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The Star - Musings - Shaming the shamers (30 Sep 2018)
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WHEN I was a mere schoolgirl, there was a chant that everyone dreaded. If your skirt managed to get hiked up and your panties showed, or if you had a runny nose and no tissues to wipe it with, you ran the risk of the unsympathetic teasing of your classmates.

“Shame, shame, shame,” they would go and you had no choice but to hang your head and bear it. “Shame” in those instances did not mean “what a pity”, which would have had the gist of empathy in it, but in that cruel children’s way of making you feel embarrassed.

In this way, we learnt to guard our dignity in order to never be subjected to such bullying. Being ashamed may have been tightly defined in those days, but it dictated your behaviour nevertheless.

I was reminded of this while pondering the meaning of shame these days. In many ways our society today has not outgrown the schoolyard habit of shaming people. The victims are easy to pick out: just anyone who is different from what is considered the “norm” is fair game.

So if you’re female or young, foreign or not of the majority community, of a different sexual orientation, perhaps differently abled, then you’re likely to be a target.

Worse still, if you’re an outspoken woman or have achieved something that makes you stand out from the crowd, then the crowd – more accurately called the mob – will find something to shame you about.

Hence you’re shamed for not covering your head, for showing more of your body than someone’s arbitrary prescriptions, for being too clever, for not speaking the language well enough (as if speaking in SMS short form is considered superior), for talking about things beyond the defined scope of female interests (mostly fashion and cooking). You’re made to feel embarrassed and ashamed for all these things despite none of it being harmful to anyone else.

It’s amazing to me that while the mob practically screams for blood when anyone seems to defy their norms, few truly feel any shame over the real issues that should embarrass our society.

For example, while decent people are outraged at the very idea of child marriage and want the minimum marriageable to be raised strictly to 18, there are actually people who say that it should be lowered from the already young 16 to 14. You have to wonder what sort of mind and heart the person who suggested this has, to allow such young girls to be married off, despite evidence that this would be bad for them physically, emotionally and educationally.

Worse still, this came from a religious leader who must surely know that we are enjoined always to avoid evil. Perhaps the stunting of a girl’s educational growth is not considered evil to some. But what early sexual activity, even within marriage, pregnancy and childbirth can do to a young girl’s physical and mental states, must surely rank as one of the worst things you can do to a child, at least in this supposedly enlightened age.

Some people may say that easing the burden of poverty of families by marrying off daughters is also necessary. But why is it that it is daughters who are always given away and not sons? Don’t sons eat more?

Poverty is certainly a great motivator for parents to give away their children. But have we noticed that it is often two-parent poor families who do this? There are many single mothers who would never dream of letting go of their children, particularly their daughters, no matter how dire their circumstances, perhaps because they have experienced what marriage can do to young girls.

Yet we punish single mothers desperate to feed their children. Can we speculate that it is almost always poor fathers who make the decision to give away their daughters?

Child marriage is almost always found in very poor communities. This means that if we tackle poverty, we will go a long way towards eradicating child marriage as well. If there are persistent cases of child marriage in one community, region or state, a simple study would uncover the level of poverty in that area.

Which brings us back to the idea of shame. Why is it that some people are not ashamed of how impoverished their people are that they are driven to give away their children in marriage? How come, instead of feeling ashamed that they have failed to ensure the wellbeing of their people, they are hiding behind the cloak of religiosity and “morality”? Is it not immoral to keep your people so poor that they have to do this? I’m looking at you, Kelantan.

Religion should never be the cover for bad behaviour. Just recently we read about a tahfiz principal charged for allegedly sodomising nine of his students.

I recall that a prominent person has gone to jail twice for allegedly sodomising someone. Yet here is a so-called religious person with lots of young students in his charge, totally abusing his authority in the worst way.

Isn’t it funny how the word “paedophile” never surfaces in any story involving supposedly religious persons? I recall some people once getting hysterical about not allowing transgender people to work in kindergartens, even though there are no reported cases of any being employed in that field.

Yet a guy wears a beard and a white cap and we willingly hand over our young children to him without doing any due diligence about his credentials or even the safety of these schools. Somehow, we have no qualms about sacrificing our children in this way.

These are just some examples of the shamelessness with which our society acts these days. There are many more. We’re not ashamed when our universities produce automatons or “professors” who produce anti-hysteria kits or some such mumbo-jumbo. We think that whipping people in public elevates us in the eyes of the world.

We consistently display our ignorance by speculating on what LGBT people want instead of asking them what they need. We are so blind to anyone who is different that we think our standard operating procedures can apply to everyone when it is patently clear that they cannot possibly cater to the diversity inherent in any population including ours.

Yet we also have so much to be proud of. If you’re unclear about what those might be, imagine yourself on a foreign TV show having to describe what’s good about Malaysia. Do we talk about how our young girls get married off, or whipping women in public, or how so many of our children are dying in the fire traps known as tahfiz schools?

Even the most wrongheaded of our people would never dare to mention these as a source of pride, which would indicate that they know only too well that these are actually embarrassments.

Many years ago, I recall a visiting religious leader from a country where he is a minority saying that he was happy to be in Malaysia because here, he could say many things that he could not say in his home country. None of the things he wanted to be “free” to say were nice things. They all involved his opinions about women, sexual minorities and all manner of marginalised people who are vulnerable to HIV. He thought Malaysians would agree with him.

Maybe some people would, but I felt ashamed that he viewed Malaysia as the place where he could dump his venom. Instead of being a place that is inclusive, kind and compassionate about different people, he thought this was the place where he could express his hate for certain groups of people and get away with it.

He’s not the only one either. There are others who are given permanent residence and safe harbour for his brand of vileness. As a Minister in the new Malaysia Cabinet remarked, upholding one’s religion should not depend on putting down others’.

We need to renew our concept of shame into one that is not used as a tool for bullying others, but one that is felt collectively when we fail any of our citizens and others within our borders, whether they be poor, minority or differently abled.

We need to feel pride when we succeed in elevating people from the depths of misery by giving them opportunities and choices. We need to make it our mission to reduce the numbers of those left behind and proudly show our successes. We need to stop making excuses for our failures, especially not by dragging religion into it.

Malaysians worked hard to be able to hold our heads up high again, to be applauded wherever we go. But eradicating shame is still an unfinished business.

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