Digital Painting by Jason Sabbir Dhali
Photographs by Ashraf Uddin Apu
45 years since independence and we live in the day and age where it’s acceptable for woman to step out of their homes, pursue a career and have a voter’s ballot in hand, and yet there is a majority of women condemned, controlled and silenced. According to Indexmundi 2016, we have over 82 million women in this country. We see them in paddy fields, on the construction grounds and in garments factories, and yet we mystify them, alienate them and treat them like a separate entity altogether. According to Violence Against Women(VAW) Survey 2011, in Bangladesh as many as 87% of currently married women have ever experienced any type of violence by current husband and 77% reported any type of violence faced during the past 12 months from the survey time. The higher percentage of any type of violence is predominantly contributed by psychological violence. Almost 90% of those who have ever been violated by current husband has the past 12-month experience of violence which implies the persistent nature of violence by the husband. 65 percent of married women reported that they had experienced physical violence committed by their current husbands during their lifetime (Hossen, Measuring Gender-based violence: Results of the Violence, 2014).
Keeping freedom in mind, Shuchi Karim, Gender and SRHR Specialist at BRAC Institute of Educational Development; Barrister Asif Bin Anwar, Advocate, Supreme Court; and Dr. Mekhala Sarkar; Psychiatrist at Health and Hope Specialized Hospital share their views on the rise of sexual assault in the country, the legal remedies and how we can work to normalise the state of women in the country.
As a feminist scholar of Gender and Sexualities, Shuchi Karim points out the flawed perspective the society harbours of a good woman. “The general idea we have is that women’s bodies are thought of as vulnerable. It centres on the idea of purity; sanitised body and divinity,” she begins.
The whole restlessness of early marriage is still active because according to society, a hormonal girl will be sexually active. “People want to lower the marriageable age for women, so the hormonal changes can be controlled much earlier and also hand them over in marriage for the girls’ safety and security,” remarks Shuchi.
According to Dr. Mekhala, a woman’s outlook in society is where the error begins. “When a guy and girl grow up in the same household, they see that the women generally assume the responsibilities at home and the men go to work. What they see is what they learn,” she says.
Shuchi feels that this idea of putting women on a pedestal is a trap as the women are then bound to only relational roles such as being a mother, daughter, sister and wife. As a result, they are viewed based on those relations and not on their own merit. “When you add divinity on a women, that’s a tough place for her to be in.” She also says equal opportunities of education makes women more empowered than men as women know they don’t have too many opportunities. “If you give women a one inch space, she will try to claw her way out and stretch it a little bit further and I think these kind of proactive initiatives aren’t what our society is accustomed to,” points out Shuchi.
Mekhala points out that from childhood, children need to be taught to treat woman as individuals and not as a separate gender. “In many cases, men aren’t taught how to communicate with a girl. Since there is a social stigma surrounding sexuality, victims of harassment may feel that the violence that happened was their own fault,” she voices.
When it comes to seeking legal help, there is nothing to write home about.
The most serious form of sexual offence is rape which is a punishable offence under Section 354 of the penal code and under the Women and Children Repression Prevention Act 2010. “In Section 10, we see that a touch on a woman with one’s own sexual organs, or any other object with the purpose of deriving sexual pleasure, is a punishable offence,” confirms Asif. But there are areas of harassment which the laws don’t cover. Asif highlights that for cases like social media harassment, marital rape, stalking and calling a woman names on the street aren’t punishable crimes by the law. “As of now, there is no provision of punishment for the situations above. So if a person resorts to those offences, it isn’t considered a crime by law. However, if it is a case of sexual harassment, it will be formed under the general scope of harassment stated in the law. We can’t file a case against the harasser, but we can lodge a complaint to the police then they can offer protection and keep the harraser under watch,” he informs. But we wonder how much of that is truly possible and will ensure safety for girls from future offenses.
“ In most cases, men who grope women in public spaces aren’t fidgeting to have sex; women’s presence in the public space goes against their own ideological stance. They feel these women need to be taught a lesson,” reveals Shuchi.
The case of low self-esteem and the idea of sexual desire as something terrible also plays a role here. “Sexual need is normal, and we should normalise this need. My desire to eat and drink is never rebuked; but the moment it comes to my sexual needs, we are expected to hide or suppress it. A conflict is created and sexual concept is made faulty which is a factor leading to the rise of sexual assault,” Mekhala asserts.
The outlook of sexuality too is another grey area. “If someone is physically bruised, one will empathise, but in terms of sexuality, if a girl is groped, people will question her involvement in the matter instead of going after the perpetrator. In many cases, women are uncomfortable to talk about it, and when you can’t deal with a stress as such, it creates complications in other aspects of their professional, social and even marital life,” she claims.
According to Shuchi, conceptualising the idea of a strong independent woman is still new to us. Furthermore, progressive women have become something we don’t understand; hence we think of ways to contain them in the old system. “Women have spread out around the world studying on their own merit, and braving adverse situations. Women who aren’t used to having rights just to enjoy as their own agency, when they step out of their homes be it within their national or international boundaries, they don’t remain the same; their own essence of womanhood transforms.” Hence, there is a backlash and the patriarchy starts revolting against this.
When it comes to moving on mentally from a case of sexual assault, women are still not comfortable talking about such cases. “As women can’t adjust with these issues easily, and because of their rearing process and the overprotective environment, their social skills are sometimes not that enhanced; thus limiting their coping ability.” Mekhala states.
Similarly, when a woman reaches out for legal justice, there too she is faced with adversities. When a woman is harassed, she is certainly very distressed. “The police will not be inclined to let you file an FIR because the police maybe biased towards the culprit and may not give your case much importance. In that case, the woman should file a case against the policeman as well. If the police aren’t taking your case, you should contact a lawyer,” Asif advises.
Moreover, molestation is such a prevalent issue, that women can also call the police when they feel they are in danger. “There are some emergency numbers available from the police which should be used for help. However there is a ray of hope. “The law enforcing agencies are more inclined to listen to the stories now in comparison to what they used to ten years ago,” he observes.
The only way out of this is to normalise women’s achievements publicly, teach children the difference between good and bad touch and also plead to the parliament to have more stringent laws that will help women in harassment cases.
The more respectful relationships we create with children, the more they will respect their peers. They also need a lot of support from parents, especially the mother. When a child says they don’t like a particular uncle, the parents should accept the child’s complaint. Awareness about different sorts of adversities should be built on and then sexual trauma as a stressor would lessen and so will other traumas,” recommends Mekhala.
From a legal perspective, Asif thinks it’s high time the parliament makes a law addressing issues of stalking, uploading content on social media, harassing on the streets, etc. “The only problem the parliament or lawyers will be facing is understanding to what extent a contact can be made illegal, and can be termed as crime. Hence objectively deciding the borderline will be a challenge for the legislator. But we all understand that this issue needs to be addressed and made into a law,” advocates Asif.
Shuchi feels that women’s achievements and their new roles as assertive human beings need to be published and it has to be in public minds repeatedly and relentlessly. “Coeducation is also necessary and the more you interact with the opposite sex, the less excited you will be about it. Lastly, we need to demystify the gender,” she wraps up.