Are village arbitration bodies reliable when it comes to doling out justice?
A video of a woman and a man humiliated in front of a whole village and then driven out for being involved in an extramarital relationship has caused uproad in social media. The incident happened in Jhenaidah, where the village arbitration body ordered the hair of the accused to be cut and then for liquid limestone to be smeared on their faces.
Understandably, this was done as punishment, and while their relationship cannot be condoned, it has to be taken into account that they are two consenting adults.
Illicit relations should never be encouraged, but the punishment they received is hardly something which can be accepted.
Village arbitrations often hand out punishments which degrade humans. In the latest case, the man and woman, both disgraced, left the village, but does that bring an end to the problem? We do not know if the woman’s husband decided to divorce his wife or take her back. Since she has faced public ignominy, chances are high that she won’t be taken back by her husband.
Will the lovers go elsewhere and live together? Well, there are many possibilities, some of which may seem beneficial for the banished lovers, and others which may result in them becoming destitute.
What of the husband who had to see his wife being ridiculed in front of the whole village? I am no expert on rural social norms but, as long as the man lives, he will be known as the husband whose wife was involved in moral transgressions. Not an edifying way to be referred to by others!
In short, airing dirty laundry in public will have unpleasant ramifications for all parties.
What should have been done
Since we live in communities, we must also accept the evils that come with them; unlawful activities should be dealt with in private and in the presence of sensible elders plus a psychologist.
Asking for a shrink to be present at such rural mediation boards is a tall order; however, any disciplinary action meted out can easily be approved by the local police station or the chairman’s office.
In the Jhenaidah incident, the cutting of the woman’s hair plus the smearing of sandstone on her face was recorded on a phone and then released online.
Since the platform is popular, perhaps each district administrator’s office can think about launching online arbitration support centres where young educated people can impart advice about dealing with social aberrations/afflictions.
A wide range of unspeakable things take place in rural Bangladesh, from land related feuds to conflicts resulting from romantic complications, and these can be tackled logically once the mosques become centres of enlightenment.
A few days ago, the news of a young madrasah student beaten ruthlessly by his madrasa teacher created outrage. The student reportedly wanted to take some time off with his parent; such a violent outburst is another indicator of how feudal-style treatment is endemic.
Since family spheres can be the breeding ground of a wide variety of grievances, their settlements need to be within closed doors and not made a spectacle for the public to revel in.
The video of the Jhenaidah incident also alludes to society's voyeuristic tendencies. The exposure of the lovers, their trial in front of others, and then their barbaric punishment underline a sadistic streak.
These village arbitration bodies often follow a savage formula to discipline those who have flouted social rules without realizing that public shaming may have the opposite effect.
The law should be represented in mediation
The TV channel which broadcast the incident said that the police station responsible for the particular village where the incident took place knew of the incident from social media and did not take action since no complaint was lodged.
I am no legal expert but when something barbaric is taking place, a complaint is perhaps the last thing one requires to get into action. If the law had been represented at the arbitration, the disciplinary action would have been different, and certainly less sadistic.
If the government makes it mandatory for the police to be present at such arbitrations, the practice of handing out inhumane punishments will see a fall.
Notice that I said fall, and not eradication. This is because, deep within our social system, there is still a prevalent belief that force, public humiliation, and physical assault are effective tools to deal with problems.
Sadly, this is but a remnant of the colonial period when any transgression by the natives was dealt with with the use of physical torture plus public shaming. This was done merely to assert colonial superiority while injecting a sense of inferiority among the locals.
While the imperial nations have moved away from such barbaric tactics, we still doggedly cling on to them.
This story will soon die out, the village arbitration will be forgotten, and news media will make no effort to track down the punished lovers to see what has happened to them.
Where do these unfortunate people end up? There is a poignant story there -- the life of the transgressors after they are driven out of the village.
Unfortunately, this we will not know since, in the period after the punishment, there won’t be anything salacious.
News reports of a raid into a flat to uncover a high-class prostitution racket become viral. We see women being taken away and customers looking agitated, but there is also a story after that too.
Where do the girls end up? Do they get released and go back straight into the trade?
The bottom line is not all arbitrations need to be in front of the public and can be settled through sensible dialogue.
Towheed Feroze is a journalist and teaches at the University of Dhaka.