LETTER | The Association of Women Lawyers (AWL) refers to the statement issued to the press on behalf of Criminal Lawyers Annual Party 2019 (Clap ’19) on June 27, 2019, and strongly agree with the organisers of Clap ’19 that the matter should be thoroughly investigated by the relevant authorities.
For far too long, women, and in particular women at the Bar, in both professional and social settings, have endured unwanted attention, propositioning, and in this particular instance, violence and verbal abuse.
For the most part, the victims of these incidents of sexual harassment have remained silent, partly out of fear that they will not be believed and, more often, because of the impact and scrutiny it focuses on their personal and professional lives and their careers.
The default position when it comes to victims who make allegations of sexual harassment is to not believe them. Often, the entire matter becomes a case of “he said, she said”.
Women who speak out about their traumatic experiences are liable to have their conduct, choice of attire, and general manner held up for public examination and judgment.
For an already traumatised victim, this is a difficult and overwhelming burden to bear, and the ones who come forward do so with tremendous courage and fortitude. To suggest otherwise indicates a certain disingenuous naivete about the nature of sexual harassment and sexual offences in general.
We find it highly disturbing that the organisers of Clap ’19 have, in their statement to the press, chosen to focus on the damage being done to the alleged aggressor, without reflecting any concern for what the “alleged” victim could have gone through.
We would remind them that should these allegations turn out to be utterly spurious, there are laws of libel and slander that offer redress without the need for their overt support.
What is pertinent and which was not addressed in the statement to the press by the organisers of Clap ’19 is that any person should have a reasonable expectation to be treated with respect and dignity at a gathering of his/her peers. This was clearly not the case at Clap ’19.
Further, upon learning of the incident, the organisers of Clap ’19 have failed to show any compassion and empathy for the victim, and have instead publicly judged her for the comments she made on social media.
There is perhaps a general societal perspective of victim-blaming, a perspective that should not be reflected by the legal community who should certainly know better.
It is precisely this attitude that will deter other victims from speaking out and will instead, continue to enable a culture of sexual harassment, victimisation and bullying.
In their statement, the organisers of Clap ’19 “...humbly request all parties to refrain from passing judgment in this matter. This is necessary to be fair to all parties concerned.”
We are minded to refer to the quote by Irish judge Sir James Mathew that almost every student encounters at some point in their legal education: “... Justice is open to all - like the Ritz Hotel”.
It is perhaps necessary to point out that just like the Ritz, the service varies depending on who walks through the door.
For victims of sexual harassment, the “service” thus far has been appalling, when there has been any service at all.
It is past time for the members of the legal profession to face up to the reality that there is sexual harassment at the Bar. It is time to stamp out the acceptance of the idea that “boys will be boys” or that “these things happen” – particularly from a community that holds itself forth to preserve justice without fear or favour.
This knee-jerk press statement by the organisers of Clap ’19, rather than serving to clarify, enhances the presumption that the victim may not be telling the truth – a presumption that they cannot and should not make until some clarity is sought about the details of what happened, and secondly, rather than deal with the issue of sexual harassment, focuses on what she said on social media.
Clear procedures need to be put in place so that when anyone at a Bar event - or any event involving the legal fraternity - feels unsafe, there is an immediate intervention to ensure the safety of the victim and for appropriate steps to be taken to call out the perpetrator(s). Perhaps then, victims will not feel the need to go to the police or resort to social media to be heard.
The Bar Council must take ownership of this to send an unequivocal message that harassment, in any form, will not be tolerated.
A step in the right direction would have been for the organisers of Clap ’19 to apologise to the victim for the traumatic experience of being verbally and physically assaulted at their event.
A step in the right direction would have been to contact her directly to seek clarification before issuing a press statement, which appears to favour the alleged perpetrator.
A step in the right direction would have been for an undertaking to ensure that incidents like this never happen again.
The women of the Malaysian Bar have waited a long time for things to change. How much longer do they have to wait?
SHEENA GURBAKHASH is president of the Association of Women Lawyers.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.