"Eve-teasing”, the colloquial term for public sexual harassment in use despite directives being issued by the High Court about changing it to a more appropriate term, alludes to the monotheism’s (mainly biblical sources) creation story concerning Adam and Eve. In the oft-repeated religious origin story, considering the semantic roots of the term in Indian English, eve-teasing refers to the temptress nature of Eve. Eve tempted Adam to eat the forbidden apple, leading him to commit the original sin, resulting in both of them being expelled from the Garden of Eden and landing here on earth and the rest is history.
The millennia of stamping the woman as a tease have, historically, almost justified acts of sexual harassment. So, it is no surprise how deeply ingrained into the human psyche it is that women, simply by virtue of their sex, will most naturally be subject to sexual harassment.
I am used to reading statistics deeming Dhaka as the least safe city for women, the least liveable city, etc. But statistics can be taken at face value or not depending on who’s publishing them, when and how, and who’s reading them. When faced with lived realities, however, brushing off the statistics as mere statistics becomes slightly more challenging.
As part of my work, we recently conducted an anonymous qualitative survey to understand how the female students we work with felt about safety issues, whether or not they felt safe in school or on their way there.
“We need to wait for bus/rickshaw on the streets. Sometimes men on the streets make comments about how we dress or about our body shapes,” one student wrote. Another one stated, “When we go to madrasa, on our way, some boys give us looks and stare at us and make inappropriate comments and gestures.”
Considering that Ain O Salish Kendra reported that Bangladesh has had more than 700 cases of rape and sexual assault in 2018, this should come as no surprise.
But, it does.
It does because more often than not religions have played a role in providing value frameworks regarding personal behaviour meant to guide adherents in determining between right and wrong. And by virtue of the religious bearing on the madrasa education, we expect these institutions to adhere to the highest moral grounds. So, there is greater shock value attached to crimes that occur within religious institutions. Whether or not this shock value is misplaced, however, is a separate conversation.
There is a fascinating report titled “Improving the quality of girls’ education in madrasas in Bangladesh” by Badrunnessha and Kwauk published by the Brookings Institution which found that observing Islamic religious teachings—for example, about girls and boys occupying separate spaces—make madrasas seem as safe havens for girls. The traditional settings help allay concerns of many parents about protecting the honour of their daughters while in school. Another study titled “What Determines Religious School Choice? Theory and Evidence from Rural Bangladesh,” conducted by Asadullah, Chakrabarti, and Chaudhury, found that while poverty and religiosity are factors taken into consideration when deciding whether to send girls to madrasas or to state-run secular schools, the motivations for choosing madrasas are marriage-related. It is perceived that madrasa education instils traditional values that increase their daughters’ marriage prospects by making them more “honourable”. And sadly, perhaps of all the things that are worth protecting, a woman’s honour is the most valuable.
The above quoted statements from our surveys with the girls show that these beliefs of madrasas being safe havens for young women are, at the very least, questionable. And even if these statements were seen as a biased NGO-type organisation’s attempts to justify its foreign-driven interventions and garner funding, too much has happened to treat the issue lightly including the much-talked-about murder of Feni madrasa student Nusrat Jahan Rafi.
Despite all that has been said and done, is this to say that all madrasas are hubs of sexual harassment? That they are, contrary to popular belief, not holy places but rather spaces where the roots of all evil, and not honour and virtue, spread? And that increased monitoring, or better a complete removal of the system, would rid the world of the plague of sexual harassment and assault? That would be too easy of a conclusion to reach and a titillating one given the shock value that comes with atrocities committed in so-called holy spaces.
But the reality remains that while schools and religions form an integral part of the socio-cultural norms, the problem is wider and much more complex than that. “Eve-teasing” is a result of socio-cultural norms relating to sexuality and one outlet for boys’ sexual feelings who gain pleasure from it and assert their masculinity at the expense of girls’ discomfort. It is true that Nusrat had faced harassment and assault at the hands of the principal of the school she was studying in. But it is also true that the girls we spoke to referred to incidents that happened to them outside of the madrasas. And sexual harassment isn’t unique to madrasa students. So the problem isn’t a madrasa-centric problem per se. It is the result of a kind of social conditioning that leads to sexual harassment being seen as playful resulting in zero accountability for the perpetrator.
Regardless, the institutions that these girls are a part of, and that form such an integral part of who they are, have an obligation to protect them, especially given that upholding their honour is oftentimes a significant factor in influencing their enrolments in these institutions.
In time, Nusrat will be forgotten like so many are. Or maybe she will remain just a memory; remnants of a story of victimisation by multiple systems that refused to let her exist. My girls will grow up to normalise sexual harassment too, like I did, as something that just happens, as a part of life. Eve’s penance for being the temptress.
But if we had created institutions, religious ones that don’t vilify women as objects of temptation asking to be teased, educational ones that are indeed safe spaces, I wonder if maybe Nusrat would be more than a memory or a case study, and my girls would maybe know what it is to grow up without having to bear the unfair burden that society places on them for being who they are.
Shagufe Hossain is the Founder and Executive Director of Leaping Boundaries. Leaping Boundaries aims to empower female madrasa students by increasing their visibility and access to platforms where they are traditionally underrepresented.
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