Sexual harassment, violence: Lawyers' initiative to provide free legal advice

Less than two weeks after an online poll sexualising female Islamic religious teachers, or ustazah, came to light, about 20 lawyers have come together to start a programme that gives free legal advice and aid to women who have faced sexual harassment or violence.

Called Defence Guild SG, the initiative was launched on Saturday by MP for Chua Chu Kang GRC Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim in collaboration with the Government's M3 programme, which is a tie-up between Mendaki, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore and the People's Association Malay Activity Executive Committees Council.

Upon hearing about the offensive poll, Mr Zhulkarnain approached his friends in the legal sector to do something to help victims of hate speech and online misogyny get justice. Some, like Ms Liyana Mohamed Sinwan, 31, senior associate at K&L Gates Straits Law LLC, were immediately on board.

"The poll sparked outcry in the Malay/Muslim community; it's not the first time for sexual harassment to occur but what made this different was how it affected a relatively big group of women and what more, religious teachers.

"I am a mother of two girls and I wouldn't want them to grow up in such a world," said Ms Liyana.

Commenting in a Facebook post yesterday, Minister for Social and Family Development and Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Masagos Zulkifli said the initiative is "noble and timely".

He added that the new Protection from Harassment Court (PHC) will complement the initiative. Established on June 1, the PHC allows for easier and quicker processing of relief for victims of harassment at a lower cost.

Ms Liyana noted that at a recent online forum to provide legal advice for victims of harassment, 11 women indicated that they were victims of the recent case involving ustazah. The forum was organised by local non-profit The Whitehatters and crisis shelter Casa Raudha. "We are here to help women in the Malay/Muslim community and beyond who have suffered sexual harassment, online or in the real world," she added.

While the effects of online harassment may not appear tangible, it can have a similar impact to a victim as physical harassment.

Ms Zaharah Ariff, 54, executive director of Casa Raudha, said: "The women end up doubting themselves and questioning their dignity."

One misconception among some, she added, is that only something as culpable as molestation or rape is justifiably considered a crime against women. "Some may not be aware that inappropriate touching or speech is serious enough," said Ms Zaharah.

With more avenues of support through Defence Guild SG, she hopes that it will raise awareness not just for victims of online violence, but also for perpetrators who think they can get off lightly.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 07, 2021, with the headline 'Sexual harassment, violence: Lawyers' initiative to provide free legal advice'. Subscribe