‘Telling the stories of my ‘lojja’ (shame) to everyone I belittled myself. I can’t take it anymore — telling these stories to other men every day. Punishing the perpetrator won’t bring back my ‘honour’. So please forgive me’, Sumaia Akter Barsha, a 14-year-old girl from Rajshahi wrote to her parents before she hanged herself to death on May 17, 2019. Her rapist is her neighbour Mukul Hosen (20).
‘I’ll fight this crime till my last breath’. These were the last words spoken by 19-year-old Nusrat Jahan Rafi who died of 80 per cent burn injury on April 10, 2019. Her hands tied, legs tied, she was set on fire on the instruction of her molester. The perpetrators’ plan was to stage the incident as suicide. This was a consequence of her ‘shameless’ act of reporting sexual abuse to the police. She needed to be silenced. Her molester and mastermind behind the murder is the principal of her madrassah, Siraj Ud Doula (55).
I have countless memories like these ones. And so do you.
I don’t plan to traumatise my reader with more stories and details of rapes and sexual assaults today. We encounter such reality every single day in the morning, afternoon, evening and at night. Probably, even in our nightmares. I want to talk about the ‘shame’ you and I feel when our bodily sovereignty is invaded when these similar stories are told in the media, or when we hear them from someone.
Some of us have survived, so far. Sumaia and Nusrat did not. In fact, they did initially. Many of us don’t survive the physical brutality of rape. Our bodies bleed, get torn into pieces and eventually face death. Sumaia survived whatever physical cruelty she had endured, she still went on living for 23 days. What she did not survive was the sense of worthlessness she felt from the shame of having to repeat the incident of rape, the constant shaming and threats on behalf of the rapist Mukul’s family members. What killed her were the legal procedure that is disrespectful towards the survivors of sexual violence, the dysfunctional justice system that rarely guarantees justice, and our society with its absurd association of ‘shame’ and loss of ‘honour’ with rape and sexual assaults. She didn’t survive the social and media obsession with the raped body. Her body became the site of the crime, hence subject of constant media gaze. All eyes were on her. She became the social wound everyone kept pointing at. And, she snapped.
Indeed, our surveillance on rape survivors is incredible. Society is not interested in scrutinising the rapist and its own system that produces rapists. Sometimes, rapists are too powerful to be interesting. They can go about their life without tears of remorse. However, the reception of crime is interesting, or even ‘kinky’. Our attention is riveted on the rape survivors. Sections of the media scoop up every detail of contorted, teary faces of the rape survivor and their families. Their every step is followed. They are not socially expected to come back to normal life, put it behind and move on. They are not expected to smile. If they do, they are ‘shameless’. After rape, they are supposed to be a ‘zinda laash’ (living corpse).
Ironically, in this situation, the only socially available solution for a survivor of rape is to commit suicide to save their and their families’ ‘honour’. The social expectation of rape survivors to take their own life is normalised to the extent that the rapists often try to stage murder after rape as suicide. Nusrat’s case is the best example of that. Had she died on the spot, it would have been easier to dress it as suicide.
How many times has one watched a Bangla movie where a female character gets sexually assaulted or raped and yet, lived? The answer is: few, if any. In movies, once a female character is shown being raped, the audience waits for the moment she kills herself to be able to breathe out the sigh of relief. On one hand, our conscious and unconscious disapproval of the survivor’s living body, body that lost ‘honour’, forces the movie directors to kill them. On the other hand, by killing the raped female characters in every movie, films normalise suicide of the rape survivor. The stigma that ‘honour’ is lost with the act of rape and the idea that this loss of ‘honour’ is such a shame that dying is better than living with it and this message gets reproduced over and over again. Curiously, in mainstream Bangla movies, the plot often allows the sister of a hero being raped, but a cinematic narrative would almost never allow a hero to marry a rape survivor. Maybe, the idea of a ‘damaged’ heroine ruins our fantasy. Worryingly, according to studies, the line between what happens in movies and what happens in real life is really blurred here. Misha Sawdagar, one of the actors in Bangla movies, told in an interview that he ‘felt comfortable’ ‘raping’ Moushumi, one of the leading actresses, and ‘it didn’t feel like movie’ to him when he performed in these scenes (Ebong Purnima, TV show, RTV, broadcasted on 17 March, 2018).
It is to be noted that our cultures in South Asian countries including Bangladesh are considered ‘honour-oriented cultures’. We value ‘honour’ to the length that any violence can be justified to keep the ‘honour’ intact, even if it means killing the one that survived rape. And ‘shame’ is the most important emotion related to ‘honour’ in our cultures and which acts as a safeguard to keep ‘honour’ unhurt. According to the cultural logic practised here, one’s ‘honour’ can be threatened by simply shaming them, saying they did something ‘shameless’.
In this so-called culture of honour, men’s ‘honour’ is conceptual in nature whereas women’s ‘honour’ has physical dimensions. More importantly, women’s honour is tied to men’s ‘honour’ or, let’s say the men in the family or society. Therefore, even though the bodies are ours, part of the responsibility of ‘protecting’ our bodies falls on the hand of the men since any attack on women’s body eventually carries the risk of endangering men’s honour. To put it in simple terms, our female bodies are the repositories of our ‘honour’ and the ‘honour’ of men in our cultures. Women’s duty is to upkeep their honour by taking all the necessary measures while it is up to the men whether to respect those measures or not.
Since our early childhood, we are taught that the ideas of ‘shame’ and ‘honour’ are attached to our female bodies. Our bodies are not living entities, rather an object to be veiled and failure of veiling will result into ‘shame’ and loss of ‘honour,’ not just ours, but our family’s as well. Our reproductive organs are the physical locations of our ‘honour’. Our breasts are to be hidden from piercing eyesight. And our vaginas are ‘lojjasthans (body part that embarrasses)’ — something to be kept so secret that no one, even us, can know they exist. They are not limbs of the that help us function every day. They are only waiting in the dark to be penetrated and injured. So, our duty is to veil them and make them invisible. And if we fail in that duty, either by choice or force, the shame is ours and we are to be blamed for the action.
As women are seen as the repository of ‘honour’ of men in the family and society, in the larger context, rape is considered a greater crime not because of the nature of assault on women but because of the assault on ‘their’ men’s honour. By violating the locations of ‘honour’ of a society, ‘honour’ of the men of that given society can be destroyed by other men. It proves that they are not ‘men’ enough to ‘protect’ ‘their’ women. This practice of emasculation by raping or otherwise sexually violating the women has been used over and over again.
We found thousands of dead and injured female bodies piled, gang raped, breasts hacked, tied to trees, dumped in mass graves by the Pakistani soldiers during the war in 1971 as a way of emasculating the East Pakistani men who fought them. The little available literatures portray how the men’s returns to their homes were celebrated after the liberation of Bangladesh and how being subjected to sexual violence was treated with honour killings and cruelty that led to suicides. As a way of acknowledging women’s contribution to the liberation war, we hear the freedom of Bangladesh came at the cost of the sacrifice of 30 lakh martyrs and ‘honour’ of two lakh sisters and mothers. While the sacrifice of the 30 lakh is emphasised on ‘blood’ which makes them martyrs, the later group’s contribution is claimed as sacrifice of ‘ijjat’ (honour). The enormity of physical assault on female bodies was so comfortably accommodated into a single word, ‘ijjat’ (honour). While deaths of the martyrs are to be mourned with respect, the latter is treated as insult to our nation.
We see similar history revisiting when our bodies were torched, raped and gang raped in front of our children and fathers by the members of armed forces during the insurgency in the Chittagong Hill Tracts between 1977 and 1997. Another act of emasculating the indigenous men for taking the lead in resisting forced assimilation imposed by the government — taking revenge on indigenous women’s bodies, on us who are seen stereotypically as more ‘available’ and ‘less respectable’ women than our Bengali counterparts. We were not killed for losing ‘honour’, but the unbearable sense of shame was there.
The association of rape and other sexual assaults with concepts like ‘honour’ and ‘shame’, lacing them with men’s ‘honour’ and emphasising them over the sheer physical brutality of these actions come with these serious consequences. On the one hand, it kills the future of the survivors. It kills the possibility for a survivor to start over, fall in love again and have the rich experiences of life. On the other hand, it makes women even more likely target for nationalistic and territorial agenda.
Our bodies continue to be the battle grounds for centuries. Yet, we are the ones to ‘lose’ honour for the crimes committed by others, and the pain of ‘shame’ imposed on us is only ours to endure. How fair is that?
Why is it that, us women has to die or kill themselves out of ‘shame’ for crimes committed on our bodies? Why do we have to be the ones to ‘lose honour’, and not the criminals — rapists, molesters, aggressors — whatever we call them? What nonsense these so-called families, societies and communities are made of that see our ‘ijjat/honour’ fall with the unveiling of our bodies?
After the gang rape and death of Jyoti Singh in India, the famous Justice Verma Committee made several useful observations, looking into the legal aspects of sexual assaults. One of the observations states, ‘it is all the more necessary that we snap the link between shame and honour, on the one hand, and the crime itself.’
While the recent verdict of Nusrat’s case came across as an ease in the time of a culture of impunity, the judge’s statement takes away the sense of justice by referring to Nusrat’s murder/death as a ‘shining sacrifice’ and a ‘source of inspiration for women’ in ‘saving women’s dignity’. The emphasis is given on saving honour, not on the actual crime! And what Nusrat wanted to fight was the ‘crime’. What a cruel irony!
It is time to stop coating our bruised body with misplaced concepts of ‘honour’ and ‘shame’. If anyone should be ashamed that should be the assaulter. It is time to shift the stigma of sexual violence from the victims to the rapists just like any other crime, so that we can also claim — our bodies were wounded, our honour wasn’t.
Uchacha A Chak is a researcher and an activist. She has worked in various research and development projects and programmes. Her area of work covers women’s rights, feminisms, indigenous peoples’ rights, politics of development, environment and climate change, and displacement. She is a member of Lokayoto Bidyaloy.
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