Illustration by Shan May
Written by Nisa Rawi
Edited by Angela M. Kuga Thas and Serene Lim
This is an overview of KRYSS Network’s monitoring and documentation of online gender-based violence (OGBV) cases in Malaysia for 2021. We take note of cases where victims approach us for support or when we discover OGBV cases through our monitoring work. This overview is therefore neither an exhaustive nor extensive monitoring and documentation of all OGBV cases. The nature of the cases we have documented are perpetrated using digital technologies or are perpetrated/aggravated in parts by digital technologies.
This documentation is part of our effort to develop evidence and knowledge that could contribute to the elimination of OGBV, and to work towards a safer online space for all peoples to freely express their lived realities, experiences, opinions and thoughts without threats of harassment and violence.
Online gender-based violence (OGBV) is an extension of the forms of gender-based violence experienced by women, girls and LGBTIQ+ persons. The advancement and ubiquity of digital technologies has provided an additional fertile ground for gender inequalities and gender-based violence to manifest with even greater intensity and reach. Though men and women can both experience online violence, women, girls and LGBTIQ+ persons are more likely to be targeted because of their gender identity, gender expression and gender roles.
In 2021, KRYSS Network documented a total of 22 individual cases (Cases here means stand-alone cases where the victims are identifiable by name/as an individual or as a protected category of people. Cases can include repeated attacks against the same individual, so someone who may have faced the first attack in February, and then face another round of similar attacks on the same issue in May would be considered 2 cases of OGBV) of OGBV, and an additional 20 cases targeting women, girls and LGBTIQ+ communities as a group.
It should be noted that these cases offer only a snapshot of the realities in Malaysia. The lack of comprehensive data collection in this area by the government is also reflective of the lack of appropriate and efficient remedies for victims of OGBV. However, the little information we currently have is sufficient to illustrate the severity, pervasiveness and immensity of OGBV as well as its ensuing impacts on women, girls, and LGBTIQ+ persons, and our society as a whole.
PATTERN OF ATTACKS IN 2021
Online gender-based violence can include online harassment and abuse, cyberflashing, doxxing, stalking, non-consensual dissemination of intimate images (NCII) and more. The categories and types of OGBV are not exhaustive as it manifests and evolves based on the features made available by digital technologies. These different forms of OGBV are not mutually exclusive and several incidents can happen at once or reinforce one another. For instance, a victim of NCII may also experience online sexual harassment when they receive unsolicited sexual advances from men on their social media accounts.
1. Image-Based Sexual Violence in Malaysia and Non-Consensual Dissemination of Intimate Images (NCII)
Over the years, members of the public exposed Telegram groups such as V2K, Gadis Melayu and Nasi Lemak SG have within their dedicated groups publicly sexualised and disseminated intimate images without women and girls’ consent. Pictures of women, girls and children were disseminated on social media and Telegram groups for sexual gratification purposes.
In one instance, a perpetrator publicly admitted on Twitter that there are victims who are underaged and would even name the victims who have been manipulated into sending the images and videos. The act of deliberately naming the victims inevitably increased their vulnerability, further exposing them to other types of OGBV such as doxxing, stalking, sexual harassment etc.
What is most alarming are perpetrators on social media doing financial transactions on these images either through direct selling and buying of images or in the form of paid membership to access group chats like the Telegram groups mentioned. Some of the group administrators take precautions by only transacting with “real accounts” and refuse to deal with any anonymous accounts. It is also common for these groups to prepare for the possibility of their accounts being taken down and would have a back-up channel or account which is often created in advance for their members. It may also suggest that the group administrators have personal contacts of their members such as phone numbers or e-mail addresses in order to update the “urgent” shift should authorities be involved.
2. Policing of Women’s Sporting Attire
Following the 2021 Olympics, despite their achievements, Malaysian women athletes were subjected to moral policing and gender-based violence because of their sporting attire. Farah Ann, Malaysia’s national gymnast, was sexually harassed on social media – a repeated occurrence whenever she represented Malaysia at a national sporting event. There were also comments calling her a “sinner” and that she shouldn’t have participated. The repeated acts of sexual harassment in these cases suggest deliberate targeted attacks on Farah Ann and because of who she is, it is just a matter for the perpetrators of these attacks to monitor in which events she would be participating.
3. Women/Girls Speaking Up about Sexual Harassment and Rape Culture
National Malaysian swimmer, Cindy Ong, was also subjected to online abuse after she shared her experience of being sexually harassed by a national coach. She received an unsolicited video of a man masturbating himself through a direct message on Instagram. The perpetrator immediately deactivated his account after she exposed and shared his video on Instagram.
Sometime in April, Ain Husniza, a secondary school student, posted on TikTok about her teacher who had made a rape joke in class and how that encouraged the boys to take rape lightly. She called for the teacher to apologise and emphasised the dangers of joking about rape. Her post on TikTok went viral, which led to her being attacked on social media. Ain, who does not don the hijab, received rape threats and comments sexualizing her as well as blaming her for the attacks for not wearing the hijab and that she deserved to be objectified. When she did don the hijab, Ain was also attacked. She was labelled as a “hypocrite” and a “child of Satan”.
4. Women’s Political Expression
Nini shared her disappointment on Facebook after witnessing a politician breaking the law under the Movement Control Order (MCO). Nini’s post went viral and she was severely attacked online. Not only were people harassing her directly, the harassment and abuse was also extended to her family members. Photos of her family members including her child were circulated online. Her husband’s business profile was flooded with hate comments. Both her and her husband’s phone numbers were leaked and they would receive messages and calls from unknown numbers harassing them. Nini has expressed that she wished she could rewind time because although it was her right to voice out as a citizen the arbitrary application of the law, the violence that escalated was not worth it to her.
Nini is not alone in her experiences; an environmental activist was also subjected to attacks after expressing her political views online. The attacks were not limited to online spaces but also took place physically when she received gory materials accompanied by threats. The violence did not only impact her but also her family, leaving her in fear for their safety. These cases show us that OGBV can effectively deny women’s public participation in calling out injustices, in Nini’s case, an injustice that took place under the enforcement of the MCOs on ordinary rakyat vis-a-vis the special allowances given to people in power or linked to power.
5. Policing of Breastfeeding Women
A content creator who frequently produces contents on breastfeeding received abuse and sexual harassment on her social media accounts. In a standalone post, the creator shared some of the comments she received, which includes accusations of her “normalising pornography” through her video on breastfeeding techniques. She was told that she deserved the lewd comments she was receiving because of her content. In one of her more viral videos, titled “Tips To Solve Flat Nipples”, some obscene remarks read: “You don’t have to use a syringe, use your husband’s mouth” and “I’m an expert with my finger, you don’t need tips to solve this”.
6. Queer Women
In a separate incident, a victim who is part of the LGBTIQ+ community received harassment online following her decision to publicly crowdfund for her livelihood, a difficult decision she made as she was struggling to stay afloat after losing employment and had no support from her family members during the lockdown.This happened at a time when it was not unusual for individuals and communities to crowdfund for each other under the idea of rakyat bantu rakyat. Her pleas were met with hostile and violent reactions. It quickly turned into a mob attack and her gender identity as well as sexuality were weaponised against her. The victim, emotionally and mentally impacted by the abuse, took down the original post. In this case, we drew the conclusion that the public’s understanding of kindness and the right to public participation are unjustly organised around gender norms and anyone who does not conform to the gender binary risks being excluded and pushed to the edge of society, prevented from being visible and worse, denied the help that they need.
In another case, a lesbian woman was attacked on social media when her wedding photos were shared on Twitter without her consent. The woman, a Malaysian, relocated to another country and got married to a foreign woman. The tweet accused the woman of “promoting” an LGBT lifestyle to Malaysians and the user tagged the religious affairs ministry, urging “actions” to be taken. No further action is known to have taken place by the State, however, the attacking tweet received support by other Twitter users and insults were hurled at the woman.
Resulting Impacts of Online Gender-Based Violence
The monitoring and documentation of OGBV cases show that OGBV in many ways is a weapon of censorship. OGBV effectively denies women, girls and LGBTIQ+ person’s ability to access their freedom of opinion and expression, which hinders their ability to participate equally in public and political spaces. In Nini’s case, the overwhelming hate directed to her had made her think that she has to modify or censor herself to be free from violence or simply to exist safely in digital spaces. While the queer woman had to remove her plea for support and aid because she had absolutely no means of livelihood during the pandemic.
The harms experienced by victims continue to be misunderstood by the justice system and the wider public because of the mistaken assumption that online violence is not as harmful as physical violence.
Other than the severe psychological harms that victims had to go through, given how digitally integrated our lives are now, violence in the digital spaces can also manifest into physical, sexual as well as economic harm, and in some cases, the harms are also extended to their family members. In one case, a young woman activist who was vocal about environmental issues faced not only online abuse, but also received gory blackmail materials delivered to her home with the intention to intimidate her into silence. She was extremely fearful, not just of her own safety, but also of her family members who lived with her in the same house. In Nini’s case, her income was affected when she had to withdraw from digital spaces after her business pages were flooded with hate messages and their phone numbers were leaked.
Failure of the Institutions to Address Online Gender-Based Violence
Redress efforts by victims and KRYSS Network to take down contents of harassment and violence are often met with mixed responses. Out of 22 cases documented, only four victims made police reports. However, there have been no responses, updates or actions taken by the police.
9 of the 22 had reported the incidence of violence to social media platforms. However, many reported that the time taken by the social media platforms to respond to their complaints was too long. While waiting, they were forced to retreat from social media or remove their original posts to stop the ongoing harassment and violence.
One victim in particular shared that she did not make a report to neither the social media platforms nor authorities because she did not feel her complaints would have been taken seriously. In some other cases, the inability to trace the perpetrators, i.e. accounts deleted or change of usernames, had hindered evidence collection.
The pandemic accelerated the integration of our physical and digital lives. Gender inequalities have found its way to manifest in the form of gender-based violence on different platforms. Despite the seriousness and pervasiveness of OGBV, our documentation and monitoring continues to show the lack of redress for victims. The impact of OGBV is not just felt at individual levels as exemplified above, but on systemic and societal levels too. These acts of violence reinforce inequalities, and normalise moral policing of women, girls and LGBTIQ+ persons’ self-expression and voices with the intention to silence them and are therefore threats to the public and political participation of diverse peoples, especially because of gender and the intersection of that to social status.
Opting out of the digital space is no longer an option for anyone given that it is now the gateway to our public and political participation, social networking, education, welfare, healthcare, financial services etc. It is now an indispensable space for our freedom of opinion and expression whether it is for expression of self, artistic and creative expression, to call out injustices, to express our various thoughts and ideas, to engage in public discourse, to dissent etc.
Therefore in KRYSS Network, as a step forward, we continue to document and monitor OGBV to plug the gap in evidence-building and evidence-based advocacy. We do this in order to refine our arguments for the elimination of OGBV and for equal access to and exercise of freedom of opinion and expression in Malaysia.
If you have experienced or know of someone who has experienced online gender-based violence, please help us to document the case by answering this simple survey.