We're all culpable
I was sitting with some senior apas in the field in front of Moitree Hall eating peanuts. A first-year student at Dhaka University, I was still getting used to this new life. The apas pointed out a young woman sitting by herself. The queen bee’s waiting, they sniggered.
Like the scores of us dotting the green grass, she was clad in a shalwar-kameez-orna ensemble, her hair down to the shoulder blades. She too sat eating peanuts. Soon, several young men arrived and they left together. She didn’t seem particularly different from us.
I spotted her now and then around the hall or on campus. Gradually, through hints, direct comments and snide jabs, I discovered why she was the ‘queen bee’. She was, allegedly, the mistress of an influential student leader. She also ‘went’ with other men. The shelter of political cadres meant she could show up at daybreak at the hall entrance and the guards would grant her entry without a single word; the likes of us were scolded by the darwan dadu and the khalas if we were even ten minutes late after the six PM closing bell.
Much later, I discovered her ‘origin story’: she was on campus with her boyfriend one evening when several male students, ruling party cadres, forced her to accompany them. They held her at a men’s hall for several hours. Post-abduction, her boyfriend broke up with her. Soon, one of her abductors began summoning her regularly. If you have any idea about the kind of power these leaders wield on campus, you will understand how imperious those summons must have been.
Of all the times we talked about her, of all the words we used, ‘rape’ was never mentioned. Not once. Didn’t we know what it meant when we used words like ‘tule niye gelo’ or ‘room-e atke rakhsilo’? Looking back, I remember feeling uncomfortable with how she was discussed but I couldn’t pinpoint why. I also remember I wasn’t the only one with that discomfort, because some of us discussed that as well. We were somewhat sympathetic to her situation, but we still didn’t talk about her as a rape victim, and we didn’t frame our discussion around sexual violation or assault.
She didn’t fit our notions of a rape victim. A rape victim was someone who hid her face, who disappeared from public view, who killed herself. How could a girl who was visibly free, who laughed with friends, whose kameez was ironed, whose hair was beautifully plaited, who sat on the green eating peanuts, waiting for her rapists to arrive, be a rape victim?
But she was.
A few years ago, writer Kate Harding began a blog called Don’t Get Raped. It was a response to victim-blaming that dogged survivors of sexual assault and rape. The concept was simple. Given the propensity of public and private responses like why was she wearing this, why did she go there, why didn’t she do that—Harding merely linked to news items of assault and rape, titling them in accordance with the circumstances in which the violation occurred. Ever since I discovered her Tumblr, each incident of rape in Bangladesh I read about plays out in my head in that format. Here’s a Bangladesh sampling from the last couple of years: Don’t Be a Police Officer. Don’t Play in Front of Your House. Don’t Live with Your Father. Don’t Ride a Bus. Don’t Be Eight Months Old. Don’t Rent a House. Don’t Wait at a Bus Stop with Your Husband. Don’t Have a Father. Don’t Accept Iftaar Invitations.
The list is exhaustive and exhausting. Women and girls face sexual violence at home, in public places, with their parents present, at the hands of male relatives, at the hands of their friends, or their teachers, or even their fathers, while wearing skirts, while wearing shalwar-kameez, while wearing the hijab, at morning, noon and night.
And none of this even delves into men-on-men rape and the different but existing stigma surrounding that atrocity.
Why do so many rapes happen? Because our society makes it easy for the rapist.
Our books, our movies, our everyday engagement with each other all echo and enforce notions about women that have real-life, damaging consequences. That she will say no, even when she means yes. That she lies. That being male means overcoming that no with whatever means necessary. That it’s okay and right to ignore her when she says no. That if he keeps ignoring, if he keeps pushing, he can turn her no into a yes.
Think of one of the most famous lovers in our literary canon: Debdash. He essentially assaults Parbati and disfigures her permanently—and this we laud as an example of great love. How many storylines have you seen on TV or in the movies about young men simply refusing to accept a young woman’s rejection of his ‘proposal’? Typical storylines glamorise male behaviour that is harassment and stalking – think of song sequences where the girl is trying to shop, or go to class, and there’s the hero with his entourage blocking her way? Or he’s sneaking around following her, slipping notes and objects into her backpack or bedroom? And, of course, in these stories his behaviour is eventually rewarded with her capitulation.
The whole dynamic of sexual behaviour that is normalised in our society is one where the role of men is to aggress and for women to submit; not a meeting and understanding between equals, but an encounter where the man takes, sometimes even when the woman doesn’t want to give. Contraventions of this dynamic result in the woman being penalised.
Whenever a rape becomes public, the first admonishing fingers are invariably raised against the victims. The accepted path through which ‘good’ women can travel is so narrow, that almost any behaviour can be defined as ‘bad’ in popular judgment: her clothes, appearance, social media presence, friendships, speech, anything and everything is up for scrutiny and finger-pointing.
There are so many people, men and women, questioning why the Banani rape survivors went to that party. Why did they go? Here’s why they went: because they were young and going out with friends to have fun is something young people do. When you say why weren’t they more careful, they shouldn’t have gone, should have known better, you’re essentially telling women we’re not allowed to live normal, human lives.
Because even if they hadn’t gone to this party, or any party at all, that night, or any night, the spectre of rape would still exist for them. Rape doesn’t happen only at parties or only at night. That question, no matter how it’s framed, lays the blame on those young women, the victims. It doesn’t matter if you tell yourself, I’m only thinking of their safety. It doesn’t matter if you’re thinking if only they had been more careful. If that thought crossed your mind, you’re blaming them.
Every Bangladeshi woman knows she has to be careful about her body. That our bodies are up for grabs is drilled into our heads from childhood. Ask any woman and she will have a list of strategies she employs to avoid unwanted male attention. The strategies will change depending on her life circumstances, but they will exist. They can range from carrying exact change so the rickshaw/CNG drivers can’t try to touch her fingers while handing back change, to always clasping her purse or folder to her chest so no hands can grab her breasts, to walking very fast and not making eye contact with anyone, to making sure she never sits close to that pervy uncle who pulls her bra strap under the guise of patting her back.
I understand where the impulse to blame the women comes from though. It’s partly the very evident misogyny existing in our culture. But it’s also a very twisted defensive response to the pervasiveness of the horror of sexual violence. If you can just pinpoint a particular behaviour (whether it’s her clothing, her late nights, her partygoing, her walking by herself—it can be anything) as the real cause, then it’s possible to distance yourself from it. If you can tell yourself I don’t dress that way, talk that way, walk that way, then you can assure yourself that it can never happen to you.
Except it can. To any of us.
A few years ago, in the comment space of a Prothom Alo news story covering rape, I read a doozy: Taile toh meyera hya bollei eshob jounota thik hoye gelo! (But then all it takes for this kind of sex to be acceptable is for the girl to say yes!) The commenter was outraged at the possibility.
Since then, I’ve seen this comment reiterated in various forms, whether it’s online or in real life, whether by strangers or people I know. The succinctness and rightness and utter wrongness of this comment, and those that align with it, still blows me away.
Consent is essential in defining rape. Rape is lack of consent from one of the parties involved. That online comment was actually very accurate. All it takes for it to be sex and not rape is for all parties to consent, to say yes. So, if a woman, uncoerced, says yes to the act, it’s not rape. Ditto for men, transgender or non-binary individuals.
Let me repeat that: uncoerced sex is sex; sex under pressure, whether there is physical violence involved or not, is rape. The Moitree Hall ‘queen bee’ was a rape victim—it doesn’t matter what it looked like from the outside, it doesn’t matter whether her subsequent actions fit in with our ideas about rape victim behaviour.
For a large swathe of Bangladeshis the problem isn’t whether consent was given or not, it’s whether the act is taking place within socially sanctioned boundaries, i.e. marriage. Thus, any young woman engaging in consensual sex is branded a slut unless it’s marital sex. Model and actor Sadia Jahan Prova was vilified after her former boyfriend Rajib released a sex video; the vitriol leveled against her invariably had to do with her ‘sluttiness.’ Rajib, her partner in the act, didn’t receive that kind of opprobrium and it was a rare voice that noted the awful breach of trust he had perpetrated.
The scandal not only destroyed her marriage, Prova was forced to step away from her career for several years. Presumably Rajib had loved her. Why did he violate Prova’s privacy like this? Revenge. Because Prova had dared to choose someone else.
Compromising a woman’s ‘respectability’ is a control tactic used by both spurned boyfriends and rapists. The Banani rape victims were threatened with the release of the rape video. Reports indicate the Banani rapists had exerted this method of control over their other victims. A cursory googling of Bangladeshi rape cases reveals how common this phenomenon is: in April, a 14-year-old was revenge-raped for refusing the advances of a local man; his friends videotaped the rape threatening to release it if she told. In March, a schoolgirl committed suicide after her boyfriend used a rape video as leverage to rape her repeatedly. Last October, a college student was blackmailed into paying her rapist money and jewelry because of a rape video. Last September, a college student tried to kill herself when her teacher raped her and threatened to make the video public if she talked.
Non-consensual release of a sex tape is, of course, a terrible violation. Release of a rape video doubles the violation already perpetrated. But is that the only reason men use this as a control mechanism?
The power these men attempt to utilise in these cases is the joint assault of trauma (of violation) and social sanction. In our culture, women’s bodies and her chastity are perceived as something belonging to her male ‘guardian,’ and by extension, her family. When we decry rape, in most cases, what we’re reacting to is not the individual violation of the person, but the perceived sullying of social respectability of the woman and her family. Otherwise Otherwise why should consensual sex arouse vitriol against only women? It does because we don’t believe that women possess full rights over their own bodies.
At the heart of the issue is our cultural/social inability to accept that women should have rights over their own bodies. In a patriarchal culture whose dark underpinning is female chastity, what can be more threatening than women being in control of their bodies and their sexuality?
When I was still an undergrad, DU authorities installed massive floodlights around the Arts Building and the mall area because of ‘antisocial activities,’ i.e. it was a dating spot where young couples made out. That area was the site of several assaults and violations, some occurring in broad daylight. But when citing the causes for the installation, consensual sexual activity was what our authorities pointed to as the evil they were addressing.
This approach is not isolated. Couples, whether underage or adult, get routinely harassed and extorted not only by local mastaans but the police. Is there really a dearth of actual crime in Bangladesh for the police to investigate? Bangladeshi police do many illegal things for a bit of side-cash. However, this moral policing isn’t merely that. Last year, as part of a city cleanup drive, Bogra police raided a private park and ‘caught’ couples engaged in ‘antisocial activities.’ A video of the raid shows the frightened couples lined up along a walkway. A government official strides in and harangues the couples saying their fathers would be called, a fine levied, and if their fathers don’t show up, they would be imprisoned. At one point, he threatens to marry them to each other. The video also shows a policeman assaulting a young man for no discernible reason.
For those who will argue that many of these couples are underage and they need to be protected for their own good, being publicly shamed and physically assaulted violates their rights, young or not. It should also be noted that many of these couples were not underage.
Recently a group of gay men were arrested. The police raided a peaceful gathering of men who were there of their own free will. The question of why they were arrested elicited various responses from the police, strengthening the perception that their real ‘crime’ was being gay.
Our society and law enforcement criminalise consensual romance or sex. Yet the Banani rape victims had to struggle for over 48 hours before the police would file their complaint. This refusal to file a rape complaint, and the callous and hostile attitude toward the victim is not an isolated incident. In March, an RMG worker who was raped had to obtain a court order to get the police to file her complaint. This is another element that crops up repeatedly in reports of rape; it’s hard for victims to get law enforcement to take them seriously, let alone treat them with kindness or compassion.
This institutional response of disbelieving the victims/refusal to deal with the crime isn’t limited to law enforcement. Jahangirnagar University students had to pull together a massive protest movement in 1998 to get the authorities to even investigate the multitude of rapes committed by ruling party cadres; in the same decade, Dhaka University students protesting sexual harassment by a teacher were assaulted by political student cadres with the indirect blessing of the administration; more recently Viqarunnisa Noon students also had to hold mass public protests before the school fired the teacher for raping a student—the school authorities had initially tried to cover it up.
Institutions, just like our society, are not okay with consensual sexual activity, but are happy and eager to stifle protest of sexual harassment and/or rape.
In a 2013 UN multi-country study (which included Bangladesh), one out of four men admitted to rape; half admitted to using physical and/or sexual violence against a female partner. The findings varied over the different survey-sites, but one key finding was this: “Across all sites in the study, the most common motivation men reported for rape perpetration was related to sexual entitlement—men’s belief they have the right to sex, regardless of consent. In most sites, this was reported by 70–80 percent of men who had raped.” I.e. women do not have the right to say no. Another key finding was “the vast majority of men who had perpetrated rape (72–97 percent in most sites) did not experience any legal consequences.” Dhaka Tribune reports this week that over the last 14 years, less than 1% rape cases in Bangladesh have succeeded in convictions, while less than half are ‘disposed of.’ Keep in mind that rape is a highly underreported crime, and neither of those numbers includes marital rape.
The UN study affirms, by the way, that while marital rape is the most prevalent in the survey-sites, they are the least punished because marital rape is legal in these countries. Bangladeshi law doesn’t recognise marital rape as rape. And marrying a woman to her rapist is a custom so common in our culture that ‘rape mediations,’ where a fine or marriage are among ‘resolutions’ offered, are frequently overseen by or held with the knowledge of police officers or local administrators.
In 2015, a student of Class seven was married to her adult rapist after a ‘local mediation’ which took place at the police station. (The mediation also determined that the girl’s family should buy the rapist a motorcycle as dowry.)
Is there anything that so wholly underlines the powerlessness of Bangladeshi women over their own bodies and lives? A woman can be raped by a man, given into marriage to their rapist, thus granting her rapist complete control of her body because a wife doesn’t have the right to refuse sex. And with the new Child Marriage Restraint Act 2016, guardians don’t even need to bother about marital consent with underage girls.
This is legal in our country.
The Child Marriage Restraint Act 2016 was designed, presumably, to prevent child marriages. Bangladesh has one of the highest rates of underage marriage globally (52 percent in 2016 according to UNICEF), 71 percent in rural areas and 54 percent in urban. It should be noted that Bangladesh’s higher propensity of child marriage is at odds with our success in other gender related areas.
The Act faces severe criticism for its loophole clause legalising underage marriage in ‘special cases’ (with no minimum age defined). While the Act itself doesn’t define what these ‘special cases’ are, high ranking government officials, including the PM, have responded with explanations that since underage girls get pregnant anyway, this is to safeguard them from social ostracism. The other notable aspect of the clause is that the child’s consent is not required; they can be married against their will.
Teen pregnancy is definitely a social affliction. Teen pregnancy, globally, is associated with low educational outcomes, health dangers (including higher rates of maternal mortality), higher incidence of domestic violence, and female poverty (although child marriage impacts both underage girls and boys in Bangladesh, it is 11 times higher for girls). The government response to criticism about the loophole, however, mentions no provision to combat any of these.
The other element both the PM and other officials chose to ignore is that in the context of Bangladesh, the majority of teen pregnancies occur within marriages; not as a result of teen sexual profligacy, nor as a result of rape. Most teen pregnancies in Bangladesh are a consequence of child marriage. Clearly, teen pregnancy isn’t really what the concern is here; it’s merely whether it’s within the socially sanctioned bounds of marriage or not.
Why is teen pregnancy outside of marriage considered such an evil, and teen pregnancy in and of itself not considered so? What safeguards do our state and our society offer to underage mothers, whether they are married or not?
This February, a story about a teen-mother giving birth in the middle of her SSC math exam received mainstream media coverage. Thirty minutes into the test she went into labour; she took a break to give birth and returned to her test. The thrust of most of the coverage, as well as soc-media sharing, was a misguided celebration of ‘girl power’; the only coverage I noted challenging the celebratory tone was published in Dhaka Tribune. The author, rightly, was appalled at the general obliviousness: why weren’t we, our social-media users as well as formal media, outraged that an SSC examinee is pregnant at all, let alone having to undertake exams in such a condition?
While poverty is a driving factor in a large number of child marriages, underage marriage isn’t a problem that solely besets girls from poor and/or rural backgrounds. Early this year, several activists mobilised from Facebook reports about an underage marriage taking place in Dhaka. The 13-year-old bride belonged to a middle-class family, lived in a middle-class neighbourhood, and her parents were about to marry her off to a 35-year old cousin who lived in Europe. From the regular Facebook updates provided by activist Marzia Prova as well as other accounts, it was pretty clear the girl in question didn’t want the marriage—she was powerless against her family.
Are parents the best judges of what’s good for their children? Not always. In April 2017, Marjia, a 15-year-old in Joypurhat, committed suicide rather than get married at her parents’ behest.
Our society and our government are miserably failing these children: the social strictures that serve to end their lives before they’ve barely begun are now state sanctioned. In a country where corruption is rampant, getting a qazi to perform an underage marriage, or even finding government officials who will happily falsify age certificates is no big deal. When was the last time you read about a crackdown on qazis performing underage marriages, or the government officers aiding the process?
Underage citizens have limited rights; e.g. they can’t open a bank account or own property by themselves, and they’re not allowed to vote. Our laws and our state don’t think it appropriate to grant them basic rights, but are fine with burdening them with marriage and children. As a society, so are we. Why are we, as a nation, okay with children being burdened with the lifetime, stifling responsibility of marriage and parenthood? We are outraged if a teenager explores sex; but are fine with teens having sex (and children) if they’re married. If we truly value the lives of girls, how does this make any sense?
The two young women who are the Banani rape survivors have shown extraordinary courage. They have gone public about their rape. They must have known the barrage of infamy that would be heaped upon them when they decided to press charges. It’s hard to imagine the kind of tenacity and strength it took for them to wait hour after hour in a police station, braving the kind of horrible and callous behaviour I’ve been reading about, and refuse to give up. Because of that perseverance and the media flurry, fed by social media engagement, the perpetrators—rapists and their accomplices—have been rounded up.
But their fight is far from over.
In 2001, 12-year-old Purnima Shil from Ullahpara, Sirajganj, was gang-raped by men who were politically connected. In 2011, after a decade of fighting, she finally got a judgement where 11 men were awarded life sentences. After the rape, because Purnima decided to press charges, her family were beaten up, regularly harassed, offered bribes to drop the case, and the family business was vandalised. They had to escape their village to survive.
The rapists in Purnima’s case had clout, but nowhere near the kind of connections and power of the accused in the Banani rape case. Fortunately, alongside her family, Purnima also had a group of people rally behind her who supported her decade-long struggle for justice.
In 2016, fifteen years after the rape, Purnima spoke to BBC about the harassment she is facing now because of a fake Facebook ID someone opened in her name which displayed pornographic images and content, and disclosed her phone number. She also speaks of the harassment she faced while studying in school, college and university—she was physically assaulted for her ‘crime’ of being ‘impure.’ There is no fair answer to her question: “Why is this happening with me?”
For the Banani rape survivors, the battle has barely begun. The perpetrators have been arrested, but how this case will fare depends on many elements. There’s only one thing we can say for sure: the ugliness and viciousness these young women are encountering from regular people will not disappear.
If you’re likely to think educated people don’t victim-blame, read the comments on any of the news stories covering the Banani rape. Or the Rumana Manzur case of horrific domestic violence. Or the Pahela Baishakh mass sexual assault of 2015. If you’re likely to think educated people don’t carry entrenched misogyny in their hearts, you haven’t been paying attention.
Social media is a mirror to who and what we are—it’s slightly distorted, and it blurs some lines, but you get a fairly accurate representation. The most vicious and vile comments victims of gender-based violence receive aren’t just from men; women are just as complicit. Why? Because men and women are both products of the same cultural system of patriarchy.
This is important to note: This is not a men vs women battle we’re fighting here. It’s a us vs patriarchy battle.
Why do so many rapes happen?
To go back to the young woman with whom I began: why didn’t she go to the authorities after her abduction?
When I was still a DU student, another female student was accosted by a male student as she attempted to enter Arts Faculty. When she ignored him and tried to go about her business, he verbally abused her and then slapped her. Things could have gotten much worse, but at that moment a professor arrived and extricated her from the situation. The young man and his cronies hurled obscenities at the professor.
A male student physically assaulting a female student and verbally abusing a professor should be a no-brainer: expulsion. And maybe criminal charges. But the young man was an influential student leader so the Proctor’s office attempted a mediation. The student leader said he hadn’t realised he had cursed out a professor. He would, of course, apologise and ask for forgiveness. However, as a senior student, he too deserved respect from the female student. She should apologise to him.
I might be getting some details wrong; I never spoke to the girl directly about it and this is what we heard via the departmental grapevine. I did have one brief discussion with an assistant proctor I knew through a personal connection.
She should apologise, said the Assistant Proctor. For practical reasons. How else could she stay safe coming and going? Who could guarantee the guy wouldn’t just grab her?
But why couldn’t the university guarantee her safety? At least on campus? Why were these the only two options available to this young woman: either give up any presumption of human dignity and self-respect and humiliate herself to her assaulter, or give up any dreams of studying at Dhaka University?
That young student was faced with the prospect of further physical assault, sexual assault, and this was pretty much sanctioned by her academic institution unless she apologised. All she was guilty of was trying to get to her department. She wasn’t out late at night, she wasn’t ‘partying’, she wasn’t dressed provocatively. She was just trying to get to class.
Think about that for a while. Think about what it means to be a woman in our society. Think about the spectrum of possible and active violence along which we women exist every single day.
Why do so many men rape? Because our society and our institutions make it so damn easy.
Shabnam Nadiya is a writer and translator. Her work can be found at: https://shabnamnadiya.com/
Artwork by Kazi Istela Imam