A Prothom Alo online report on January 8 brought our attention to the crime of sexually abusing women suffering from mental illness. The report said that a mentally ill woman, Rozina Aktar, gave birth to a baby girl on the footpath beside an open drain in Chattogram's Agrabad area. It also highlighted the humanity of police sub-inspector Masudur Rahman who came forward to rescue the mother and the baby and took them to a nearby hospital. Scrolling down the story, I saw photographs of the mother with her baby in hospital. The photos struck me as her story and her face seemed very familiar. I remembered another story like this, the story of one Tara “Pagli” whose unintelligible smile left me with a lot of questions about the society in which we live.
I met Tara in 2011. At the time, apart from teaching at the University of Dhaka, I was also involved with the Banglapedia project run by Bangladesh Asiatic Society. For this, I often had to go to the Asiatic Society office at Nimtoli from Kala Bhaban via Curzon Hall. Almost every time, I saw a woman sitting on the footpath near the entrance. She was around 30-35 years old. She had a stick which she would keep moving sideways all the time. I could never hear her clearly due to the distance between us, but it seemed she was talking to herself. Sometimes I found her eating bread happily. Sometimes she would look angry and scold someone, even though I never saw anyone in front of her. Sometimes we made eye contact, and she would smile at me, and I would do the same. Her smiles made me interested to know her. I asked local people about her and came to know that she was living there and was generally known to all as “Tara Pagli”. She would go here and there and take whatever food was given by the people but she would always return to her place on that footpath and sleep on a torn sackcloth at night. Three months later, Tara's belly appeared bigger and I understood that she became pregnant after being raped.
After knowing the reality of Tara, whenever I went to that area, my eyes looked for her. Tara continued to do what she did. She kept smiling at me, talking to her mind. But I could no longer return her smile as I started to grasp its hidden messages. It appeared as if Tara, through her mysterious smile, was mocking the society that rejected her, treated her like she was nothing and forced her to live on the streets, unsafe and uncared for. It was also a protest against the existing power structure of the society. I felt the urge to further investigate her case. However, Tara disappeared a week later. I did not get to know what happened to her or her unborn child.
Four years after my encounter with Tara, I came across another case like hers from a newspaper report that described how a mentally ill woman gave birth to a baby at Badamtali in Chattogram's Agrabad area. Paltu Barua, a former police sub-inspector, brought the child to his home. I read that story with joy, but I also had a sad feeling about it: I could not find the answer as to why nobody was interested to search for the rapists of those unfortunate women.
This time around, while going through comments posted under the Rozina story, I was happy to see people praising the police officer who helped her for his kindness and compassion. But none of the comments touched the issue of the act of raping a mentally ill woman or her being on the footpath in the first place. According to the published report, people gathered to witness Rozina in pain during labour close to a drain, but none of them came forward to help her or her child later as if their lives didn't matter.
Like Tara, Rozina has been living in the open, before public eyes, for quite some time now. She has been roaming in Agrabad area for the past three years. In the evening, she comes back to her little roofless space that she considers home, on the street in front of the Ethnological Museum. Though Tara disappeared nearly ten years ago, many girls and women like Tara continue to be raped or live precariously on the streets.
While thinking about Tara and Rozina, I came across another story; it was from the United States of America. A 29-year-old comatose woman at the Hacienda Health Care facility in Phoenix, Arizona gave birth to a baby boy on December 29. The woman had been in the vegetative state for 14 years. She is considered a sexual assault victim, and police collected DNA samples from male workers at the facility in an attempt to identify who assaulted her (CNN News).
Bangladesh and the US are quite different from one another in many aspects. Since the US uses modern technologies like finger print and DNA tests to identify culprits, it is expected that they would identify the rapist soon. But Bangladesh cannot do that yet. Even rapists know that if they rape a mentally challenged woman in Bangladesh, there would be no justice. No case from a mentally challenged person is accepted. The identity of the rapist can be traced in most of the cases, except during wars and riots. But only in the case of a mentally ill woman, if she knows the identity of the rapist and even if she wants to tell everyone, nobody would believe her.
Crimes like rape and sexual abuse of mentally ill women are almost always hidden in plain sight as the perpetrators have power and control over their victims; mentally ill women rarely report such incidents or come forward to seek help because of legal barriers and fear of the perpetrators; and the majority of the people in our society do not think that rape and sexual abuse of these women deserve any attention. These crimes are “silent” in nature and difficult to address as the existing legal system is not willing to listen to the victims even when they know the perpetrators, because their testimonies are not accepted as credible. The society in general also does not acknowledge the plight of these helpless women who suffer in silence.
But we do not want a legal system that keeps rapists or abusers of mentally ill women untouched, or stops the victim from seeking justice or even filing a case. We need to think how these individuals become further insecure because of the existing laws, and the state acts against them when they need care and support. The government claims that there are enough shelter homes for such people; but why, then, were these women not taken to those homes and given proper care and shelter?
Zobaida Nasreen is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Dhaka. She has recently co-edited Political Violence in South Asia (Routledge, 2018) with Ali Riaz and Fahmida Zaman. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.