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Special Feature

Containing the Devil Incarnate

Rifat Munim

News of stalking leading to a girl's death in the form of murder or suicide have become so rife that one wakes up each morning with the dread of reading about yet another such horrendous crime. Sometimes it is not just a stranger's tragedy; it may be happening to one of your family members, or the girl next door or anybody in your neighbourhood. Such news or events revealing the different forms of stalking and sexual harassment widely known as 'eve teasing' naturally invite acts of protests from different quarters including the family members of the victims and the conscious citizens. But deadly attacks on those who protest stalking reveals another disturbing trend, that male aggression can assume the vilest form, indicating a complete failure to bring the perpetrators to book. In other words, people do not seem to have the right to demand justice, a situation that has vivid parallels in religious mythologies wherein chaos and crime reign over order and justice, calling forth the resurrection of a god or goddess to contain the devil incarnate.

Rony (left), killer of Chanpa Rani Bhowmik, and Rajon, killer of
Mizanur Rahman. Both the motorbike-riding stalkers attacked
in a similar fashion by running over the victims.

No sooner had the death of a Natore college teacher Mizanur Rahman been confirmed, the murder of Chanpa Rani Bhowmik in Faridpur made headlines in the national dailies. And there was more. Only four days into the death of Chanpa Rani, another stalker assaulted three persons of a family in Naogan, leaving one of them critically injured. Thus people who had firmly stood against stalking were either stifled forever or left miserably to suffer.

After the death of Mizanur Rahman and Chanpa Rani, thousands of local people took to the streets demanding immediate arrest of the killers. These demonstrations were soon followed by condolences from the lawmakers and government high-ups, who also visited the victims' residences. Added to this were repeated media reports. Yet, it took the law enforcers several days to arrest the perpetrators and start their trial. As a result of such belated arrests of the main accused in connection with the killings, the locales believe that punishment of the accused will be an eyewash due to lack of specific laws and political influence.

In addition to the fresh attacks on the protesters mentioned above, in the last nine months, at least 25 women killed themselves to escape the horror of abuse, while nine men lost their lives for standing up against stalkers, says a report of rights group Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK). During the same period, a father committed suicide, unable to withstand watching her daughter being humiliated. One woman was killed by neighbourhood hoodlums, and four attempted suicide. ASK report adds that around 131 women were assaulted by their stalkers and 54 men came under attack for protesting teasing.

While the country has specific laws for crimes such as killing and sexual assault, lawyers and human rights activists say that there is no clear-cut definition of what exactly constitutes sexual harassment. This ambiguity works as an incentive for local goons to begin with acts of stalking and end up violently attacking the girls or the protesters.

Girls' students often fall victim to the stalkers gathering in the streets. Photo: Zahedul I khan

Barrister Sara Hossain, however, believes that enforcement of the existing laws is no less important than the enactment of a new one.

“We must examine if there is a specific law defining sexual harassment since a very large number of violence starts from harassing girls or women sexually. But you must ask at the same time whether the existing laws are being obeyed properly,” she says.

Referring to the similar cases that had claimed lives of several people before the murder of Mizanur and Chanpa Rani, she says that the state has very specific laws about criminal offence such as murder and violence. If those murderers were brought to book immediately, then it would set an example for all.

“We are accustomed to seeing that criminals with political influence easily escape punishment. So poor enforcement of the existing laws also works as a big incentive for the stalkers,” she adds.

Under section 509 of the Penal Code of 1860, any act, gesture, or verbal abuse meant to disgrace women is punishable by law. Although article 10 (1) of Women and Children Repression Prevention Act of 2003 addresses the issue of sexual assault, it makes no reference to sexual harassment or eve teasing.

“Even section 509 of the Penal Code falls short of clarifying the whole thing. It makes use of the clichéd words like sambhram hani, shlilata hani, which cannot cover all the various acts that constitute harassment or teasing,” says Hossain.

However, article 10 (2) of Women and Children Repression Prevention Act of 2000, had a provision for eve teasing and stated that if any male, in order to satisfy his carnal desires, abuses the modesty of any woman or makes any indecent gesture, his act shall be deemed to be sexual harassment and for this the accused will be punished by rigorous imprisonment for a term which may extend up to ten years but shall not be less than three years. But the act was amended in 2003 where no one can be charged with sexual abuse of a woman until it is physical. Thus those who stalk women in public places such as streets, shopping places and buses can no longer be tried under this law.

Meanwhile, the law commission has sent three proposals to the Women and Children Affairs Ministry: (a) formulation of a law to stem sexual harassment in educational institutes and working places, (b) further amendment of the Women and Children Repression Prevention Act of 2003 that does not necessarily relate to stalking and eve teasing, and (c) supplementing an explanation for the section 509 of the Penal Code.

Talking about the proposals, the State Minister for Children and Women affairs ministry Dr Shirin Sharmin Chowdhury says that the proposals will soon be sent to the cabinet for consideration. Asked about the absence of a specific law addressing sexual harassment, she says, “Formulating a new law will take a very long time. So we have decided to restore article 10 (2) of the Women and Children Repression Prevention Act of 2000.”

Teachers and students take to the streets to bring the killers of Mizanur Rahman to book.

“In so doing, we will not only take into consideration the use of mobile phone and internet, but will also try to ensure exemplary punishment for the stalkers.”

Speculations over how to pre-empt such violence and uproot the menace of stalking altogether have led many to ask about the underlying social factors that may trigger such violent activities. Mehtab Khanam, an eminent psychologist of the country, thinks that several social as well as cultural factors are responsible for this.

“Alongside easy pornographic access and representation of women as the weak and vulnerable sex in films and literature, the society as a whole plays a part in reinforcing and legitimising the aggressive role of men. But the most important institution is the family which can help instil in the boys a positive attitude towards women,” she says.

Digging deeper into the family background of Roni, one would be surprised to see the extent to which one's family may influence his attitude towards women. Rony is the son of Ratan Saha, a liquor trader at west Garakhola in Modhukhali, who over the years has amassed a lot of wealth. Rony's mother, having sustained frequent physical abuse by his father, died a few years back. Soon his father got married again. When Rony grew up, he eloped with his stepmother's sister.

Such a background accounts for the aggression manifest in his behaviour. Khanam also emphasises the role of school. If the schooling system, she says, is fair and devoid of corruption, that will implant in the students a sense of morality. However, she is very critical of the ways casualties related to stalking are presented in the newspapers. She thinks that if such news are not presented carefully, then the objective of containing stalking may backfire by bringing about more of such violent incidents.

But Khanam, like the State Minister Shirin Sharmin Chowdhury and Barrister Sara Hossain, stresses the need of ensuring exemplary punishment for the perpetrators.

“The law and order situation in this country has gone beyond all limits. So before delving into the underlying social reasons, we must ensure capital punishment for those who go as far as killing the girls and protesters. All we need now is to set some examples.”



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