Women or girls have never been safe in Bangladesh. Since childhood, my parents suggested that I return home before dark for my own safety. That was the patriarchal norm, but things have changed. Since the 1990s, women have become more visible after dark. A large number of women working in apparel industries returns home from factories often quite late at night. Women in informal labour too stay outside for their livelihood. The inclusion of women in formal and informal labour and their presence, significantly larger than before, failed to ensure women’s safety in public places. Normatively, ‘modest’ women and girls are expected to be accompanied by a male (younger or older does not matter) guardian. In the changing urban and semi-urban settings, the idea is still pertinent that women should not move alone at night. In the recent killing of Nila at Savar and the rape at MC College in Sylhet we have witnessed that even a male companion could not ‘save’ women from the violence. Nila was accompanied by her brother, while in the case of the rape at the MC College premise, the woman was raped in her husband’s presence.
What is the basis of this normative idea that women should not be out at night or they should go out with a man, not alone? Particularly when men and women are equally vulnerable in front of armed goons? The male companion of a woman, according to patriarchal values, symbolically indicates that this woman is not available, she is from a ‘modest’ and ‘honourable’ background, and will be protected from any unwanted sexual advance. Male identity here is aligned as the protector of girls/women from other men who are aggressors. Although unwanted sexual advances are not socially sanctioned, men’s aggression is tolerated in our sexual morality. These attributes of men, as aggressor or protector, are attached to the masculine identity of men in Bangladesh. In what follows, it is conveniently said, ‘chhelera to swabhabotoi emon e’ (Men are by nature like this) or ‘meyera raate eka ber hole to dhorshon hobei’ (if women go outside alone at night, they will be raped). It is through these utterances male dominant ideas are discursively holding grounds. Similarly, femininity is associated with subjects in need of protection and who are submissive and sexually passive. Both men and women are confronted with these dominant views. The constraints of this idea not only function at the societal level, but men and women are coerced by these ideas within themselves.. We know how women abide by these ideas of femininity and reproduce them through their discursive practices. However, how men meet the ideas of dominant masculinity and what kinds of dilemmas they are faced with are less explored phenomena as masculinity for men is taken for granted.
The idea that women could be targeted for male amusement prevails. Men in groups on streets, buses and other public places take part in such everyday forms of harassment regularly. Through such practices, men are initiated into hegemonic masculinity. Sometimes, this contributes to the men’s group formation — smoking together, teasing women aided the materialisation of such groups. Men who do not participate in those events are not seen as masculine ‘enough’. These unwilling men are marginalised. Therefore, verbally harassing women and girls prevails as it is socially tolerated. However, women activists’ long fight against sexual harassment finally secured a High Court directive in 2009 that asked that every institution must form an anti-sexual harassment committee as a grievance mechanism and to ensure justice for the complainant. Nonetheless, stalking, whistling, making derogatory and sexually suggestive comments targeted at girls and women in public places persist. These practices are seen as minor misbehaviours or even as expressions of heterosexual-romantic interest in a girl by the young boys (uthti boyesher chhele). The state is yet to enforce mechanisms to discourage these practices. The desire for making romantic partners, interests between individual men and women and among the people outside the binary should be recognised by society and the state. The difference between flirting or showing interest and sexual harassment should be discussed and debated openly. Heterosexual relationship, or commitment outside of wedlock (for which the Bengali term ‘prem’ is known), is not historically encouraged. In the last two decades, however, normative boundaries have been broken and young men and women more openly and widely engage in such practices now. Generally, it is expected that this premarital relationship will culminate into a marriage, thereby it earns an implicit consent of the parents. At the institutional level, the idea of prem is not recognised formally, but it is there. As the desire to develop a relationship is instinctive, which can be socially regulated but cannot be prevented from happening, institutional formal recognition of prem will be helpful for ensuring a healthy and amicable relationship between men, women and people of non-binary gender.
Since independence, the state has taken many initiatives to improve and ensure gender equality. Such as, there are efforts to provide an equal educational opportunity for girls, affirmative action to ensure women’s access to public service, anti-dowry law, legal reform to end child marriage (to some degree) and more. However, the state tends to avoid the question of sexuality and other matters related to subordinating women and non-binary gender. Recently, the state has legally recognised the third gender identity, but not without flaws and loopholes. Historically, successive governments in Bangladesh supported popular dominant ideas that have already been marginalising women and people of other gender identities. Evidently, serving people’s interest is not their goal; instead their concern is to maintain their position in power by serving the interests of the existing dominant groups. Women had to fight for the laws to end violence against women and children. Making law is necessary to recognise the violence against women and children, for defining the ways of abuses, as well as to punish the perpetrators. However, the law itself cannot automatically end the social process of inequality and the cultural environment that encourages violence. Mainstream political culture patronises thugs, goons and perpetrators of sexual violence. Hegemonic masculine ideas attached to power are encouraged. These people enjoy a form of impunity. In this context, mob participation in harassing girls and women and committing rapes and killings become possible. Actions taken are on a piecemeal basis and the government failed to establish justice at the national level. There exists a void that the government tries to cover-up through its rhetorical commitment to end sexual violence.
For people in Bangladesh, particularly for the wellbeing of women and children, accumulation of unchecked power and approval of hegemonic masculinity must be stopped right now.
Mirza Taslima Sultana is a professor of the department of anthropology at Jahangirnagar University.
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