This week has seen the hashtag #Metoo trend on social media – the voices of millions of women (and men) who have at some point in their lives been subjected to sexual harassment or abuse. While it began as a response to the accusations of abuse and rape levelled at Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, it went on to become much more than a protest against rape culture in Hollywood.
As the days unravelled, people continued to step forward with their stories. Many showed solidarity with those willing to name and shame their abusers, while others warned of a continued focus on the victims only, never the perpetrators.
Many of us were shocked by the enormity of the problem, while others weren't surprised at all by all the Bangladeshi women who also said 'me too' – after all, don't we live in a country where women get molested in broad daylight during a national festival? Where, according to an ActionAid report, 84 percent of female commuters have been subjected to sexual harassment? Where, according to Bangladesh Mohila Parishod, almost 5,000 recorded cases of abuse of women and children occurred in one year alone?
A few drops in an ocean of voices
“When I was seven years old, my cousin forced me to give him a blowjob. He said it was a game we had to play. I blocked it out of my mind for many years, almost telling myself it was a bad dream. It wasn’t until I was much older than I realised he had played the same ‘game’ with my sister too.”
“Shuchi aunty was my mum’s best friend, and she used to live in the apartment above. When Ma went to work, she would sometimes leave me with her. After I turned 10, her husband started kissing and touching me, groping me over my top and sometimes under my skirt too, when he was sure no one was looking. I couldn’t tell anyone, and one day I just stopped going to their house. She (Shuchi) loved me like I was her own child. I don’t know if she will ever forgive me.”
“My friend’s dad always used to pick us up after school, and I would wait in their house until my mum was ready to pick me up. Even though his son was around, he used to always insist I sit on his lap, and stroked my legs when he got the chance. Because I was a boy, no one thought it was abuse, they just said he was a creepy old uncle and laughed it off.”
“When I met my husband, I was still in college. We spent years getting to know each other, and eventually we got married. I knew he had a temper but so do I. One night I came home late from work and we fought, but this time it was different. That night he didn’t just hit me - he forced himself upon me, even though I begged him to stop. Later, he said if I was a good wife he wouldn’t even need to ask for permission.”
- Suraiya, 34, development worker
“I worked in a house all through my early teens to a few years earlier. The people of the house are wonderful human beings, and they have always taken care of me. They took me in, helped me build my house on my village land, helped my younger siblings go to school - they even arranged my marriage. But when I was younger, the boro bhaiya would come to me sometimes at night and lie down beside me, do things. He even bought me some nice earrings once. I didn’t want to, but who could I go to, how could I jeopardise everyone’s future?”
The silence needs to be broken by all
- Jahanara, 33, domestic worker
Our newspapers tell us the stories every other day - college student raped and murdered on a moving bus, man confesses to raping child, girls raped in hotel after attending a birthday party - it goes on and on. And we all know of the normalisation of the harassment of women on the streets of Bangladesh.
However, what these stories often don’t reflect is how so much of sexual harassment and abuse begins at home. That there are children, girls and boys, being subject to this silent abuse in households across the nation - not by perverts on the street, but by family members, friends and neighbours - people in positions of trust and power who are able to ensure silence.
Sexual abuse and harassment is almost always about vulnerability and power, and marginalised populations are always more likely to be shamed and silenced by it. And all too often, the the biggest silencer is you and me. The fear and stigma that stems from society, the shaming and the ‘dishonour’, not just of the victim but the entire family, still makes the majority of victims keep quiet about their abuse.
Every time someone questions the behaviour of a ‘respectable’ gentleman but you hush them up because you don’t want to insult a ‘gurujon’, you are culpable. Every time a woman speaks out and you instinctively wonder who she was with and what she was wearing, you are culpable. Every time you judge someone for being ‘indecent’ - for not living up to your manufactured standard of morality - you pave the road for someone else to use these same standards to shame and silence them.
As long as we continue to reproduce the silence and the taboo that protects the perpetrators, never the victims - children, domestic workers and every other person in these positions of vulnerability will be helpless in the face of abuse.