SINGAPORE - Police are investigating an offensive poll online that ranked a list of ustazah, or female Islamic religious teachers, and which President Halimah Yacob, MPs and other religious leaders have lashed out against on Thursday (May 27).
The poll, which first came to light on Wednesday, had asked people to rank a list of ustazah according to their sexual attractiveness.
The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) said on Thursday that it was aware of the post, which had caused "immense distress" to the individuals involved, and was very concerned by it. It lodged a police report to expedite investigations into the matter and "bring the perpetrators to justice".
The police confirmed that a report had been lodged and investigations are ongoing.
The council has also reached out to speak to the victims of the post, and will be providing support and counselling for them.
Muis added that it would not tolerate any form of sexual harassment, as such behaviour was an abomination that must be stopped and was a disgrace to the Muslim community. "Our faith calls for mutual respect at all times, and emphasises with utmost importance, the need to safeguard the honour and modesty of all members of society," it said.
The poll on social media platform MeWe was highlighted by Ustaz Muhammad Zahid Mohd Zin late on Wednesday in an Instagram post. MeWe allows users to post comments, start polls, message one another and have group discussions.
The list shows at least 12 asatizah being ranked, with 1,005 participating in the poll.
The Straits Times understands that about 20 to 30 asatizah were ranked in it.
"I got a distress call from an ustazah and was shocked! All listed here in an app are our local asatizah! Who did this must be held accountable!" said Ustaz Zahid.
Following this, Ustaz Irwan Hadi Mohd Shuhaimy, deputy director at the Office of the Mufti, also made a similar post, expressing his disgust at the online poll.
He also appealed for those involved to be dealt with under the "full force of the law".
In a Facebook post, President Halimah said that she was deeply perturbed by the poll, and called on Muis and the police to fully investigate the matter and punish those found guilty. Those who conducted and participated in the poll "deserve our strongest condemnation", she stressed.
"Is there no limit to how low some will stoop to degrade and defile women?" Madam Halimah wrote. "This is not just the worst kind of harassment that's against our law but amounts to an open invitation to commit sexual violence against women. We must not allow the anonymity of the Web to embolden those who wish to abuse, denigrate and violate women."
She added: "If indeed it's true that some are students studying the religion (of which I stand corrected), then we have to seriously consider whether they are fit to preach in the community once they complete their studies."
Several netizens have alleged that those who started the poll were students studying to become asatizah, and have urged Muis to not accredit them.
Minister of State for Home Affairs and National Development Faishal Ibrahim said in a Facebook post: "The authorities are looking into the matter thoroughly and those found guilty will be brought to justice accordingly."
Dr Mohamed Qusairy Thaha, the acting chief executive of the Singapore Islamic Scholars and Religious Teachers Association (Pergas), said the association is pursuing the issue as well, and that it stands with all the asatizah who are affected, as well as all women who are sexually harassed and abused.
Commenting on Ustaz Irwan's post, Chua Chu Kang GRC MP Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim said the people who started the poll must be held accountable.
"This is totally unacceptable against women and our asatizah... The person and the 245 or so who polled must be held accountable," said Mr Zhulkarnain, referring to a screenshot that showed 245 people had voted in the poll.
Several other Malay/Muslim MPs, including Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Masagos Zulkifli, Parliamentary Secretary for Health and Communications and Information Rahayu Mahzam and Ang Mo Kio GRC MP Nadia Ahmad Samdin, also took to Facebook to criticise the poll.
They called on the public to stand up against misconduct against women and to teach people, especially the young, why it is wrong to degrade women and men.
Ms Rahayu said efforts to encourage women's development will be meaningless if society still disrespects women and still perceives them as the weaker gender or as sexual objects.
"I have faith that this is not completely the situation in Singapore though. There are some people whose conduct and comments about women are unacceptable and in bad taste. I am happy to note that many in our community, especially men, stand up against such transgressions and condemn such actions," she said.
"I'm heartened. But we do need to continue to educate and look at the gaps."
Workers' Party MP Raeesah Khan also spoke out against the poll, stressing that such a post is harmful and abusive, given how what often starts as a joke or quip may end up in one of various forms that sexual violence can take on.
"Speak to women who have endured harassment at home, in school, in public or at work, and they will tell you that in 2021 in Singapore, too many men do not accord women with respect that any person deserves. When such undercurrents of misogyny go unchecked, it festers in the fears too familiar to too many women," said Ms Raeesah, who is an MP for Sengkang GRC.
"And when over a thousand men could find it in themselves to dehumanise our asatizahs in that way, surely we must conclude that this is but a symptom of a deeper wound in our society."
Women's group Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) also said on Facebook that it was "troubled by the demeaning and misogynistic social media poll".
"We echo the point made by (Muslim women's group) Beyond the Hijab and others that so-called "modesty" has never been a factor in sexual violence," it said. "Sexual violence is about power and control over (mostly female) victims."