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12:00 AM, January 20, 2016 / LAST MODIFIED: 02:11 AM, October 09, 2016

Taharrush Jama'i

From Cairo to Cologne, and Damascus to Dhaka

Thanks to the IT Revolution, we're familiar with hitherto unknown concepts and expressions, so many of them have already entered our vocabulary. Taharrush Jama'i is one of them. Of late, sections of the Western media and society have learnt what this Arabic expression is all about. It stands for “collective harassment”– aka taharrush el-jinsi or “sexual harassment” – of women by groups of men in public places. 

Male sexual harassment of women is common across North Africa, Middle East, and South Asia and in many other developing parts of the world. The recent incidents of mass molestation, groping and harassment of Western women – purportedly by Syrian refugees – in Cologne (Germany) on the New Year's Eve have turned the expression viral. 

Meanwhile, Germany, Sweden, Norway and some other West European countries have taken proactive actions to address the problem of mass-molestation of women by refugees. European leaders, especially Angela Merkel, have decided to resolve the problem through re-education of Muslim refugees – about European culture, gender issues, norms and values – and stringent punishment, including deportation, for further taharrush

Meanwhile, there has been a surge in anti-refugee protests and revenge attacks in Germany. Cologne city administration has barred Arab refugees from using public swimming pools. Alarmingly, a cartoon in French satirical cartoon magazine Charlie Hebdo, portraying the drowned Syrian child Alain Kurdi as a rapist, followed sexual attacks in Cologne! Europeans are now dead against taking any more Muslim refugees. As media reports, a total of 751 people have filed 676 criminal complaints against rowdy refugees in Cologne alone, “while Angela Merkel has already vowed to review asylum rules and make it easier to deport foreign criminals”. 

I hope the re-education programmes and stringent punishment for sex offenders would work, eventually. However, it's not that easy to re-educate people about something, which due to age-old beliefs and practices they indigenise as something integral to their norm. Thanks to the literal and convoluted understanding of the holy texts, some Muslims believe “uncovered” women are “available”; and those who want to protect themselves from sexual advances and molestation/rape by strangers in public places should wear hijab or cover themselves completely with burqas

However, as appears on YouTube videos, men not only molest uncovered/Westernised women at home, but also molest hijab- and even burqa-clad women in various Arab countries. During the anti-Mubarak uprising in 2011, men didn't spare hundreds of hijab-wearing Egyptian women from their taharrush or “rape game” at the Tahrir Square. Same thing happened to hundreds of women in the anti-Morsi rallies in 2013. 

As subjective interpretations of the religious texts promote misogyny, patriarchy, polygamy and child marriage, so do they 'legitimise' molestation of women, maids and uncovered women among Muslims. Misogynist promoters of patriarchy justify subjugation of women in every sphere of life, sexually, socially, economically, and politically. 

There are thousands of sexist demagogues and pseudo-Islamic scholars throughout the Muslim World. Some Al-Azhar and Saudi clerics, Dr. Zakir Naik of India, and Maulana Delwar Hussain Sayeedi of Bangladesh may be mentioned in this regard. While Naik has publicly defended sexual molestation of non-Muslim captive women and slave girls, Sayeedi publicly demanded the total seclusion and subjection of women, in the recent past. He believes no chaste woman works at offices, or even in the police force in Bangladesh.

No wonder, the notion of “availability” and “loose character” of uncovered women has got wide currency among Muslims everywhere. There have been countless attacks on Bangladeshi women at home, work and public places. Every year, Bangladeshi women get molested on Bangali or Christian New Year's Day, or whenever vandals get an opportunity to do so. 

Powerful or well-connected individuals or gangs, and even policemen in police lockups rape women in Bangladesh, on a regular basis, with total impunity. Despite the official ban on religious leaders' right to issue fatwas or judgments to punish people in informal village courts (salish), religious clerics and village elders regularly punish and humiliate poor women, including victims of rape and molestation as “adulteresses” and “seductresses”. However, unbeknownst to many, religious clerics don't call the shots; they simply listen to rural and urban elders, who also promote patriarchy and defend rapists and molesters. 

One may recall, a few years back Zainal Hazari, an influential Bangladeshi MP from Feni, organised a big demonstration in Dhaka against Badhan, a female victim of taharrush by rowdy men on New Year's Eve near Dhaka University. Hazari and his followers blamed her “provocative role” for the sexual assault. Hazari later wrote a book in Bengali, Badhaner Bichar Chai, demanding Badhan's trial for taking part in New Year celebrations with men not related to her. I cite this example to highlight the overpowering influence of patriarchy, which defends sexual harassment by blaming the victims. One also recalls a male student of Jahangirnagar University near Dhaka, who publicly bragged about raping 100 fellow students with impunity, in the recent past. The case of the Pahela Baishakh assault on women at Suhrawardy Udyan and parts of Dhaka University is another example, as not even a single perpetrator of attack is yet to be arrested. 

There are loopholes in the legal system that has so far failed miserably in protecting the honour and dignity of women in Bangladesh. Here, as elsewhere in South Asia, “eve-teasing” is the euphemism for sexual harassment of women. The prevalent mild and misleading expression denotes that the society doesn't take sexual harassment as a violent crime that denigrates and dehumanises women. Instead of punishing the sex offenders, patriarchy and the hyped up philosophy of political Islam promote gender-segregation and virtual invisibility of women in public places as the solution to rape and molestation of women.

I think it's time to address the issue by making a comparative appraisal of how developed countries in the East and West address the problem of sexual harassment of women, and what's lacking in Bangladesh and elsewhere in the Muslim world in this regard. The society as a whole, and even the legal system in Bangladesh, seems to have shied away from considering sexual harassment as a serious offence or crime.

It's strange but true, in accordance with the Penal Code of 1860, “eve-teasing” in Bangladesh is nothing more than “teasing”, annoying or irritating women in public, as we are used to watching in South Asian cinema. Nothing could be more frivolous than considering verbal abuse, indecent exposure, groping and molestation of women as “teasing”. Although Bangladesh has amended the Penal Code of 1860 with regard to “eve-teasing”, the new law (The Prevention of Cruelty Against Women and Children Act, 2000, 2003 & 2009) does not give adequate protection to the victims of sexual harassment. 

Surprisingly, the 2003 amendment of the Act provided five to ten years of imprisonment for sexual harassment “only if a woman is forced to commit suicide as a direct consequence of somebody's wilful dishonour/sexual harassment/ assault”. The amendment actually denied the remedy of sexual harassment of non-contact nature. In a judgment in early 2011, the court gave some ambiguous directives to the police, local administration and lower courts to take drastic actions against “eve-teasers”. Again, non-application of the law against sexual harassment has remained the main factor behind the pervasive acts of sexual harassment in Bangladesh. 

It's sad but true, paradoxically, despite having higher gender equality score in South Asia, Bangladeshi women have remained vulnerable to sexual harassment and rape. Very similar to women in the Arab world, Bangladeshi women have remained victims of patriarchy, archaic law and inadequate enforcement of the law against sexual molestation and rape.

The writer teaches security studies at Austin Peay State University. Sage has recently published his latest book, Global Jihad and America: The Hundred-Year War Beyond Iraq and Afghanistan.

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