Cover Story

The price of saying ‘no’

Nasir Uz Zaman | Published: 00:00, Apr 14,2019 | Updated: 15:58, Apr 16,2019

sexual harassment, Nusrat Jahan Rafi, Nasir Uz Zaman, Shireen Huq, Nasrin Siraj, Manisha Chakraborty, Sohagi Jahan Tonu

Victims of sexual harassments and stalking, particularly school students commit suicide or fall victim of further violence as legal system and society fails to protect them. Against all odds, Nusrat Jahan Rafi abandoned societal silence, she protested, she demanded justice. She refused to be a mere victim without a voice. Nusrat’s death exposes what happens when young women protest, writes Nasir Uz Zaman

‘She did all the right things. She protested. She said no. She went to the police. And nobody did anything. And now she’s dead.’ — said a woman in her Facebook post after the death of Nusrat Jahan Rafi (18), an Alim (equivalent to HSC) examinee of Sonagazi Islamia Senior Fazil Madrasa in Feni. She was set on fire for refusing to withdraw a case filed against the principal Siraj-Ud-Doula for sexually harassing her late last month. In her death declaration she related the same to a doctor in the presence of a magistrate and a police official.

According to the first information report, principal of the said Madrassa sexually assaulted her in his office room on March 27. She protested then and there. When she informed her family of the incident, her mother filed a case against the principal under Section 200/10 of Repression on Women and Children (Prevention) Act 2000 (Amended 2013). The accused was arrested the following day. After the arrest, the family of the victim was threatened and there were mobilisation in support of the accused. A local Awami League leader was behind mobilising local community against the victim’s family who is now expelled from the party for defending the prime accused. No legal protection was provided to the victim or her family in accordance with the law.

On April 6, when Nusrat went to the madrassa to appear in her Alim examination, four accomplices of the principal called her to the roof saying that her closest friend was being attacked there. Once on the roof, four identified person asked her to withdraw the case of sexual harassment, when she refused, they tied her hands, poured kerosene and set her on fire. She endured deep burn and brought to Dhaka Medical College Hospital, where she breathed her last on April 10.

After filing the case on March 28, when social pressure was mounting on Nusrat, her class mates too have requested her to keep mum. She resorted to her exercise book, wrote a detail account of when and how she was sexually assaulted. She wrote with deep conviction that until her last breath, she will fight for justice.

Nusrat’s body was wrapped in white bandage from shoulder to toe, she was seething in pain, but she didn’t spare the opportunity to relate to her brother what has happened to her in that roof. The audio record of that conversation is in circulation in social media in which Bangladesh hears her say, ‘I will fight for justice until my last breath’.

Another video clip have surfaced in social media after her death in which Nusrat is giving statement to police and trying describe the crime of sexual violence. This five-minute-forty five-second-long video clip exposes an unwilling officer discouraging and taunting a brave girl from filing the report. The officers’ voices were gruff, at one point they were found saying to Nusrat that ‘the incident was nothing major.’ In the face of nationwide protest, the officer in charge of Sonagazi model police station, Moazzem Hossain, was withdrawn from his post and transferred to Armed Police Battalion following allegations that he neglected the victim’s complaints. Some superficial actions are taken, but they are too little too late.

Nusrat’s uncle told New Age Youth that there were previous allegations of sexual harassment against the principal. But no one dared to say anything against him as the prime accused was backed by some local political leaders. Nusrat dared to speak up, raised her voice against sexual violence. She refused to be a mere victim without a voice. For her courage and defiance, she paid the price with her life. The woman in her Facebook post said it right, ‘Nusrat did all the right thing. She said no. She protested. She went to the police. And nobody did anything. Now she is dead. What have we done to protect our girls?

‘As a victim’s brother, I hope that Nusrat’s brother will not face what I have encountered, I have been encountering. Three years later, no justice for Tonu, my sister.’

Sohagi Jahan Tonu’s Brother

It’s been three years since Sohagi Jahan Tonu was raped and murdered. There is no justice for Tonu. We did not get any justice. If her murder was judiciously investigated and real perpetrators were brought to justice, further crime could have been prevented, Nusrat's fate could have been different. No progress in Tonu’s case fills my heart with doubt, I doubt Nusrat’s case will be similarly stalled. There are many unsolved cases of sexual violence. Tonu is not alone. If those cases saw the light of justice, this epidemic of sexual violence would have been deterred. In present situation, criminals do not fear the legal system, because they already know that they will face no consequences. We, the general public are in danger, desperately trying to keep us safe, maintain our dignity, but we always fall victim. As a victim’s brother, I hope that Nusrat’s brother will not face what I have encountered, I have been encountering. Three years later, no justice for Tonu, my sister.

‘Government shown interest in sending her to Singapore, the same sincerity is expected from them in ensuring judicious investigation and fair trial of the offenders.’

Manisha Chakraborty

Member of Socialist Party of Bangladesh, Barisal district committee

The absence of quick trial and exemplary punishment of crime has led us to a situation where crimes are taking place repeatedly and continually. In Nusrat’s case, she was killed for filing a case against sexual harassment. In a civilised society what can be more shameful than such crime. On one hand, some examples of speedy trial and due conviction must be there; on the other hand, mass people should be more aware and vocal. Furthermore, protest and resistance against such crime should not be momentary but sustainable until women’s security is established in society. In present context, the criminals are backed by political power and using such influence, they easily escape and evade legal liability. Time and again, the controversial role of police in investigating cases of sexual violence has been challenged, Nusrat’s death has again brought the issue to the fore. We have seen the government’s interest in sending her to Singapore for better treatment. We want to see the same sincerity in ensuring judicious investigation and fair trial of the offenders.

‘Those in power do not care about women’s safety; they are only concerned about maintaining their position of authority, by any means possible’

Nasrin Siraj

Anthropologist, filmmaker and writer

Nusrat’s incident once again has demonstrated the failure of entire system. They failed at their responsibility, accountability and what not. The authorities’ long standing practice of giving empty speeches, words that actually mean nothing. In media brief, they make promises to punish the perpetrator, they assure no future occurrence will be tolerated. These words are meant to manage public outrage, it carries no further weight. And, from these meaningless assurances we get the same signal. Those in power do not care about women’s safety, they are only concerned about maintaining their position of authority, by any means possible — even if it is at the cost of encouraging sexual violence. Once they are comfortably in power, those promises evaporate, they just forget their responsibilities. However, they do not forget to enjoy privileges of power.

It is true that people of Dhaka enjoy relative privileges than the rest of the country. In rural Bangladesh, young women go to the school navigating through various insecurity and risk of sexual harassment. There, they often try to find security through veils. There is a tendency among the rural parents to send girls to madrassa as security measures.  But, we see, there is no security anywhere. The authorities concerned are not performing their duties — a failure of the whole state mechanism has produced many SM Siraj-Ud-Doula, he is just one criminal actor of this failed system. And, Nusrat is a victim of this failure. If the system cannot be changed and the existing state mechanism cannot be activated for the people, we will face more violence and the situation will be even worse.

‘Nusrat’s brave voice is now the source of inspiration for all those who consider sexual aggression unacceptable.’

Shireen P Huq

Founder member of Naripokkho

Nusrat was set on fire because she had the audacity to protest the sexual attack and refuse to withdraw the complaint she had lodged against the perpetrator, the principal of the Madrassah where she was a student. The message being DO NOT PROTEST, and if you do you have to face consequences. Girls and women have no right to object to the wanton sexual aggression of men, be they teachers, supervisors, relatives, or the random man on the bus, train or footpath. Even those entrusted to ensure our security are no exception. In the last ten days the newspapers are full of reports of rape and sexual assault. Have men suddenly lost control of their lust? OR have they all suddenly gone mad? The situation has become so gruesome, so horrific as though they do not care about anything. From a three years old girl to adult, no one is spared.

I do not wish to suggest that all men have become predators, but it seems that a large section of our society hold the view that women and girls are common property and they can be used and abused with impunity. And above all women who dare to protest deserve punishment. However, the other day I read a most moving poem on Nusrat written by a young man. A few lines from the poem: ‘এই মেয়েটার এত্ত সাহস ‘না’ বলে? এই মেয়েটা উঁচিয়ে মাথা পথ চলে? হায়নাগুলো উঠিয়ে নিল জোর করে, ফিরিয়ে দিল ‘রাত্রি কালো’ ভোর করে!...এই মেয়েটার মেয়ে হওয়াই ভুল ছিল’ (How dare she says ‘NO’, and she walks with her head held high? …Her mistake was to be born a girl’). This young man has not only captured the predicament of women and girls in a society that upholds and practices misogyny, he has also captured the crux of the matter. All our protests will amount to nothing if we do not engage in the more difficult and protracted task of changing the psycho-social, politico-legal and economic basis of discrimination against women and girls, and the refusal by society and the state to accord her equal dignity and rights.

The present situation in our country where corruption is rampant and the absence of accountability is widespread, and where democracy itself has become victim to enforced disappearance, the perpetrators of such crimes are emboldened to commit such acts openly and do not consider themselves as criminals. The culture of impunity, especially for people with money, muscle and connections is well established.

Many people are pointing fingers at madrassas as if sexual harassment and rape of students is confined to madrassas. I wonder if there are many schools, colleges or universities where there is no incident of sexual harassment.

Nusrat’s brave voice, hours before she went in to a coma, saying ‘I will protest till my last breath’ is now the source of inspiration for all those who consider sexual aggression unacceptable. If those barbaric individuals who doused her with kerosene and set her on fire thought this would put a lid to women and girls’ protest, they have no idea what has been unleashed. Women and men, girls and boys across the country have adopted Nusrat as an icon and have come out demanding trial and punishment of the perpetrators including the Officer in Charge of Sonagazi Police Station. Hopefully many of the protestors will stay on for the long haul struggle to change how women are viewed, regarded and treated by public and private institutions, by law and policy, by women and men, by the general public and private friends and colleagues, by our relatives and our families.

Nasir Uz Zaman is a member of the New Age Youth team.


For other stories in Young Lives Matter series:

Aspiration, frustration and suicide on campus

Justice for Krittika Tripura

For other stories on sexual harassment:

Take back the night

More about:

Want stories like this in your inbox?

Sign up to exclusive daily email