By Rahnuma ahmed
November 25th, International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women was heralded by the presentation of a horrifying cascade of statistics by women’s and human rights organisations, enumerating violence inflicted on women and girls in Bangladesh over the last 10 months:
489 women were raped
53 women and 23 girls were killed, after being raped
4 girls committed suicide, after being raped
71 had acid thrown on them
342 were subjected to dowry-related violence
210 women and 7 girls were killed
102 women were tortured
21 women committed suicide, after being tortured
It was the worst in three years, they said.
They added, the number of incidences for each category is higher than that for the whole of last year (2009). Stalking was selected as this year’s theme by the Implementation Committee for International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women; the slogan says, `Stalking is an Impediment to the Natural Growth and Development of Women.’
How has the government reacted to increased sexual violence? By lumping all sexual offences in a holdall `eve-teasing’ category, thereby, trivialising it, and deeply insulting the vibrant women’s movement which has struggled hard for decades for recognition of sexual offences as criminal acts, as increasing numbers of sexual offenders turned out to belong to the student and youth organisations of the ruling party (Chatra League, and Jubo League). By turning a blind eye to the High Court’s verdict last year (14 May 2009) which ruled that any kind of physical, mental or sexual harassment?note, not `eve teasing’?of women, girls and children was a criminal offence, was punishable by fine and/or imprisonment, that the ruling would have the status of law until a law was made and passed by parliament. Stalking had been included in the list of offences.
Stalking has now been named as an offence but under the ideological rubric of `eve-teasing,’ the seriousness of governmental efforts is well-captured by the name of one of its operations to catch sexual offenders, Operation Romeo Hunt (Budhbar, November 24 2010). Mobile courts, reserved for traffic violations and hoarding, have now been set up to conduct speedy trials, offenders convicted of `eve-teasing’ or stalking can face jail or fine, or both. Convictions do take place as one can see from? photographs every so often in dailies, of young men arrested, convicted, and packed off to prison. On occasions, the public has taken the law in its own hands, lynchings have taken place. Were these caused by the government’s blind eye toward sexual harassment for many long months? Or, by the deteriorating law and order situation for many long months? Or, a combination of both? In one case, a `rapist’ was beaten to death by locals in Char Shibrampur, Pabna, who allegedly, had raped a 16 year old girl alongwith accomplices; the girl herself says she has been raped, but the rapist’s family insists it was a pre-planned murder. The police super has said, the murder seems to be the sequel to a long-standing feud between the two families. Was rape too, a sequel to a long-standing feud between the two families? We need to know. In another case, the trial conducted by the mobile court was controversial because the procedures followed did not abide by the law. A young man was given a year’s imprisonment for allegedly stalking a 13 year old girl but according to neighbours, he was her boyfriend. The girl was not present during the court hearings, her father claimed, to ensure her security; according to newspaper reports, Ramna thana police and her father prepared a statement. The magistrate instructed the young man to sign it without reading it. It was a confession.
The education minister Nurul Islam Nahid spoke of the need for male students to respect their female counterparts, of including these in the curriculum.
. Of preparing guidelines for teachers, so that they can discuss these issues in class. Many others present at the roundtable agreed. A social movement must be waged; family, educational institutions and the media must take the lead. A psychologist chimed in, families should educate children on social and moral values at an early age when children’s personalities begin to develop. The problem will never end, she said, unless families take the first step. Is the stress on family, on social and moral values, a diversion? It is undoubtedly politically expedient because it helps us not talk about national politics. Not talk about how difficult it has become for parents to raise their children ethically, to inculcate virtues of right and wrong, given the “terrible chain” of vengeance that binds the two major political parties, the ruling Awami League, and the present opposition, the BNP. Not raise any questions about the personal vendetta that makes the leaders of our parties `stalk’ and `harass’ her other, during their respective rules. Are such issues raised at the flurry of roundtables, seminars and symposiums devoted to tackling `eve-teasing,’ or do those invited maintain a conspiracy of silence because they do not want to risk future invitations? By saying this, I do not mean to imply that sexual violence will automatically disappear if the chain were to break; what I am saying, however, is, why leave out the `polity’ when discussing individual psyches, when attributing sexual violence to socialisation by the family, when urging (only) educational institutions and the media to redefine their roles in order to curb sexual harassment? Doing so, can only lead to suspicions that these are tactics aimed at diverting attention away from the ruling party’s culture of sexism and misogyny. Away from raising questions about whether sexual offences are overlooked because the leaders and cadres who commit them are essential to the Awami League’s exercise of social and political power. Away from insisting that the party should set its own house in order, that this act too, should be a part of the “social movement” which needs to be waged in order to make lives of girls and women safe and secure. That of men too, since nine have been killed for protesting against assaults.
As inter-ministerial meetings discuss the need to amend acts to prevent the `eve-teasing’ menace (section 10 of Women and Child Repression Act, 2003), to enact tougher laws to ensure exemplary punishment for stalkers, Bangladesh’s permanent representative to the UN claims that the “government’s commitment to women’s empowerment” has created positive images about Bangladesh abroad.
I am not sure if Sumi Chakrabarty of Moulvibazar, a schoolgirl, who was raped on November 5, or her mother, Swapna Chakrabarty, who was beaten mercilessly by the rapists, would agree. Or the 6 year old girl, daughter of a day labourer of Abhoynagar, killed after being raped on November 11. Or Rupa Aktar of Char Bhadrashan, student of class IX, who was gang-raped and succumbed to her injuries on November 15. Or Shabnur Begum of Biral in Dinajpur, student of class V, who committed suicide on 20 November, after her parents were assaulted by the stalker’s family for protesting. Or Shumi Akhter of Bahubal, Habiganj, a 15 year-old JSC examinee, who was hacked to death after being raped on November 21. Or, for that matter, Abdus Sobhan, a 74 year old grandfather in Bhrungamari, who was killed on Eid day, November 17, as he protested against his grandaughter being harassed. She was a student of class VII. And he? He was strangled to death. Rupa was allegedly raped by the son of the president of the AL’s upazila unit. The thana refused to lodge the case, the alleged rapist dismissed the allegations as untrue. Shumi Akhter was reportedly raped and killed by a BCL activist. He, however, is said to have been arrested, alongwith his accomplices.
As I write, I come across news that an imam has raped a 10 year old girl in Firingibazar, Chittagong, November 27. I also come across news reports that the Dhaka university vice-chancellor professor AAMS Arefin Siddique has said these incidents have increased mainly due to lack of education and enlightenment. That proper education will eradicate them in no time. May be. May be boys and young men will mend their ways (after all, age is on their side), but who will educate and enlighten older men, the political sycophants? How can one get them to mend their ways?
Liberalism, as a political philosophy, promotes discourses of “individual rights” and “equality.” Being reformist, it does not threaten those in power. Is that what ails some of the women’s organisations in Bangladesh? One of the central concerns of the women’s movement is female autonomy, but are women’s organisations themselves autonomous of political party allegiances? Their ideas and activities, or the silences maintained, or the wrongs and injustices overlooked, would not seem to indicate this. Allegiance to the AL is cloaked by a parrotlike insistence that it is muktijuddher pokkher shokti, that the war criminals of 1971 must be brought to justice. But this can not be a justification, given that the AL is in power, given that trying war crimes is, after all, one of their electoral pledges. It is up to them, to deliver. Our role is to insist that they do, not to be their supplicants when party interests collide with the interests of the women’s movement. Others, understandably put off by political party machinations, have re-aligned their activities within the framework of development. In such cases, the women’s movement appears to have largely been translated to a movement for the `development’ of women; drawing on liberal principles, these organisations work from within to bring women into full participation with men. The idea is that more women need to participate in government, that laws and other initiatives which promote equal education and employment opportunities need to be advocated and lobbied to enable full participation. But grassroots mobilising, shusheel advocacy, and partnering the state in reaching its development goals?an over-emphasis on the `social’?has resulted in a certain de-politicisation.
The present moment in Bangladesh provides opportunities for women’s organisations to do some soul-searching. Let’s not miss it.
Published in New Age on Monday 29th November 2010