On January 5, 2020, a second-year student of Dhaka University was raped in Kurmitola after she mistakenly got off at the wrong bus stop at around 7pm on her way to a friend’s house. This was only the first in a string of violent attacks on women (and children) throughout the year—minors, elderly women, disabled women, indigenous women, housewives, domestic workers, college students, madrasa students—none were spared. The more gruesome ones and/or the ones that triggered the most protests stayed in the national spotlight for longer, while others—the garments worker molested on her way back from work, the unchaperoned child abused by her neighbour—slipped under the radar.
The nationwide protests against rape in 2020 led a storm of debate surrounding violence against women in Bangladesh and raised some very serious questions about the inefficiencies of the justice system, the sincerity of law enforcers when pursuing rapists and the abuse of power, the failure of the authorities in protecting the rights of women and the shortcomings of each of us in society as we fail to deal with rape culture. These protests and debates ultimately influenced lawmakers to amend the existing law and make death penalty the highest possible punishment for single perpetrator rape.
However, many experts warned that this is not an effective deterrent for rapists, especially when there are such low rates of conviction. This was unfortunately proved true when 2021 started off in much the same manner as 2020—with the gruesome rape of a student, who in this case was a minor and did not survive the violence of the crime, bleeding to death shortly after. These latest events feel like a grotesque repetition of last year’s incidents, complete with confusing statements from law enforcers (why did the police list the victim’s age as 19 in the inquest report when all official documents state she is 17, and then begin an investigation into her “real age”?), accusations of abuse of power (her family alleges the confusion over her age is a deliberate attempt to “lessen the merit of the case”), and of course, a constant in every discussion related to rape in Bangladesh—the moralising and victim-blaming of the “ek haate tali bajey na” brigade, otherwise known as the “what was she wearing” faction, usually made up of social media commentators hiding behind the shield of anonymity. Take all of this together, and you begin to understand why it is so difficult for women to come forward after they have become victims of rape in this country, and how little has changed over the past year, despite the intensifying discussions on the rights of women.
It is an unfortunate truth in Bangladesh that the more “popular” or widely discussed the rape, measured according to front page headlines, breaking news bulletins and the scale of protests, the more likely the chance of speedy trial and retribution—a recent report in The Daily Star highlighted the delays in justice for rape victims with the example of two 13-year-old gang rape survivors from Badda in February 2020, where it took nine months for the charge sheet to be submitted, even though the Women and Children Repression (prevention) Act stipulates 60 working days for police to complete a rape case probe. However, the other side of the coin of a highly publicised rape case is the life of the victim being opened up to public scrutiny, leading to a favourite pastime of our homegrown gossipmongers—deciding who is really to “blame” for what happened.
When there is a murder or a burglary, we seem to be able to reach the consensus that the murderer or the thief is to blame for the crime. Not so in the case of rape—for some reason, the unspeakably violent act of violating another human being’s body must always be seen through the lenses of morality, honour and shame instead. In 2020, a lot of people asked, why was the DU student wandering about at night on her own, going to a friend’s house to socialise instead of sitting at home and studying like a good girl? And in 2021, the grotesque parody repeats itself to the point that it is not just anonymous social media commentators blaming English medium educated girls for “free mixing” and “room dating”; even journalists from reputed television networks are seen questioning the grieving mother on whether the rapist was the victim’s boyfriend or not, and whether they actually went back to his place to study or “something else”.
When Major Sinha was killed by police, I don’t remember hearing anyone question why he was out at night in an unknown part of Cox’s Bazar making documentaries, instead of sitting in the safety of his home and doing something more respectable. When BUET student Abrar Fahad was killed for the simple act of updating a Facebook status his murderers didn’t agree with, I don’t remember anyone questioning why he was wasting time on social media instead of concentrating on his books. So why are even journalists demeaning themselves by discussing the details of a rape victim’s personal relationships, and probing her reasons for going to what would later become the scene of a brutal crime? And what exactly is the implication here? Is it okay to rape girls who have boyfriends? Do we really live on a diet of famous love stories, starting from Layla Majnu to whoever the latest sweethearts of Bollywood are, only to argue that young people who enter into relationships of “love” are somehow immoral and therefore do not deserve the same justice that the righteous and the moral do? Who draws these lines of morality anyway? And why do these unwritten norms of morality only seem to extend to women?
Every society in the world faces this conflict between modernity and morality, and this is a debate that we need to stop shying away from not only for the sake of freedom, but for the sake of justice. Because regardless of whether we admit it or not, this narrow-minded and often misogynistic line of thinking that results in moral policing doesn’t just affect the trolls on Facebook—it is the reason behind police officials being hesitant to accept cases of rape (let’s not forget that even Nusrat Jahan Rafi was turned away by the police before her abuser arranged her coldblooded murder); it is the reason behind families staying silent after their daughters are raped so she can keep her “reputation” intact; it is the reason behind a justice system that is so biased against women that in 2021, it still allows for the character assassination of rape victims in courts as a part of legal proceedings, and it is why a lawmaker can stand up in parliament and shame women and victim-blame without anyone else present batting an eyelid.
However, it would be wrong to consider this as a social issue and not a political one. If the authorities are truly serious about giving justice to rape victims, they need to make their stance clear—do they truly believe in the equal rights of men and women, as enshrined in our Constitution? If so, the use of character evidence in our courts needs to be banned immediately, compensation funds and witness protection laws must be established and our legal system needs to be reformed so that it can provide justice to all, and not just the select few who are “lucky” enough to have their abuse widely protested against or reported on in the media. At the same time, our nation’s role models—whether they are our lawmakers, our teachers, our cricketers, film stars or our writers—need to play their part in making one simple idea clear to the general public: your (unwarranted) opinions on a woman’s morality has nothing to do with her rights as a citizen in a democratic country.