Epidemic turn of sexual violence

Published: 00:00, Jan 08,2020


Protesters in Dhaka, as elsewhere across Bangladesh, seek justice in the murder of madrassah girl Nusrat Jahan Rafi in the middle of April 2019. — New Age/Abdullah Apu

Social scientists need a complete understanding of the existing realities that foster aggressiveness, distrust and lack of respect among residents of both urban and rural areas towards the female, writes Mokerrom Hossain

THE year 2019 was marked by many good and bad incidents; however, the killing of a 19-year-old girl Nusrat Jahan Rafi drew significant attention from the people of Bangladesh. This attention happened due to media coverage of her killing, the prosecution of a gang of 16, the death sentencing of all the 16 perpetrators at the lower court, and the sentencing of the officer-in-charge of the police station who illegally recorded Nusrat Jahan Rafi’s complaint of sexual harassment and released it on social media to mock her sexual harassment reporting.

It is worth mentioning that less than seven months since Nusrat’s death, the country has received a lower court judgement, and all the accused got death sentences. The country’s criminal justice system, with all its limitations, has succeeded in punishing one of their professionals who failed to uphold his oath of office. The Gang of 16 — all the defendants, most likely, will exhaust all available legal recourse to reverse lower court decision, and there is no certainty that this judgement will prevail at the higher court. This concern is because of the country’s conviction rates are not always encouraging. It is critical to remember that serving severe punishment like death-sentence will not guarantee that another girl would not become a victim of sexual assault or harassment in another workplace — a school, a college, an office or a garment factory.

Last year was not a very good year concerning non-state violence against women. According to a New Age editorial that summarises Ain O Salish Kendra 2019 report, 1,413 women were raped. Seventy-six were killed after rape, while 10 of the victims committed suicide. The editorial also writes, ‘Rape and sexual violence have not only taken an epidemic turn but also been alarmingly normalised’ and rightfully argues for public opinion mobilisation ‘against the social bias that ideologically tolerates male violence and blames the victim’. In general, public opinion is forming against this kind of non-state violence and mostly in support of severe and early punishment of the perpetrators. This kind of non-state violent act does not correspond to the typical violent murder the country has traditionally encountered. This killing took place in the presence of others, and there were multiple actors. Any non-state violence deserves criminological research, and without conducting scientific research, we will never understand why this kind of non-state violent act is on the rise.

To deal with the non-state acts of violence against women, along with criminal justice approaches, we need multi-pronged societal intervention and prevention programmes. For example, to fight workplace sexual assault and harassment, many western countries have developed prevention programmes. These sexual harassment prevention programmes are to bring cultural changes in workplaces where everyone should work respectfully. Institutions have their respective mechanisms in place for a victim to get justice if allegations are true. Moreover, there is a heavy emphasis on prevention. Thus, these countries require each worker to pass a yearly workplace sexual harassment prevention training programme. These programmes are designed by using scientifically collected data from real sexual harassment cases and other empirical surveys. Bangladesh has to come up with its intervention and prevention programmes to address all kinds of non-state violent behaviours, including workplace sexual harassment. Nusrat case could be a real data source for developing sexual harassment prevention programmes for a different type of work environments.

To develop sexual harassment prevention programme, social scientists need a complete understanding of the existing realities that are fostering aggressiveness, distrust and lack of respect among residents of both urban and rural areas towards the female. How do people in power indulge in sexual harassment? How do people learn not to resist sexual aggression? How does masculine political culture infest the country’s social system? Investigative research of micro-level sexual harassment incidents will help understand the macro-dynamics. Only Severe punishment, including the death sentence, will not work as a deterrence for non-state violence, including violence against women.

A more effective strategy to address the social problem of violence against women is what is needed. Nusrat Jahan Rafi’s murder had many unusual elements that deserve special attention. This article intends to refer to those unique elements to help design an intervention programme to address the sexual harassment phenomenon in the country. Using the Nusrat case story available in the print media, this paper provides a criminological research framework for generating real data to construct a workplace sexual harassment intervention programme.


Unusual harassment case description

THE Nusrat killing has taken the whole non-state violence against women to a different level by challenging all our previous understanding of the known sexual assault and harassment cases. Generally, in a sexual assault or harassment issue, the perpetrator is a person of higher status or more powerful than the victim (even in a case where a male is a victim). It has always been a case of one individual against another. In Nusrat’s case, one could find these two similarities with most of the known sexual harassment cases. Many other features of Nusrat case, like organisation and planning, the involvement of a gang, or a group consisted of people of both sexes, different statuses, and aged between 19 and 55, are quite unusual. There have been instances of gang rape in the country and across the world. However, Nusrat’s case was not a gang sexual assault; on the contrary, it was a gang attempt to eliminate the evidence of the sexual harassment case, which was unusual. Within the organised crime structure, there were incidents of organised movement on the part of crime bosses to eliminate witnesses of their evil deeds. However, in any known sexual harassment case, hardly there were organised attempts to remove pieces of evidence. There were instances of organised efforts to divert or twist an investigation of a sexual harassment case of a powerful individual. Still, that instance does not come close to what happened in Nusrat’s case.

In recent years, mere allegations of sexual harassment had forced many powerful men to step down from elevated positions. Many powerful men of the entertainment industry, the business and the media have been publicly condemned for their alleged sexual misconduct. As a result, many have lost their jobs. For example, we can cite the name of television journalist Charlie Rose, Hollywood film director Harvey Weinstein and politician, a US senator, Al Franken. Actor Bill Cosbey was prosecuted for sexual harassment that took place years ago, but finally, he was convicted. But Nusrat’s case took a different shape completely, that does not typically go with a sexual misconduct allegation. It took an unexpected direction, which needs particular attention to comprehend the gravity of today’s rising sexual harassment phenomenon in Bangladesh. A simple criminal justice law enforcement approach will only take us to legal justice and punishment — a popular end to the public cry. All the sixteen defendants received the death penalty. However, criminal justice strategies do not always impact the crime rates of a country. Even a death sentence does not work as deterrence to homicide, studies suggest. Let the criminal justice system takes its course and let the researchers find the socio-economic and cultural factors responsible for the epidemic turn of sexual violence across the country.

Nusrat Jahan, a 19-year-old student of an Islamic educational institution at Feni, a small town 100 miles south of Dhaka, has become a ‘poster victim’ of sexual violence in today’s Bangladesh. As a student, Nusrat was sexually assaulted by the head of the institution. Nusrat filed a complaint against the principal on March 27, 2019. According to the complaint, the principal called her into his office, and inappropriately touched her. Before things could go any further, she ran out and did not swallow the harassment like many hundreds and thousands of young sexually harassed girls who put their pain under the rug forever. Studies suggest that most of the sexual harassment is carried out by someone who is known to the victims. For Nusrat, it was no different — the perpetrator was an authoritative personality — the principal of the institution. It started as a typical ‘harassment’ incident; however, print media so far does suggest something more than a sexual harassment charge. It turned into retaliation on the part of the head of the institution. Attacks on Nusrat seem to be a highly organised and premeditated plan to completely erase the main and the only evidence of the complaint. If Nusrat does not exist, there would be no charge because there would be no complainant. Eventually, there would be no case. As everything did not go according to the principal’s plan, we have a case to reflect upon. Due to the strong life instinct of Nusrat we have the case in hand; otherwise, it would have turned into a suicide incidence, as the gang of 16 wanted to brand. The Police Bureau of Investigation charged the 16 individuals of different ages, sex, and social statuses.

A plan was hatched, preparation was made and the plan was carried out not under the darkness of night, but in broad daylight. The gang chose the method of burning by using kerosene to establish it as a case of self-demolition or, in other words, a ‘suicide’ — which has been a culturally accepted recourse available for powerless women to surrender to social shame. As part of the plan, an organised group of people of both sexes made Nusrat come to the rooftop of a building where she went to sit for an examination. The same group of people forcefully tied Nusrat’s hands and leg and set her on fire. She was set on fire on April 6 and died on April 10. And on May 29, the PBI submitted a charge sheet before the court implicating 16 individuals, including the head of the madrassah and a local political leader.

This case and the charge both are unprecedented for many reasons. This incident defies all the common characteristics of a typical ‘sexual harassment’ case because the victim stood up immediately. This case is different from many sexual harassment cases because of the chain of events that started as a sexual harassment incident ended in the sad, painful demise of a brave soul. It is unusual as the case required the investigation team to bring a murder charge against the gang of 16 accused. It is also unique as all the charged individuals received death sentences at the lower special court.


Framework to study violence against women

MOST of the non-state acts of violence have already been criminalised; still, society is not immune to different kinds of violent acts. Fair Wear Foundation found that 75 per cent of garment workers had experienced verbal violence at work, 20 per cent experienced physical abuse and 30 per cent had experienced psychological violence. About 60 per cent of female garment workers had experienced sexual harassment in the factories. Bangladesh, in the last few decades, has passed a handful of laws to address different issues related to violence against women. In 1998, the country passed the Dowry Prohibition Act forbidding dowry. In 2000, the Women and Children Repression (Prevention) Act was passed. The government enacted the Family Violence Prevention and Protection Act, 2010, and National Women policy, 2011 to safeguard and empower women. Even after passing all these laws and successfully prosecuting some of the perpetrators (eg, Nusrat case), the country could not get rid of the harmful practice of its patriarchal family traits and the ‘masculine political culture,’ which undermine the status of a woman.

Nusrat killing could be a gold mine of data for criminological analysis of socio-economic and cultural factors that inspired 16 adults to be a part of an organised action to kill a young girl. One must understand the social and cultural reasoning that work behind the operation. What has motivated the gang to participate in Nusrat killing is the protection of principal Siraj-ud-Daula. Whatever description we got about the whole scenario where a couple of participants made Nusrat to go to the roof by appealing her goodness to help another girl and tried to influence Nusrat to withdraw her complaint. When that did not take place, these participants tied the hands and legs of Nusrat to sacrifice her for a powerful man. According to news reports, from the beginning to the end all the gang members were willing participants in the killing.

There was another larger group who participated in public protests in favour of the principal. This gang, most likely, believed that Nusrat lied and made-up the story, or in their values, women do not deserve to be heard. However, we do not have evidence or data to back up this assertion. One needs data, and Nusrat case study could provide that data. Below, a list of sources has been submitted for local researchers to design a data collection strategy for a comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon of sexual harassment: review the official public documents such as police investigation report; review the court documents such as information provided by the host of witnesses; conduct in-depth interviews of all the members of the gang (if possible); use the snowball method to identify a host of members who has had known these perpetrators and could provide background information of their cultural values about women and sexual harassment eg family members, friends, school teachers; and identify and interview some members who participated in the rally in support of the principal; conduct focus group meetings with the Sonagazi thana professionals of the criminal justice system.

It is just an outline for the local criminologists to develop a research to collect extensive data comprehending the phenomenon of sexual harassment that has been on the rise for a long time in Bangladesh. These data will help to design a workplace sexual harassment prevention programme.

The process of socialisation helps to develop acceptable behaviours. Similarly, social structural dynamics foster deviant behaviours to violate norms and carry out sexually abusive practices. By studying sexual harassment cases following the outline provided above, local criminologists could generate substantial data for the development of the sexual harassment prevention programme. Let us address the sources of sexual harassment and act along with the criminal justice methods in place to fight them.


Mokerrom Hossain is professor of sociology and criminal justice at Virginia State University.

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