We Ask Victims of Sexual Harassment in Singapore: “What Were You Wearing?”

This article contains descriptions of sexual assault and harassment.

Earlier this week, thir.st, a Singaporean Christian media outlet, published an article which appealed to Christian women to dress modestly in order to “help (their) brothers” avoid sexual temptation. Backlash soon ensued on Instagram, where many took to the comments section to point out that there were undertones of victim-blaming in the post. “Of course you don’t have control over their lustful thoughts, and it may not be a sin to wear that skin-tight dress or post that bikini photo, but if we can help our brothers, why not?” the post went on to ask. The intense criticism compelled the post’s author, Pastor Joanne Chow of Pasir Panjang Hill Brethren Church, to apologise on Wednesday. She insisted that her article was not addressing sexual predation and that its mere purpose was to encourage the “Christian community to help each other avoid sexual temptation”.

Regardless of whether you buy this explanation or not, it’s easy to understand why people reacted this way: victim-blaming is already prevalent in Singaporean society. In an attitudinal survey conducted by AWARE between 2012 to 2013, 40.0% of respondents aged 18-39 and over 50.0% of respondents aged 40 and above agreed that women who wear provocative clothing were “asking for it”. From this and the numerous personal anecdotes that were shared in response to the thir.st post, it is obvious that a culture of victim-blaming still taints Singaporean discourse about sexual harassment and violence. One of the most obvious ways this victim-blaming manifests itself is in the loaded question: “what were you wearing?” When victims of sexual assault and harassment hear this question, they also hear the abhorrent and underlying insinuation that what they were wearing provoked their attackers. 

To fight against this myth, we decided to ask victims the very same question and give them space to share their experiences. The breadth and variety of the results are not only heart breaking, but also prove that these episodes aren’t monolithic.

What were you wearing? A light blue hijab, knee-reaching navy blue cardigan, white inner-shirt and loose black pants. 

I was at a pedestrian crossing when I noticed a man who winked at me. I ignored him and looked away. However, he came closer to me and said “assalamualaikum” in a flirtatious tone. My lack of response prompted him to say “tak jawab salam dosa tau” (it’s a sin to not answer a salam, you know). So, I said “waalaikumsalam” quickly while still looking at the ground, hoping he’d leave me alone because of my visibly uncomfortable facial expression.  This apparently wasn’t enough as he then said “cantik ah adik ni, pergi mana?” (you’re pretty, where are you going?). Luckily, at this point the light turned green, so I quickly crossed the road and walked to an area that had more people. I was about sixteen then. 

What were you wearing? My school uniform. It has a white sleeveless top with a round neckline. A white plaid skirt that is knee length.

I was on my way back home from my friend’s house. Along the way, I had to cross a pedestrian bridge in order to get to a bus stop. It was then that I was approached by an elderly man who asked for my help in walking down the stairs. Since there was no one else around, I agreed to help him. I let the man hold onto my forearms and we started walking down the stairs. About halfway through, the man started touching and groping me. He even hugged and kissed me. While I kept asking him what he was doing, he didn’t respond. So when I saw my bus reach the stop, I pushed him away, ran down the remaining stairs and hopped on the bus. I felt grossed out and never dared to walk alone on that one bridge again. I was fourteen then.

What were you wearing? White t-shirt and jeans, school uniform 

He always loitered around the sheltered walkway that connected my school to the bus stop and MRT station. The first time it happened, I was wearing my school uniform. As I walked past him, I caught him taking a picture of me by holding his phone in the same hand he was holding his one shouldered bag’s strap. I could clearly see that he pressed his phone’s volume button just as I walked by. My boyfriend was with me and wanted to confront him, but since we were both in uniform, we had no choice but to let it slide. The second time it happened, I was in casual clothes. This time around, I decided to report the incident to a teacher and the police. In the end, the police informed me that they couldn’t do much. I was also told that the man had been arrested once before. I was about seventeen then.

What were you wearing? Light blue cardigan, knee length black dress

I was cycling home from Great World City after picking up some groceries. Outside of the mall, there is a four-way intersection which I had to cross diagonally. In other words, I had to cross the street twice. While crossing the street the first time, it was a bit windy, so I put my left hand down onto my dress so that it wouldn’t flow up. As I was doing so, I made eye contact with a Chinese man in his mid-forties continuously looking at my legs while I cycled towards him. After reaching the sidewalk, I stood next to him with my bicycle while waiting for the pedestrian lights. I noticed that while the man’s body was facing forward, his eyes remained downwards and to the right, where my legs were. At first I looked away as many women do, as we don’t know whether the situation is going to turn violent or not. But then I decided to look him right in the eyes, give him my angriest stare. He got scared as he didn’t expect me to react.

What were you wearing? My school uniform. Blue shirt with a grey skirt.

I have had multiple of these experiences. The first time it happened, I was fourteen and was in my school uniform. On the bus back home, an upper middle aged man rubbed his crotch against my knee the entire bus ride. The bus was empty, and I was seated while he stood in front of me. Two years later, when I was sixteen, I was wearing sweatpants and a baggy t-shirt. A teenager at the bus stop walked over to me and then gave me the ‘up and down’ stare. He then blew smoke in my face while many people watched but did nothing. The last one of these encounters happened two years ago. I was wearing a maxi skirt and a tank top on the train. A scrawny looking businessman followed me all the way home from the MRT station. I had to lose him.

What were you wearing? Light pink Baju Kurung

The incident happened while I was in secondary school. In this period, we always celebrated Racial Harmony Day by dressing up in different types of ethnic costumes. I remember wearing a Baju Kurung to school for this exact reason. When school ended I always took a public bus back home. That day, since there weren’t any seats available on the bus, I opted to stand. It was then that I noticed this old man wearing reflective sunglasses while being seated opposite me. His sunglasses reflected his phone’s screen, through which I could see a tiny reflection of myself. That was the first time I encountered someone taking a photo of me. I wasn’t wearing anything revealing and I had no idea why this man was taking pictures of me. So, I went up to the bus captain and told him about what was happening. The captain was really nice – he stopped the bus and started shouting at the man. He also asked if I wanted to lodge a police report. While I opted not to do so, I asked for the old man’s phone, so that I could delete the pictures he took of me. As soon as I opened his gallery, I noticed that I wasn’t his only victim. The app was filled with pictures of women on public transport minding their own business, oblivious to what was happening. The bus captain and another Indian uncle who came to help, stood beside me. All three of us stared at each other not knowing what to say. While I thanked myself for being observant, I still regret not standing u for the other females who were in his gallery. At that point, it was too overwhelming for me and all I wanted to do was to go home, where I felt safe. I was about 14 or 15 then.

What were you wearing? My school uniform. Yellow shirt and bright blue skirt that was lower than knee length. 

I decided to get bubble tea on the way home after school. At a relatively busy intersection, I was waiting for the red light to change. This was when a lorry honked at me, and another lorry besides it also did the same thing. The two drivers were also staring and smiling at me. I assumed that this was because I was standing too close to the road, so I moved further back into the pedestrian pathway. When the green light came on for pedestrians, I started crossing the road. The men, however, continued honking at me. I was confused but thought they were just playing a joke on each other and decided to ignore what was happening. That was when I was fourteen years old. Only a few years ago did I realise that this was catcalling. I was jogging with my mom, when suddenly a truck honked at us when we were crossing the road. I still didn’t understand why but my mom was angry and explained that we were being catcalled. I was so disgusted because being fourteen at that time I had no idea what being catcalled was like. This goes to show that some Singaporean girls probably don’t even realise that they are being harassed.

What were you wearing? A grey, polo-like shirt with a black collar, and denim blue jeans with a belt.

I was at a club with my circle of friends, when a slightly drunk male friend started hitting me on the butt. I didn’t think much of it at first, but I was still uncomfortable. He continued to do it throughout the night, up to the point where I politely asked that he’d stop. Since he continued to do so even after, and since he was about to bend me over to continue smacking my butt, I shouted at him to stop. This was when he finally stopped. I don’t know if he had any attraction towards me (I know him as a straight person), and I know he only does that when he drinks, but there is no question that he harassed me and humiliated me. I gave no consent to any of this.

What were you wearing? My school uniform. It was a blue pinafore dress.

Once, I noticed a stranger looking over at me at the bus stop, while I was waiting to take the bus to school. Subsequently, he appeared every day and would just stare at me. It progressive got worse from there. First, he started taking pictures of me discreetly on his phone. Then, he got bolder and held his phone up for extended periods of time – I assume that he was taking videos. I went to the police because I thought this was stalking. They got back to me saying that they couldn’t do anything because the man didn’t approach me.

Looking at the clothes that these victims wore, you can see that there is no pattern. Sexual harassment and assault doesn’t discriminate and definitely isn’t the victim’s fault. In fact, considering the universality and ubiquity of the clothes featured, it could have been anyone.

Even you.

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