Malaysia’s insidious ‘rape culture’ must be eradicated
By Benjamin Loh and Azmil Tayeb
When Malaysian actor Fauzi Nawawi appeared on a Malay language television talk show last month, he was asked what kinds of violent scenes he most enjoyed filming.
Boasting that he liked rape scenes, Fauzi described taking his clothes off and strategically positioning his body over an actress for a scene in the 2007 film Anak Halal and explained how he was forced to “control his urges” and avoid using his “original expression” in front of the cameras.
Naming the actress on air, the clip from the show went viral on social media, with the canned laughter framing the discussion as lighthearted and innocuous.
But the public response was the complete opposite, with much of the uproar centering on what critics called the “normalising of rape culture” in Malaysia and the network’s indifference to the consequences.
With the network and the actor forced to issue apologies, Fauzi’s suggestion that the public response was excessive provoked further anger, as did the tone of his statement addressed to the actress, her husband, and family. Despite admitting that discussing the scene was problematic, Fauzi justified it by saying that felt he was “among men” on the TV show. He later deleted the apology from his Instagram account.
In the same month, several other public allegations of sexual misconduct emerged, including one in which another panellist from the same talk show was said to have behaved inappropriately with an 18-year-old guest. Sexual harassment allegations soon surfaced surrounding the Wildlife Department of the State of Sabah, as well as the national swimming team.
These incidents cannot be written off as coincidental. The notion of sexual impropriety, and especially of rape as a subject for chitchat among men, is a symptom of a much larger issue within the Malay language entertainment space: The normalisation of rape culture, and its legitimisation in films in which victimised characters are married off to their attackers.
Rape culture in Malaysia’s Malay language media has become a major concern over the last decade as a result of the release of several controversial films. For example, the 2011 film Ombak Rindu (Love waves) featured a young woman who is forced to marry her rapist in order to protect her dignity, but ends up falling in love with him.
The 2015 film Suami Aku Ustaz (My Husband the Religious Teacher) tells the story of parents who make their teenage daughter marry her school’s religious teacher in secret because they are afraid to leave her alone without a guardian while they travel to Mecca on pilgrimage. She too falls in love with her much older husband.
Narratives such as these have become common in Malay language films and television drama series, in which many problems facing the protagonists are resolved or “fixed” through the creative use of marriage. In these films, sex is made legitimate through marriage, whether consensual or not.
Part of the problem lies in Malaysia’s censorship and broadcasting guidelines for Malay language productions, which seek to ensure that only “polite and civilised culture” is presented.
Local broadcasters stick to Islamic values. But they operate within a framework of increasingly hardline interpretations of Islam, leading to content that normalises the idea that women are a source of distraction for men and are merely waiting to be married. The sins of sexual violence and abuse are seen as temporary problems that can be cleansed through the act of marriage. Seen through this lens, marriage makes any form of sexual act halal, or religiously permissible.
Against this background, the incident involving Fauzi is a wake-up call for Malaysia’s Malay language entertainment industry, which must recognise its role in perpetuating and normalising images of sexual violence, especially against women. Locally produced Malay language films and TV shows command some of the largest audiences in Malaysia, and have a significant effect on the world view of Malay Muslims, the country’s largest ethnic and religious group.
The issue is not just the prevalence of content involving sexual violence in Malay language media, but the tolerance of such content among the Malay-Muslim audience. While the outraged public response to the Fauzi incident is heartening, the industry must be held accountable for the continued production of harmful and traumatising content for survivors of sexual violence.
To achieve this, serious reforms are needed in the entertainment industry and in the presentation of Islamic values that perpetuate and reinforce these regressive views on women.
A sexual discrimination bill proposed by the Government should be amended to regulate the portrayal of women in the media and to force the industry to develop better gender equality standards. Changes are also needed in the teaching of Islamic values in schools – courses that are mandatory for Muslim students – to incorporate gender equality and female empowerment.
Malaysian audiences can do their part by boycotting obnoxious films and challenging media content that normalises rape culture. That would send a clear signal that content like this is no longer acceptable. An early end to films rooted in gender inequality and female oppression would benefit all Malaysians in the long run.
(Benjamin Loh is a senior lecturer in the School of Media and Communication at Taylor’s University Malaysia and an associate of the Asia Center in Bangkok. Azmil Tayeb is a senior lecturer in political science at Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang)