respected in the community and seen as the ideal of modest dressing and conduct, are more aligned to the mythic “perfect victim”  and are therefore less likely to be subjected to the vicious incredulity of the public. The fact that even female asatizahs were targets of such blatant sexual objectification, however, shows that the problem of sexual harassment and violence has never been about whether women are behaving or dressing modestly enough. It’s ultimately about a patriarchal culture that routinely dehumanises and objectifies women, minimises the gendered violence they experience, and fails to provide care and justice. In fact, while women perceived as modest are more likely to receive sympathy, their modesty can still subject them to doubt when they are trying to report their case.

When outrage over gendered violence is more of an exception rather than the norm, when it appears conditional on how sympathetic the public can be to the victims and how “legitimate” the people who speak up are seen to be, how can one not despair at how much further we have to go in addressing sexual violence?

Addressing patriarchal ideas

While there have been a few cases of sexual misconduct by local Muslim religious teachers, these cases have often been treated as outliers, rather than a product of a patriarchal culture. But the accounts of survivors reveal that the problem of sexual harassment and/or assault by Muslim religious teachers, or students of religious institutions, is endemic.

In 2017, a local Muslim religious preacher published a patriarchal interpretation of a verse in the Quran in the national Malay language newspaper, Berita Harian, supposedly allowing husbands to beat their wives "if they were disobedient". His article was met with backlash from certain segments of the Muslim community, and fellow Muslim preachers such as Ustaz Irwan Hadi came forward to clarify the verse from a gender-equal perspective.

Yet, patriarchal ideas continue to persist in dominant interpretations of religious texts. One such example is the notion that women require the blessings of their husbands to gain God’s grace. For example, PERGAS’ (Singapore Islamic Scholars & Religious Teachers Association) Ar-Risalah publication Issue 18 (May–August 2015)—a special edition for women, no less—contains a page of 10 things a woman can do to enter heaven, of which nine relates to her responsibilities as a wife and her subservience to her husband. Even in the realm of the spiritual/religious, a woman's relationship is mediated by the men around her. In a patriarchal culture, women can only access God with the approval of men.

While the general response from the asatizah community has been inspiring to see in its condemnation of the poll and solidarity with the victims, responses from several men asatizah have also revealed the depths of patriarchal culture we still need to address within our communities.

Among such insensitive responses are victim-blaming, and the tendency to derail conversations about tackling misogyny and sexual assault/harassment, usually hijacking them with less relevant issues. For example, some have used this incident as a jumping-off point to stress the injunction to wear the tudung/hijab, while others fear-monger about liberalism, feminism, and supposed “Western” ideologies and agendas, without any real proof besides their own conjectures. These deflections are actively harmful since it interferes and distracts from efforts by women and allies to forge critical conversations about addressing violence against women.

In any case, the absurd legitimising of the orientalist binary of the “West” vs “Islam” is reductive and divorced from reality; the “West” is by no means unanimous in thought, and is also caught up in intense debates over topics such as gendered violence, sex education and abortion, among many others. Similarly, while it's comforting to think that there's a singular way of understanding and expressing the Islamic faith, it’s impossible to reduce the practice, beliefs, and opinions of a billion adherents into a singular representation. In the end, the invocation of this binary isn't about addressing problems at all, but an expression of the speaker/commentator’s anxiety about the challenging of traditional norms and beliefs they hold dear. Such moral panics have been engaged—not only by certain Muslims, but even the government—to dismiss discourses on human rights, deflecting attention and rejecting the complexity and contradictions that we must deal with.

What can be done?

Dealing with the root cause of gendered violence requires both individual and collective action. In the light of this offensive poll, we’ve seen examples of the difficult work that we must do. For example, Ustaz Zahid Zin apologised and took responsibility for the times he engaged in sexist speech. As a community leader, he emulated the accountability, deep reflection and listening that must happen. Some allies also took it upon themselves to draft a letter with recommendations to send to our leaders, and groups such as Lepak Conversations shared crucial and educational information about victim blaming.

The struggle to ensure that women are treated with respect, and that gendered violence is properly addressed, is not a “Western” concept. Framing it as such might be a soothing way to Other and dismiss local voices, but it doesn’t make it true. Gendered violence was not imported. The poll and many other acts of sexual harassment and violence that have left victims suffering happened right here, not in “the West”. We must be brave enough to face the reality of the situation, and not trivialise the vulnerability and bravery of the victims who have shared their stories. We must be brave enough to acknowledge that there are problems within our own institutions, and we must work to make them safe for women and survivors.

Furthermore, we must also take a structural and critical approach to addressing the issue of gendered violence in all its forms. Punitive measures are not enough. What we need is a systematic, committed, and humanising change. While it’s tempting to believe that perpetrators are aberrations, the truth is that they were born, raised and conditioned within our society. The ideas they internalised are baked into our society itself, and the reason they were able to continue harming women for so long is often due to the lax attitudes that people and institutions around them have when it comes to gendered violence.

Gendered violence is not the crime of perpetrators alone, but is often also made possible due to enablers and institutions that fail to prioritise care and justice for victims. The problem of gendered violence has proven itself to be endemic in Singaporean society. To only locate the problem in perpetrators and not in the conditions that have enabled them is to evade our responsibility in addressing the problem.