We are way past the point where we can look the other way and ignore the conversation
A woman’s breasts, her womb, and her vagina do not belong to any person other than herself. They are not the property of her partner, her husband, her family, the society she belongs to, nor to the country in which she is born. No governing body should have the right to dictate what she can and cannot do with her own body.
But we live in a world where women are constantly being told what to wear and what not to wear (too short, too long, too tight, too loose, too revealing, too conservative, too provocative -- you were asking for it); how to sit or not to sit (cross your legs, don’t spread your legs -- too inviting); where to go or not to go (in a cab, in his room, on the street, in her house -- you should have known better); when to go out or not to go out (too early, too late, too dark -- should have stayed at home); how to talk and how not to talk (too smiley, too friendly, too flirty -- you led him on).
It is galling that even in the 21st century, women are still being subjected to different forms of abuse, be it physical, psychological, emotional, or sexual, simply because they are women.
Sexual assault and rape are topics that are socially taboo but even where they are not, people find it a subject matter that makes them uncomfortable. It does not make for polite dinner conversation. But these are issues that must be addressed and we are way past the point where we can look the other way because it offends our sensibilities.
As a teenager, I remember we had to wear our dupattas like protective armour over our breasts to avoid being ogled and walk with our elbows slightly bent and protruding to make sure we were not “accidentally” bumped into whenever we were in public spaces in Dhaka.
This precaution was not enough to avoid being touched or groped by men even in broad daylight. Growing up, we all knew of relatives or acquaintances with whom to maintain a distance -- the ones whose kiss on the cheek lasted longer than necessary or whose hands would graze someone’s breast as they squeezed an arm.
We said and did nothing. At the time, we assumed it was one of the consequences of being female. It is not. Staying silent allows molesters and abusers to continue with impunity. Women should be encouraged to speak out and not suffer in silence. Maybe it is time for people to name and shame and metaphorically blow their (abuser’s) house down.
As a university student living in London, I recall an incident where I was subjected to a man pressing and rubbing himself behind me, his breath against my neck in an overcrowded train, making me feel physically sick and frankly, dirty.
But instead of saying anything, I got off at the next station well before my own stop. In hindsight, I wish I had kicked up a fuss and confronted him as I was not the one at fault. A woman does not have to “do” anything to be the target of sexual harassment.
As an adult, I was carjacked in front of my house on a Friday evening returning from the movies. As I stepped out of the car, a man grabbed and assaulted me, clamping his hand over my mouth because I screamed and held me around the waist pulling me against him. Another man took the keys and got in the car.
It was only because we live in a well-lit, relatively busy area and a couple happened to be walking by that they let me go. I consider myself lucky -- as did the police -- that they just took my car and not me. Even though I had once taken self-defense classes, at the time I remembered nothing. The fear of having been physically assaulted is one that even to this day is hard to shrug off.
These are just a few incidents from my own life but it is estimated that approximately 35% of women worldwide have experienced some form of sexual harassment in their lifetime. That would make it one in three women who will have suffered some form of abuse.
According to the World Population Review, “the majority of countries that have data available on rape report that less than 40% of women who experience sexual violence seek help. Less than 10% seek help from law enforcement.”
It is difficult to get an accurate statistic on rape due to the fact that different countries have different definitions of what constitutes rape. In some countries, martial rape is not considered rape, penetration other than by a penis is not considered rape, a man raping another man is not considered rape, if violence or intimidation is not used, it is not rape.
Whether it is due to the social stigma associated with sexual harassment and rape where victims are the ones disbelieved, vilified, and ostracized by their relatives or community, the shame they feel it will bring on themselves and their family, or for fear of repercussions by the perpetrator, many women are reluctant to report the crime to the police or even tell their families.
To improve the situation, what is essential is a better support system for the victims but more importantly, the need to change attitudes of people through education and social and legal reform.
I can only hope that the recent protests taking place in Bangladesh after a video of a woman being stripped, beaten, and gang-raped in Noakhali that went viral on social media is the beginning of a tide of change. Regardless of which echelon of society or political affiliation, those who commit rape should be brought to justice.
Society needs to wake up and realize that it is the perpetrator or perpetrators of the crime who should be held accountable, not the victim.
Nadia Kabir Barb is a writer, journalist, and author of the short story collection Truth or Dare.