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Dhaka Tribune

OP-ED: This is a man’s world

How a patriarchal society exacerbates the problem of suicide in a country like Bangladesh

Update : 18 May 2021, 06:31 AM

Suicide is coercive, with many ramifications, but few remedies. Suicide rates are alarming in many nations, including Bangladesh. Every year, around 1 million people die by suicide worldwide, which is more than double the number of people who die by homicide. 

Though the rate of suicide varies by cohort and geographical location, it is common among celebrities, with women making up the majority of this group. Men, on the other hand, outperform women in terms of total suicide rates, despite the fact that women make more attempts than their male counterparts.

Why do suicides occur?

Is suicide merely a personal problem, or does it occur as a result of societal dysfunction or imbalance, either severe or weak regulation? If that’s the case, what are the dysfunctions that lead to people committing suicide?

Suicide has traditionally been viewed as a personal pathology or a sinful act in most cultures, rather than a societal, structural, or gendered phenomenon. French sociologist Emile Durkheim first studied suicide systematically, but I acknowledge that there are currently several competing theoretical approaches. 

The concept of a social collective that is made up of, but distinct from, its individual members are central to Durkheim’s claim. Durkheim emphasizes that the force that defines suicide is social rather than psychological. Durkheim differentiated between egoistic, anomic, altruistic, and fatalistic suicides, which are broad categories that represent various social contexts in which suicides may occur. 

He demonstrated egoistic suicide as a result of the breakdown of social and family relations. He connected anomic suicide to a social background characterized by lawlessness and breakdown of norms and values of the society. Overregulation, on the other hand, leads to fatalistic suicide (eg, extreme gender-biased norms). 

Recent incidents

I looked at how Durkheim’s statements about the connection between social disintegration and suicide have lent credence to current claims that Bangladeshi women are victims of its patriarchal society.

Within just a couple of weeks, two incidents have been highlighted on social media in Bangladesh. Jhilik Alam was killed by her husband Sakibul Alam Mishu in association with her in-laws’ family members, though her husband has made a “drama” of road accident at the city’s Hatirjheel area picking up his dead wife in his private car from a flat in the Gulshan area. 

In another incident, Mosarat Jahan Munia, a college student, was found hanging from the ceiling fan in her bedroom. Although the victim’s elder sister reported in the First Information Report (FIR) that the deceased’s de facto boyfriend, Sayem Sobhan Anvir, the managing director of a leading group of industries, abetted her to commit suicide, the victim’s brother-in-law claimed that his sister-in-law was murdered. 

Let’s try to look at these two cases through the lens of Durkheim’s theory of suicide.

Social differences

Regardless of whether it is a suicide or a murder, both cases have a link to some common factors that contributed to their deaths. If we look into these two cases, it is evident that these two incidents share similar social backgrounds. 

Jhilik came from a middle-class family and married after falling in love with the man. So far, we have learned from various sources that her in-laws’ family did not welcome the marriage because of the economic and social differences between the two families. 

Here, the marital relationship between the adult man and woman was justified by their economic circumstances. Due to her parents’ weak financial condition, a woman becomes the object of her in-laws’ family’s torment in their shared relationships. 

She had been tortured by her husband and other members of her in-laws’ family prior to her murder. Two female participants were also involved in this exploitation (her mother-in-law and sister-in-law). So, patriarchy is a system that is also subscribed sometimes by women themselves when there is a conflict of interests. Torture and murder like this are strong signs of patriarchal social control over women.

In the latter case, Munia, a 21-year-old girl, was the victim of patriarchal and class division. Aside from her gender identity, she was from a middle-class background. Despite the victim’s confidence in the man to have a secure future, the perpetrator took advantage of his privileged social class and status as a more influential man than his female counterpart. 

The patriarchal system is based on a power imbalance that places women in a position of subordination and powerlessness in society. In Bangladesh, living together without a legal marriage is a reflection of individual freedom. However, such expressions of freedom are socially stigmatized, with women being convicted at a higher rate than men. 

Though both males and females who engage in such reciprocal relations should be convicted equally, male convictions are overshadowed. We hear similar rhetoric in every case when women are raped, tortured, sexually abused, or victimized. 

Given the abundance of social media commentary on Munia’s issue, we see a lot of victim-blaming, though some messages are compassionate and respectful of her plight. However, the assassination of her character is deceptive and misleading, diverting focus from the main issue and overshadowing the crime that occurred to her.

We can’t expect a 21-year-old girl to be mature enough to consider her future unmistakably. Instead, this is the age for a girl to be ambitious and to be seduced by delusions. She also lost a parent and needed a stable shelter to stay while her brother and sister married and started their own families. As a result, she wanted to settle her life with someone who had sufficient financial support. 

Her death demonstrates that she was duped and misled by her de facto boyfriend. He was mature enough to make the correct decision. Furthermore, he is a married man with obligations and duties to his family. He can’t use a girl solely for sexual gratification and create the illusion of marriage. 

This is the dreadful image of a patriarchal society in which the objectification of women’s bodies has become the common practice. Further, the oppressive nature of a capitalist society is bolstered by hegemonic masculine forces. As a result, Munia and Jhilik’s deaths were nothing more than a continuation of patriarchal-capitalist society’s abuse of women. 

The role of the media

The patriarchal society’s double standard is aided by the mass media as well. In fact, the mass media is a product of the capitalist class, with their sway being a common factor. In today’s Bangladesh, the majority of the mainstream media plays a blind role in public interests. 

Their behaviours vary depending not on the facts but on the person who is involved with these facts. They see the individual identity, his social or political position, but not his offense against women. When it comes to playing the role of yellow journalism, Bangladesh is unrivaled. 

Journalists are either motivated by self-interest or political stance, though their position should be impartial. 

Because the mass media at first should inform people, and the media’s unbiased position helps create demand for victims to receive fair and accessible justice. 

Finally, unlike many Western countries, Bangladesh is neither a welfare state nor a woman-friendly one. Men are privileged both in public and private spheres. At almost every turn of their lives, women are expected to set their limits or boundaries. 

Such boundaries are shaped by a long-established patriarchal culture associated with religious beliefs and practices. 

Every woman in Bangladesh faces challenges and struggles to survive in some way. Their lives are on the verge of either being lost or being saved. Some of them are lost beyond our knowledge; some become the media’s headlines, while some others survive for years. 

Ultimately, every woman in Bangladesh feels out of place or is a misfit because it is still a man’s world.

Shafiqul Islam is Assistant Professor in Sociology (on study-leave) at United International University and a PhD Candidate in Sociology, The University of Auckland. He can be reached at [email protected].

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