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Saiful Bukhari: A “real” victim?

AS often is in cases of sexual assault, the accuser in Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s second sodomy trial has been subjected to much public scrutiny.

Media outlets and other Malaysians have combed through so many details of Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan’s private life. These range from details of his family and student life, his work as an intern, his actions since making his accusation, his account of being sodomised, and his demeanour in and out of court.

What’s being sought here is that which is looked for in any accuser of a sexual crime — some indication as to whether or not he is telling the truth.

Unfortunately, this usually involves falling back on several rape stereotypes, and this has certainly been true in Saiful’s case. Anwar’s second sodomy trial is taking place in a politically charged climate and receiving much media coverage, and at the same time, further compounding incorrect perceptions of sexual violence.

The need for rape stereotyping

Rape victims are expected to prove they are victims, and are judged based on their behaviour

The sea of scepticism that greets many rape survivors has meant that rape remains a seriously underreported crime. In Malaysia, women’s groups estimate that only one out of 10 cases is actually reported to the police. Rape victims are expected to prove that they are victims of crime, and clues are often looked for in their behaviour, past and present.

A lot hinges on whether the victim was a “real” victim or was in some way to blame for the attack.

The 1991 rape trial of Dr William Kennedy Smith, a member of the prominent Kennedy family, serves as a case in point. Prosecutors portrayed accuser Patricia Bowman as a doting mother and caring daughter who divided her time between volunteer work and raising her daughter. It was implied that therefore, she was a credible witness.

The defence team had a very different view: Bowman was an unemployed party girl, who’d blown all of her trust fund on boozing. She’d had a child out of wedlock and had dated a bartender. According to them, she was an opportunist out to milk the Kennedy name at all costs.

The scrutiny of Bowman’s life didn’t end in the courtroom. The New York Times was to run an article which included, amongst other things, details about how she’d skipped class in the ninth grade, received speeding tickets, and even had the nerve to talk to other men when on dates.

In the courtroom, the judge ruled that testimony from three other women who claimed to have been sexually assaulted by Smith be excluded, severely crippling the prosecution’s case. And so when Smith was eventually acquitted, he walked out of the courtroom to a crowd of hundreds of cheering people. Few people turned up to support Bowman.

In spite of their trauma, survivors often have the severity of their experience downplayed, thanks to rape stereotypes which allow the public and even rapists themselves to believe the survivors culpable.

Nik Aziz

In 2003, PAS spiritual leader Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat suggested that women applying glossy lipstick and perfume could arouse men and provoke rape. His comments only added to the long list of do’s and don’ts women needed to keep up with if they were to avoid rape: no being alone with strangers, no flirty behaviour, and no inappropriate clothing.

Men are apparently safe from rape too, as long as they aren’t gay, don’t go near gay men, or aren’t in prison.

The reliance on rape stereotyping to deny society’s vulnerability to rape has done much to uphold the belief that “good” men and women can avoid rape. When, in 1983, Cheryl Ann Araujo reported being gang-raped in a crowded tavern, the response of the community she lived in was swift. Had she been at home looking after her two daughters like a “good” woman instead of out buying cigarettes like a “bad” one, she’d not have been raped.

This division between “good” and “bad” victims has only served to further fuel underreporting of rape. Instead, a rape survivor’s inability to identify the attack as rape is increased, together with the likelihood that they will choose to blame themselves rather than holding their rapist fully accountable.

“Prove it, Saiful”

Screenshot of Facebook group demanding that Saiful should
prove himself a victim of crime
The political implications of Saiful’s allegations have magnified the expectation for him to prove himself a victim of crime. His case is certainly not helped by the shroud of ignorance surrounding male rape. Some rape crisis counsellors believe that rates of underreporting amongst males are even higher.

Typically, holes have been found in Saiful’s story which parallel the various rape stereotypes, of which a few are detailed below.

If rape really happened, why would Saiful let Anwar get away with it more than once? The question is asked on the page of the Facebook group “Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan Is A LIAR!!!” The group boasts over 1,600 members and, in-between describing Saiful as a “Son of a Bitch”, puts to him a list of questions “he should be prepared to answer”.

It denies the stigma still attached to rape survivors which often deter them from coming forward with their experiences. It also whitewashes the harrowing experience that rape is. The assumption that the knee-jerk reaction of any rape survivor would be to report the rape immediately and prevent it happening again ignores the often complex feelings attached to undergoing such trauma.

Tian Chua

Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) director of strategy Tian Chua displayed a similar level of ignorance when he mocked Saiful’s demeanour in a tweet: “Imagine a [sodomised] victim walks into court, says he is ‘looking forward’ to testify & more than happy to retell his rape experience?”

No guideline on appropriate behaviour of people claiming to have survived rape has been published. But doubtless, if one were to be published, it would probably advise striking a balance between a few tears (don’t cry too much in case you’re perceived as being an unreliable witness whose overemotional mind may have distorted the events) and maintaining a stoic disposition (but don’t overdo it, you don’t want people to think nothing happened to you).

It’s unlikely that reactions to an unsettling event will be uniform, a fact which also debunks the stereotype that physical force is necessary in rape. How can a “strapping” young man not fight off an older man, asks the aforementioned Facebook group.

My sister once encountered a taxi driver who said he did not believe the charges on the grounds that “Anwar has a bad back, and so would have been easy to fight off.”

A message apparently sent from Saiful’s Friendster account in which he threatens to punch someone’s face if that someone doesn’t leave his sister alone has been widely circulated, and cited as proof of Saiful’s “hot-headedness”. How could someone so hot-headed allow himself to be raped, says an individual on one blog (italics mine).

It’s true that the trial is already having a significant impact on the Malaysian political landscape. Yet this is even more reason why rape stereotypes need to be avoided in all commentary on the trial. Such mistaken beliefs continue to feed the vicious cycle that is the lack of awareness regarding rape.

Dahlia Martin has contributed to numerous publications in the past, and is also a graduate of the All Women’s Action Society‘s Writers for Women’s Rights Programme. She is currently doing her PhD in Political & International Studies at Flinders University.

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18 Responses to “Saiful Bukhari: A “real” victim?”

  1. danny leebob says:

    I think Anwar is charged with section 377 of the Penal Code for intercourse against the order of nature and [is] to be punished under section 377B. The issue of consent is irrelevant. Consensual sex is counted in. Whether the “victim” is smiling or not does not matter, so long [as] the prosecution can prove that the accused introduce his genital into the [anus] of another person.

  2. Whatever says:

    Innocent until proven guilty, or accused of rape…

  3. amir says:


    It’s amazing the number of people who would squeal like stuck pigs at the first sign of sexist innuendo in Parliament, but now gleefully make fun of an alleged rape victim’s testimony. Have they no shame?

  4. david says:

    Anwar has not been charged with rape. At no stage in the court proceedings has it been stated this was rape. So what relevance does this piece have to the trial? Saiful’s credibility is indeed at the centre of this alleged offence. Is he telling the truth, that’s it.

  5. Idris Ross says:

    Danny leebob,

    I don’t think that is what Ms Martin was really getting at. The article does not seem to be concerned so much with Anwar and what he is being charged for, but how people are treating Saiful. I’m in no means a supporter of BN or Umno (any party that restricts membership on the basis of race I find disgusting, really), but what Ms Martin seems to be pointing out that there is no unified way to respond to rape or sodomy or anything like that.

    Additionally, there is more than one way for people to restrain other people. Rape is not all about physical strength. People seem to propagate the belief that the stereotypical, athletic male cannot be raped as they are “too strong” or something like that. That is a ridiculous assumption to make. By instigating this belief, then it is “weak” as opposed to “strong” young men that are raped. I’m afraid while society promotes this belief, the number of male rape victims who report their cases will continue to decrease.

  6. Farish A Noor says:

    With reference to what Idris said above: Please also note that rape involves power, and crucially, power-relations. And rape includes forcing sex upon someone though the nature of that sexual intercourse does not necessarily have to be violent.

    Here we need to disassociate force from violence, and realise that power can be symbolic and based instead on unequal power relations and power differentials. A boss may tyranise his/her workers/subordinates but that doesn’t entail beating them with a whip. Male rape is therefore no different from other forms of rape as it rests on unequal power relations and the abuse of power on the part of the powerful over the powerless. Surely we have seen such abuse of power taking place all around us in contemporary Malaysian society by now.

  7. tze yeng says:

    Great piece. It is good that there is a voice out there questioning how we treat survivors of sexual assaults -by questioning their integrity and shredding what’s left of their dignity.

  8. Alan S Tan says:

    I agree with Danny. This is not about rape now is it? Why is Saiful assumed to be the victim? He has not once said that he was raped. I think both of them should be charged. Then we can see where the chips may fall. Why charge only DSAI? […]

  9. Petra says:

    The law preventing “intercourse against the order of nature” proves that Malaysia is a backward country with ancient laws. Whatever a person chooses to do in the confines of his/her privacy with the consent of the partner is purely their own business. If a man decides to have sex with another man, how does that affect your life? If a person, male or female is forced into having sex, then that should be a charge of rape. Sodomy is a term purely used by religious bigots who care too much about people’s personal lives or want to “save” their souls.

  10. Antares says:

    Disappointingly prim article from Dahlia. The public is being psychically violated all the time by those who program the mass media. Saiful is clearly the pawn of below-the-belt political players. Apart from medical reports that attest to no penetration having occurred, Saiful was also [said] to have [met] SAC Mohd Rodwan Mohd Yusof [said to work for the IGP] and Najib and Rosmah prior to his lodging a police report against Anwar. That alone ought to make this whole ugly case a non-starter.

  11. Notconvinced says:

    The question is : How can a “real rape victim ” prepare himself with a tube of KY Jelly?

    Did Saiful come to the condominium in full preparedness that he was going to be raped by DSAI?

    Saiful’s conduct in possession of the KY Jelly is perplexing and not in line with a rape victim.

    A rape victim would not know when he is going to be raped but Saiful knows.

  12. neptuniun says:

    Danny leebob,

    “so long [as] the prosecution can prove that the accused introduce his genital into the [anus] of another person.”

    So glad you said that. So no penetration, no intercourse, unless the prosecution and learned judges have another definition for intercourse!

  13. Angel TanWC says:

    The Nut Graph, get your facts straight. Saiful claims he was sodomised, not raped. In his testimony, he said he reached a point where he “could not stand being sodomised anymore”. Nut Graph, please do not capitalise on this story by a thinly-disguised lip service feature on the crime of rape. That is another story altogether – a worthy subject, but not one to be tied to this ridiculous trial.

  14. paul for democracy says:

    The doctors who made a decisive opinion of Saiful have already declared that there were no signs of anal penetration. The case as should should [end] there and be thrown out of court! Failure to have done that shows …

  15. aquarian says:

    While I can appreciate the fact that the author is trying to educate the public regarding the error of stereotyping a rape victim, I think the choice of using Saiful in this instance is erroneous.

    As some have pointed out, the charge here is really not about rape, rather it is about sodomy, which is illegal in Malaysia whether it is rape or consensual. In addition, this case is highly political and so we cannot hope for it to be treated like a typical case. Thirdly, the article is written as if to suggest that rape has occurred (although I doubt that this is the intention of the author) while the reality is nothing has been established up to this point. There is every likelihood that the whole thing is a set up, and if so, it is Anwar who is the real victim and this article is doing him a great injustice.

  16. Tan says:

    It is quite strange to note that a rape victim can be so happy-go-merry when appearing in court in contrast to those who are traumatized after the incident.

  17. Afiq says:

    I might have this wrong, but I’m pretty sure the writer isn’t debating Anwar’s innocence, or Saiful’s claims. The fact is that a lot of Malaysians (such as myself) have no idea what Section 377 of the Penal Code is, and what the difference is. A lot of us don’t exactly follow the case. We just talk about it and speculate.

    I think this article is for the non-news-followers that make up the majority of the Malaysian population. Up until I read all the comments, I thought Saiful was claiming rape. The people who are judging Saiful based on how good a rape victim he plays. [In that sense], I think the article is extremely relevant, [just] maybe not to the lawyers, journalists, and political bloggers above.

    I could be wrong, but I’m fairly certain the article is about the danger of stereotyping rape victims, and the fact that so much of the Malaysian public seem to be doing it.
    And I think Saiful is an excellent example of this. Everyone has talked about the case (or what we thought was the case). And [many people] debate Saiful’s honesty based on how he doesn’t tick all the rape-victim boxes.

    So the article is not about the facts of the case; it is about popular opinion and speculation surrounding the case. Enough of the “disappointingly prim” and “get your facts straight” nonsense. Read the article for what it is.

  18. esme says:

    To all those who say, “This is sodomy, not rape!”, I heard that under Malaysian law, rape is defined as a penis in the vagina without consent. So I guess male rape doesn’t technically exist in Malaysia, huh?

    Whatever the case in legal terms, it’s sickening to note that people who claim to be so concerned with human rights are using tactics that go against gender equality and human rights to further their “cause”.

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