Making schools a safer place: The Malaysian teen who used TikTok to challenge abuse

Malaysian teenager Ain Husniza Saiful Nizam has created the #MakeSchoolASaferPlace online campaign.
Malaysian teenager Ain Husniza Saiful Nizam has created the #MakeSchoolASaferPlace online campaign.PHOTO: REUTERS

KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) - Malaysian teenager Ain Husniza Saiful Nizam's unexpected rise from anonymous student to national leader against school harassment began with a teacher allegedly joking about rape.

When the 17-year-old called out the incident in a viral TikTok clip, thousands of fellow students responded by sharing their harrowing experiences of verbal and physical harassment.

The massive outpouring inspired Ain to create the #MakeSchoolASaferPlace online campaign - despite a vitriolic pushback on social media, a rape threat and a warning that she could face expulsion.

"When I spoke out about it, (I got so much) hate towards me and I don't know why," she told Agence France-Presse. "It's just making schools a safer place. What is there to debate about it?"

The reaction has only strengthened her resolve to combat what she believes is pervasive mistreatment of girls in Malaysia's education system.

"We can't let this cycle of abuse continue in our schools," she said.

Ain recorded her TikTok video - now watched more than 1.8 million times - in April after being appalled by her male physical education teacher's joke during a class.

Standing in front of a mirror with her phone, she explained everything seemed normal as the teacher discussed how to prevent harassment with male and female students.

But he then pointed out there were laws protecting minors from sexual abuse - so if the boys wanted to commit rape, they should target women above 18.

"He really said that, and the girls were quiet," she says in the clip. "But the boys, oh, they were laughing like it was so funny to joke about... raping someone."

'Toxic culture'

The response to Ain's video was swift, as people online shared similar experiences and activists commended her for speaking out.

The clip touched a nerve, she believes, because abuse "is happening to students all around Malaysia".

"This proves it is not just about one teacher. It is about the whole education system."

Civil society groups say abuse in schools is a longstanding problem, with complaints ranging from physical and verbal harassment to invasive "period spot checks" - which are used to see whether Muslim girls are menstruating.

Female students at Islamic schools in the Muslim-majority country are allowed to skip daily prayer sessions if they are having their periods.

The All Women's Action Society, a rights group, said Ain's video came at a time when concern was already growing about school abuse, and proved the spark needed to ignite a national debate.

The incident "was outrageous enough to make people take notice", said the group's executive director, Ms Nisha Sabanayagam. At the same time, it brought "attention to the normalisation of rape culture in schools".

She called for urgent reforms to "address the toxic culture of sexual harassment in schools".

But Ain has also endured negative social media responses, many of them lewd, while critics say the official response has been disappointing.

"We who speak out, we get punished," she said.

Following her TikTok video, she stopped attending her school in Puncak Alam, on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, out of fear for her safety - only to be threatened with expulsion.

'They don't care'

"There are a lot of kids my age and activists spreading more awareness about these kinds of issues," said Ain.

But "it really shocked me that the actual officials, people in power... they don't care about it".

The Education Ministry has defended a letter threatening to kick her out of school, saying it was automatically generated after she failed to turn up for a set period.

Some action has been taken.

Police have launched an investigation and the teacher - who has not been named, or commented publicly - has been transferred from the school while the probe is ongoing.

In an earlier statement about the incident, the ministry insisted that it "prioritises the safety and welfare of students, as well as the entire school community".

Ain believes her experience, while traumatising at times, may encourage others to speak out and lead to greater change.

She said: "What I really want to happen now is for adults to listen to my story and set it right for us children."