By Rahnuma Ahmed
After more than two decades of fierce struggles by leaders and activists belonging to the women’s movement, the notion of `eve teasing’ was finally banished to the dustbin where it belonged.
The High Court had given its verdict. Any kind of physical, mental or sexual harassment?note, not `eve teasing’?of women, girls and children was a criminal offence. It was punishable by fine and/or imprisonment. Until a law was made and passed, the ruling would have the status of law.
This was May last year. We rejoiced. It was a revolution, we said.
Our struggle was forged as a tribute to countless lives lost, innumerable dreams shattered. It was nourished by our determination to fight for safe campuses, streets, neighbourhoods, factories and other workplaces. We had insisted that girls and women should not have to suffer. That the fault lay with them, not with us, with the men who harass, assault and attack. That firstly, we are not, as the idea of `Eve’ suggests, temptresses, secondly, the idea of temptresses being `teased’ normalises and trivialises the matter.
We chanted these names, remember? Simi, Mohima, Shahinoor, Biva, Rumi, Alpina, Chameli, Fahima, Rahima, Indrani, Sabina , Rahela … the list kept getting longer and longer. Fresh names had to be added while we fretted over others that remained unknown.
Some incidents ignited immediate public outrage. For many others, we had to fight for recognition. We had to keep insisting that it was an outrage, as we contested prevailing orthodoxies about women’s place, women’s space, women’s bodies.
We insisted that girls and women should not have to suffer lewd comments, or unwelcome romantic overtures. That a girl should not be pressurised into marrying the neighborhood thug because he fancies her. That she should not be fearful of getting low grades because she rejected her teacher’s advances. That she should not be afraid of losing her factory job because her manager wouldn’t take `no’ for an answer.
We kept insisting that she should not be stalked. Nor should she suffer acid attacks. Nor should she be raped, gang-raped, nor murdered after being raped, that the legal recognition of sexual harassment as a crime was essential, because repeated turn-downs often lead to brutality. Sexual brutality. We insisted that girls committed suicide not because they were weak or frail but because they were persecuted relentlessly, mercilessly, ceaselessly, because they had no one to turn to, no one who stood beside them and their family members. They took their lives because they lost all hope. They should not, we insisted, have to lose all hope.
It must stop, we insisted. And so did others, writers, journalists, teachers, artists, lawyers, political and cultural activists, neighbours, passersby. They joined our rallies, marches and protests. They held placards. They extended their hands to form human chains. At times, family members, friends and acquaintances, or co-workers, took the lead, we followed. A broad consensus had been forged.
But that was last year.
This year, `eve teasing’ was brought back from the dustbin. Dirt was scrubbed off, it was polished and restored. By people in positions for which they had been hand-picked by high-ranking Awami Leaguers. Or, were closely allied with the government. Or, were part of the government.
The Awami League government at first denied all allegations about the havoc being caused by leaders and cadres of its student (Bangladesh Chatra League) and youth (Jubo League) organisations. It was a conspiracy to tarnish the ruling party’s image. But as news reports of turf wars, extortion, land-grabbing, throwing members of rival factions from rooftops, preventing contractors from submitting bid documents by brandishing weapons kept piling up, the truth could no longer be denied.
But what about sexual offences? Dead silence. Despite Pirojpur, where Mamun, information secretary of BCL’s district committee, raped a student of class X while a friend video-recorded it, selling it later as a pornographic CD in local video shops. Despite Pakhimara, where a student of class VII was abducted by a group of 16 men, raped by ten, all BCL activists. Despite reports that 4 BCL leaders and activists of Chittagong Medical College had raped a girl in the hills nearby. Despite Rajshahi university, where BCL members had assaulted a woman student?to name a few. A common thread ran through many, local-level Awami League influentials had pulled strings to hush up the incident.
Things came to a head with the Pohela Boishakh concert at Dhaka University. According to newspaper reports, 20 female students were molested by BCL cadres, outsiders joined in. Pinched and grabbed. Breasts and buttocks. Kameezes were ripped. Police rescued 15 young women from dense crowds of men who pushed and shoved, jostled and squeezed. The concert had to be abruptly closed down as BCL factions warred over who-would-get-how-much of the 40 lakh taka contract, a private mobile company was the sponsor. After the fiasco, when university authorities were contacted, they claimed not to know anything. And the BCL leadership? They too, were apparently clueless.
On April 16, a 3 day campaign was launched by Dhaka University’s Rover Scouts. It was inaugurated by the vice chancellor, professor AAMS Arefin Siddique. Others present were the pro-VC professor Harun-or-Rashid, the proctor Saiful Islam Khan, Dhaka Metropolitan Police Commissioner AKM Shahidul Haque. The banner said, `Say No to Eve-Teasing.’ People who harassed women, said the vice-chancellor, were `mentally sick,’ everyone should come forward to help them (bdnews24 April 16).
The idea of `eve-teasing’ spread like wildfire. Human chains were formed, outside the National Press Club, outside educational institutions, students lined up and held banners and placards protesting eve-teasing, as did youth, cultural and womens organisations, for instance, Jubo Nagorik Odhikar Jote, Bangabandhu Sangskritik Jote, Karmajibi Nari to name only a few. The education minister Nurul Islam Nahid declared 13 June Eve Teasing Protection Day, programmes included rallies, meetings, oath-taking and leaflet distribution to create mass-awareness. Programmes were organised at district and upazila levels, while in Dhaka, a protest rally was held at the Central Shaheed Minar with the education minister as the chief guest. Eve-teasing is a social menace, he said. A strong social movement needs to be waged. All sections of society must come forward to protest against this evil practice. The government is planning to introduce a strict law against it. He repeated the Awami League mantra (voiced by previous governments, by all governments), no offender, whoever he may be, would be spared.
Some quarters congratulated the government. It is only because it is headed by a woman prime minister, because women hold important ministerial positions (home, foreign affairs and agriculture), that the issue has been given such importance and urgency.
But the concerted campaign of eve-teasing served to de-criminalise sexual aggression. Where the HC ruling had provided a detailed list of sexual offences and had made these legally punishable because they were crimes, the semantic shift detached them from ruling party henchmen, crimes were transposed to euphemisms like `society’ and `mindset’ which, after all is said and done, cannot be punished. Party ideologues termed it a `disease,’ which is suggestive of biological roots, helped to give it an air of naturalness. For after all, diseases are only normal, but worse still, how can anyone be held responsible for contracting a disease, for catching the flu or getting typhoid? Labelling it a `social’ disease was not any better, it only meant that many individuals are afflicted by the disease. Individualising it, served to de-politicise it. Girls who took their lives were constructed as being psychologically vulnerable, not politically defenseless. The sexual nature of assaults was erased; discarded concepts were brought back which view women as temptresses, which minimise and trivialise the gravity of the offences, its systematicity, its criminality. These deflected attention from raising other questions, more urgent ones: what is the culture within the party, within Awami League? Is it sexist? Misogynist? Is sexual assault tolerated? Is it looked at as a boys-will-be-boys thing? Or, much worse, are cadres so essential to the party, so necessary to the party’s exercise of social and political power, its maintenance and perpetuation that silence prevails? That silence must prevail? Is this the underside of AL rule? What then does it offer to women and girls in Bangladesh? Was the reclamation of eve-teasing necessary because it eroded further, the moral authority of the AL to head the government? Because it brought back echoes of centurian Manik of Jahangirnagar university, a BCL leader, who boasted and celebrated a hundred rapes, who was protected by the university administration, closely allied to the-then AL government?
Large sections of the media have, unwittingly or not, furthered this great injustice (almost overnight jouno hoyrani, sexual harassment, has been replaced by the English words, Eve-teasing) . To provide just one instance, an influential Bangla daily, recently published daily opinion pieces of well-known writers, academics and women leaders for a week, under the heading, Resistance to Eve Teasing.?Only Dr Hameeda Hossain and Salma Khan were quick to point out the problems that lay with the terminology itself. Hameeda apa began, ?Through Kaaler Kontho, I am, yet again, voicing my objection to the word eve teasing. Please, do not use a word as light and frivolous as eve-teasing to refer to something which is utterly reprehensible? (4 November). While Salma apa wrote, ?I repeat, this is not eve-teasing, I want to state publicly that this is a crime? (8 November). Others too, had cautioned the ruling elite earlier, this included speakers at a conference held by STD, and also, BNWLA’s lawyers. But excluding Hameeda and Salma apa, the others who wrote in the daily formulated their ideas largely on the template provided by the initiators of the campaign. An academic referred to it as a `social disease,’ a woman leader likened it to `dengue,’ while another commentator was little more than a political apologist. These incidents have no `political support.’ The government is sincere, but even though our economic system is capitalist, the social mindset is semi-feudal… These words erase our histories of struggles; it silences the victories that we have achieved.
The de-criminalisation of sexual harassment has created a culture of impunity; larger numbers of men feel encouraged to `tease’ girls. The numbers of girls attending school has reportedly dropped. The inspector-general of police insists that the incidence of eve-teasing and stalking has decreased, while adding (somewhat contradictorily?) that “major incidents” demonstrate that the situation is alarming. And alarming it is for, in recent months, not only have girls suffered, those who have intervened on their behalf, they too, have suffered. Two recent deaths have stunned the nation. Mizanur Rahman, a Natore college teacher, succumbed to injuries inflicted because he warned gangsters not to harass girl students at his college (October 24). Chapa Rani Bhoumik was killed by the stalker who shadowed her twin daughters after she complained to his father (October 26). Local Awami League leaders had initially tried to shelter those accused of killing Mizan.
All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand, Lady Macbeth had famously said. And I say, all the soaps of Bangladesh will not remove the stains of the rapists semen from the hands of those who de-criminalise this crime. I’m sorry if I offend your sensibilities dear reader, but think of how brutalised, how desecrated, how violated a girl feels when she is raped. A rape committed by a BCL activist is not any sweeter, or less traumatic than the one committed by a Pakistani soldier. Ask the victims, they know.
Published in New Age November 15, 2010