Women need to reclaim public spaces
It’s around 9am, I’m late for my appointment, but I’m walking at a normal pace down Mirpur road.
I’m talking on the phone, to my husband, about the panels I would like to attend at the Dhaka Lit Fest. Suddenly, at the Asad Gate overpass, a guy reaches out and grabs my right breast, hard. He twists it, and keeps walking. I say, “what the ****?,” really loudly, then yell at him a few times as he walks off.
No one came to my aid. Not one person.
It’s a busy commuting route with thousands of people going to work -- yet, no one tried to reprimand him. And no one gave me so much as an empathetic glance.
My husband, meanwhile, with worry in his voice, asks: “What happened?” I think about it. I wonder if I should tell him -- he cannot do anything about it, he’s halfway across the world. And also, I don’t need one protector, as one person can never be with one all the time. Society needs to be the protector.
Many people have thrown in their two cents about how I should conduct myself in Dhaka. I’ve been here, off and on, for about a year as a photographer. I’ve been in crowds and protests at all hours of the day. But it’s in broad daylight, on a street with high visibility, that I’ve had these experiences.
Some ask me: “Why don’t you dress up better, and get your hair done?” I respond with: “I cannot attract any attention to myself because it’s not safe.”
Some push back on the idea and say: “You can wear Western clothes, I know many Bangali girls who do.” I usually ask these men to speak to those girls and hear about what they face wearing those clothes.
The first time I came here, three years ago, visiting a local friend, I was walking near Jamuna Future Park with my male friend. He was a few steps ahead of me as the area was crowded. Then, I felt a pinch on my left buttock.
I had never been groped before, so I did not know what to do. I thought about it as I kept walking forward, then turned around, and the man was gone -- he had fled the scene. So, I walked up to my friend and recounted the story. At first, he angrily asked: “Where is the guy?!”
Then when he understood there wasn’t a chance for confrontation, he said: “I didn’t think this still happens here.”
Before we had gone on our walk, I’d asked my friend whether I needed to wear local clothing, and he said it didn’t matter, a shirt and jeans would be fine. After the incident, I clearly remember him handing me a scarf, placing it around my neck, and saying, “at least this should work.”
That moment felt like I was travelling back in time. Man protecting his woman from unwanted advances by hiding her breasts. Pretending they aren’t there. Hoping other men won’t notice them.
Some people tell me: “They’ll think twice before they touch a foreigner because they’re afraid of the consequences.” Others try to reassure me: “If anyone does something bad to you, passers-by will come to your aid, no matter what.” That didn’t happen today. And of course, the experiences are far worse for local women.
Women need to reclaim public spaces. I would like to see women go out to socialize at midnight, in massive numbers. Then the streets would be as much theirs as men’s.
If I need to sit down, while I’m in-between photoshoots, it’s hard to do so outdoors. Even in daytime, if a woman is sitting alone, a man will approach her. I feel jealous of the men who can sit around relaxing in a public space, as I have to stay on my feet.
I cannot stop moving, otherwise there will be a problem. I remember on a launch to Barisal, as I tried to appreciate the beautiful moon, a man would not stop pestering me. They want to know if I’m married, why I’m travelling alone, etc. Consent is the last thing on their mind. They think women are there for their entertainment.
My appeal is this: Men, you know someone in your group of friends that leers at women, jokes about their bodies, that kind of thing. Get that friend to stop making spaces unsafe for women. Tell that friend to stop. It’s not up to Bangladeshi mothers alone to tell their sons to behave, men need to stop provoking their friends to be crass and objectify women.
A local girlfriend of mine recounted a time when a man exposed himself to her, and a woman wearing a burqa, on an overpass. This same girl was also groped at Dhanmondi Lake two weeks ago. She’s a strong woman, she can defend herself, and she’s lived here her whole life. But men still approach her.
I’ve heard persistent stories about workplace harassment, with higher-ups propositioning single mothers. I’ve heard one woman say she feels so unsafe here, travelling by bus, that she wants to leave the country -- and I myself left this country in December last year to take a break from two students who were sexually harassing me online and I feared might do it in public.
I am not saying that there is a promised land where men behave perfectly, but men here can behave better. Women cannot be forced to stay indoors because men cannot control their urges. Women need to be outdoors as well, for their physical health and mental health.
Women cannot live with a constant fear of people in a crowd, or on the street. I chose to persist, because I’ve had months without any incident as well. But these moments of harassment have dotted my time in this country -- they’re a constant reminder that change is necessary.
Anna Milovanovic is a photographer based in Dhaka.