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Silent Cries For Help: How Hand Signals And Other Discreet Methods Of Communication Can Save Lives

Hazrul (@hazrulhaliliceokaw) was enjoying the Kaboom Karnival in Petaling Jaya when he noticed a woman and her boyfriend strolling by. Initially, the woman seemed like the other carnival-goers, just strolling along with her partner and visiting the booths.

But while setting up his booth, Hazrul then noticed that the woman was showing the ‘Signal For Help’ with her hand. She repeatedly and discreetly used the signal to alert passersby and successfully made eye contact with Hazrul and a few people near him.

When Hazrul approached the woman, he noticed that the woman had bruises and other signs of abuse. They started talking and she claimed that the bruises came from her boyfriend – who was just a few feet away from her at the time – stating that he was under the influence of drugs. She even told Hazrul that she had been tied up before and scalded with hot water.

After listening to her story, Hazrul called the police and asked other Kaboom Karnival crew members to help hinder the suspected abuser’s escape.

The suspect tried to avoid the crew but they managed to stall him until the police arrived and the victim was successfully rescued. Alhamdulillah, the suspect was caught. Good job guys. – Hazrul, TikTok user[1]

Hazrul recorded the entire incident on video and subsequently uploaded it on TikTok where it went viral. In a video update, Hazrul said that he was also called to the police station to provide a witness statement.

The father of the victim contacted Hazrul to thank him for coming forward because Hazrul’s actions led to the apprehension of the suspect.

Alhamdulillah, we have fulfilled our responsibility by providing a statement. May the police and the family proceed with the necessary investigations. Let us continue to help where needed. – Hazrul, TikTok user[1]

But, this story may not have had a happy ending if the victim did not know how to ask for help with hand signals or if Hazrul did not recognise these hand signals.

How Hand Signals Can Save Your Life

All Women’s Action Society (AWAM) highlighted the importance of using simple hand signals as a subtle cry for help when you’re in trouble. The NGO demonstrated this in a short video on their TikTok (@awammalaysia) which showed someone discreetly showing the ‘signal for help’ to another to ask for help during a casual video call between the two women.

Currently, the ‘signal for help’ is going viral on TikTok globally, with users demonstrating how to use it in public and raising awareness about it.

This signal was introduced by the Canadian Women’s Foundation in April 2020 in response to the increasing instances of domestic violence during the COVID-19 lockdowns. The simple one-handed gesture – which can signify “violence at home”, “I need help”, or “domestic violence” – can be used during a video call at home or in a distressing situation to get the rescuer’s attention easily without alerting the perpetrator[2].

To use the signal:

  1. Raise your hand with the palm facing outward and place your thumb in the middle of your palm.
  2. Fold the other fingers over your thumb, as if trapping it.

As a testament to how effective this simple hand signal is, in November 2021, the use of the hand signal allegedly saved a 16-year-old girl from an attempted kidnapping in Kentucky, USA. The girl, who was reported missing in North Carolina, was rescued after flashing the signal to a passing motorist. According to the Laurel County Sheriff’s Office, the unnamed teenager was “making hand gestures that are known on the social media platform ‘Tik Tok’ to represent violence at home—I need help.

Luckily for the girl, a passing motorist noticed the hand signal and called the police, then followed the car for several kilometres, relaying information to the authorities before the kidnapper was finally arrested at a traffic stop[3].

What Should You Do If You See The Signal?

Along with the video, AWAM included an explanation on what to do if you notice anyone using the signal[2].

  1. Remain calm and ensure the victim’s safety. If the abuser is present, pretend nothing has happened.
  2. Discreetly ask the victim simple “yes” or “no” questions about their safety.
  3. Only help if they actually want your help. Only give them support in the ways that they want, and call the AWAM hotline. Remember to stay calm and refrain from being pushy or forceful!

The hand signal means “reach out to me safely” and NOT “call the authorities right away”, according to the Canadian Women’s Shelter. That being the case, the Shelter suggests that if you notice someone you know using the signal, you should discreetly check with them to determine “what they need and want you to do.” The intention is to allow them to take charge, instead of assuming you know what’s best for them[3].

Other Distress Signals You Should Be Aware Of

The universal ‘signal for help’ is an important one to know to get help if you need it, but it’s not the only option. There are also other methods you can use to signal for help.

Ask for Angela

“Ask for Angela” is an internationally-recognised distress signal that originated from a campaign in the UK in 2017[4] and is well-known on social media platforms. It entails asking staff at an establishment you are visiting for a fictitious person named “Angela”, which signals to the staff that you are in trouble and need help. The staff can then discreetly provide support by escorting you away from the building; arranging a ride for you asking the other person to leave; or contacting the police[5].

Angel Shots

If you ask for an “angel shot” at a bar, it’s a signal that you feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Different variations convey specific messages: asking for it “neat” means you need an escort to your vehicle, “with ice” signals the bartender to arrange a ride for you, and “with lime” indicates you want them to contact the police[6].

As always, these methods work best if the abuser is unaware of their meaning. But even if they are aware, you can, like the woman in Hazrul’s video, use these signals discreetly in public situations without them noticing.

These are all signals for help which only work if we are familiar with them. It is thus crucial knowledge to have so that we can use these signals when we need help, and recognise them when someone else needs our help.

Explore our sources:

  1. M.S. Ismail. (2023). [Watch] Woman Rescued After Making ‘Signal For Help’ Hand Gesture At A Carnival In PJ: Found To Be A Victim Of Domestic Abuse. The Rakyat Post. Link.
  2. M.S. Ismail. (2021). Use This Hand Signal To Ask For Help, AWAM Urges Domestic Violence Victims. The Rakyat Post. Link.
  3. S. Johnson. (2021). Learn the Discreet Hand Signal That Could Save a Life. LifeHacker. Link.
  4. A. Maurice-Jones. (2021). Ask for Angela poster downloaded almost 12,800 times. Morning Advertiser. Link.
  5. K. Bilal. (2023). Hand Signal for Help Guide for Kids and Adults. Findmykids. Link.
  6. C. Wolters. (2021). These ‘Distress Signals’ May Help You Get Out of an Unsafe Situation. Verywell Health. Link.

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