Law has been seen as an instrumental tool of the feminist movement in Bangladesh since the 1980s. However, this development did not take place in a vacuum, rather we see this as a trend that we've seen all over the world through transnational discourses of women's human rights. One can chart a long list of movements in Bangladesh that ended up in demanding legal reforms or enacting a new law. The recent rage against rape brings to the fore some of the complexities of this law-centric activism and interventions in the context of violence against women. The Noakhali rape incident has brought up the question of law and its ineffectiveness in the public domain like no other time before. It appears as though the government has succumbed to the popular demand by bringing some changes in the relevant rape law (introducing the death penalty), a demand sporadically voiced up in the ongoing public protests.
The hastiness with which it was done surely raises some questions. It happened without any discussion with the civil society and relevant actors in this field. Such a decision on the part of the government has generated a heated debate amongst the activists in Bangladesh. Most of this discussion is against the idea of capital punishment on various grounds. A particular strain of this position points to problems in our justice system leading to a very low conviction rate when it comes to rape. This has been the expert consensus so far.
Looking at the predicament we are in today with the recent movement and the hurried adoption of capital punishment as a way of solution, I am tempted to reflect on some of the feminist debates on law and its centrality in feminist politics and see if there is anything we can learn from it. Feminist scholars critically examined the law and its transformative potential in the context of violence against women. They have looked at the problem of laws and their presumed emancipatory potential, often by emphasising how a focus on law in feminist politics in the context of violence against women is fraught. An unstated assumption in this kind of law-driven intervention is that it imagines the state as having a magical and all-encompassing power over its subject population. Such an assumption may give rise to a kind of complacency in the feminist movement in the event of every law reform or enactment of a new law.
But the fact of the matter is, violence has been on the rise even after so many laws have been passed throughout South Asia over more than three decades. In Bangladesh, it is possible to cite any number of examples where the state could provide neither justice nor closure of the judicial process when it comes to violence against women (two names that instantly come to mind are Kalpana Chakma and Tonu). A narrow focus on the judicial process individualises the survivor/survivor family's struggle in the bureaucracy of our judicial process. The 3 percent conviction rate in rape trials simply affirms the view on the poor outcomes of lawsuits. That perhaps explains why Flavia Agnes, a legal scholar and activist in India, thinks that as long as the state remains anti-poor, anti-minority, and anti-women, we must not expect much from law and its potential to deliver social justice. The crux of the matter is that often law-centric activism ignores the myriad vectors of power spread all over our society and institutions in which a misogynistic culture is deeply ingrained. Hence, an attentive reading of the current activist landscape helps us look at an ignored area of laws' presumed neutrality in human rights discourses.
This new moment of Bangladeshi young generations' voice against rape has opened up possibilities to shift our attention away from the law and help us begin to think of the multiple locations of power in a society where the misogynistic and hyper-masculine culture as well as the culture of mastantontro (specific to the Bangladesh context) are produced and sustained. In the wake of the Begumganj incident, we see the emergence of a new activist landscape where citizen participation is seen from small towns to the large cities. In particular, what we are witnessing is the widespread participation of who may be called our generation Z (Net-Gen), a generation for whom Facebook clicktivism is a childhood thing! It is this new generation that has given our new moment a virulent look! They are innovative in reclaiming the space for women, transgender and other minority communities and identities in Bangladesh. Like some of the recent movements of the generation Z—most notably the road safety movement of 2018—this movement too has an apparent leaderless character and is not limited to Dhaka. Sometimes the slogans and languages of banners are ambivalent (demand for capital punishment, rape epidemic) but the powerful presence of the generation Z on the streets and social media is a clear indication of an emerging force. Are they going to change our activist landscape for good?
As someone who had participated in the 1998 anti-rape movement at Jahangirnagar University, I can see how different the fight today is. Back then, our battle, our collective rage was against the university authority for not taking proper action. The movement was place-based. In the absence of internet or social media, our movement was not in the public discourse the way it is today. I remember how the JU rape incidents were represented in the public discourses which often villainised the space of the JU campus (Jahangirnagarer jhopjhare je kotokichhu ghote) as well as its students (Jahangirnagarer meyer biye bhenge jacchhe). Through this time travel back and forth, I can see the emergence of a new language, a language that recasts the notion of chastity, the central tool of the patriarchal discourse controlling women's body. When there is already a culture of impunity and when the idea of using brute force with indulgence from the establishment is taking root everywhere, there is no other option left for us except building a collective movement against misogyny and hyper-masculine culture.
Nazneen Shifa is a PhD candidate at the Center for Women's Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, India.