The gang-rape of a 35-year-old woman, a mother of four young children, because she insisted on exercising her right to vote for whoever she wanted to, has been the most devastating story for us ordinary citizens and especially for women of this country. It is hard to find words to describe the disillusionment and anguish I know I share with most of my fellow citizens that such horrendous violence should be inflicted as a twisted form of political revenge. While all the rapists have been arrested, even the man who “ordered” the 10 to 12 men to rape that woman “to teach her a lesson” for challenging him, what we cannot escape is the realisation of how far the culture of impunity of political elites and their cohorts has gone.
A former member of Char Jubilee Union Parishad was so “dedicated” to his job of making sure no one voted for “sheaf of paddy,” the symbol representing his party's political rival, that he just could not tolerate the fact that a woman, the wife of a CNG driver, would dare to defy him. According to the rape survivor who is still in critical condition in hospital and in mental trauma, she had gone to the polling centre at Char Jubilee-14 Government Primary School, Suborno Char, Noakhali, around 11am on December 30. She took the ballot paper from the assistant presiding officer and went to a booth to vote. According to her, Ruhul, a ruling party associate, and his accomplices kept insisting that she vote for “boat”. She refused and casted her vote for “sheaf of paddy” and this infuriated them. According to the victim, Ruhul tried to snatch her ballot paper but she didn't let him and put the paper inside the box. He then threatened her and she answered back.
She paid heavily for that act of courage.
Soon after midnight on December 31, some 10-12 men carrying sticks entered her home by cutting the surrounding fence. They tied up her husband and four children with rope and dragged her outside the house and raped her. She was beaten unconscious and the rapists also looted the family's cash and gold jewellery, according to her husband. The cries of her children alerted the neighbours who called a village doctor but her condition worsened; she was bleeding profusely and had to be rushed to the hospital where she is undergoing treatment.
When the superintendent of police was contacted by a correspondent of The Daily Star, he confirmed that a rape had taken place but said it was nothing to do with voting. Ruhul, who is accused by the victim as being the mastermind who had instructed his cohorts to rape her, completely denied the accusation and said he had no enmity with her. In fact, after a wave of scathing criticism in social media, the police did act; they called the husband and helped him file a case with a list of nine of Ruhul's accomplices in the First Information Report (FIR). Only Ruhul's name was left out. The victim's husband says he was asked to come to the station and sign the FIR; he explained that being illiterate, he didn't know that Ruhul's name was not on it.
Eventually, amidst condemnation by rights organisations, Ruhul has been arrested as well as seven of the other accused.
We cannot imagine the nightmare this young woman, her husband and her four children have gone through. Nor will we know how they will survive psychologically after this horrific experience that will most likely leave them scarred for life. The devastating truth is that our society is merciless when it comes to survivors of sexual violence. There is every possibility that the rape survivor and her family will be taunted, humiliated or even made social outcasts. There is every chance that the rapists, or at least their leader, will somehow escape punishment as they are very much from the “well-connected” and “politically influential” category.
This particular gang-rape has been driven by the self-destructive politics of this country that takes rivalry to the basest, most beastly levels. It is where sycophants of whichever party that happens to rule become uncontrollable, rabid hounds that stop at nothing to please their masters; they threaten, kill, maim, even rape. Because in almost all cases, the ends justify the means and achieving the goal is what matters, whatever the cost. It also means humiliating and crippling a rival, again at whatever cost, no matter how immoral, underhand or violent.
On December 31, Obaidul Quader, general secretary of Awami League, urged his party activists and leaders in a public gathering not to be vengeful towards political rivals, and that this was in accordance with the prime minister's directive. And on December 31, we had the misfortune to hear that a young woman, who stood up to intimidation and was adamant about exercising her right, had to pay a heavy price by being subjected to sexual violence. The police have arrested the man behind this horrible crime and he has been expelled from the party.
It is a cruel joke that such a deplorable, cowardly crime should be inflicted on a woman voter in the backdrop of the ruling and winning party's manifesto that promises to work for “women's empowerment”. A vague term indeed and an empty promise when we consider the chilling statistics: 662 women raped, of whom 57 died, and 183 of them gang-raped between January and October 2018.
Women of this liberated country have never had to fight for their right to vote. It was a given as was the right to be equal citizens as men. For a woman to be subjected to gang-rape because she chose to exercise that right is not just reprehensible but a tragic mockery of the values of our Liberation War.
Aasha Mehreen Amin is Senior Deputy Editor, Editorial and Opinion, The Daily Star.