When a 15-year-old Malaysian girl voiced her dream of becoming the country’s first female prime minister on Twitter earlier this year, she was roundly abused online for not donning the hijab. Surekha Ragavan asks if Malay Muslim women encounter more rage on social media.
It’s no secret that women everywhere are vulnerable to abuse online. In Malaysia, women of all races face abuse, but activists say Muslim women are particularly targeted because of certain societal expectations.
“We are seeing a trend where Muslim women [particularly Malay-Muslims] are targeted in a different way, especially when it comes to how they present themselves,” says Juana Jaafar, a women’s rights advocate who followed the case of the 15-year-old girl. Ms Jaafar says the attacks became so brutal for the girl, she was forced to delete her account and seek help offline.
“Certainly if you have a Malay name, you become immediately visible.”
So what could be uniquely at play here? Well, in many conservative communities here, the “jaga tepi kain” culture, or the culture of minding your neighbour’s business, is commonplace.
This idea of “airing one’s dirty laundry in public” has noticeably seeped into online spaces as well, encouraged in part by thriving Malay language tabloid and gossip sites.
But it’s more a cultural issue than a religious one. Ms Jaafar said, “The religion doesn’t encourage the [“jaga tepi kain”] behaviour. There are hadiths that talk about respecting privacy.”
‘They would find faults on my body’
“These things happen globally, but it does come with an extra layer [in Malaysia], a sense of moral justification that is rooted in quite narrow interpretations of religion,” says Dr Alicia Izharuddin, senior gender studies lecturer at Universiti of Malaya.
“People use anonymity on social media as a way of justifying hate speech and cyberbullying.”
As more and more young Malaysian women turn to social media – particularly Twitter – to talk about women’s issues, these cases of harassment have also become more frequent.
Maryam Lee, a 25-year-old Twitter user who recently decided to stop wearing her hijab, was hit by an onslaught of abuse. Her notifications pinged for days and she fielded threats to her physical safety.
“It’s not just about people not liking your views, it’s about people bulldozing your entire existence, your self-esteem,” she says.
While she’s long been a victim of online violence, Ms Lee says the abuse intensified when she publicly identified as a feminist.
“When you give language to a [movement] that questions the status quo, they get much more insecure,” she adds.
‘The female body is a battleground’
In other cases, wearing too much makeup and clothes that are too tight, or being chubby are “crimes” that make women susceptible to gender-based violence.
Dyana Sofya, executive committee member of the centre-left DAP Socialist Youth party, is no stranger to making news on local gossip sites that have denigrated her clothes and appearance, something she says her male counterparts don’t face.
“The female body is a constant battleground for men to argue [about]. A woman may be covered from head to toe, but someone will still complain that the covering is not baggy enough or long enough,” she said in an email.
In another case, Twitter user Nalisa Alia Amin was victimised for her anti-patriarchal and pro-LGBT views, as well as for refusing to comply with the widely accepted image of “an ideal Muslim woman in Malaysia”.
“People who couldn’t stand my views have attacked my appearances, especially my body since I’m on the chubby side,” she says.
Users would zoom into hyper pigmentation on her thighs and plaster those screenshots across social media, or post her photos next to an animal for comparison.
Most of the women say that it is mostly Muslim men hurling the abuse at them online.
While in these cases, the victims come away physically unscathed, online violence can take a toll on mental health.
In the case of Twitter and Instagram user Arlina Arshad, she confessed that the abuse she received because of her weight led to thoughts of suicide.
Worse still, her suicidal messages – which she made public – were met with brutal responses from haters accusing her of being an “attention-seeker” accompanied by comments such as “kalau tikam pun tak lepas lemak” translating to “even if stabbed, you couldn’t go past her fats”.
Currently, there are no gender-based laws in Malaysia that protect women from online violence, in large part because there is still a perception that what happens online isn’t considered “real life”.
And because lines on the internet are blurry and continually shifting, proposing relevant laws is tricky for activists.
“Law is stagnant, it’s conservative, it’s centralised. You can pass the law today, but if something changes tomorrow, it doesn’t apply anymore,” says Serene Lim who does research and resource development for women’s Internet freedoms through local NGO EMPOWER.
“But we know that whenever we have laws that are arbitrary, it will lead to abuse of power.”
The existing Communications and Multimedia Act sometimes works against internet freedoms by punishing users for messages that are deemed incompatible with the government’s line of politics or religion.
Another silencing tool employed by both the ruling and opposition parties is cybertroopers who surveil online activity for “controversial” political dissent.
Juana Jaafar says, “The counter-propaganda method can be extremely hostile and when they’re facing women, it becomes a violent exchange where women are attacked, body-shamed, and policed about their Muslim identities.”