This month, the release of a gang rape video in Noakhali forced us to take a long, hard look at ourselves and confront an ugly but often overlooked reality—women and children are falling victim to sexual violence on a daily basis in Bangladesh. The sheer brutality of the horrific footage inspired nationwide condemnation. People were shocked, ashamed and most of all, enraged.
This rage translated into protests across the country, inspiring debates on exemplary punishments for rapists, the politics of power and patronage that allows criminals to act with impunity, wider institutional reforms to ensure the justice system acts for victims and not against them, and the entrenched norms in our society that contribute to rape culture and asks the rape survivor to "share the blame" of the crime committed against them. This was especially scrutinised after two men from hugely different backgrounds, actor Ananta Jalil and Hefazat secretary general Junaid Babunagari, expressed similar views regarding the importance of women's "decent" dress to avoid enticing men into violent crimes like rape.
In the midst of these heated debates, another less conspicuous but equally normalised thread of violence has emerged: the continuous and constant vitriol and hatred expressed online against women.
According to the UN Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech: "the term hate speech is understood as any kind of communication in speech, writing or behaviour, that attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or a group on the basis of who they are, in other words, based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, colour, descent, gender or other identity factor. This is often rooted in, and generates intolerance and hatred and, in certain contexts, can be demeaning and divisive."
The Gender Equality Strategy paper of the Council of Europe further elaborates on hate speech targeted at women: "Sexist hate speech takes many forms both online and offline, notably victim blaming and re-victimisation; "slut-shaming"; body-shaming; "revenge porn" (the sharing of explicit or sexual images without consent); brutal and sexualised threats of death, rape and violence; offensive comments on appearance, sexuality, sexual orientation or gender roles; but also false compliments or supposed jokes, using humour to humiliate and ridicule the target."
The most obvious expression of online sexist hate speech in Bangladesh is the view that "certain kinds" of women invite rape upon themselves or deserve to be raped. These comments have been made about protestors criticising capital punishment as an easy-fix solution (what do they expect, walking around at night dressed like that?), about social media commentators questioning misogyny and entrenched sexist views (these women just mimic Western ideas and mix freely with men, then complain when they are raped), about activists trying to start conversations on marital rape (their husbands sure need to teach them a lesson), and about any woman in general who expressed a view that may not fit neatly into certain traditional (read: patriarchal) ideas on society and women's roles in it.
In all of these comments, a running thread is the demeaning and humiliating language used to reduce women into being nothing more than body parts, and the suggestion that women who do not behave in certain ways deserve to be punished somehow. The most widely discussed example of this in recent days was an alleged comment by a ruling party student leader at the Dhaka University campus on how "all women deserve to be free of sexual violence, except those with anti-liberation ideas." Although the leader vehemently insisted he had been misquoted, the incident is not unrepresentative of the views of many men regarding women whose opinions and ideas they are not on board with.
This month, one example of this form of hate speech was widely circulated—a Facebook post titled "how to rape a girl" went viral, and one youth was subsequently arrested by Rab on October 11. This decision to use the Digital Security Act to shut down such violent rhetoric against women was widely lauded online. However, this arrest only shows how indiscriminately the DSA can be used. Why arrest this one man only when there was pressure on the government to act on violence against women, when it is suggested that 73 percent of female users of online spaces in Bangladesh have faced some form of violence, and the numbers are continuously on the rise?
It must be stressed that in no way can one support the draconian DSA, which grants sweeping powers to the executive and the prosecuting authorities and allows them to arbitrarily decide offences according to vague and ill-defined criteria. However, we must remember that cyber harassment of women was cited often enough as a reason for enacting the DSA, yet there is nothing within the Act that actually criminalises it. The closest it comes to is the controversial Section 25, according to which, sharing "offensive or fear-inducing" information, or information that you know to be false, "with the intention to annoy, insult, humiliate or denigrate a person", can land you in jail for three years on the first count.
Have women not been annoyed, insulted, humiliated or denigrated enough online? Or do they not count as "persons"? Even as the poorly worded DSA opens up avenues to use it to silence differing opinions, it is ironic that it has mostly been wielded against journalists, cartoonists and musicians and not sadists and sexists who fantasise online about torturing women. If nothing, it once again proves that laws that clamp down on freedom of speech almost always end up targeting the wrong kind of speech, where hate continues but dissent gets drowned out.
The campaign of online verbal violence against women is not a new phenomenon. The issue is not just the existence of certain sexist views that are totally against the notion of equal rights for women and men (as enshrined in the Constitution), but that opposition to these views are so often met with blind hatred that quickly descends into violent language. The implication is that if women behave with any more agency than is desired, they must be put back into their place with the appropriate punishment. This desire to dominate and humiliate, to be obeyed or gain that obedience by force, is a classic trait of toxic masculinity that is all too prevalent in our society.
All of this is symptomatic of a society that has been seduced by violence and is now firmly in its grips. The dehumanisation of women that allows men to go online and identify rape victims who "deserved it", or mock women who "complain" about being raped by their husbands (because how can you force yourself on someone who is already your property?), is the same dehumanisation that leads to rape in the first place. It is also this dehumanisation that pushes us to demand death penalty for rapists, or to say that drug dealers deserve extrajudicial killings rather than fair trials. Our violent tendencies manifest in different ways—sometimes as online hate speech, sometimes as considering certain classes of society as being sub-human and thus less deserving of justice, and sometimes as violence against women and children. It is all part of the same spectrum, and we cannot deal with one if we continue to wilfully ignore the others.
Shuprova Tasneem is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.
Her Twitter handle is @shuprovatasneem.