Begum Rokeya is probably turning in her grave..

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By Rahnuma Ahmed

Today, 9th December 2010, is Begum Rokeya Day
We have come a long way since Begum Rokeya chaired the Bengal Women’s Education Conference in 1926, in Kolkata (Calcutta).
She began by speaking in her characteristically humorous and self-deprecating manner, although I am grateful to you for the respect that you have expressed towards me by inviting me to preside over the conference, I am forced to say that you have not made the right choice.

Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hosain (1880-1932)

I have been locked up in the socially oppressive iron casket of `porda’ for all my life. I have not been able to mix very well with people, as a matter of fact, I do not even know what is expected of a chairperson, I do not know if one is supposed to laugh, or to cry.
With these opening words, Begum Rokeya launched into an incisive critique?and that too, characteristically?of the state of Muslim women’s education in colonial, and undivided, Bengal.
But before doing this, while acknowledging with all humility that the women in her audience were far better-educated than her own self, that the gathering consisted of “learned, graduate women,” she gently pointed out that her services to literature and society for the last 20-21 years, her experience of running the Sakhawat Memorial Girls School for 16 years, had provided her with the courage to speak in front of such a distinguished assembly.
To speak about women’s education means that one must necessarily talk about the social situation. This cannot be avoided, it is inevitable. And to talk about the social situation means that one must cast glances at the neglectful, indifferent and miserly behaviour which our Muslim brothers have shown towards us. That too, cannot be avoided, that too, is inevitable. We have a proverb, she said, `to speak of one’s misfortune is to cast aspersion on others.’ This, thereby, impels us to face the question, how can we give Muslim girls a good education? How do we educate them well?
Men have deceived women through the ages, said Rokeya, and women have silently suffered. Recently, however, `Sri Krishna’ has bestowed kindness on our Hindu sisters, this is why one notices signs of awakening among different Hindu communities. Women in Madras have advanced the furthest, and we now hear that a woman has been elected the deputy president of the Madras Legislative Council. We also hear that a woman has become a barrister in Rangoon. And, of course, lady Barrister Miss Ghorabji is already well-known. But what does one have to say about Muslim women, except that they continue to live in the darkness in which they have been living, for ever so long?
You will not find even 1 literate girl among 200 girls, that is the situation of Muslim women’s education. You will not find a truly educated Muslim woman, probably not even 1 in 10,000, that is the situation of Muslim women’s education; and mind you, nearly 3 crore people live in Bengal. The education department wrote me a letter last January, they needed, quickly, they said, the names and addresses of all Muslim women graduates in Bengal. But I couldn’t give them any other name than the only woman graduate we have, plus that of Agha Moidul Islam shaheb’s daughter but since Agha shaheb is not a resident of Bengal, this means that there is only 1 (Muslim) woman graduate in a population of 3 crores!!
A little later, Rokeya tucks in these lines, and this is what makes Begum Rokeya great, it is a greatness that rests on cutting-edge intellectual sharpness, is politically astute, confronts structures of power and privilege while simultaneously engaging with them, maintains a critical distance even as she works from within these institutions, and it is this, I insist, that makes her voice distinct from the `imploring’ voices which 19th-20th century Bengali women writers often adopted, or felt forced to adopt . Rokeya says, “Just as the kind-hearted British government is unable to tolerate the aspirations of the Indians?I remember, Mr Morley said 21 years ago, If they cry for the moon, it doesn’t mean we have to give in to their wishes?just as our non-Muslim neighbours generally cannot tolerate the demands of the Muslims, Muslim men too, in exactly the same manner, cannot accept the fact that women desire their advancement.” In other words, there is nothing natural about the “neglectful, indifferent and miserly behaviour” of Muslim men, they are not accidental, nor incidental for that matter, such behaviour is inextricably linked to social power and privilege, ones that are fundamental, deeply-rooted. Ones that are, in the final analysis, political, marking as they do, the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion into assemblies of the “learned” and the “educated.” Marking those who have power. Those who withhold power.
We have shown respect towards you, Begum Rokeya. The first women’s hall of residence in Dhaka university (in its early years, known as the `Oxford of the east’) was named Rokeya Hall (1964) . One of the busiest roads in Dhaka city, close to the parliament building, is named Rokeya Shoroni. The government awards Rokeya Padak each year to women who have struggled hard to contribute to the betterment of women’s lot, the government girls college in Rangpur is named Begum Rokeya College (1963), and the newly-built public university in Rangpur (2008)?the first public university in the northern region?was re-named Begum Rokeya university to honor the “legendary woman scholar who pioneered and promoted female education in Indo-Pak-Bangla subcontinent.” Social and cultural organisations too, revere you, for all that you fought and struggled for, in a life that was abruptly extinguished at 53, and of course, for the women’s movement, you are the lamp that lights our heart. Bangladesh Mohila Porishod named its safe haven for women, Rokeya Shodon, in your honor. The Department of Women and Gender Studies, Dhaka University holds Begum Rokeya Memorial Lectures on December 9th every year, and we are indebted to Rokeya Memorial Foundation, at whose initiative, Rokeya Dibosh is observed every December 9th, since 1986, the day that you were born, and the day that you left us. It would be amiss if I were not to mention our indebtedness to Abdul Kadir for having immemorialised your writings through editing the collected volume of your work Rokeya Rachanavali, (Bangla Academy, 1973). And, to Roushan Jahan too, for having edited and translated your scathing indictment of porda, Inside Seclusion: The Avarodhbasini of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (Women for Women, 1981), thereby making some of your writings available to an English-reading audience.
And since 1994, Rokeya Dibosh is observed by the government, floral wreaths are placed at your birthplace in Pairaband village in Rangpur; scores of organisations take part in discussions and cultural programmes, all over the nation, all in your honor. It is customary too, for the president and the prime minister, and the leader of the opposition, to send messages to the nation on the occasion of Rokeya Dibosh to remind us of you, of all that you fought for. In her message last year, Sheikh Hasina reminded us that if you had not shown us the path, women in present-day Bangladesh would not be working in offices, courts, mills and factories, in fields and farms, and in trade and commerce.?While Khaleda Zia, as prime minister, reminded us several years earlier that we are enjoying the “fruits” of your struggle, that it is because of you that women in Bangladesh have now become judges and barristers, have joined the army, they fly planes and work in nearly all professions by dint of their “own competence and efficiency.” She had added, if not forced to enter national-level politics to uphold the ideals of her husband, the late president Ziaur Rahman, she would have dedicated herself to building up a social movement for the emancipation of women.
But present-day Bangladesh, according to newspaper reports, has registered a nationwide drop in the number of girls attending schools because sexual harassment and violence has horrifically escalated over the last year. Is it possible to talk about the “misfortune” that has befallen them, without “casting aspersions” on others?
On the prime minister?who reminded us in a seemingly self-congratulatory manner when awarding Rokeya Padak last year, that the prime minister, leader of the opposition, deputy leader of the house, home minister, foreign minister, agriculture minister, labour minister, and women and child affairs minister, “are all women”?because the leaders and cadres of her party’s student and youth organisations have allegedly been, in many cases, the offendors. That, to deflect public outrage, the long-discarded notion of `eve-teasing’ was re-introduced, in utter contempt of last year’s High Court verdict which ruled that any kind of physical, mental or sexual harassment?note, not `eve teasing’?of women, girls and children was a criminal offence, that the return of `eve-teasing’ served to dilute, and to de-criminalise these?offences.? That it helped create a culture of impunity which has contributed to an escalation in sexual harassment and violence, as demonstrated by the outrageous rise in figures released on International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women (November 25).
Is it possible to talk about the misfortunes of our school girls, and also, their guardians, some of whom have been killed while attempting to protect them, without casting aspersions on the leader of the opposition for leading a political party which has been galvanised into action when she was forced to leave her house, who has since preferred to desert the parliament, instead of entering it and demanding answers from the government about what concrete measures are being taking to stem sexual violence. Without casting aspersions on all who are complicit in the conspiracy of silence?sections of the media which continue to report incidents of `eve-teasing.’ Some women’s organisations which are noticeably less vocal now than when Yasmeen of Dinajpur was `eve-teased’ (raped and killed by policemen, an incident which was capitalised upon to bring down the BNP government). Will only a change of regime galvanise them into action? Into calling, for instance, a nationwide boycott of schools by girl students until effective measures have been taken by the government to ensure their safety?
Violence against girls keeps spiralling upwards: on December 4, a 17 year-old college girl in Barguna lost her leg because she spurned an `eve-teaser’ who hacked it (Daily Sun, 5 December) . And yesterday’s newspaper reports that a stalker knifed a 14 year-old madrassa girl because she refused his proposition (New Age, December 8). In both incidents, the girls and their families had lodged complaints with the local thana, but no action had been taken.
Unfortunately, Begum Rokeya, the “neglectful, indifferent and miserly behaviour” towards educating women that you spoke of enfolds us too?we, who are what we are because of you?because we are either too busy eating the fruits of your struggles, or dreaming of future fruits, or choose to remain passive, or to play it safe. You were right to remind us that education is not only about acquiring degrees and certificates, that unless a qualitative change in the state of one’s mind has occurred, we remain murkho, we remain enslaved..
And today Begum Rokeya, we, both men and women of this country, will provide ample evidence of that. Flowery words will escape many a lips, all in your honor.
As you shudder in your grave.
Published in New Age, Thursday December 9, 2010

`Eve-teasing.' Of semantic shifts and criminal cover-ups

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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).

Dhaka University Rover Scouts bring out a procession on April 16 on DU campus protesting against 'eve-teasing', headed by the Dhaka University vice-chancellor, Professor AAMS Arefin Siddique, second from left, and the pro-vice-chancellor, professor, Harun-or-Rashid, left. ? Photo: Rasheduzzaman/bdnews24

Continue reading “`Eve-teasing.' Of semantic shifts and criminal cover-ups”

Chhatra League's Sexual Offences. A Widespread State of Denial

By Rahnuma Ahmed
While working on last week’s column, `The Nation, or Chhatra League…?’ (published on Monday, April 12, 2010), I had been in two minds.
Should I include sexual offences?aggressive behaviour, molestation, physical assault, violence, rape, asking a buddy to video the incident of rape for subsequent commercial release as pornography, gang-rape?allegedly committed by Bangladesh Chhatra League leaders and activists?
No, it deserves a separate column, I thought.
I was unaware of media reports on Eden college. For over two months, I’d been totally absorbed in researching and writing the Weather series (1 February – 29 March), and had been oblivious to much of what was happening around me. This included allegations against BCL’s women leaders and activists at Eden. But more on that later.
By all accounts, there seems to have been a sudden and horrific increase in nationwide violence, largely against girls and young women, over the last couple of months. Ten year old schoolgirl Shahnaz Begum of Digalbagh village in Mymensingh was raped by two brothers. Killed. October 2009. Eti Moni, a class ten student of Jaldhaka municipality in Nilphamari was raped. Strangled to death. October 2009. A schoolgirl of class three was raped at Ramanandapur village in Pabna sadar. October 2009. Nashfia Akand Pinky, a class IX student, committed suicide by hanging herself because she had been mercilessly teased and harassed, Pashchim Agargaon, Dhaka. January 2010. Nilufar Yasmin Eeti’s parents were shot dead by a young man after they turned down his proposal of marriage, Kalachandpur area in Gulshan, Dhaka. March 2010. Fourteen year old Umme Kulsum Elora, a student of class VII, committed suicide by taking pesticide because of continued harassment. April 2010. Mariam Akter Pinky, a student of class ten, died of burn injuries fuelled by kerosene in Konabhaban village in Kishoreganj; her mother says, she saw the young man who had harassed her for the last two years run out of the room. April 2010 …. there are many more. I stare uncomprehendingly at the horror of it all.
As I scan the newspapers, a recent headline catches my eye, Man stabs himself over refusal of marriage proposal. One lone man. He had preferred to kill himself. Not the woman.
And what about sexual offences which, according to media reports, have specifically been committed by BCL leaders and activists? Ahsan Kabir Mamun, also known as Mamun Howladar, information secretary of Pirojpur district committee of BCL, raped a class X student in Pirojpur, Barisal. September 2009. The incident was recorded on cellphone by his childhood friend `Ganja’ Monir, who happens to be a BNP activist. It was later available as a pornographic CD for sale in local video shops. Mamun insists it was recorded “secretly,” while Monir says he was carrying out Mamun’s instructions. Mamun did not deny having raped the girl, but added, the recording (not committing the crime itself, mind you) had been done to “tarnish” his political and business image. The two families, he said, were closely related. He was to be married to her soon. Her family responded by demanding that he should receive “exemplary punishment.”
A group of 16 young men, in September 2009, abducted a class VII student of Pakhimara in Kalapara upazila in Patuakhali. The young girl was returning home from a Puja mandap accompanied by her cousin Nasir, whom the men beat up and drove away. They took her to a nearby garden. According to media reports, she was gang-raped, allegedly by ten of her abductors. All BCL activists. More recently, in February 2010, four students of Chittagong Medical College, all BCL leaders and activists, allegedly raped a girl on a hill adjoining CMC campus.
Young women, who are either university students, or walking through campuses, have complained of being physically assaulted by BCL activists. In early November, a Rajshahi university student was assaulted and confined for an hour. One of the assaulters was Kawsar Hossain, a fellow student of the same university who had declared his love for her but had been turned down. A similar incident had occurred several months earlier, on the same campus, when another BCL activist, accompanied by his associates, assaulted a woman student and her companion. On February 21, BCL activists beat up a young girl and her friends who were returning from the central Shahid Minar, in front of the Dhaka University vice-chancellor’s residence. A BCL activist of Jasimuddin Hall approached the young girl, and began harassing her. Her companions and passersby came to her aid but other BCL activists, from nearby halls, joined in the attack. Five people were injured. This month, in April, students of statistics department of Jagannath university refused to attend classes until a BCL activist, who had reportedly asaulted a woman student belonging to their department, was punished.
What is wrong with BCL? Or, more precisely, what wrongs do its leaders and their followers commit? Violence. Extortion. Tenderbaji. Sexual offences are never mentioned. Not by the prime minister, nor by any high (let alone, low-) ranking AL member. It is an offence that has no name. And therefore, it does not exist. If it does not exist, its existence need not be acknowledged… That is how denial has worked. And at the ground level, someone or the other obliges, whether it be party functionaries. Or local-level police. Or the college principal. For instance, in the case of Pakhimara, where the gang-rape occurred, local-level AL leaders fined the 16 young men 10,000 taka each for having “tortured” the girl. Their offence was characterised as `intent to rape.’ Not gang-rape, no. The victim’s family was forced to declare this at a hurriedly called press conference. Forced to file a defamation case against the publisher, editor and reporter of a Bangla daily for having reported the rape as rape. AL leaders pressurised the editor of a local daily to sack his reporter for having reported the rape. The culprits were not arrested. The victim’s family fled in fear of reprisal. The allegation of gang-rape had been manufactured to taint the ruling party’s image, said Rakibul Ahsan, Kalapara upazila AL secretary.
In Pirojpur, Mamun was expelled from his post of information secretary. His membership was cancelled for life, but he, alongwith Monir, is still absconding. In Chittagong Medical College, an emergency academic council meeting suspended the four alleged rapists. News reports add, the identity of the girl was not known. Hence, no rape case was filed. In RU, although Kawsar was expelled from the university, was imprisoned, he was still allowed to take his exams. On flimsy grounds. The departmental chairperson had not received his expulsion order from the university authorities. In DU, although BCL activists who caused assault and injury on February 21 have been suspended, they are still staying in the residential halls. Two have been given executive positions in the newly-formed BCL hall unit.
But after the Pohela Boishakh concert fiasco at Raju chottor in DU, it has become increasingly harder to deny that which has no-name. According to newspaper reports, 20 female students were molested. By BCL cadres. Also, by outsiders. Women concert-goers complained. They were pinched. Grabbed. Breasts. Buttocks. Two women students kameezes were ripped, forcing them to accept shirts offered by male concert-goers, to cover themselves. Police rescued fifteen young women from among dense crowds, encircled by men. The concert was abruptly closed down as things threatened to get out of control. According to newspaper reports, groups of BCL activists had battled with each other over splitting 40 lakh taka given by a private mobile phone company. To DU BCL leaders, for having organised the concert. But no, the university authorities claimed not to know anything about it. Neither did the BCL leadership. No, they hadn’t heard anything.
A Bangla proverb, shaak die maach dhaka, the (foolhardy) attempt to cover live fishes with spinach leaves, expresses well the attempts of DU authorities post-concert. The DU vice-chancellor professor AAMS Arefin Siddique inaugurated a 3 day Rover Scout campaign. Petitioning signatures. Processions. Rallies. The slogan? `No to Eve teasing.’ Surely this undermines last year’s High Court ruling? A ruling which was heartily welcomed by women’s organisations in Bangladesh. Any kind of physical, mental or sexual harassment of women, girls and children at their workplaces, educational institutions and at other public places, including roads, is a criminal offence punishable by fine and/or imprisonment. The ruling has the status of law. So where does this all this drivel about Eve-teasing come from? As feminists have repeatedly pointed out, eve-teasing is a western and Christian construct, it refers to the temptress nature of Eve, thereby placing the responsibility for sexual harassment on women. On the victims, not the perpretators. From earlier denial, looking-the-other-way, to victim-blaming? Is this the new AL strategy being fashioned by its ideologists? Why should women’s organisations and women’s rights activists who have struggled hard for women’s right to public space for many long years be a party to undermining our hard-won HC ruling? One which we had all agreed was a `revolution’?
There are other things that I find deeply troubling. The recent revelations sparked by squabbles over dividing the loot earned from admission profiteering at Eden Women’s University College. According to newspaper reports, factions opposed to BCL unit president Jasmine Shamima Nijhum and general secretary Farzana Yasmin Tania, have alleged that besides admission profiteering, these women leaders are involved in tenderbaji, wheeling and dealing, buying up BTV slots, and lobbying. They use first year students, those from village backgrounds, telling them that this is the way to fulfill their dreams of becoming leaders, and becoming wealthy. The girls are encouraged to dress up. They are taken to the houses of different leaders. Sometimes to hotels. And asked to entertain them. According to the allegations, the BCL leaders leave the hostel after 10 at night. Returning the next day, at 10 in the morning. Women students who refuse to do as told are either turned out of the hostel, or their room is broken into, or locked-up. The principal of the college, according to news reports, is fully complicit in these happenings.
Both Khaleda Zia, the leader of the opposition (`the girls of Eden college are being used to entertain the ministers and MPs whose salaries and allowances have been raised’) and Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid, Jamaat secretary general (`women students are used to satisfy the leaders’) have capitalised on these stories, using them as opportunities to attack the government.
While AL apologists shush the leader of the opposition for having defiled the honor of `all’ students of Eden college for a bad apple or two, while a journalist friend tells me that one or two students of Eden have since retracted their statements, I return to my memories of Jahangirnagar university, to the anti-rape movement in 1998 when the university authorities, to quell the movement, had barked: which one among you have been raped? Come, stand up, be identified.
Hundreds of women students had spoken up in a single voice: we have all been dishonored. Both the prime minister, her women cabinet ministers, and the leader of the opposition could take lessons from that.
Published in New Age April 19, 2010

`Dismantling the master's house'

HC judgments on sexual harassment

rahnuma ahmed

The High Court’s verdict was a `revolution’ said Salma Ali, president of Bangladesh Jatiya Mahila Ainjibi Samity (BNWLA)

In response to a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by the BNWLA, the High Court ruled on May 14 that any kind of physical, mental or sexual harassment of women, girls and children at their workplaces, educational institutions and at other public places, including roads, was a criminal offence, punishable by fine and/or imprisonment. The ruling detailed sexual misdemeanour as `any kind of provocation through phone calls or e-mail, lewd gestures, showing of pornography, lurid stares, physical contact or molestation, stalking, vulgar sounds or any display of a derogatory nature.’ The HC Bench directed the government to make a law on the basis of its guidelines; until that happened, it’s guidelines would enjoy the status of law.

On May 17, `another’ revolution took place. The same bench, of Justices Syed Mahmud Hossain and Quamrul Islam Siddiqui, in response to a writ, declared that the decision of the Jahangirnagar University authorities to exonerate Drama and Dramatics chairperson, Sanwar Hossain Sani from charges of sexual harassment and, to suspend six students (which includes four women complainants) for allegedly assaulting him, was `illegal.’ It directed the JU authorities to hold a fresh enquiry?. The new one, according to the verdict, should be conducted by `neutral persons.’ It should accord with the HC’s recent guidelines. The writ petition, represented by barrister Sara Hossain and advocate Ruhul Quddus Babu, was jointly filed by Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), Nijera Kori, Karmojibi Nari, professor Serajul Islam Choudhury, and journalist Kamal Lohani.

The complaints were not proven `beyond any doubt,’ there was no `hard evidence’ — that is what the JU Syndicate had said when clearing Sanwar Hossain of all charges in September 2008. Dismissing this, the HC Bench ruled that the standard of ‘beyond a[ny] reasonable doubt’ could not be applied to allegations of sexual harassment. A slap in the face of the JU authorities? Of the members of the Final Enquiry Committee, the Syndicate, and the university teachers association (JUTA) which had expressed `relief’ at the Syndicate’s decision and had advocated that `indisciplined’ students (and not a teacher who had sexually harassed women students) be punished? Beyond any reasonable doubt.

Of course, we are happy, thrilled, and excited at the HC’s recognition, at its validation of our long-standing demands and struggles. That unwelcome sexual attention is, well, just what it is. Unwelcome. Period. And as Fawzia Karim, the petitioner’s counsel, had argued in court, the absence of a law against sexual harassment, `rampant’ in Bangladesh, means that victims can not file accusations against the offendors.

But our moment of happiness is also overcast with feelings of grief and loss. We have not forgotten our sisters, those who were either killed for having rejected declarations of love, or took their own lives at the humiliation suffered. Simi Banu, art student, taunted and harassed by local mastaans, committed suicide in 2001. Mohima Khatun, raped, killed herself in 2002. Shahinoor, a garment worker, raped, threw herself under a train, in 2003. Biva Rani Singha, a college student, kidnapped and raped for a week in 2003, later became mentally unbalanced. Farzana Afrin Rumi, a college student, hanged herself when a local group of thugs barged into her house to kidnap her, in 2003. Alpina, a class four student, killed herself after being assaulted in front of her mother, in 2003 (Farzana Rahman Shampa). Chameli Tripura, nine years old, was raped and killed in Ramgarh, CHT, in 2008. And many, many more. Killed. Committed suicide. Became mentally ill. Acid disfigurement. Humiliation. No, we have not forgotten our sisters. Nor have we forgotten sub-Inspector Bashar who went to Simi’s house and insulted her parents. He advised them to control `her’ movements. He filed a general diary (GD) against her, instead of her harassers. Nor have we forgotten countless police officers who have repeatedly refused to register complaints made by women and their family members, distraught and angry, seeking safety and protection through legal means.

It was, after all, a bloody revolution.

Will things change? Krishnokoli, a young singer and cultural activist, doesn’t think so. Mere court verdicts are not enough. The political structure of the country needs to be altered first (New Age, May 15).? I understand and sympathise with her misgivings as I turn to look at neighbouring India, at the famous Vishaka judgment (Vishaka and others vs State of Rajasthan and others, Supreme Court, 1997), which is known to have informed our own HC judgment. The Vishaka PIL arose out of the gang rape of Bhanwari Devi, a member of a group of women called sathins, trained by the local government to do house-to-house social work at the village level, in exchange of honorariums. Bhanwari Devi, as part of a government campaign against child marriage, had tried to prevent the marriage of a one year old girl. The family, who happened to be high caste, were outraged at Bhanwari’s audacity. Five men, including the girl’s father, gang-raped her in her husband’s presence. The village authorities, the local police and doctors teamed-up with the rapists: police were reluctant to record her statement, two government doctors refused to examine her. When she finally took her case to the state criminal court, the accused were acquitted. The judge declared that it was not `credible.’ Upper caste men would surely not stoop as low as raping a lower caste woman? The humiliation and violation of the court process, says Naina Kapur, a New Delhi-based lawyer, led her to initiate the Vishaka petition. She, like many others, was frustrated by the criminal justice system’s inability to provide tangible remedies, restore the dignity of the victim, address systemic issues, and to create social change (Avani Mehta Sood, 2006).

The Vishaka PIL has made a significant impression upon the public, says Sood, because it has led to the establishment of systems of legal accountability. It has created tremendous awareness and open acknowledgement of sexual harassment. The judgment has had a huge impact on universities and large workplaces. Women now know that there is a law, and as a human rights lawyer put it, “It makes a big difference to people harassing women as well, to know that they can be called upon it.” Awareness created by the Vishaka decision has also led to many more cases being filed by women victims, at the HC level. However, it has not yet been enacted (The Protection of Women Against Sexual Harassment at the Workplace Bill 2007), and the SC guidelines continue to be the law. Very few complaints comittees have been set up. Service rules have not been amended. The judgment has been flouted by both public and private employers. Social activists have claimed that the guidelines were too general, it did not cover the entire gamut of workplace relationships (for e.g., doctor molesting his patient). The unorganised sector does not fall under the ambit of the Bill. Investigations carried out by the inquiry committees have too often been bound by red-tape, leading to long drawn out cases, and thereby, delaying punishment for the harasser, and adding to the victim’s trauma. But continued activism has led to two significant interim orders being issued by the Supreme Court. One of these asks professional bodies (for e.g. the UGC) what steps they have taken to implement the Vishaka guidelines, while the other, clarifies that the investigation and report of the investigation committee is to be deemed final. Committees have also been directed to submit annual reports of complaints and actions taken, to the government.

By highlighting the problem of sexual harassment, the Vishaka judgment has simultaneously opened up questions and dilemmas over separating sexual harassment from, and its close intermeshing with, other forms of gender-based discrimination/harassment at workplaces (Kalpana Kannabiran and Vasanth Kannabiran 2002). As the authors say, the separation between professional victimisation and sexual harassment is never absolute. And there are other things too. Sometimes sexual harassment can become a weapon of retaliation for progressive dalit men who face offensive and discriminatory behaviour from upper caste and upper class, articulate women classmates and colleagues. Where systemic forms of discrimination and inequality run deep, where the legal system, in its entirety, overwhelmingly promotes unjust hierarchies, are changes possible? Or, to pose Caribbean-American writer, poet and activist, Audre Lordes’ words as a question: can the master’s house be dismantled with the master’s tools?

Not, in its entirety, no. But as I write this, it is also important to acknowledge the difference that it is bound to make at Jahangirnagar, to the lives of six young women and men-students, whose suspension will have to be withdrawn by the JU authorities. The difference that the second HC judgment will make to the lives of four young women complainants who had, against overwhelming odds, protested. Whose dignity — with the help of a new inquiry committtee composed of neutral persons, working in accordance with guidelines set by the HC — will be restored.

Laws, fortunately or unfortunately, are part of the political process. And, revolutions need to be created, and re-created. Again, and yet again.

Published in New Age 25 May 2009

Of Roses and Sexual Harassment

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by rahnuma ahmed

`You should not have written about such sensitive issues in such indecorous language,’ faculty members at Jahangirnagar University (JU) told me and my ex-colleague, Manosh Chowdhury. It was 1997, four years before I left JU to become a writer.
We had written about the Provost of a Women’s Hall of Residence. He would target first year women Anthropology students. They handed in a memorandum to the University authorities detailing his abuse of power: he was rude to their family members when they dropped in for visits, he ridiculed what they were taught, and the teachers who taught them (this included us). What was not mentioned in the memorandum however, was that he would often barge into their dormitories. Sometimes, also into the wash rooms. The Provost’s misconduct later made it to the newspapers but what got left out was that he had dubbed three women students ‘lesbians,’ and another, ‘a cigarette smoker.’ We had included these in our article to map out the institutionalised nature of the Provost’s power, to draw attention to the systemic character of sexual harassment on campuses. We had written, The issue is not whether these women are `lesbians’. Women have been scorned on other occassions because they have ‘boyfriends’. Women returning to the halls in the evening are taunted, they are told they were `having fun in the bushes.’ Institutional sexual harassment is not about hard facts alone, it takes place through language, through words that ridicule and scorn. (`Oshustho Pradhokkho na ki Pratishthanik Khomota,’ Bhorer Kagoj, 9 July 1997).
We received no printed response, but hate mail instead. And a genteel comment on our `indecorous’ use of language. Our next piece was entitled, ‘What then does one call Sexual Harassment — A Rose?’ (Bhorer Kagoj, 24 August 1997).
The next year witnessed a student movement on Jahangirnagar campus, at forty plus days, the longest anti-rape campaign in South Asia. The University authorities gave in to student pressure, a Fact Finding Committee was formed. As events unfolded it became clear that a group of male students had been involved in successive incidents of rape which had taken place over several months, and that the University authorities had been reluctant to take action because of their political connections to the regime then in power, the Awami League. The movement was strong and unrelenting and gained tremendous popular support. Later, the university authorities meted out token punishment to those very students whom they had earlier protected, rather reluctantly.

A sit-in protest against rape in campus, brought out by the students union, in Jahangir Nagar University, in Dhaka, Bangladesh. August 24, 1998. ? Abir Abdullah/Drik/Majority World
One of the demands of the 1998 movement had been the formation of a Policy against Sexual Harassment. Dilara Chowdhury, Mirza Taslima Sultana, Sharmind Neelormi and I had worked long hours for weeks on end, to produce a working draft. I remember, our draft had said, sexual harassment is any unwelcome physical contact and advance, declaration of love accompanied by threat and intimidation if not reciprocated, sexually coloured remarks, display of pornography, any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature…

Policy Against Sexual Harassment: A Torturous Journey

Ten years later.
It’s Friday night, well after ten, Anu Muhammod has just returned from Munshiganj, and I am fortunate to get hold of him. `So Anu, I hear that the Policy has not yet been ratified by the University Syndicate?’ I ask the professor of economics at Jahangirnagar University, a well-known public intellectual and activist, and a good friend of many years. With a twinkle in his eyes and a deprecating smile, Anu launches into the story.
Naseem Akhter Hossain and I forwarded the Draft Policy to the university administration in 1999. Naseem, as you well know was the Provost of a women?s hall, and one of the most dedicated members of the Fact Finding Committee. The university administration was absolutely terrified of the anti-rape movement. For them it was finally over, some of the students had been punished, they wanted to forget the matter. The next year, 17 of us forwarded it to JU administration, with a signed letter. And in those days, the 8th of March Committee was alive, teachers and students would sit and discuss women’s issues and male power, we would hold a rally on International Women’s Day, left groups, cultural groups would join in. It was an annual ritual, each year we would send the draft to the University administration requesting that they take steps to ratify it, to enforce it, each year they would tell us that it had been misplaced. This went on for several years.
Two years later the BNP led alliance came to power, and the elected Vice-Chancellor was removed from his position. Jahangirnagar University Teachers Association (JUTA) protested against the government action. Anyway, to cut a long story short, JUTA initiated a movement in protest against the government’s high-handedness, a common platform was formed, I was present at one of the Teachers Association meetings and took the opportunity to place the Draft policy. Everyone was charged, and the Draft was approved, so you now had JUTA forwarding it to the University administration for ratification. I inquired again the next year but by then we were back to the old ritual, it had been misplaced. But soon, there was another incident of sexual harassment, a BBA teacher, the accusations were proven to be true, he lost his job. We raised the Policy issue again, each movement helped to revive it. I spoke to Professor Mustahidur Rahman, who was then the Vice-Chancellor.
`Yes Anu, what did he say?’ I am very curious about the reasons forwarded on behalf of institutions, by people in positions of power, the language in which they resist measures aimed at ensuring justice. ‘What did Mustahid bhai say?’
Anu’s smile deepened. ‘He said, yes, of course, we must look into it. But we have so much on our hands. I spoke to other teachers as well, why do we need a special Policy, they said. The country has criminal laws, University rules stipulate that teachers must not violate moral norms, we also have a Proctorial policy. So why do we need a separate Policy against Sexual Harassment? In 2007, another movement began, against a teacher in Bangla department. He also lost his job later, and talk of the Policy was revived again. Actually, the women students went on a fast unto death programme, this was very serious, later Sultana Kamal, Rokeya Kabir, Khushi Kabeer, these women’s movement leaders came and pleaded with the students to break their fast. They did, but on the condition that I would personally take up the matter with the University administration. They said, we trust you, we don’t trust the administration.
After this, the University set up a Committee to review the Policy. I was on that Committee, so was Sultana Kamal. Legal points were added, the draft was brushed up, student organisations were invited to comment on it, also, the Teachers Association. But the teachers are not happy, many think that false allegations will be made, that it will be used by those who have influence, on grounds of personal enmity. I tell them that the Policy has clauses to prevent this from happening, any one who brings false allegations will be severely punished, no law of the land, against murder, kidnapping, theft, whatever has such built-in-clauses. Surely, that will be a deterrent? But it falls on deaf ears. The draft was sent to the Syndicate, it was not ratified. The members felt that it required more consideration.
And now, the latest incident, the one involving a teacher of the Dramatics department. I believe the Fact Finding Committee has submitted its report, there is yet again talk of instituting the Policy, but this time it’s serious. There is new VC now, but this time I think they can no longer avoid it. There is strong support for the Policy.
This is how things stand at present. I think the Policy, once ratified, will create history. It will set a strong precedent for similar policies at other places of work. In garments factories, I often say, for women, it’s not only a question of wages but being able to work in a safe and secure place, free of harassment and sexual advances.
`And what about other public universities,’ I ask, knowing fully well the answer. No, says Anu, there is no talk of a Policy, let alone a finalised Draft.
Jahangirnagar has a strong tradition of protest and resistance, our conversation ends on this note. I forget who said it. Was it Anu? Or, was it me? Maybe, both of us?

Voices of Female Students

Four women students of Drama and Dramatics department have accused the departmental chairperson, M Sanowar Hossain (Ahmed Sani), of harassing them.
One of them confided to her classmates, Sir has asked me to go and see him. Well, why don’t you? I am afraid. Why? Another woman said, he has asked me to go and see him too. You too? I don’t want to. Why not?
They talked and discovered that they were not alone in their experiences of sexual harassment, that it was shared. One of them said, as is the practice in the department, I had bent to touch his feet to seek his blessings, as I rose up he pulled me and kissed me on my forehead. Another woman student, similarly abused but silent until the four junior women stepped forward, spoke of how he had grabbed her and kissed her cheek. Another woman said, I was so scared when he said I would have to go to his office, but I was angry too, I knew what was going to happen, I told a friend, I’ll carry a brick in my bag. I want to mark him, so that people kow.
But the women also spoke of how they themselves felt marked. When I went back to the hostel and told the girls they wanted to know, what did he do to you? where did he touch you? how long did he hold you? I wept inside, she said. Why didn’t anyone say, where’s that bastard? Let’s go and get him. Such responses make it so difficult to come out. Why should I take on this social pressure?
The girls also said, if it had just happened to me, if I hadn’t discovered that there were other victims, I would never have spoken out. I don’t think anyone would have believed me.

Male Academia and Its Insecurities

Why do University authorities resist the adoption of a policy that will help institute measures to redress wrongs? That will afford women protection against unwanted sexual advances, thereby creating an environment that is in synchrony with what it claims to be, an institution of greater learning and advancement.
I think what lies hidden beneath academic hyperbole is, although the university, as other public and private institutions, appears to be asexual, in reality, it is deeply embedded with sexual categories and preferences. Men are superior, both intellectually and morally, this is assumed to be the incontrovertible truth. For women, to be unmasking and challenging male practices, aided by a Complaint Cell, members of which will listen to their grievances, extend support, advocate sanctions if allegations are proven to be true, is a threat that terrifies the masculine academic regime of power and privileges.
But sexual harassment is not a bunch of roses. It is serious, it needs to be taken seriously.
An open letter to the Chancellor of Jahangirnagar University
First published in New Age on 7th July 2008