November 25, 2020 marked the beginning of the UN Women's worldwide annual 16 days of activism against gender violence. My social media stream is filled with images of rallies, announcements for seminars and candle-light vigils organised across the world by feminist and social justice groups. I am particularly drawn to the livestreams, and vociferous chants of activists—mixed by gender, age, class, occupation against the cityscape of Dhaka. "We want freedom, not protection" is the rallying cry. A rising trend in sexual violence in recent months has instigated intensified attention, outrage and mobilisation across diverse constituents locally and in the diaspora.
UN Women informs us that sexual violence is a global phenomenon, indeed a "global epidemic" with 35 percent of women and girls facing it in some form in their lifetime. Only 40 percent of victims of rape report it to authorities, while numbers of actual cases going to trial and being fully adjudicated remain appallingly low. In Bangladesh, over a nine-month period in 2020, Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK) reports a total of 975 rapes of women and girls, 208 gang-rapes, 191 attempted rapes, 41 cases of suicide following a rape, 216 child victims of rape and 44 child victims of gang rape. ASK also notes that the numbers in each category have risen steadily over the last several years. Stunning as the statistics of violence against women are—and reporting of it in the media has certainly strengthened recently—honing in on specific cases reveals not only the ingrained cultures of violence, stigma and shame but also, paradoxically, cultures of impunity and silence.
Focusing on the paradox here, I find that the more things seem to shift and progress in the realm of gender violence in some instances, the more they also appear to remain the same. An epidemic perhaps is a misleading concept with regard to gender violence which, unlike epidemic-prone diseases, neither erupts suddenly nor ends with a cure-all vaccine. Rather, taking a long view of gendered oppression brings the focus back to society and, more importantly, actors and institutions that allow the problem to continue.
In the United States where I reside, this paradox colours a generalised perception that certain populations, namely those in the Global South and especially in Muslim societies, are prone to extreme violence and subjected to an excessive form of patriarchy. This kind of colonial thinking sees women's status as the measure of civilisation and progress, and attributes certain cultures, men and governments as the perpetrators of forms of violence that are sanctioned by religion and culture. Ahistorical and racist, this kind of colonial thinking maps onto narratives and policies of development and modernisation initiatives often championed by the governments and humanitarian institutions of the North. Ironically, absent here is the long oppression of women upon which the very foundation of our history rests: that of colonial domination and enslavement of indigenous peoples and Blacks.
Sociologist Patricia Hill Collins argues that rape of Black women and lynching of Black men in the Antebellum South are two sides of the same coin: that of subjugation of the Black population. Rape of indigenous women was, and continues, as a tool of subduing the Native population, dehumanising them and breaking their spirit. The legacies continue, of course, when we look at the alarming statistics of 1 in 3 Native women likely to be raped in their lifetime. And whereas most rapes are intra-racial, in the United States, in the case of Native women, non-Native men are the majority of assailants; and non-Native men also are not legally bound by tribal criminal sanctions. The point here is that even as the United States touts itself as a beacon of democracy and humanitarianism, it obscures its own violent and racist history of misogyny and policies that have made and continue to make certain populations more vulnerable to extreme violence. And that structural violence against vulnerable populations—including rape of women of colour—has been foundational to nation-building and the imagination of Self and that of the Other in this country. Further, patriarchy—although central—alone is an insufficient category to comprehend and illuminate the sanctioned and political underpinnings of rape.
Here, I would like to spotlight three recently reported cases of sexual assault in Bangladesh, which have captured the attention of media, legal and cultural advocates. One case involved a gang rape of a woman on the premises of a college campus in Sylhet. Six members of Chhatra League, the student front of the ruling Awami League, assaulted the young woman who was on a holiday with her husband. The men were known to be associates of influential local political elites, and despite various prior reported crimes against them involving illegally acquired weapons, extortion and harassment of women, they had been empowered to wield power and roam the streets with impunity.
The second case occurred in Khagrachhari, Chittagong Hill Tracts, and involved nine Bengali men breaking into the house of a Chakma family, gang raping a disabled girl in the presence of her parents. This recent case brings back memories of another case in July 2018 in the same area, involving an 11-year-old child who was raped and murdered allegedly by members of the Bengali community. The third case, and possibly one that incited the most broad-based outrage across the nation, involved the gang rape of a woman in Begumganj, Noakhali, whose assailants subsequently released a video clip of the assault. The main perpetrator in this case also had multiple prior charges against him, one even of murder. He had repeatedly raped the woman at gun point over the last year. He asked for money from the victim, and threatened her with continued sexual assault by his associates if she did not comply.
I emphasise these three cases to draw attention to the paradox of attention and impunity, to the routine and spectacular ways gender violence manifests and operates. The rising trend in numbers is not a new phenomenon. But firstly, I would like to suggest that the continuing and brash impunity that empowers certain individuals and groups to enact violence is a simultaneous and intensifying trend. Secondly, the rape of ethnic minorities in the Hill Tracts is sanctioned by a double impunity of militarised and gendered oppression where sexual violence against indigenous women has long been a tool to subdue, threaten and terrorise the Jumma communities. Indigenous women's bodies here stand outside the attention and protection of social and legal systems—their bodies deemed "rapable" as a metaphor of colonial violence, conquest and occupation. Thirdly, even while subjected to rape repeatedly, the victim in the third case did not report to the police because she feared that a woman in her position—socially and economically vulnerable—would not be taken seriously, let alone meriting justice.
Most egregiously, of course, rape—a routine violation of the vulnerable—was made spectacular by the circulation of the video clip, gathering attention and calls for mobilisation. Rising trends, increased reporting, new laws, and social advocacy have not protected the vulnerable, ethnic minorities or economically marginalised. On the other hand, the rising mobilisations by advocacy groups—certainly something to be commended—have done little to diminish the culture of impunity which empowers certain individuals and groups to act without consequences. In a recently broadcasted webinar hosted by Sarbojonkotha, scholar-activist Rahnuma Ahmed noted that men accused of sexual violence and men standing trial in such cases repeatedly state that they would not have committed such crimes if they thought they would be prosecuted. Dr Ahmed's findings are corroborated by legal experts on the webinar who noted that the conviction rate for rape in Bangladesh is below 1 percent. Moreover, a multi-country study conducted by the UN found that among men in Bangladesh who admitted to committing rape, 88 percent of rural respondents and 95 percent of urban respondents said that they had faced no legal consequences. Every-day violence enacted on the structurally vulnerable does not incite or instigate mass movement, let alone justice. Spectacularising the event—as we saw in the Begumganj case—made it worthy of attention and reaction.
The victimised in the Begumganj case has been entitled Shahoshika by activists in solidarity to continue the work of justice and awareness. In the words of Shahoshika, all women are threaded together in the violation and harm done to her. So what then enables some of us to look away and perhaps focus on certain enactments of violence over others? Shahoshika reminds us that women across strata of class, status, ethnicity, sexuality, and nationality have been stripped naked by the naked power of impunity. The question remains whether the present structures of power can enable a recognition of that hierarchical yet mutual vulnerability and urgently insist on a freedom based on reciprocity and justice across lines of power.
Elora Halim Chowdhury, PhD, is a professor at the Department of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, University of Massachusetts Boston.