SINGAPORE: Since the National University of Singapore (NUS) sexual misconduct incident erupted on social media, the Internet has been abuzz with a multitude of articles and opinions.
Many are angry. Angry with the punishment that the perpetrator received, angry with what looks like the failure of NUS to protect its student on campus and the mishandling of the case after, and angry with the audacity of the perpetrator.
Many are out for blood, calling for harsher punishment and urging for greater accountability and transparency.
However before we take up our pitchforks, we should recognise that we are not privy to the finer details of the case. Perhaps we should hold off on passing judgement or taking matters into our own hands lest the conversation degenerates into a digital lynching fuelled by mob instincts.
WHY ARE THEY HAPPENING?
The issue that has been at the forefront of my mind has more to do with why such incidences are occurring in the first place. Voyeuristic acts seem to be on the rise.
In February 2019, voyeurism was identified as a key emerging crime trend that had to be tackled when the new Criminal Law Reform Bill was first read in Parliament, so it’s clear authorities recognise this is definitely an issue of concern.
This might be in part facilitated by the rise in technology, or because more cases seem to be coming out when our women are becoming more and more willing to speak out against injustice.
Nevertheless, the report of the Penal Code Review Committee submitted in August 2018, which the Government had accepted, highlighted that “a strong and consistent response” will be needed to criminalise the “surreptitious recording of others in circumstances of undress”.
Meanwhile, in South Korea, the sex crime scandal involving K-pop’s biggest stars is another extremely troubling matter. Many cite the Korean culture of toxic masculinity and the objectification of women that allow such cases to flourish.
WHAT HAPPENED TO RESPECT?
Back to our question of why these are happening in the first place, is it also similarly a case of our men are not respecting our women enough?
In modern Singapore, are women still being undervalued and if so, why?
In a recent survey on gender equality in Singapore released by market research firm Ipsos, about 45 per cent of Singaporeans agree that women who wear revealing clothes should not complain if men make comments about their appearance - this is a perspective held almost equally by both men and women.
Views like this breed a culture that puts the responsibility on the victim rather than the perpetrator. Perhaps it is on us to examine our own gender lens and get rid of old-fashioned notions like this.
This is an important issue close to my heart - The Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations (SCWO) has been working towards the ideals of “Equal Voice, Equal Space, Equal Worth” for women in Singapore.
Such voyeuristic acts go against what we stand for by violating a women’s basic right to safe space and makes futile the need for consent and respect. No woman, nay no human, should be made to feel like they are not safe in ordinary day-to-day situations.
Everyone, women or men, should be entitled to peace of mind. This is especially so in private moments and in private spaces - changing rooms and toilets no less.
It is not even about “no means no” when no question was even asked in the first place.
It boils down to respect - respecting that a woman’s body is hers and no one else is entitled to it. Consent is key.
ALL ABOUT RESPECT
More than ever, we need to reassure our women that they have rights to their privacy and empower them to speak out when that is violated. We need to work towards a society where mutual respect between the sexes is the expectation and not a privilege.
Laws can change but in order to get there, we need to start at home. We teach our children the importance of respecting another person’s belongings, not to steal or touch other people’s things, but do we emphasise that same messages regarding our bodies?
Just as we teach our daughters that their bodies are private spaces, we should also educate our sons on the important messages of respect and consent. From a young age, we should teach boys that girls are equals, they are people and not objects – it is about respecting people, irrespective of gender.
We must be careful how we speak about women and girls, and let go of seemingly harmless things we say like “if he’s teasing you, it must mean he likes you!”
That said, we need to also teach our children the importance of accepting personal responsibility for their own conduct. We need to ingrain this in them from young so that when they grow up, they are aware that their actions affect not just themselves, but others as well.
Just as how others are responsible for their own actions, we are responsible for our own bodies, their use and portrayal. I think society as a whole would benefit from having more responsible individuals.
DON’T TAKE PART IN MISOGYNISTIC CONVERSATIONS
Beyond our children, among our peers, it is on us to pass on the message of consent and respect as well.
We need to stand firm and refuse to partake in conversations that objectify women, and to call out others who do.
By refusing to participate even in casual misogynistic conversations and jokes, we would be taking a clear stance to show others the importance of respecting women.
Just as voyeuristic content would occur far less if there was no audience for the distribution of such materials, such a misogynistic culture would be reduced if fewer partake in it. Do not feed the fire.
MORE LIKELY TO ASSUME A VICTIM IS MAKING IT UP?
We should also encourage victim reporting and support those who step forward and dare to speak out like Monica Baey.
The same Ipsos survey found that 41 per cent of all Singaporeans agree or strongly agree that false accusations of sexual harassment are a bigger problem than unreported acts of sexual harassment.
This troubling finding speaks of a society that is more likely to assume a victim is making it up than worry about those that suffer in silence. This presents a very worrying attitude that victims have to overcome in order to be heard.
What would a society where mutual respect exists between the sexes look like? I see it as one where if a woman’s modesty is assaulted, she knows that she can take it to someone with authority, and trust that she will be taken seriously and a fair punishment will be upheld.
I see it as one where no one laughs at misogynistic jokes or better yet, no one even makes them.
One day we will not have to warn our daughters not to “court trouble” with the way they dress because we would have taught our sons the importance of respect.
Only then would we have achieved “Equal Voice, Equal Space and Equal Worth”.
We are clearly not where we would like to be.
Junie Foo is First Vice-President of the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations (SCWO).