Will the loud protests we are hearing now serve as a wake-up call?
A society which cannot protect women from predatory men is a mass of humanity steeped in depravity. When a woman looking for a bag of blood for her ailing husband is lured into a home, to be raped by the man who pretended to come to her assistance, it is a sign of how far we have slid down the scale of social decency. When a husband is bound in rope and his wife is raped by a band of rapacious men in a university area, we know the degree to which we have fallen in self-esteem.
When a helpless woman is molested, is raped and then stripped naked in public and not a soul comes to her rescue, to her defense, we can only fling dollops of hate at ourselves. Our faces are blackened.
In these past many weeks, and almost every day, we have woken up to the ever-sordid news of some woman raped somewhere in the country. And that happens even as we proudly celebrate the empowerment of women in our country. Bangladesh’s women are in politics, in the civil service, in the armed forces and the police and other security forces; they are teachers, scholars, researchers, doctors, and workers in the various industrial installations; they are students in schools, colleges, and universities looking to futures that they would like to build for themselves.
And yet all around them are the many other women who keep falling prey to the lust of priapic men, those dirty, ugly specimens of humanity that cannot keep their lewd impulses under control. Never before have we in this country had a situation where women, every woman, felt as unsafe as they do today. We have, throughout our history of the last near-half century, vociferously condemned the alien Pakistani soldiers who raped 200,000 of our women during the War of Liberation.
We have been appalled by reports of women and girls raped in regions torn by armed conflict around the world. But for women to be molested, to be shorn of their dignity in peacetime and in a society which claims to be democratic and where the constitution guarantees rights to all classes and all manner of citizens?
We need only fall back on what the Ain O Salish Kendra tells us of the plight Bangladesh’s women suffer from. In the last nine months, ASK informs us, 975 women were raped in the country. That means an average of four women raped every day. The breakdown of the figures makes for horrific reading. It holds up a picture of viciousness that is hard to imagine and yet difficult to wish away. Rape has now expanded into an area where it is not just one man who pins a woman down to his basest instincts.
It is now entire gangs of men who take perverse pleasure in subjecting a single, helpless and screaming and eventually silent woman to their animal instincts. As many as 208 women, as reported by ASK, have been gang-raped in these nine months. Of those raped, 43 were killed after rape while 12 committed suicide.
It is depravity we are going through. Yes, the law enforcers have been doing their job in pursuing the men accused of committing rape and letting citizens in on the details of their operations. We have too the bland pronouncements, those that have become a cliché — that no one will be spared under the law. That is of course a fine articulation of determination. But something more is needed and that is the requirement for swift trials of those who commit rape, under speedy tribunals, a clamping of punishment so harsh that men who look upon women as objects of sexual gratification will think twice before even glancing at women without legitimate cause.
The loud protests we hear in Shahbagh, in other places around the country, are a wake-up call to the authorities. Citizens rise in protest when they perceive inaction on the part of those whose responsibility it is to act, when the concept of justice is treated lightly, when rapists threaten their victims with dire consequences should they so much as complain of the loss of their honour to anyone.
It becomes the grave responsibility of the local union and upazila parishads, and of the police, to ensure, first, the safety of every woman in the country and, second, to go to her aid when she is raped and without her having to lodge a formal complaint.
The law does not have to wait for complaints to be lodged before it can go into natural action. The law is a process that flows, like the river, endlessly. But when a woman is raped, when no one moves against her assailants until the news is splashed all over the media, it is the river that is prevented from following its natural course. When the law is hindered and the river comes up against impediments, societies go on a nosedive — as is happening now in our country.
In these past nine months, ASK informs us, an additional 161 women were sexually harassed in the country; 12 among these women ended up killing themselves. Three women and nine men were murdered because they protested such sexual harassment.
That should give us pause.
Something else should give us pause. No fewer than 200,000 cases are before the woman and child repression prevention tribunals in all 64 districts of the country. Are we then surprised at the audacity of those who pounce on women, in the belief that nothing — no law, no justice — can touch them?
If a woman does not feel safe when she walks through her village, when she moves about on urban streets, when she is at home with her family, the shame is ours. This nation deserves better.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.