Malaysian woman turns sexual trauma into strength with online ‘sisterhood,’ chatbot

Amiera (2nd from right) and her team at Owh My Bae. Photo: Nurul Amiera
Amiera (2nd from right) and her team at Owh My Bae. Photo: Nurul Amiera

Recovering from a traumatic experience gave alleged sexual assault victim Nurul Amiera Noor Azahar a new purpose in life by way of helping others who might be going through the same ordeal. 

The 26-year-old wished she had someone to turn to four years ago when she was diagnosed with mental illnesses after she was allegedly raped. A year into treatment, Amiera felt better and stronger, and was ready to lend a helping hand to others. 

Through the Owh My Bae online platform she founded in 2018, she launched the “Virtual Bae” chatbot on May 18 to make it easier for sexual assault and domestic violence victims reach out for help or advice. Within the first two days of its launch, the chatbot received 300 respondents, she said. 

“Owh My Bae specifically caters to women between the ages of 18 to 25 because it is the stage where women are trying to learn about how to protect themselves,” she told Coconuts KL recently.

The chatbot is accessible via the Owh My Bae website dedicated to fostering “sisterhood” bonds among women who have been sexually victimized. It also welcomes those affected by domestic violence, problematic relationships, or are simply in need of a friend.

Amiera (2nd from right) and her team at Owh My Bae. Photo: Nurul Amiera
Amiera (2nd from right) and her team at Owh My Bae. Photo: Nurul Amiera

Turning trauma into strength

But it was an emotionally arduous journey for Amiera before she founded the platform. 

Four years ago, she was sexually assaulted by someone she thought was her friend. The incident happened not long after she split with her boyfriend of 10 years.

“In 2016, when I was 22, I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder, schizophrenia, and split personality, which happened after a couple of traumatizing events within just a few months,” she said. 

“I’d just got out of a ten-year relationship when my ex-boyfriend married a friend of mine,” she added. The situation made her feel “depressed and isolated,” and it was during her “fragile moment” when she allegedly fell prey to rape. 

It was not until her mother noticed a change in behavior when she took Amiera to see a psychiatrist, who eventually diagnosed her.

“I was really, really mentally ill,” Amiera said. “At that time, I couldn’t pick my own clothes, there were times I wasn’t myself because I had split personality, you know, when the changing character happens.”

Amiera spent a year of psychotherapy sessions and taking medication before she became strong enough to help other women going through a similar situation. 

“After I finished my treatment, that was when I realized that I should do something so that women won’t go through the things I went through,” she said. 

Photo of our interviewee, Nurul Amiera Noor Azahar. Photo: Nurul Amiera /Instagram
Photo of our interviewee, Nurul Amiera Noor Azahar. Photo: Nurul Amiera /Instagram

Amiera started out by reaching out to women in need via her personal social media channels.

“Whenever they have been sexually harassed or anything, they reach out to me (on social media), because they know that I can empathize with them since I’m going through the same thing,” she said. 

She then established the Owh My Bae online community platform in 2018, initially focusing on providing support to women with relationship issues. It pivoted this year to providing resources to help women better protect themselves in sexual assault situations. 

“The things that women can do to protect themselves. For example, if you were harassed in public, [we] will teach you the right way to report, and the things you can use around you to protect you from getting harm. We give them the basic knowledge that they need to protect themselves. All the organizations and hospitals they can go [to]. Basically, guide them if they need any help with their problem,” Amiera said. 

Amiera had also planned to start a business selling pepper sprays, but that plan foiled due to the COVID-19 outbreak. 

“Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, I’ve had to pause the pepper spray launch since we had issues with shipping and production.”

Then a friend suggested she start a chatbot. 

Launch of the ‘Virtual Bae’ chatbot

The welcome page for Owh My Bae’s chatbot, the Virtual Bae. Photo: owhmybae.org
The welcome page for Owh My Bae’s chatbot, the Virtual Bae. Photo: owhmybae.org

Owh My Bae launched the “Virtual Bae” chatbot on May 18 amid the COVID-19 national lockdown that saw a 57% increase in domestic violence-related distress calls made to the government’s Talian Kasih hotline. 

It took a month for the chatbot to be developed by another organization Ameira runs called Youth Ventures. Now, it is working through 500 chats a month, according to Ameira. 

“During the lockdown, we don’t just receive chats regarding domestic abuse, there are cases where women get raped by their cousins because they’re all staying in one house,” Amiera said.

She also noted that the chatbot is different from other avenues available to women, such as the established hotline TINA by the Women’s Aid Organization, or Befrienders.

“We’re not saying that we’re better in any sense, but we’re different,” Amiera explained.

“Sometimes, when people just want to rant, they can’t call Talian Kasih (government hotline) or WAO. At Owh My Bae, you can come to us for anything, even if you want to ask us about menstruation, rant about getting cheated on, or ask for help if you’re being abused,” she added.

From virtual to IRL bae

Amiera (top left) shows the childhood doodle that inspired Owh My Bae’s logo to chatbot user Nureen Firzana (top right) and Coconuts KL editor. Photo: Coconuts KL
Amiera (top left) shows the childhood doodle that inspired Owh My Bae’s logo to chatbot user Nureen Firzana (top right) and Coconuts KL editor. Photo: Coconuts KL

Nureen Firzana Azman, 20, was among those who had turned to the Virtual Bae chatbot for support with her depression before she joined Owh My Bae as one of their “sisters.”

“I did a few attempts of suicide before this, since 2016. Back then, I did open up to my friends, but they dismissed me, saying ‘oh this is so stupid’,” she told Coconuts KL. “I didn’t reach out to other official channels because I’ve heard about bad experiences from others.”

“I had a panic attack and reached out to Owh My Bae. The girls helped me so much, they were so supportive. I also felt much more comfortable with Owh My Bae, because all of them were women,” the university undergraduate said. Nureen is now one of Owh My Bae’s “sisters” based in Johor. 

Some members of Owh My Bae’s sisterhood at a slumber party event organized by Amiera. Photo: Nurul Amiera
Some members of Owh My Bae’s sisterhood at a slumber party event organized by Amiera. Photo: Nurul Amiera

Training is required before one can begin to provide support to others.

“When you join the sisterhood, you need to learn about how to be an empathetic sister, how to not be judgemental, how to help others, including breathing and grounding techniques to help people calm down,” Amiera said.

Chatbot users are allowed to continue their conversation on WhatsApp, and if interested, become part of the Owh My Bae “sisterhood” community now made up of a network of more than 100 women across Malaysia.

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