Being confronted by blindness

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By rahnuma ahmed

Rumana's daughter, visiting her mother in hospital. Photographer unknown.
Rumana's daughter, visiting her mother in hospital. Photographer unknown.

Soft hands, gentle hands. I bent, I kissed.
Rumana was lying in her hospital bed. We have never met before, I said, as I held and caressed her hand, but your ex-teacher Meghna Guhathakurta, is a close friend of mine. You probably know that.
I wish we didn’t have to meet under these terrible circumstances but please know Rumana, that we are with you. All of us.
She inclined her head graciously. Even under these circumstances.
Stray thoughts entered my head. When visiting foreign lands where I didn’t know the language, my senses were invariably heightened. I could always sense when people were talking of me.
Rumana’s senses must have altered. Could she sense from my kiss, my touch, my caress, that I was a friend?
Blinded by jealousy, rage and pettiness at not being able to hold a candle to her warmth and beauty, at not being able to match her intelligence and competence, Hasan Sayeed Shumon, Rumana’s husband, gouged out her eyes on June 5.
Not his own. Her’s.
Behind this brutal act?which occurred soon after she came home from Canada this May, to visit her husband and daughter?lay years of abuse and violence which began soon after marriage.
Marriage, for Bengalis, is sacred. It needn’t be, at least, not for those who are Muslims, because under Muslim laws, marriage is a civil contract. It is not a tie made in Heaven. Couples do not have to remain wedded till death do them apart. But social norms, ideologies and practices decree otherwise.
Women are brought up to revere marriage. To remain steadfast. Even if they are abused, even if they are battered, even if it occurs continually. Even women who come from better-off backgrounds, are highly-educated, professionally accomplished and have independent means of earning. As is, Rumana. This is why, feminists insist, there is no neat fit between class and gender inequalities. They are complexly inter-related. Simplistic equations are unable to explain, or to provide us with the intellectual and political resources needed to combat wife-battering. To resist domestic violence.

Was June 5 the first time you were assaulted? Asked a reporter at the press conference held at LabAid hospital where Rumana was re-admitted after returning from India on June 20th. After doctors at Shankar Netralaya had said, her left eye is irreparably damaged. It’s difficult to predict about the other. There’s a slim chance, but if only natural healing takes place. Come back after two months. We pray to mother nature, please heal Rumana.
No, she sobbed. It wasn’t. But he would always beg for forgiveness. It was wrong of me, it won’t happen again, he’d say. I believed him, every time he said that, I believed him. Ami to oke bhalobeshecchilam, it was a long wail that ended in deep sobs. I thought of my daughter too.
But I’m afraid now. After failing to kill me on June 5, he said, he wouldn’t let me live. He has threatened to shoot me, or to throw acid. I’m afraid for myself, for my daughter, for my family. Please put him away, please ensure my security.
Hasan was arrested a good ten days later, on 15 June. Police were under political pressure, alleged her family members. It was denied by the investigating officer (New Age, June 15, 2011). But rumours fly that cabinet members had contacted the thana on Sayeed’s behalf, that he had had been sheltered by a high-up official, that when national outrage made his arrest a necessity, he was arrested not from the Chittagong house where he was holed up, but, to save face, brought to Dhaka, and shown arrested here.
A High Court bench had meanwhile passed an order at its own motion following press reports. Police officers were censured for their failure to arrest Sayeed, they were instructed to submit an explanation. The court announced, it would monitor steps taken by the police for a month ( June 18, 2011).
`Your husband says you were unfaithful to him, that you had an extra-marital affair with an Iranian man while studying abroad? Is it true?’ ?This was the first question levelled at Rumana at the press conference. After all the horrors that she and her father, had recounted — how she had been assaulted, eyes gouged, nose bitten off, mauled, bruised, their feelings of helplessness and fear, her loss of sight.
To cries of `shame, shame’ from women activists present, Khushi Kabir stood up. It is the violence done to Rumana, which is the crime. She is not on trial. He is. Actress Sara Zaker raised her voice, social ideas are to blame, a wife is viewed as her husband’s property. Does impropriety, even if it be true, mean that a husband has the right to kill his wife? Accusations of immorality are an old trick, said Rumana’s colleagues professor Akmal Hussain and Tanzim Ahmed. They are levelled to distract attention, to justify domestic violence.
The press conference was amply covered in the electronic media (what I write above was shown in the news footage ), but interestingly, what got left out was the question raised by Amena Mohsin, another colleague and ex-teacher. Why don’t you ask instead where Hasan Sayeed was these 10 days? Why don’t you want to know who offered him protection?
Media censorship? Not unlikely. Journalistic ethics too, hardly practised among significant sections of the media, was thrown to the winds as some dailies and tabloids searched for `the real reason’ behind the violence. The Rapid Action Battalion’s impunity over crossfire killings may be criticised by bolder sections of the media, but its own impunity? When sections pose to be self-righteous seekers of truth? When they become apologists for crimes? When they trample over toes? Over eyes? Over blood?
Sayeed reportedly confessed to intelligence officials later, these allegations were false. They were made on the advice of well-wishers and lawyers. In the hope of swinging public sympathy toward him. In the hope of extracting some legal benefits. His confession did not noticeably lessen misogynist outpourings in the social media, such as facebook, ek haatey tali baajey na. She must have done something wrong.
After the press conference, women activists rallied to counter misogynist propaganda. Earlier, Sadeka Halim had made things happen. While later, Shireen Huq and Maheen Sultan at Naripokkho, worried that the Bangla press release which professor Gitiara Nasreen and I’d drafted was a watered-down version of what we’d agreed upon, wrote a fresh one. Much stronger. Allegations of infidelity, said the English statement, are an attempt to deviate attention from the attack and the attacker, to shift the blame to the person attacked. A woman?s fidelity or character is immaterial to the prosecution of a case of criminal violence. The facts of the attack are, the injury to her eyes was the result of deliberate assaults, it was not the result of a tussle [as Sayeed had said]. Accusations of infidelity do not justify violence against women, they have no place in law.
Women members of parliament too rallied around Rumana, they held a human chain outside the hospital. But although Tarana Halim said, they were non-partisanal, they were against all acts of violence toward women regardless of who she was, regardless of who the perpetrator was, another woman MP did not miss the opportunity to regurgitate government propaganda: violence toward women was caused by `fundamentalist’ forces, and hence, we needed to extend our support to the government’s recently declared Women Development Policy-2011.
Misogynist outpourings here, some of which were deliberate, are matched by ones that are undoubtedly orientalist, surfacing in some Canadian blogs. Rumana, a Fulbright scholar, studying for her master’s degree at the University of British Columbia, was depicted as a victim of “`brutal’ honor in Islam.” A commenter, under the name an Ordinary American, wrote, “Why is this [attack on Rumana] any surprise? These people from Third World countries are little more than semi-anthropologically developed animals–especially the (so-called) men. .. I saw these same types of animals over three decades ago when I was in the military and having to go to these Third World outhouses to train their incompetent asses”.
His sentiments echoed those of the current Canadian Chief of Defense Staff, who recently declared that the function of Canadian troops in Afghanistan is not peace-keeping, but bringing the lives of `detestable murderers and scumbags’ to abrupt and violent ends.” Overlooking the fact that US former president George Bush’s so-called `war on terror’ has wreaked death and destruction in Iraq, regarded as the cradle of human civilisation, and, that the Canadian parliament was never given the opportunity to vote on whether troops should be committed to the war (Michael Keefer, The Harper Government and Canada’s ‘War-on-Terror’ Immigration Policy, Global Research, June 26, 2011).
Rumana’s father, a retired army major, has constantly stood by his daughter, one cannot help but be moved as he keeps wiping his eyes while speaking of his daughter’s predicament, of the torture which she silently endured, of his public appeals for justice. His professional training, obviously, had not prepared him for a misfortune of this proportion, so close to his heart.
Dhaka university prides itself on being the oldest, the most reputed and the highest seat of learning in the country. Students have accused university authorities, closely aligned to the ruling party, of having been distant and aloof. Public assurances that even if permanently blinded, Rumana will be able to retain her teaching post, is not enough. To truly belong to the Justice for Rumana campaign will require the university’s top leadership to be far more pro-active, one which may cost them their smooth tradeoffs with the ruling party.
But who ever said fighting for justice was smooth and easy?
Published in New Age, Monday 27, 2011

Author: Shahidul Alam

Time Magazine Person of the Year 2018. A photographer, writer, curator and activist, Shahidul Alam obtained a PhD in chemistry before switching to photography. His seminal work “The Struggle for Democracy” contributed to the removal of General Ershad. Former president of the Bangladesh Photographic Society, Alam set up the Drik agency, Chobi Mela festival and Pathshala, South Asian Media Institute, considered one of the finest schools of photography in the world. Shown in MOMA New York, Centre Georges Pompidou, Royal Albert Hall and Tate Modern, Alam has been guest curator of Whitechapel Gallery, Winterthur Gallery and Musee de Quai Branly. His awards include Mother Jones, Shilpakala Award and Lifetime Achievement Award at the Dali International Festival of Photography. Speaker at Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, Oxford and Cambridge universities, TEDx, POPTech and National Geographic, Alam chaired the international jury of the prestigious World Press Photo contest. Honorary Fellow of Royal Photographic Society, Alam is visiting professor of Sunderland University in UK and advisory board member of National Geographic Society. John Morris, the former picture editor of Life Magazine describes his book “My journey as a witness”, (listed in “Best Photo Books of 2011” by American Photo), as “The most important book ever written by a photographer.”

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