Education for social change addressing sexual harassment

Just talking about certain issues at university can be considered a taboo practice in and of itself, for example, sexual harassment and sexual violence. But ignoring them or pretending that they are not important is not acceptable, particularly in subjects such as the sociology of education and in educational studies more broadly.

It is for this reason that we developed a semester-long project as part of an ‘Education and Society in a Globalised World’ course at the Universiti Brunei Darussalam. Through this initiative, we have come to realise our own responsibilities for contributing to positive change via education and community-engagement projects.

Social taboos

In many countries, we are told: “Don’t talk about it out loudly”, when it comes to discussing or even mentioning some taboo topics. One of these is sexual harassment.

There have been more and more initiatives launched to tackle it around the globe, but many societies still refuse to even talk about sexual harassment, let alone explore it in higher education.

When researching this topic, we came across many sad and alarming stories and incidents. For example, earlier this year a TikTok video went viral when a high school student in Malaysia exposed her male physical teacher for telling inappropriate jokes about rape in class.

This student then suffered the backlash, was perceived as an attention seeker and labelled as an autistic person by other teachers in her school. It got worse when she received rape threats from her classmates.

Nevertheless, due to her bravery in standing up against the issue, she also received support from the wider community that demanded that this issue be taken seriously, especially in school settings.

Sexual harassment, and the underlying behaviour it reveals as well as the social stigma attached to it, is complicated and not something that can be swept under the carpet, as the above account shows.

Keep quiet

One familiar response to sexual harassment from women in Brunei, especially older women, is to “keep quiet”, although they will empathise with you and most probably understand what you are going through.

As members of Bruneian society and as sociology students, we are observers of these customs and the social norms to “keep quiet” about sexual harassment.

The normalcy discourse is prevalent: it is normal for us to sweep it under the carpet even though we know it is hurting us; it is normal to dismiss catcalling or inappropriate jokes as normal behaviour even though it makes women feel very uncomfortable; and it is also normal for people to not realise that they have been victims of sexual harassment and abuse because of a lack of sex education.

Because of this normalcy discourse many cases of harassment in Brunei have gone unreported. The available statistical data suggest that 55% of reported sexual harassment in Brunei happens at work, but this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Youth advocacy for awareness

Although young people have been advocating for greater awareness of sexual harassment for a long time, it was only recently, after a March 2021 speech delivered by YB Khairunnisa, a member of the Legislative Council, that the public has started to get a grasp of the seriousness of the issue in Brunei.

However, when it comes to official action, it has taken a lot of persuasion to achieve change.

It is young people who are championing, advocating and educating the public by using social media platforms like TikTok, Instagram and Facebook. Young people are clear that it is necessary for society and for their future that people are educated about this issue.

Young people in Brunei are not alone, particularly now that there is more awareness and action following YB Khairunnisa’s speech.

In Indonesia recently, L’Oréal Indonesia collaborated with Paris L’Oréal in a campaign to raise awareness among the public of the importance of standing up against sexual harassment.

We have observed that countries such as Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia have gradually made progress on sexual harassment issues. Young people and NGOs have played active and major roles in this process.

Addressing sexual harassment

Young people and NGOs have been using social media as an effective tool to spread information about the importance of addressing sexual harassment in many societies.

As professors and students, we are well informed about the role of social media and are constantly seeking ways to integrate it into our teaching, learning and class projects.

Through the module AZ-3309 “Education and Society in a Globalised World”, we initiated a multi-staged, multi-modal and semester-long project to investigate the current situation relating to gender education and sexual harassment, two of the major taboo subjects in Brunei.

The project started off with a class discussion about the concept of taboo issues. During the discussion, we were of the view that talking about these issues would be impossible because of the above-mentioned normalcy discourse and society’s tendency to keep quiet about them.

However, with encouragement from our professor, we shared our ideas with the class and they were very well received by everyone. Our classmates came forward to share their views. These responses gave us inspiration and confidence to conduct an in-depth project.

It became clearer to us that young people like us needed to be well informed. Together with gaining an intellectual and scholarly understanding about these issues, we were also able to see for ourselves how different societies, educational systems and their respective communities approached gender education.

We learned about many challenges in implementing gender education in different countries, but we also learned about creative education programmes that bring huge benefits to millions of individuals.

The beginning of our project took place right when YB Khairunnisa told the Legislative Council how sexual harassment remained prevalent in the country and that no action had been taken to address reported cases.

Our group, under the guidance of our professor, decided to expand the scope of our project beyond the classroom.

We were determined to bring it to the wider public and to inspire young people to join together to educate ourselves and others about this important matter. We felt that examining this topic could possibly build community spirit by educating young people and promoting general awareness of taboo subjects.

We created distinctive platforms for the project through Instagram and Facebook. We came up with ‘SafeSpacebn’ as our signature project domain. We also hoped to be a voice for those who wanted to share their lived experiences with us. These experiences could be about sexual harassment, childhood trauma and so forth.

To help promote the project more widely and to those who might not be active on social media or might not pay attention to these issues on social media, we also designed a leaflet that could be distributed in public spaces, such as schools and workplaces.

Our proactive approaches not only helped to raise public awareness but also made it more acceptable for people to start discussing and opening up about socially taboo topics.

Further reflections

Although we were ambitious in our aims, we were initially nervous and did not know what to expect from the public when we launched our social media platforms.

In the beginning phase of the project, we were more focused on educating young people about taboo issues, especially sexual harassment, sexual violence, consent and sexual well-being, including reproduction and STDs.

We were surprised to see positive messages and encouragement from the public expressed on our platforms. We were praised for our bravery in talking publicly about these taboo social issues.

As a result of the positive messages received, we decided to encourage people to share their stories and-or experiences with us; and with their consent, we posted their stories on our platforms to raise more awareness.

Before we posted any stories sent to us, we introduced a taboo topic together with facts associated with the topic and, only after that, did we post one of the stories we had received that related to it. After that, we would address the issue/s attached to the story shared. That brought more responses from different individuals.

What was obvious from the stories shared with us was that our platforms became safe spaces to share and voice what many individuals had been going through.

Throughout module AZ-3309 and through the project, we have been reminded of the importance and relevance of our knowledge and responsibilities.

We really hope that we can reach bigger audiences in Brunei and other countries to show that taboo issues should not be taboo any more, and that they should be dealt with properly and in an educational manner.

We have also been convinced of the need for education projects to help and engage with the wider public instead of them being treated merely as class assignments for assessment purposes.

*Dk Nur Qasrina Nadiah Pg Abd Rahim, Nur Farah Hana binti Muhammad Nawawi, Qistina Athirah Binti Zainal, Nurusyuhada’a binti Khalid and Phan Le Ha.

Dk Nur Qasrina Nadiah Pg Abd Rahim, Nur Farah Hana binti Muhammad Nawawi, Qistina Athirah Binti Zainal and Nurusyuhada’a binti Khalid are all majoring in sociology and anthropology at Universiti Brunei Darussalam and have a strong interest in social issues. Phan Le Ha is head of the International and Comparative Education Research Group and senior professor in the Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah Institute of Education, Universiti Brunei Darussalam. This article is part of a series, Sociology Students Write Back and Forward. The first article, which gives an overview, can be read here.