Stabbed by her stalker at the entrance to her school, Suraiya Akter Risha, a student of Willes Little Flower School, Dhaka, succumbed to her injuries last Sunday. The murder adds to a long list of female victims of stalking and other forms of sexual harassment that have been going on unabated in the country for a long time. The most recent in this line is the murder of Shohagi Jahan Tonu who was killed in the confines of Comilla Cantonment, which is supposed to be the safest place in the area. The case, which has drawn headlines in national dailies and has given birth to a string of protests across the country, unfortunately, hasn't seen much headway.
However, Risha's predicament is unique - unlike Tonu, her family, prior to the assault, had lodged a general diary as her alleged attacker was known to them and had been harassing her for a long time. It is indeed shocking that the police failed to trace him as he continued to harass his hapless victim.
There is no denying that we have repeatedly failed as a society to protect the marginalised and the vulnerable. What such incidents of sexual harassment highlight is that stalking is a reality of our life and is a by-product of the feudal remnants that still pervade our society. Sexual harassment is a serious affair as it restricts the mobility of a woman, portrays her as a mere sexual object and confines her to the four walls of the house. On top of it all, it deprives her from being considered as a human being, an individual that contributes to the growth of the society as a whole.
Stalking can also cause humiliation to such an extent that the victim might see no other option but to commit suicide. Take Simi Banu, a student of Fine Arts at Dhaka University. A few years ago, Simi, who lived in Narayanganj, committed suicide after being severely harassed by some local hoodlums on her way to the varsity. Such incidents are not rare: it is just that they make their way to the newspapers only after they become a national issue.
A lion's share of incidents of stalking and other forms of sexual harassments go unreported as families do not seek redress of the law fearing reprisals by the attackers and also because of their dwindling faith in the country's legal system. A cell comprising of female police officers can be formed at all police stations across the country to monitor cases of sexual harassment. It will encourage the victims, almost all of whom are women, to report abuse. We must not forget that it is difficult, if not impossible, to prevent such incidents; the best way to fight is perhaps to nip it in the bud.
Also there is no alternative to launching a set of awareness campaigns that will help fight male aggression in the fold of our social fabric. Educational institutions can play a pivotal role in sensitising students about this menace. The prevalence of stalking and other forms of sexual harassment clearly shows a decline in moral values: religious leaders should include the dangers of sexual harassment in their sermons so as to make people aware of this problem.
It must be admitted that stalking needs to be deterred through quick arrest and a speedy trial of offenders that should be followed by exemplary punishment. However, the existing laws seem rather inadequate to fight stalking. Article 76 of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police Ordinance 1976 says, "Whoever wilfully and indecently exposes his person in any street or public place within sight of, and in such manner as may be seen by, any woman, whether from within any house or building or not, or wilfully presses or obstructs any woman in a street or public place or insults or annoys any woman by using indecent language or making indecent sounds, gestures, or remarks in any street or public place, shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine which may extend to two thousand taka, or with both."
Article 509 of the Penal Code of 1860, says, " Whoever, intending to insult the modesty of any woman, utters any word, makes any sound or gesture, or exhibits any object, intending that such word or sound shall be heard, or that such gesture or object shall be seen, by such woman, or intrudes upon the privacy of such woman, shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both." Also, the law that awards five to ten years imprisonment for inciting suicide through sexual harassment, among other offences, is rarely used. These three laws can be reviewed in light with the gravity of the situation prevalent in our streets.
The mass media, especially cinema and television, has a pivotal role to play in the fight against stalking and sexual harassment. Portrayal of women as sexual objects in the electronic media, along with the advent of a perverted version of global capitalism, is one of the contributing factors behind the rapid growth of sexual harassment in this part of the world. Unless its proliferation is arrested, laws and social movements alone will not do.
The writer is an author, editor and journalist.