Schools are supposed to be sanctuaries for young people. But for 17-year-old Ain Husniza Saiful Nizam, it is proving to be anything but.
Ain was horrified and then outraged when a male teacher in her physical and health education class casually joked about sexual violence, implying that it would be better to rape those older than 18 since there were laws to protect minors in Malaysia.
While her classmates either smiled, laughed or remained silent, Ain took to social media to call out the teacher and his inappropriate remarks. She went on TikTok to air her outrage and post about the incident, never dreaming that her videos would go viral.
But all that attention didn’t faze her. “I believe what happened was wrong and a teacher should not do that. I wanted to stand up for what’s right. After posting the first video, I went to bed and woke up to thousands of views,” she tells Digital Edge.
In her thread of videos, she describes her classmates’ reactions to the offensive remarks. “The girls were quiet, but the boys were laughing…”
She adds that the teacher in question went on to talk about how if boys were raped, they would not report it, “…because to them, it would feel good”.
The fact that a teacher could air such views so casually, and as a point of comedy showed that what is popularly known as “rape culture”, or the normalising of sexual violence through cultural or societal norms, was already embedded within society.
Ain’s videos were cross-posted on her Twitter account. By the end of last month, her first videos had garnered more than 1.7 million views and had been retweeted more than 30,000 times.
A number of local personalities, politicians and non-governmental organisations such as the Malaysian Academic Movement spoke up in solidarity, praising Ain for her bravery. But not everyone was supportive.
Ain had initially gone to another teacher for advice on how to move forward. He told her she was being too “emotional and sensitive”, suggesting that because she was a girl, it was normal to overreact.
Refusing to be cowed, Ain filed a police report against the offending teacher. She believed she had right on her side and that she was standing up not only for herself but for all students.
But the backlash, which included a rape threat from a classmate and character assassination from both classmates and teachers, was terrible.
“A male classmate got mad at me for reporting because, in his words, the teacher would not be able to joke around anymore. He also proceeded to send me a verbal rape threat, using a voice message that he also sent to a group chat full of other boys,” she says.
“In the voice note, he also said joking around is normal and that no one wanted to make it viral before. But that’s exactly my point! It should not be normal!
“This gave me immense trauma. I cried and told my mom about how unsafe I felt. The fact that someone could think it’s a joke is saddening.”
Following this, Ain says she has been showing symptoms of trauma and is not returning to school for the time being. “I’m, of course, very stressed and a lot more aware of my surroundings. I’m easily startled now at any sudden noises. I easily get frightened,” she admits sadly.
But the biggest threat, as she sees it, is from her own schoolmates. “At first, they showed pity. But eventually they said, ‘Lama-lama mintak kaki’.” Roughly translated, this means she is asking to be beaten up.
Her teachers have been no better. “My brother told me that a teacher said I have unresolved inner trauma, so I’m being dramatic.”
Some of them are angry because they think the issue should have been handled internally so as not to damage the school’s reputation. Ain points out that she did consult with a teacher beforehand, but he chose to laugh off her concerns, rather than help her handle the issue.
Ain does not blame the students, as she says they are just children. But she is angered at the reaction of the teachers who are supposed to protect the students rather than manipulate them and play with their emotions, forcing them to take sides in this issue.
Ain’s revelations have snowballed into a movement that has a lot of young students and even female teachers standing up and sharing their own similar stories about sexual harassment.
Following her campaign, using the hashtag #MakeSchoolASaferPlace, Ain has received numerous messages on her social media accounts from strangers and seniors about similar experiences. “This is not the first time this has happened in school and I get a lot of messages from my seniors. He [the teacher] makes these jokes a lot, especially with the football team,” she says.
Using social media as a vehicle for change is not a new phenomenon. In early April, young girls and women came together online to speak about period checks in schools. Period checks are when teachers harass Muslim students to see if they are actually menstruating and not simply making an excuse to skip their prayers.
Ain points out the irony. As a student, she should spend her time studying rather than highlighting the failure of educators. “I should not be educating adults about matters that should be easily understood.”
The Ministry of Education has promised to look into these concerns, but says it has not received any reports about such incidents so far.
But her campaign has highlighted the fact that TikTok is not just for trending dances and quirky videos. She says she is inspired by other young cyber activists, who also use TikTok to spread awareness about the issue. She is especially keen on creative activism, where youngsters use humour to highlight, for example, how some adults are handling the situation.
Activism through digital art
A number of digital artists have shown solidarity with Ain and her campaign by sharing their art on social media.
VieN, one of the artists, says she is very concerned about child abuse in Malaysia. “Before Ain’s campaign, my focus was on domestic abuse. But the campaign is a reminder that it can happen in school as well,” she tells Digital Edge.
“There is also this irony where society pushes people to have kids, but when it comes to something like this, they couldn’t care less. The comic’s message is specifically about how young people, especially girls, are taught by adults to do certain things to avoid being harassed. But at the same time, adults are the ones making children feel unsafe. I want people to see that and reflect on their actions.”
Passionate about changing cultural norms, Ain says, “I do not want our future generations to adopt this mindset. We need to call these people and their behaviour out. This is the tip of the iceberg and it can lead to much bigger problems.”