Outrage over lessons in a textbook for nine year olds that both shamed and sexualized young girls' bodies in Malaysia has promoted the education ministry to order a review of all national textbooks to see if anything else like this had slipped in to the curriculum's study materials.
The lesson, a photo of which is included below, is from a Malaysian health and phys ed textbook for third graders. In it, a fictional young girl named Amira is told to protect "the modesty of her sexual organs" by wearing appropriate attire. It also advises Amira to keep the door of her room closed when changing clothes and to avoid spending time in quiet locations alone. A failure to keep her ‘’modesty’’ would bring dishonor to her family and cause her to be shunned by peers and society, the book explained.
The reaction to the lessons in Malaysia was, understandable, pissed off.
"Nine-year-old girls are not sexual objects and should not be thinking about their dignity," Meera Samanther, the vice president of the Women's Aid Organization, told Asia One.
Meera also told Channel News Asia that "the educational material sexualizes nine-year-old girls, teaches them to be ashamed of their bodies, and shifts the blame from the perpetrator to the survivor of sexual assault."
The ministry of education took the blame for the textbook going into print, explaining that it was considering setting up a new process where experts get a chance to review school materials before they are purchased and sent out to students nationwide.
Deputy education minister Teo Nie Ching told the BBC that "we lacked the sensitivity needed to avoid such a mistake," adding that part of the problem has to do with how sex education is, or isn't, taught in Malaysia's national schools.
"The general understanding on sex education is still low," Teo explained.
Parents groups agree, with a prominent advocacy group arguing that until Malaysia can agree on what, exactly, is meant to be included in sex education lessons, these kinds of issues will continue to crop up.
"I've always said that the reason we haven't been able to pinpoint how we should go about [sex education] is because we can't agree on a definition," Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim, chairman of the Parent Action Group for Education, told the BBC. "One definition, which is rather extremist, is that sex education means sexual intercourse, that's all it means.
"What I advocate, what child psychologists agree on, in its milder form is what is a good touch and a bad touch. Until we can agree on what needs to be taught in schools, I think there will always be this disarray with the learning instruction being offered to students."
The ministry says it will send out new pages "correcting" the lesson instead of recalling the textbooks and issuing new ones. The new pages will, reportedly, arrive in about a month's time, Teo told the South China Morning Post.
The controversy also touched on a wider issue with Malaysia's education system—that this is far from the only textbook in need of a second, more critical look. Education can be, in any country, also used as a propaganda tool. It tells citizens what to think about the history, achievements, and national identity of their own home.
In Malaysia, the textbooks are no different, and the issue here is that they have, historically, played down the role non-Malay citizens have had in the country's growth. The new ruling Pakatan Harapan government promised to address this controversy during PM Mahathir Mohamad's first year in office, but the statement set off an immediate storm of fake, racist news claiming that "Chinese groups" were guiding the process behind the scenes to support themselves.
But the process has also been criticized as slow-going and prone to delays.
"They promised to mention the contributions of non-Malays, these corrections are still missing. Textbooks are a political tool to create the idea of a ‘Malay-Muslim state’ cemented in Malay hegemony," James Chin, a political scientist at the University’s Asia Institute, told the SCMP.
In the end it makes you wonder what else the ministry of education is going to find in their textbook review… and how long it will take to correct it all.