By Rahnuma Ahmed
Honouring Begum Rokeya, the prime minister Sheikh Hasina at Begum Rokeya Padak 2010 programme, Osmani Memorial Auditorium, Dhaka, December 9 2010. Photo: Yasin Kabir joy/focusbangla. crop: Mir Ashfaquzzaman
Prime minister Sheikh Hasina, currently the most powerful woman in Bangladesh?recently rated the sixth most powerful woman in Asia, included in Forbes’ annual list of the politically most powerful hundred women in the world ? while awarding the prestigious Rokeya Padak 2010, to give public recognition to women who have made outstanding contributions in securing women’s rights, spoke with a `man’ tongue.
In other words, she blamed women. It was vintage patriarchy, albeit, suitably modified to a modern-day context.
While prime ministerial speeches on such occasions are generally devoted to self-congratulatory rhetoric and platitudes, Sheikh Hasina’s speech seems to have been different. I glean this from news reports.
She spoke at length about stalking and other forms of sexual harassment which have escalated to outrageous levels over the last year. Which target girls and young women, in particular. Students in particular, girls who are studying in the nation’s schools, colleges, universities and madrasas.
But given the figures released by women and human rights organisations on the International Day against the Elimination of Violence against Women (November 25), notably the worst in 3 years, further, the numbers reported in each category are higher than that for the whole of last year,
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
given that these figures have since increased, what could be more shocking for women?and for men too, since 9 have been killed while trying to protect girls against stalking and assaults?than to listen to the PM exhort girls and women to “face” stalkers bravely. To “show courage.” Why “choose” suicide, something as extreme as that? There is “no reason,” she said. Learn self-defence instead. Wear “modest” clothes. The last piece of advice was delivered with a personal touch, “I never encountered any obstacles.” Guardians, she stressed, should teach their children religious morals and cultural values.
The prime minister, I hasten to add, spoke of other things as well. Of policies and programmes undertaken by her government which benefit women: extending maternity leave to six months. Making it easier for a widowed woman to gain access to her husband’s pension. Initiating the payment of pensions to widower-husbands married to government employees, so as not to discriminate against men. Promising to reactivate the Women Development Policy, a central demand of the women’s movement for many years.
On the face of it, there’s nothing wrong with some of her messages. Urging girls not to be frightened. Not to think of themselves as victims. To fight back and resist. To remind us that rights must be struggled for, that they are never served on a silver platter. That enacting laws is never enough. That public awareness is needed.
Of course, public awareness is needed. What Nashfia Akhand Pinky?a 13 year-old student of class IX who was incessantly stalked by her 22 year-old male neighbor and some of his friends, who persisted with “ribald comments, smutty jokes, coarse laughter, sly whistles and even indecent exposure”?wrote in her suicide note is a severe indictment of those members of the public who were present but had not lifted a finger, “When [my tormentor] pulled my scarf and harassed me physically in front of the house [when he slapped me], onlookers at the scene laughed. Nobody protested” (BBC News).
But manonio prime minister, when girls (and their families) do “show courage,” do not “choose” suicide, “face” the situation bravely, what can, and has, happened? Ten Bangladesh Chatra League (BCL) activists of a group of sixteen, allegedly gang-raped a class VII student in Pakhimara (Patuakhali) in September last year. Her relatives rushed to the scene with police officials, two of the culprits were arrested from the scene of the crime. What happened next? Were the rest of the offenders arrested? Was the case investigated? Were they tried? No. The two caught were freed, a farcical village arbitration attended by local-level Awami League influentials was held, all 16 were fined Tk 10,000 each and 100 whippings. The AL upazila Unit secretary denied allegations of rape, dubbing them (mere) “spoiled brats.” He asked the girl and her father to affix their signature to 3 blank sheets of paper, he told them to not seek justice elsewhere. The victim’s father `chose’ not to file a case, the police didn’t proceed any further.
Did high level Awami League leaders `show courage’ by taking up the matter? Did the party institute an internal inquiry, castigate local-level AL leaders, publicly extend all possible support to the victim’s family? Did the government instruct the police to proceed with a criminal investigation, did it insist that charges of rape should be brought, that those who attempted to hush up the matter should also be tried? For obstructing justice? No. It `chose’ to look the other way, to pretend nothing had happened?not only in the Pakhimara incident but in scores of others?until girls were assaulted at the Pohela Boishakh concert on Dhaka University campus this year.
The denial that had prevailed had become untenable by then, as sexual assaults and violence had not only increased but in many cases, the perpetrators were reportedly leaders and cadres of the ruling party’s student (BCL) and youth (Jubo League) organisations. But a culture of impunity had also set in, which was ideologically furthered by the `No to Eve Teasing’ campaign, launched by Dhaka University Rover Scouts in April. Inaugurated by the DU vice-chancellor, the campaign and its vocabulary, was almost immediately picked up by the education minister, swiftly followed by governmental departments, the AL propaganda machine, several women’s organisations, significant sections of the media, and the culture industry.
The seriousness of sexual offences not only became diluted, they became de-criminalised, as the elected government, in utter contempt of last year’s High Court ruling on sexual harassment, constructed victims as `Eve,’ as ones who tempt men, who make them wayward. The attitude of government policy-makers was best expressed in the name given to one of the drives to catch stalkers and assaulters: Operation Romeo Hunt.
Is it therefore surprising that the prime minister now blames women? That she says, so-called ultra-modern women “don’t bother to keep their modesty,” that they wear “too small clothes”? Sheikh Hasina would be well-advised to desist from blaming women, if for no other reason than to maintain a distance from the Jamaat-e-Islami chief Motiur Rahman Nizami’s line of reasoning on the same subject. Before being chucked into jail (presumably to be tried soon on charges of war crimes in 1971), he too, had blamed women. At a discussion on so-called `eve-teasing,’ he had said, it happens because women go out at night (Daily Star).
Blaming women, one would have hoped would be avoided by those who identify themselves as muktijuddher pokkher shokti. Because it serves to demoralise resistance. It serves to weaken arguments for seeking justice for sexual crimes committed against women, whether in 1971, or at present.
And while I am all for women learning self-defence techniques, martial arts, kung-fu, judo, karate, the whole lot, the prime minister seems to imply that the transformation of Bangladeshi girls into `tough, butt-kicking chicks’ (as in western movies) will solve the problem of stalking, harassment and rape?of all forms of sexual violence directed against girls and women. No, it won’t. Their safety and security cannot be ensured by drawing on myths of `girl power’ created and re-created by the Hollywood film industry. To attempt to do so, is a denial of culpability and complicity.
According to news reports, Sheikh Hasina quoted this line from Begum Rokeya, “Whenever any sister has tried to raise her head she has been suppressed, either through invoking religion, or through the shastra,” but to assume that it is equally true for present-day Bangladesh, would, I think, be somewhat misleading. The incidences of assault and violence that have been reported in the newspapers?which make us angry, and grieve, and resist? have not been conducted by what are generally categorised as `religious forces.’ Newspaper reports at least, do not indicate this. Unless we can specify the violence that women face under particular regimes, we will never be able to resist it. Neither intellectually. Nor creatively. Nor collectively.
There are other issues that need to be addressed. The sexualisation of women in contemporary western societies?some have termed it hyper-sexualisation?has become a matter of deep concern for many feminists. Popular culture has witnessed a highly visible shift, says Rosalind Gill, new femininities have been constructed which speak of a shift from sexual objectification of women to sexual subjectification, it capitalises on the notion of the sexually autonomous young woman. This, in the neo-liberal era, places psychological demands on young women to make life knowable and meaningful through a narrative of free choice and radical autonomy, regardless of actual, real constraints. Others have noted how soft pornography has gone mainstream in western cultures, how it pervades popular culture. Closer to home, Bollywood’s going `international’ has meant the adoption of western traits, such as songs and dances infused with hip-hop elements, leading to `sexier,’ more complicated choreography, slimmer female bodies wearing skimpier outfits, expressing, in overall terms, a “heightened sexuality.” These sexualised images travel across cultural and geo-political borders via satellites and internet in the present globalised world; they are reinforced in complex ways through the culture industry in Bangladesh (advertising, TV plays), and through the officially unacknowledged local pornography industry.
The question that we must urgently face is this: are ordinary girls, from common, struggling backgrounds?whose physical presence in public space is real (non-virtual) unlike that of their rich counterparts?having to bear the brunt of other women’s fantasies of sexual autonomy?
Published in New Age, Monday December 13 2010
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.
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
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
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).
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