Whoever you are reading this article, if you happen to be a woman, put yourself in this hypothetical yet relatable scenario. You are walking down the street to the bus stop. A creepy roadside stalker boorishly stares at you. As you get on the bus, someone behind you intentionally rubs against your body. On your way home, you get snatched, groped, and sexually assaulted. After all of these happen, you share the incidents with your family and peers. The reaction you get is, “It was your fault. You shouldn’t have been out so late.” How would you feel then?
It all starts with a gaze of perversion and ends with the raping of a woman. For this gruesome and filthy act, how often are men at home held accountable? More often than not, we instinctively undermine their vices by exclaiming, ‘Men will be Men’; Instead of teaching men and boys to behave, women and girls get questioned for casually going out. This mentality of protecting women rather than empowering debunks the idea of women’s equality and freedom. Misogynistic attitude has embedded the act of molestation, harassment, and sexual assault embedded in our social system. This issue reached its extremity when a woman being forcefully stripped, teased, and gang-raped was recorded on camera and released on social media.
On September 2, 2020, a woman in the southern district of Noakhali, was gang-raped. What’s worse is that the rapists recorded this sexual assault and used it to blackmail her for days. This entire incident is a testament to the severe normalisation of rape in our society. It has come down to such a level that those men dared to rape a woman on camera and release it over the internet. They were unapologetic of their criminal act, let alone feeling guilty.
According to the Ain-O-Salish Kendra (ASK), from January to September 2020, nearly 1000 rape cases have been reported. Notably, each day four women were gang-raped between April to August, as per the statistical reports of ASK. It accounts for 1/5th of gang rapes over these months.
The horrific statistical reports and the inaction against these huge rape cases have sparked flames of protest among feminists across Bangladesh. It was high time that this embedded rape culture of our system was addressed. “Feminists across Generations” took a stand in such burning circumstances. It is an intergenerational feminist alliance that summons all the activists into a shared platform to withstand gender-based inequality and abuse. A countrywide movement called “Rage against Rape” was called up by this feminist platform.
Rage against Rape is an inter-generational protest of women, which demands the punishment of each unsolved rape case along with uprooting violence against women infested with gender-biased norms. In other words, it is a protest of women against gender-based discrimination, victim-blaming, and impunity of rape culture. About the objective of the movement Syeda Samara Mortada, Regional Movement Builder, Asia, SheDecides, and an active member of Feminists Across Generations, said, “We are demanding freedom not ‘protection’. We are demanding to reform laws, and we do not support the death penalty, nor is it a solution to end all forms of violence in the country.”
This movement not only asserts individual rape cases but also calls upon diminishing the deeply rooted rape culture in our society. “ ‘End Rape Culture’ placard clenched with steadfastness, eyes filled with courage and hearts filled with rage; these women roared for freedom. Students, alumni, parents, teachers, and women from different fields joined the movement and roared with fury against gender-based violence calling justice.
We cannot go without mentioning the 10-points-demands proposed by the organising body of the movement. In ponders upon the aspect of holding boys and men accountable for their inflicted violence, rejecting the notion of women’s body hold their and their family’s honor, including mandatory comprehensive sex education at school syllabus, implementing swift action to develop cyber tools which to prevent violence against women, reforming existing laws on rape, and holding zero-tolerance against victim-blaming.
On October 10, 2020, this huge protest took place in front of the Jatiya Shangshad Bhaban. Rage against Rape was organised with a collaborative network of various feminist organisations, namely- Kotha, Right Here Right Now, SheDecides Bangladesh, Bonhishikha, Naripokhkho, and many more.
The unity of feminists from different organisations and social institutions makes this movement magnanimous. Experiences of victim-blaming and harassment have summoned all feminists together. “We are joined together by our anger, sadness, and pain; coming together in power”, stated Umama Zillur, founder of Kotha and one of the key coordinators of Rage against Rape.
Chenoa Chowdhury, the founder of Bonhishikha, a Dhaka based feminist not-for-profit organisation, shared their contribution to this movement. “Our members of Bonhishikha have been involved in various roles including the Rage against Rape outside of parliament on October 10, 2020. Feminists Across Generations has implemented a 10-point-demand as we have declared Gender-Based Violence as a National Emergency which needs to be addressed on all levels of society.”
Describing the robustness of the protest, Samara Mortada stated, “ We not only protested in front of the Parliament where more than 500 people joined organically, but we also called on our allies and supporters in the media, organised a press conference and are organising flash mobs in Dhaka, and beyond to scream with rage, to ask for answers and to demand measures to be put in place so that we are safe in the streets, at any time of the day or night, so that the law itself does not once again victimise the victim.”
Besides, the movement has also been taking a stand through performing flash mobs. On October 24, women in black attire performed to “Tui Dhorshok”, an adaptation from the renowned feminist anthem, “A rapist in your path”, born in Chile. The motive behind this flash mob was to represent the solidarity of womanhood and to address the perpetrators of sexual abuse by dropping the practice of victim-blaming.
Regarding the significance of the flash mobs in this protest Advocate Saraban Tahura, founder of Justicia Feminist Network and one of the key coordinators of Rage against Rape, said, “The beauty of our movement will not end until we entirely uproot the normalisation of sexual assault. Thus, we have been organising flash mobs to empower women to join our movement and spread words against victim-blaming and the impunity of rape.”
From the time of our liberation war until the present day in Bangladesh, rape and sexual abuse have been ever-prevalent. The perpetuation of rape culture and impunity is a result of the long-ago sown seeds of patriarchy in our social system. So in the social institutions of family, education, religion, or law; gender-based norms have hegemonised the occurrence of rape in our country. This in turn has now transformed into this awful rape culture. In this aspect, lack of comprehensive sex education, gender-biased law, and victim-blaming are the prime reasons which accelerate the rape culture and impunity.
The concept of gender, consent, sexual identity, and many other aspects are still unknown to a large section of people in our country. As a result, the stereotypical notion of gender norms has been dominating women’s liberty. About the aspect of sex education Advocate Saraban Tahura, stated, “In our country, due to the lack of comprehensive sex education, many people do not understand the notion of ‘gender’, let alone sex. As a result, people abide by stereotypical and misconceived gender concepts and undermine womens’ position. Moreover, people are oblivious to the concept of consent which causes the increasing resort to rape.”
Unfortunately, existing laws of our country are not fair in attaining justice for women in the legal process. In other words, it is not gender friendly, rather biased towards men. According to Section 155(4), when a man is prosecuted for rape, it stands that victim was immoral. Attaining justice for rape gets de-rationalised when a woman is suspected and charged for her character in face of barbarity. So the law itself fingers upon the victim rather than the perpetrator. Apart from that, the section 375 of penal code states that, “sexual intercourse by a man with his wife, the wife not being under thirteen years of age, is not rape.” This law legalises child sexual abuse and exempts punishment of rape of woman over 13 years.
Syeda Samara Mortada stated her opinion about the problematic laws on rape in our country, “We need to also look at laws, analyse and reform those that promote rape culture and a culture of impunity. Some of these are the evidence act, as well as laws around marital rape.” Samara further added, “We do not believe in temporary Band-Aid solutions like death penalty as we have strategised our ways together, for our voices to go unheard.” Saraban Tahura added to her view, “The court system of our country is not gender responsive. The trend of impunity has been prolonged by this discriminative and unjust law that questions a woman’s character even after being raped. So reformation of law regarding rape is a must.”
As mentioned, the patriarchal system has cemented the discriminative norms and misogynistic ideologies towards women. Our social system has imprinted gender biases in such a way that we consciously or, subconsciously bear it. So holding women accountable for rape instead of the perpetrators has become an unfair practice. If we see the other way around, the rapists continuously get the audacity to continue their act of sexual assault as the victim gets shamed for no apparent justice. So psychologically, we are hardwired to victim-shaming.
In this connection, we can mention Melvin Lerner’s experiment. Lerner, a social psychologist and regarded as “a pioneer in the psychological study of justice”, showed through an experiment that the more the innocents are wronged by getting entangled in an unresolved situation, the more that person is devalued by society. People tend to believe that nothing wrong can happen to a person of moral character. In other words, it is believed that the victims are perceived to insinuate the perpetrator for doing something wrong or else it is not likely to occur. So as the impunity of rape culture brings no plausible outcomes in favor of the victim; social institutions like- family, education institution, and law charge the victim for their attire, tone, and rather than investigating the actions of the perpetrator. So it is high time that necessary changes are brought into the judicial and court system by reforming rape laws which are gender responsive for both men, and women.
Interestingly, a rapist’s aggressive, guiltless, and perverted attitude develops from the environment he grows up in. Family, being the first learning institution for a child, certainly shapes their mindset as an adult. Ms Farzana Ahmed Eti, Assistant Clinical Psychologist of Moshal Mental Healthcare, shared about the psychology of a rapist/sexual assaulter, “When a child grows up witnessing the conflicts between his parents, he observes how the father discharges his authority over the mother. Fights and disputes put a child into a void of uncertainty. This uncertainty makes a child vulnerable. Being in a growing stage, a child easily picks up the aggressive, toxic and dominating attitude as a coping mechanism to their inferiority complex. So he subconsciously learns that to have control in life, every situation should be dealt with hostility. This in turn, precedes him in inflicting unconsented sexual violence.”
It goes without saying that, taking the perpetrator’s action into account, eradication of the mindset of victim blaming, reformation of rape laws and inclusion of comprehensive sex education in schools are the great means of fighting against the existing impunity and rape culture. “We need to move away from a society that creates and upholds rape culture. The first step to doing that is having open conversation about the aspects of sex education and issue of rape with our family, friends, and colleagues”, stated Syeda Samara Mortada.
The Rage against Rape movement was much needed in Bangladesh as women have been suffering a normalised culture of harassment. This protest is creating history as up until now, there has been no other movement in our country where women in intergenerational solidarity came forward to diminish the gender biased violence existing in our patriarchal system. This solidarity of women is most certain to weigh heavy upon the system that justifies gender based violence. About the strength of solidarity, Umama Zillur said, “Starting from those who have been fighting for women’s rights since the liberation of Bangladesh to high school students, we have come together as activists for an intergenerational fight against this deep-rooted cause. This movement will end, when violence will end.”
“When people see a woman with greying hair shouting slogans alongside a 21year old, they are bound to be inspired! The fight against rape and sexual violence needs everyone’s participation.”
Naripokkho was founded in 1983 and since then you have been leading various feminist and women empowering campaigns. How much of a difference do you see in the context of gender bias and sexual assault in Bangladesh?
One of the first issues that Naripokkho was confronted with upon its inception in 1983 was that of physical and sexual violence against women and girls as well as intimidation. In the initial years Naripokkho held numerous workshops across the country with women development workers. These women represented a break with tradition in entering a non-traditional job which involved travel to villages and working with rural women and men. Their testimonies produced a canvas of stark inequality that women and girls suffered in every aspect of their lives; deprived of opportunities, resources and rights. A complex ideological apparatus existed which justified this state of affairs. Women themselves internalised these justifications, making it difficult to build any resistance.
Rape and sexual violence were clearly seen as a matter of shame for the woman, and a loss of honour for her family. There were no reliable statistics on the prevalence of VAW, and public institutions which could provide essential services were not in place.
Judging by a number of parameters and BBS data, women’s condition has improved in a lot of ways since then. The disparity in primary school enrolment has disappeared, and the dropout rate for girls at secondary and higher secondary levels is declining. Women have gained entry into different sectors of employment. Pregnancy related deaths have gone down, although not yet enough. Life expectancy of women and men have increased manifold since independence. The population sex ratio has improved.
However, I am sceptical of any significant progress in reducing gender-based violence and sexual assault. Sexual violence continues to be taboo and is seen as the loss of honour of women and their families. The shame and the blame are always on the victim rather than on the perpetrator. People hesitate to report rape and sexual violence. Sexual abuse that occurs inside the home or is perpetrated by relatives and neighbours is rarely reported. So, it is difficult to assess and quantify its prevalence.
Naripokkho has protested violence against women and girls (VAW) on the streets as well as lobbied government successfully to introduce procedural improvements for victims and their families to report VAW and file complaints, to make medico-legal examinations after sexual violence accessible, to initiate the collection of VAW data, etc. Naripokkho has also worked to build resistance against VAW through the formation of Doorbar, a national network of women’s organisations and to provide support to victims and facilitate their transition to become survivors.
What does Naripokkho think about the escalating rate of rape cases in recent times?
It is difficult to assert that the incidence of rape has escalated in recent times. As I have said before the stigma around sexual violence is a barrier to reporting, especially when it involves relatives and friends. Thus, the data on VAW is not robust. Media attention and reporting has definitely increased.
What appears to have increased is the incidence of gang rapes. The absence of rule of law is a key factor. Perpetrators of almost every gang rape and sexual assault recently reported are directly connected to the student wings of the ruling party. Probably the link to power gives the perpetrators a sense of impunity. In any case, law enforcement and rigorous investigation can aid in the apprehension of perpetrators and the prosecution of individual cases. The problem and its magnitude cannot be tackled without long term measures to dismantle the culture of rape and sexual violence on the one hand, and the culture of impunity on the other.
How can we raise awareness about impunity and rape culture?
We must try and use each and every medium of mass communication, be it mass media or social media, as well as all educational platforms. The spread of awareness about Covid 19, to take a recent example, using cell phone operators, television channels, radio, newspapers, demonstrates what can be done if a problem is taken seriously. VAW is not considered to be a national disaster despite the scale of suffering and the seriousness of its consequences.
Do you agree with the latest directive that came from the government about death penalty as the highest punishment of rape perpetrators?
No, I don’t agree. First, I do not think the severity of punishment has a deterrent effect; there is no evidence from anywhere in the world that it does. Second, I am opposed to the death penalty on principle. As a human rights activist I cannot support a measure that is in conflict with human rights principles and values. Moreover, this ill thought out rushed through amendment is likely to reduce reporting of rape as often perpetrators are related or known. The pressure to not report will increase to both ‘save face’ as well as to spare the life of an uncle, a cousin or a neighbour. Conviction rates on rape cases are already abysmally low. The introduction of the death penalty for single perpetrator rape (the death penalty was already in the statutes for murder after rape and for gang rape) is unlikely to increase convictions. Judges have to be convinced more than 100% about the guilt of an offender before they hand down capital punishment. Mandatory sentencing can therefore lead to acquittals.
How can the condition of women in Bangladesh be improved?
I would say that the first and foremost requirement is that women are granted formal equality. Women and girls continue to be discriminated against in laws and policies. This has to end. Changes in the law This hashave to be backed withby teaching men and boys to respect women as equals, challenging sex-stereotypes in textbooks and cultural products, preventing child marriage of both girls and boys, introduction of comprehensive sexuality education in schools, women-friendly making public transport and public spaces women-friendly, transforming women-friendly government and institutions to become women-friendly, and adopting zero tolerance for shaming and blaming victims of sexual violence and rape.
Do you feel this women’s solidarity can inspire the mothers and daughters at home to fight against the rape culture in solidarity?
Rage against Rape is an inter-generational campaign, and one that has declared gender-based violence a national emergency. I am hopeful that the campaign initiated by Feminists Across Generations will succeed in building solidarity across genders, classes, occupations, religions, diverse ethnicities and sexualities, linguistic groups and so on and so forth. Most importantly it will cut throughacross generation gaps. When people see a woman with greying hair shouting slogans alongside a 21year old, they are bound to be inspired! The fight against rape and sexual violence needs everyone’s participation, and I am hopeful that more and more mothers and daughters will join along with fathers and brothers and friends.