OKLetsNo: Misogyny and the Malay/Muslim Men

While you may not have been aware of OKLETSGO (OLG) in the first year or so of its existence, in June 2020, the popular local podcast channel would have been impossible to ignore.

Started in February last year, OLG is the brainchild of three former local Malay radio DJs – Dzar Ismail, Dyn Norahim and Raja Razie.

It quickly earned a high profile for its irreverent takes on issues affecting the Singapore Malay community, as well as a willingness to take on topics still considered controversial in the community, such as apostasy and transgenderism.

This allowed it to become the number one podcast on Spotify’s Singapore charts, pulling in more than 100,000 listeners per episode and attracting guests ranging from Papa Rock Ramli Sarip to Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat.

Then on June 9, 2020, Twitter user @anygalien posted the following:

I dislike OLG because they remind me of the Malay men in my life and environment who casually dehumanise and sexualise women and brush it off as jokes. Having that normalised and aired to the Malay masses does enable/shape the current and next generation of Malay men.

The tweet went viral, with others commenting on their own discomfort with the show’s content and giving examples of misogynistic content from the show’s hosts.

These included referring to women as daging fresh and daging basi (fresh meat and stale meat), degrading references to the female anatomy as well as descriptions of their own sexual experiences with their wives.

The show eventually issued a statement in response to the growing controversy, which said the hosts “recognize the need for improvements”, but which stopped short of an actual apology for offensive content.

Meanwhile the show’s fans – inexplicably referred to as ‘Bloods’ (no reference to the American street gang, it would seem) – rushed to its defence, claiming any sexist banter was just in the name of entertainment and echoing the hosts’ claims that this was in the name of differentiating OLG from tame, hamstrung mainstream media.

In the worst cases, OLG fans even insulted, slut-shamed and threatened critics, to the extent of doxxing them and finding out where they lived.

The saga eventually drew the attention of no less than President Halimah Yacob – herself a Malay/Muslim woman – who issued a statement on her Facebook page on June 15 calling on OLG to “sincerely and humbly apologise to all women for their offensive, humiliating and misogynistic remarks on their podcasts about women”.

Noting how COVID-19 lockdowns in countries around the world had resulted in increased instances of domestic violence against women, Madam Halimah said:

“If we continue to perpetuate the image of women being inferior, existing only for the purpose of male sexual gratification, then we have to be held responsible for being one of the perpetrators of violence against women.”

That same day, OLG said on their social media accounts: “We apologize for the objectification of women and will be more careful in the way we portray matters moving forward.”

The hosts said they did not “condone misogyny in any way” and called on fans not to make personal attacks against critics, noting that “we have always been about being real, and being real now means taking responsibility for our actions”.

While this perhaps draws the OLG controversy to a close, the issue of misogyny within the Malay/Muslim community is far from over.

As already noted by others, OLG was not so much an instigator as it was a product of rampant sexism, existing in day-to-day interactions and popular culture among Malay/Muslims as well as the wider community.

This is evident in the toxic comments by some of the podcast’s fans – that misogyny is so deeply ingrained in some that they would go out of their way to defend it against criticism, to the point of insulting or even threatening others.

This is not unique to the Malay community or even to Singapore, as shown by the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and assault from a few years back.

Anecdotally, many women say they have encountered sexual harassment of some kind at some point in their lives.

In a response to the controversy, Twitter user @anygalien – whose tweet helped kick off the entire debacle – penned a piece for online media outfit Coconuts entitled, ‘The Insidious Problem of Casual Sexism and Why I Called Out OKLETSGO’ under the name Nuri Jazuli.

The podcast’s banter reminded her “too much of the experiences (she) had almost daily, involving casual sexism,” she wrote.

“It is normal for my sister and I to be catcalled by older Malay men while on our way to get groceries. It is normal for male colleagues to talk about a woman’s body in explicit detail, in my presence. It is normal for male relatives to lounge around during festivities while their female counterparts are hard at work. It is normal that I do not know a single woman in my life who have not had an encounter with sexual assault in some form.”

She was not surprised when her tweet received backlash from both men and women in the Malay community. She said.

“It seemed perfectly natural for people to be offended because, what I am questioning and attacking, is after all, a normal way of life, isn’t it?”

A 2018 survey by United States-based nonprofit organisation, Stop Street Harassment, suggests that as many as 81 per cent of all women have faced sexual harassment.

The numbers are sobering – the survey found 51 per cent of respondents saying they had encountered unwanted sexual touching, with 27 per cent having gone through sexual assault and 41 per cent encountering sexual harassment online.

The argument can be made that one can listen or watch sexually lewd or crude media and not sexually harass or assault others, just as watching violent movies or playing video games does not necessarily make one violent.

I doubt the vast majority of OLG listeners will turn out to be molesters, for example. Yet it cannot be doubted that what we listen to, read and watch shape how we think.

In the June 22 episode, OLG host Dzar Ismail himself acknowledges their show was meant to emulate the provocative, no-holds-barred approach of American radio and podcast hosts such as Howard Stern and Joe Rogan, whom he listened to. Former NBA star, Charles Barkley, famously said in an early 1990s television for sports brand Nike that he – and thus, other athletes – were not paid to be role models.

Yet it is inevitable that people, especially impressionable children, emulate those we see in the media, whether consciously or not.

Social learning theory, a term coined by Canadian-American psychologist Albert Bandura, posits that children and even adults learn and imitate behaviour observed in others including sexism and aggression.

As noted by others, misogyny – explicit or otherwise – is unfortunately common in popular culture, even in ostensibly conservative Malay culture.

A popular local Malay television drama featured a wayward daughter whose ‘punishment’ was getting raped not once, but twice over the course of two seasons.

The popular 2011 movie, Ombak Rindu, featured a protagonist who not only was raped, but begged to get married off to her rapist, eventually falling in love with him.

Such examples of misogyny in popular Malay culture are summed up nicely in a 2018 article on the website of pop culture magazine Juice, appropriately titled, ‘Everything Wrong with Malay Dramas That’s Deteriorating Our Society’. And this is on top of the everyday instances of casual sexism many women might encounter regularly in their day-to-day lives.

There are of course no easy answers, and despite our best efforts, the reality of things is that – as is the case with other massive challenges like war, poverty and hunger – we are unlikely to ever see sexism completely eliminated.

So what can we do?

For men, perhaps the simplest way is to start with ourselves, by recognising our own prejudices and preconceptions regarding women and how we treat them, see where we are lacking, and try to correct our own behaviour. This includes recognising misogyny and sexism in the media for what they are.

OLG can and should continue to take an “open-minded approach” by featuring those on the margins, though, as noted in the statement by Crit Talk, Beyond the Hijab and Penawar, they should ensure “taboo or difficult subjects must be approached and facilitated with care and responsibility”.

For Muslim men in particular, this means going back to the example of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, who said the best of men are those who are the best to their wives, and who in his last sermon said:

“O People, it is true that you have certain rights with regard to your women, but they also have rights over you. Remember that you have taken them as your wives only under a trust from God and with His permission.”

To their credit, the hosts of OLG said in an episode released on June 22 that they had spoken to women’s rights groups, as well as counsellors and victims of domestic abuse in an attempt to improve themselves and the show, and that they now understood the “social and moral responsibility” that came with their popularity.

Perhaps the takeaway here is that all men should understand the social and moral responsibility they have to address misogyny in themselves, and in their spheres of influence. ⬛


Ahmad Abdullah holds a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Goldsmiths, University of London. He is a part-time writer.

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