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.
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 crimeThe 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.
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.