From California college campuses to illegal protests on the streets of Kuala Lumpur, it’s still an issue

By Kelly-Hayes Raitt

“The rapist of a 13-year-old girl was acquitted by a higher court because he inserted his finger into her vagina. Even though his finger was smeared with semen and the girl became pregnant, the court said this is not rape — that rape is only when a man sticks his penis into the vagina,” the middle-aged woman wearing a mesh vest adorned with orange reflector panels said in clipped English. “Every time something happens, we come together.”

… Not exactly the conversation I expected to have with a total stranger on a Kuala Lumpur street across from Malaysia’s oldest mosque. I am in Malaysia this summer to research and write about women’s and refugees’ rights. That’s when I stumbled on the protest march and Ho Yock Lin, who turned out to be the president of AWAM, the All Women’s Action Society.

I was slightly embarrassed by the precision of the anatomical description, and my mind kept flashing on President Bill Clinton’s defiant word-mincing: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman!”

But this hits closer to home than one might imagine. Defining rape seems to be an issue on both sides of the Pacific.

Last September, California became the first state to adopt a new standard for defining rape on college campuses by broadening the definition of consent to “an affirmative, unambiguous and conscious decision” by each partner. Shifting from a “no means no” to “yes means yes” standard will improve the investigation of rapes because silence or lack of resistance will no longer be considered “consent,” supporters of the new law argue. (The law applies only to universities that receive state funding.)

The U.S. legal definition of rape has changed dramatically during the last few generations. Just 40 years ago, no man could be prosecuted for raping his wife. In some states, consensual sex between a black man and a white woman was considered rape as recently as 60 years ago. And until three years ago, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s definition of rape was written in a way that excluded men or boys from being considered victims.

Today, the FBI defines rape more broadly to include any gender of victim or perpetrator, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, to which the Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Rape Treatment Center is affiliated. The Rape Treatment Center is the only facility in Los Angeles, and one of the few in the country, where sexual assault victims can receive all of the services they need in one place, 24 hours a day.

But Malaysian law lags far behind America’s. “Children are not considered credible witnesses,” explained Thency, vice-president of AWAM, who preferred using just her first name due to the nature of her work. Complicating prosecution is Malaysia’s dual-legal system where sharia religious law (known here as Syariah Law) governs Malaysia’s Muslim majority. AWAM believes this negatively impacts policies affecting women and children.

“The religious card is used to silence people,” Thency said. “We have mixed messages.”

Although sexual relations with a girl below the age of 16 is statutory rape, under Syariah Law 12-year-olds may be married.

“There is still a lot of stigma attached to rape,” Thency continued. “We’re not creating space for someone to ask for help.  [Victims] still think it’s their fault. Even police pamphlets say that the way [for a woman] to avoid rape is to keep [her] legs closed.”

The march was illegal. Protesting Malaysians are allowed to gather, but not to walk, use a microphone, include children younger than 15 years old … or include foreigners. I kept my distance. The marchers were accompanied by a slow-moving police car and ambulance; the demonstrators had paid for the ambulance.

“Sometimes people with water guns line this street,” Ho explained. “People don’t want to hear about such things.”

At the culmination of the march, a young woman addressed the crowd about her ordeal while identifying her rapists at the police station. In a steady voice that belied the tears streaking her face, she read a prepared statement:

“The officers asked me to identify the perpetrators. I pointed at them. I was then told that that would not be accepted. They asked me to walk up to the perpetrators …” she broke, looking up and biting her lower lip to compose herself, “ … hold their shoulders, and tell the officers what they had done to me. I began crying. I didn’t think that I would be able to do it, but I had to.” Fresh tears flowed.

“The day after I was raped, I walked up to those men, held their shoulders and identified them as the people who had raped me. I couldn’t stop crying after I left the room. I felt violated all over again.”

Call the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network hotline at (800) 656-HOPE for free, confidential counseling and support 24 hours a day, or visit for more information. Call (310) 319-4000 or visit to contact the Rape Treatment Center at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center.

Santa Monica resident Kelly Hayes-Raitt blogs at Write her at