Categorised | Columns

Silence is rotten

Wolf talling than Alice, circling her
Little Red Riding Hood; the folktale now commonly ends with
a woodsman saving her, as opposed to earlier versions which
include her escaping via her own cunning
(public domain/wikipedia)

I HAVE little affection for fairy tales, especially with regards to the moral lessons they purportedly teach. What I got from the stories I read as a child was anger at a world that would force children, particularly girls, through suffering that was only lifted by the intervention of a “saviour”. I also raged at a deep sense of injustice perpetrated against those least able to fight against it.

I particularly loathed the story of the child who pointed out that the emperor had no clothes. I knew deep inside that in real life, the child would have been beaten, possibly executed, for having the temerity to upset the social order by embarrassing a monarch.

I don’t remember when I learned this lesson, though I do remember vividly incidents where I or other women have been silenced. As a student, I lived next door to a woman whose partner abused her. I remember tentatively bringing it up in a group of acquaintances, and recall how badly it affected me, to say nothing of the woman in question. Instead, I was told sharply that the woman should have been smart enough to leave her partner and I shouldn’t have felt what I felt.

The person who said it never even asked, what happened?

I see the same kind of dismissive silencing of women’s experiences and women’s lives, over and over. We live in a world where women are often seen disparagingly as chatterboxes who’d be better off being silent — despite various studies showing that men actually talk more than women — and where persistent myths about rape discourage women from reporting sexual assault.

No one wants to raped, and no one wants to be violated again. Imagine a raped woman having to face largely unsympathetic police officers in police stations. And her ordeal continues in court at the hands of clueless judges and defence lawyers who use women’s histories of sexual relationships and alleged immorality to secure an acquittal.

Two women talking
Women are expected to act in certain
victimised ways. This contributes to low
conviction rates (© Claudia Veja /
Some of the major contributing factors leading to an abysmally low conviction rate — about 4% in a study done by the Women’s Centre for Change in Penang — essentially boil down to a blame culture  against survivors of sexual violence. That she didn’t “act like a real victim”, or that she “should’ve known better”, or that she wasn’t “a good girl” anyway, or what she said couldn’t possibly be true. 

I still regret that the young student I was then didn’t have the knowledge I do now of the many whys and hows women are trapped in violent situations. I regret, too that I allowed myself to be persuaded that there was nothing I could do about it. I will carry that regret for the rest of my life. It will be a reminder that my life’s work fundamentally affects me and the women I love, that it isn’t just about a hypothetical mass of women to be written into a funder’s report.

Playing out the Penan

Here we are again: silence upon silence, from those we feel we should hear, and those we would prefer not to. These silences are not merely imposed from on high by a government that pays lip service to equality but refuses to commit to justice for women.

These silences also emanate from our homes, where many still feel that violence against women, when it happens within families, is a domestic matter to be resolved privately. As well, they include attempts by self-appointed public guardians to silence women who have the temerity to claim what is already theirs by right.

Illustration of Shahrizat shrugging nonchalantly
Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, the women,
family and community development minister,
is noncommittal about the findings of the
Penan issue

It is quite clear by now that the government is attempting to duck any commitment to make public the report by the task force set up to investigate allegations of sexual assault against Penan women and girls. Much has already been said as to why this silencing is unacceptable and why the public has the right to know. I will add that whatever will or will not happen, whether the publication of this report will (inevitably) be dismissed as political football, the survivors of this gross violence have a right to claim justice.

In burying the evidence needed to end the impunity the perpetrators have enjoyed thus far, the government is denying these women an essential component of accessing the justice system — information. And by extension, the government is denying society as a whole one of the means for us to learn from our mistakes. The predators who lived off these women’s suffering include those among us who looked the other way, and who don’t give a damn as long as they’re making money or have cheap palm oil.

Altantuya and Manohara

I was often sickened by media coverage of the murder of Altantuya Shaariibuu, who was often described as a “Mongolian beauty” or “Mongolian model”. I felt that this played up a suggestion of salaciousness for the consumption of human vultures. The alleged details of extramarital relationships and political conspiracies distracted from the fact that a human being was murdered, and justice was and continues to be denied to her grieving family.

Two men approvingly checking out a runway model, or perhaps her clothes, in a fashion magazine
Men gazing at photographs of runway women models
(© Carlos Paes /

I am reminded of Altantuya again when I see the coverage of Manohara Odelia Pinot, who is described repeatedly as a “former teen model”, as if this has any bearing on a case of domestic abuse. The allegations of domestic violence were dismissed by Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin as a “personal matter”. Pinot herself has been tarred as a gold-digger or an attention-seeker.

I have even seen comments that hold up her press conferences as “evidence” that she couldn’t actually have been abused, and they boggle the mind. This is a world where survivors of sexual violence who seek legal redress are still judged on whether they behave like “real victims”, despite the range of responses to the trauma of sexual assault. This is also a world where domestic violence is still seen as a mere personal matter. So, can anyone really blame Manohara for doing whatever she can to ensure that her speaking up will be taken seriously?

Make no mistake, these assassinations on Manohara’s character are a form of silencing, and this kind of silencing is possibly the most pernicious and the hardest to fight. It is strengthened by the perpetuation of stereotypes and assumptions based on gender that happens on all levels of society: from the home to the school to the highest government echelons.

It is easy to criticise a party like PAS for its resolution to investigate and potentially ban Sisters in Islam and force its members into rehabilitation camps. Of course, PAS should rightly be criticised, because the actions advocated are clear violations of human rights. These actions are abhorrent when advocated by any political party, let alone one claiming to be working towards the ideals of democracy and good governance. But there are many ways a voice can be silenced, and not all of them are perpetrated by “them” or “those people”.

Often we, too, fail to listen, and to ask the right questions. Favicon

Yasmin Masidi works at an NGO based in Kuala Lumpur. She hopes to learn how to breathe and encourage others to speak, and to open her hands to ask, “What can I do for you?”

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3 Responses to “Silence is rotten”

  1. Main says:

    A request of some sort and an article that portrays the need for change in outlook. As serious as it seems, action on it will take a hell of a lot of [time]. Hopefully things will work out well.

  2. Lee Yin Harn says:

    Thank you, Yasmin, for articulating everything I’ve ever thought on this subject. I think the systematic silencing of women’s voices and the dismissing of women’s experiences has been accepted as a matter of fact in this country for far too long, and is so deeply entrenched that most of us don’t even question it.

    The first step to change, then, is to ask the right questions – and to get other people to ask them. Which is why I create retellings of ancient fairy tales in my spare time.

  3. Karcy says:

    Sadly, many of us women (and men) who recognize that domestic violence is wrong are unsure as to how to address it. Part of it is because the very idea of something terrible happening before us, and that we must act on, is something that we’d rather avoid.

    In recent years I’ve slowly learned to bluntly tell people off when they propagate a sexist concept online (I’ve learned how powerful commenting in blogs or participating in forums can be in disseminating ideas), or to cut short or steer a homophobic conversation elsewhere, but I’m still faced with many obstacles in everyday life. Not only does correcting someone seem so rude and ruins conversation, I am now constantly facing the obstacle of how to politely steer a conversation when I’m aware of the religious beliefs that work behind these prejudices.

    It’s extremely difficult trying to speak out against homophobic language when it pops up in casual conversation among church members, and it’s just as difficult when speaking amongst Malay-Muslims. You’re never entirely sure as to how you ought to respond in a way that makes others see your point.

    Recently, while looking at arguments made by the more conservative religious folk against SIS, I encountered at least one person who was outraged because SIS questions the Islamic ruling that allows a man to beat his wife. I am never really sure of how I ought to respond or react to such responses; I am well aware of how religion has made wife-beating permissible in some families, and I am never sure how I can navigate through the boundaries and borders of ‘personal business’ and polite conversation in order to dismantle said boundaries.

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