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Violence against Women and Girls: Breaking Taboos

rahnuma ahmed

She jumped down from the police van and tried to escape. It stopped, they hunted her down by torchlight, dragged her back and drove off. Men, gathered around the tea stall, wondered why the car had stopped. Curious, they walked up to the spot. A golden coloured sandal, a handkerchief, and broken bits of bangle lay there.

Yasmin: raped and murdered by the police

She was only fourteen years old, her death was brutal. Gang-raped by policemen, and later, killed. Yasmin, a domestic wage worker, employed in a Dhaka city middle class home, longed to see her mother. Leaving her employers home unannounced, she caught the bus to Dinajpur, got down at Doshmile bus stoppage, hours before dawn on 24 August 1995. A police patrol van driving by insisted on picking her up. Yasmin hesitated. One of the police constables barked at those gathered around the tea stall, We are law-enforcers, we will drop her home safely. Don?t you have any faith in us?
Hours later, a young boy discovered her bloodied dead body, off the main road. The police who came to investigate stripped her naked. Bystanders were outraged. Recording it as an unidentified death, they handed over her body to Anjuman-e-Mafidul Islam for burial.
The dead girl was the same girl who had been picked up by the police van, when this news had spread, a handful of people took out a procession. In response, the police authorities held a press conference where a couple of prostitutes turned up and claimed that the dead girl Banu, was one of them, she had been missing. District-level administration and local influentials joined in the police?s attempts to cover up.
Spontaneous processions and rallies took place demanding that the police be tried. Yasmin?s mother recognised her daughter from a newspaper photo, lifeless as she lay strewn in an open three-wheeled van. As a peoples movement emerged, police action, yet again, was brutal. Lathi-charge, followed by firing, killed seven people. Public outrage swelled. Roadblocks were set up, curfew was defied, police stations were beseiged, arrested processionists were freed from police lock-ups by members of the public. Outrage focused on police superintendent Abdul Mottaleb, district commissioner Jabbar Farook, and member of parliament Khurshid Jahan (?chocolate apa?), the-then prime minister Khaleda Zia?s sister, perceived to be central figures in the cover-up. Shommilito Nari Shomaj, a large alliance of women?s organisations, political, cultural and human rights activists joined the people of Dinajpur, as Justice for Yasmin turned into a nationwide movement.
In 1997, the three policemen, Moinul Hoque, Abdus Sattar and Amrita Lal were found guilty. In 2004, they were executed.
Yasmin of Dinajpur is, for us, an icon symbolising female vulnerability, and resistance, both her own (she had tried to escape), and that of people, both Dinajpur and nationwide. She serves as a constant reminder that the police force, idealised in state imaginings as protector of life and property should not be taken for granted, that women need to test this each day, on every single occasion.
In the nation?s recent history of popular struggles, Yasmin?s death helped to characterise the police force as a masculine institution, it gave new meanings to the Bangla proverb, `jey rokkhok shei bhokkhok,? he who claims to protect women, is the usurper, the aggressor. A taboo, sanctioned by state powers, was broken.

Bidisha in remand: sexual abuse

`Go and get a shard of ice. Insert it. It will all come out.?
In her autobiography, Bidisha, second wife of ex-President Hussain Mohd Ershad, later-divorced, writes, I wondered, what will they do with that? Insert it where? (Shotrur Shonge Shohobash, 2008).
Under the influence of what she assumes was a truth serum, injected during remand at a Joint interrogation cell housed in Baridhara, Bidisha writes, the pain was unbearable. A horrible burning sensation coursed through my body, my eyes threatened to burst out of their sockets. If I opened them, it felt like chilli powder had been rubbed in. If I closed them, balls of fire encircled my pupils. My breathing grew heavy. I felt like I was dying, but I couldn?t, I was falling asleep, but I couldn?t. My tongue grew thick. I wanted to say everything that I knew, and things that I didn?t. Questions flew at me from all directions, some of them pounded me from inside my head.
But, Bidisha writes, I stuck to what she knew. I stuck to the truth. Her interrogators got tired. One of them ordered the ice, and ordered someone to leave the room. Was it the policewomen, Bidisha wonders. A strong pair of hands gripped her shoulders, another climbed up her legs, up her thighs, ?like a snake.? But they stopped, disappointed. `I don?t think we can do it. She?s bleeding.?
She writes, but my periods had ended days earlier, why should there be blood? I remembered, it must be the beatings at the Gulshan police station, by the officer-in-charge Noore Alam. She was pushed and as she fell, someone grabbed hold of her orna. Pulled and pushed, her orna soon turned into a noose, she could no longer breathe, her tongue jutted out. She was hit hard with a stick on her lower abdomen, through the daze she could see that he was uniformed. I fell on the floor like a sack. I was barely conscious. I was kicked and trampled with boots on my chest, head, back, and lower abdomen.
During interrogation, the chief interrogator Joshim had repeatedly shouted at her, Do you know who I am? Do you know what I can do to you? Ten-twelve men had been present when the truth serum was injected. Well-dressed, fashionable clothes, expensive watches. Whiffs of expensive after-shave. Trim hair, cut very short. As she repeatedly stuck to the truth, Joshim threatened to hang her upside down, like Arman, he said, who was being tortured in the next room. She was threatened with rape by members of RAB (Rapid Action Battalion). During another round her left thumbnail was prised open and torn away, by something like a pair of pliers. They held my eyelids open so that I could see. Relief came only when the call for prayers sounded, since the men scurried away to pray.
Interrogation sessions were video-recorded, each interrogator had an audio recorder. I remember hearing, be sure to get all the details on camera. I remember someone adding, Who?ll think she?s had three kids? What a figure! The cassette?ll make him happy. Make who happy? she wonders. Toward the end of the three-day remand, one of the men entered and said, It?s over. I?ve talked. To who? asked one of the interrogators. One of the Bhaban men. (I presume, Bidisha means Hawa Bhaban). She was forced to declare on camera that she had not been tortured, to sign written declarations, and also blank sheets of paper.
She was in custody for 23 days in June 2005, because of two cases filed by her husband, and two by the government. What were the allegations? Her husband, the ex-President, first accused her of stealing his cell phone, money from his wallet, and vandalising household furniture. Then she was accused of having different birth dates on two different passports. And lastly, of having stashed away large amounts of money in foreign bank accounts.
Interested quarters tried to make light of the incident, they said, it was a ?purely family affair.? Those in the political know, for instance Kazi Zafarullah, Awami League presidium member, claimed that the ruling BNP had masterminded the event to prevent Ershad from forging unity with opposition political parties since elections were due next year (New Age, 6 June 2005). I was repeatedly asked during interrogation, writes Bidisha, why had I said that the Jatiya Party should form an alliance with the Awami League? Why not with the BNP? (`because they were unable to govern properly, people were furious, Jatiya Party popularity was bound to fall?). Bidisha was expelled from Jatiya party membership, she lost her post of presidium member.
Parliamentary elections under the present military-backed caretaker government are scheduled to be held in December 2008. Jatiya Party (JP) has joined Awami League (AL) led grand alliance for contesting the elections. According to newspaper reports, Ershad is eyeing the presidency.

Pahari women: rape under occupation

Even after the signing of the 1997 Peace Treaty between the government and the PCJSS (Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti), the Chittagong Hill Tracts remains one of the most militarised regions of the world. During the period of armed conflict, according to international human rights reports, sexual violence was inflicted on indigenous women and their communities as part of military strategy. Bangladesh Army personnel have been accused by paharis of having committed extrajudicial killings, rape, torture and abduction. In August 2003, over 300 houses in 7 pahari villages of Mahalcchari were razed to the ground by the army, aided by Bengali settlers. Paharis claim, ten Chakma women were raped, some of them gang-raped. This includes a mother and her two daughters, aged 12 and 15, and two daughters of another family, aged 14 and 16 years. Victims allege, armed personnel alongwith Bengali settlers took part in the rapes. Paharis claim, state-sponsored political and sexual violence still continues.
There is no public evidence that the Bangladesh army has investigated those claims in any way. Nor do we know if the Bangladesh army has charged any soldier as a result of the alleged assaults. Nor is there any public evidence that any military personnel has been punished for any of the alleged rapes.
Tomorrow, November 25 is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. We need to break more state sanctioned taboos.

Published inBangladeshGovernanceRahnuma Ahmed


  1. Rumana Ahmed Rumana Ahmed

    What we read in newspapers and what we hear around us is only of the physical violence against women and we get horrified about them. What we forget is that women all around the world irresepective of class and age and country are going not through only physical but mental tortures. And these mental tortures are no less humiliating for a woman than physical torture. Let us all the women of the world unite against any form of torture. Interestingly when the Yeasmin or the Bidisha incident was happening most of the women were thinking it as a sensational news and i have heard some rather saying that the victim should be blamed as she must have instigated it.

  2. Khushi Kabir Khushi Kabir

    Rumana’s comment I suppose evokes the feelings of a number of people. What can we do to evict greater response amongst the yet to be converted and specially amongst the younger generation. At the time we were active on the Yasmin issue, we ourselves were not yet so divided. It was a time when we all acted together despite our differences, and though we were not able to stop police brutality, rape or violence, but we did get justice of some sorts. It was not easy to get the case going, the case heard, the case to be given a fair trial and to get the convictions. But the firing on Dinajpur citizens that killed a number of people for protesting Yasmin’s murder was lost and is now forgotten. As are the killings of those who fought for our liberation or against the dictatorship of Ershad. Now, Ershad may become President again?!! No War criminals or Military Dictators please.

  3. Being a man I cannot say anything except saying I feel ashamed for all you wrote ! I had so many times crossed the border of a person and became a man with my wife the person who helped me to be me of today who drives a car & living a decent life in poor Bangladesh .I’m moved …
    I want to be chorus with Khushi Kabir that if the major party want to put that Ershad as president would it not be the biggest shame for Sheikh Hasina & Awami League who claims that they are Nur Hossain’s party !
    How anyone can think of Ershad as president again the biggest demon to women & democracy ? !

  4. (sent by email)
    Dear Shahidul – Salaam
    Thank you for your violence against women posting.
    This is an interesting and of course, embarrassing subject that “nice” people don’t talk about. For many people tragic – both the violence and also schizophrenia.
    i hope you will read this. It is uncomposed – so I am not writing it as if I were writing an article. I can write of both from personal experience.
    Firstly the schizophrenia –
    My father (who died two years back at the age of 89) was diagnosed negative schizophrenic when i was 13. I remember the summer when I felt my world had come to an end. I will spare you the frightening details and the One flew over the cuckoo’s nest type of high security hospital at Gladesville, the barbaric treatment and long term general neglect of effective treatment.
    As a young man he volunteered to go to the front line at Don Bend – (a dreadful campaign, in minis 40c – ill clothed, mates dying on the spot – frozen) My father told me that they would slap those who slowed down to keep them alive – to keep them moving, so they would not die). When they died, they would put them head first into the snow – upright. At officer level, it was a disaster – ill prepared, unreliable. My dad walked back from the Don Bend as a survivor.
    There is footage of this, that I saw briefly after the fall of communism here in Budapest. By then I was living in Budapest. These were released on M1 TV channel – which since then has gone to the dogs!!. Within a few weeks of the first MSZP(old communists) victory – with Gyula Horn as PM, the programme disappeared into oblivion. The few programmes I saw on this made me realize what horrors my father must have lived through.
    He was in Budapest at its defence against the advancing Russians. He was wounded, and in hiding here and there.
    Therefore, when his nervouse breakdown turned into schizophrenia, it was perplexing for those of us who had no idea about the foundations of the persecution complex that had plagued him. The Russians coming, the frantic running in his dreams, and at the worst times, also in his waking hours, was a horror that I cannot imagine how mum put up with as his wife (she died at 90 on the same day as the Pope). And for us, myself in particular, sending us into a kind of “internal exile” – already in a strange land for my parents (Australia) where they were merely tolerated – being branded as “Fascist” by the feral and ignorant and far from welcome as post WW II stateless persons.
    The persecution also included an obsession with being watched – especially by the Union people at the iron foundry where he was posted to work. After a severe workplace accident, not his fault, compensation took 25 years coming – and yes, he was watched – so it turned out. Because the Metal Manufacturer concern did not want to pay out “to a wog”! The Unions in those days did not really properly represent european immigrants’ interests.
    In a sea of anglo-saxon celt low-life form , my father did not beat my mother. He had a pet name for her and worshipped the ground she walked on. Possibly too much – as I think she secretly thought this a weakness.
    In a time when men thought it ok to drink the weeks wages away at the pub in one night and spend without thinking on betting on dogs, horses and playing the one armed bandit machines, then beat the wife, my father brought his wages home and put it on the table. Took 10 shillings to cover his weekly expences going to work. And asked mum if she didn’t mind him going to the annual “smoko” (drinks out with the boys nearing Christmas – to which he didn’t much like going)
    Children would come to my Catholic school (classmates) who had no food at home and the Saint Vincent de Paul society had to help out regularly with food hampers). There fathers were highly paid coal miners, or at the Steel works, which also paid high wages. The wives would be gaunt and bruised- if one saw them at all. The children smelling of urine, puffy eyed from restless nights, thinking back, showing all the signs of abusive home life.
    And yes, in Australia at the time what people didn’t like was that we “weren’t like them”. I was born there in a migrant camp in Bathurst in 1951. Kids in the 60s would tell me to “go back where I came from” . They had but recently arrived from England.
    Dad’s schizophrenia aggravated that feeling of isolation further. One instinctively knew not to bring home friends. And in the end, one did not really have friends. We all know how fickle we can be as children – something for something. It can’t be a one way street. One did not talk about this. It was like living in a shadowland. And as with alcoholics – it does not end there. It puts a stamp on your life – as to how you “select” friends, what your expectations are and one is forever searching for a depth and loyalty that is only in a very few – especially so in these times where the pace of life has accelerated to a frightening tempo and people have become jsut one more consumable item. (Taste and discard mindset.)
    However, it has also blessed me with an unusual depth of compassion and insight. I have come to value the importance of compromise and negotiation in relating – and feel these important skills if we are to continue valuing and respecting those around us whom we love. I also notice in our age of self consumption, these are not marketable
    the Violence
    I have referred to the evident domestic violence in The Lucky Country (Australia) during my lifetime. When I married a scotsman at 19 (legal age 21), I was to have 1st hand experience of this. My mother forced this marriage – I think she thought that it would be “one less worry”.
    It was subsequently to overshadow our relationship right till the end. I forgave, but she had never said she was sorry. In her minds eye, she had “done the right thing”. By then I was in the UK and being exposed to the kind of dangers that I had no skill in handling. I had no idea how to handle alcoholism and domestic violence. I will spare the gory details. But the legal machinery was ill prepared, and little empathy forthcoming from a police force where many would also have been perpetrators in their own homes.
    If one escaped down to a police station, or even managed to seek advice from a solicitor, the answer would be “go back home”. The council could not help, and only under duress, if children were involved. I will hasten to add that it was very difficult planning an escape, because if I did not hand all my wages over, I would be beaten. I escaped, he would eventually find me – repeatedly. He begged me back – he “had changed, I would see”. No, it is not like this.
    Really changing requires the kind of sustained hard work that very few people are willing to undertake. One Christmas on Streatham Common in South London, I was walking with the little dog I had rescued, praying to God so that I could find some money for food – just a little. In the mud and slush I found 5 pounds. That was a lot in the early 70s.
    Eventually i worked with a project set up for runaway girls – many the object and victim of domestic abuse. I was to end up working at Shelter Housing Aid Centre, where I was to focus on battered wives, immigration problems and new town solutions. It was largely our pressuring the Home Office, the submission of our files’ details I had worked on that enabled better laws to be passed regarding domestic violence.
    It is not something that “other people do”. One of my memorable victims was the wife of a Law Lord (ie House of Lords) – not exactly the profile of a man in want. If my memory serves me well – reports show that the greatest abuse of wives is to be found among solicitors, doctors, etc and not unknown among the police.
    In Hungary every 10th woman in a relationship suffers some degree of violence – a recent news item.
    The Aftermath
    Studies show that one alcoholic affects the life of around 11/12 people. Violence also works its cankerous route similarly. It is not just the direct victim – bad enough – but the children – the friends they can or cannot make. Those they cannot bring home and how this in turn affects them. Further feelings of isolation and being unloved.
    Where do they seek shelter – from peers? if so, what kind. From other relatives – who turn a blind eye to “what is none of their business” as children’s lives go into ruination. The inability of many of these children to concentrate on their studies – causing drop-outs only furthers their problematic life cycle. Many of these children withdraw and become the centre of their own world, resulting in clinical narcism – difficult to correct through therapy, or suffer some form of sociopathy.
    I would also dare suggest that those who “make it through the mill”, and feel they are victors against all odds, are often suppressing many of the issues that have formed them. Some who are strong enough and seemingly success stories develop other forms of attack. Not the physical, but psychological – a weapon of those ill at ease with themselves. Fearing that their background, despite their success, will “come out in the wash”, they embark on destabilising intimate relationship, belittling, deconstructing. Here,the bruises, black eyes and use of other weaponry leaves no outer evidence. The wounds are to be found on the psyche and on the heart. Such men will often see women as consumable, something that can be bought and sold, and become frequenters of prostitutes. Peddled fantasies may have a session price, but require no commitment. This type is what my mother might have called “spineless”.
    My own conclusion may seem simplistic. I think that there is a danger when we see ourselves as masters of our own destiny. By this, I do not mean that we should thrown up our arms and pretend topaly helpless. But when we take on this role of being our own creator, we lose any sense of humility that may help keep things in proportion. I am my brother’s keeper – and as such concern and caring is reciprocal – and this should be as evident in a community as it is in a family and the marriages within that larger unit. I do not think that God can be left out of the process of loving your fellow human -and that goes for husbands and wives as well. God centred loving would make us far better balanced people. We are too busy being “modern” to dwell on this to the extent and depth that is needed.
    That is all for now – saci

  5. (by email, posted with permission)
    Dear Shahidul – Salaam
    Such a prompt reply – If I told you the whole story you would not believe half of it!! And amongst all this having arrived half way around the world with a rucksack, not yet 20, often sick, beaten across continents, when I got down from Edinburgh (where my mother-in-Law locked my clothes away and I was accused of having sexual relations with my brother-in-law)to London, I practised the piano 10 hours a day in a flat so cold that I did so in gloves and overcoat (I had been trained as a classical musician – and played since the age of three) in order to make up for lost time so I could enter the Royal College of Music. I was successful – and on scholarship. I would attend one week, miss one as I got beaten and so on. My mother in years to come was convinced that I had never attended the RCM, or London university.
    My ex husband would find me where ever I moved over the next ten years!!
    Eventually I also went to university and I also did a post graduate in music therapy some years later – and ended up teaching at Uni in unrelated subjects – leaving this behind for many of the same reasons I left the pursuit of a concert career behind. I really don’t know where I had the strength that sustained me.
    At Shac, I dealt with countless Asian immigrants – from India and Pakistan, Bangladesh. They were always passed on to me as others “couldn’t understand what they were saying” – and in general were ill at ease with their strangeness – dress, smell of spices, the different body language etc I seemed to get on with them well – and I think they always sensed that I did not look down on them, and were pleased that I had visited their country and enjoyed their food and dress etc. I can say that they enriched my life and enabled things to be put into proportion – humbling.
    The deeply wounded often seem normal – as I referred to this towards the last part of my previous email. I would say that this too is based on an observation of mine – sadly personal, and after much reading backed up by research that was unavailable when I was training as a therapist. I feel that use and abuse of fellow humans comes because we are not taught to wonder at the uniqueness of each of us – that we are all special – whether men or women – and it is sad to think that there are people who go off to pray between abusing and torturing another of God’s creatures. They have no notion of their God, the reason they pray and that it is a dialogue with their Maker, whom they name Merciful- and what they do is also a repeated abuse of the one they pray to.
    Shahidul – I don’t mind you using it. You can keep me as Saci – if you wish to give it a name. If it helps anyone then I am glad to be of help. Perhaps it may give a glimmer of hope along a very dark tunnel.
    take care of yourself and all about you who help in your excellent work

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