One would think it to be the rantings of a madman had it not been the words of a parliamentarian—that feminists are to blame for the rape incidents across the country. Such a preposterous remark was made by Rezaul Karim Bablu, an independent MP of Bogura-7 constituency. But he didn't stop just there. He endorsed the obnoxious "tetul theory" of late Hefazat-e-Islam head Shah Ahmad Shafi.
Late Allama Shafi, as we unpleasantly recall, compared women to "tetul" (or tamarind) because they are like this sour fruit and cause "men's hearts to salivate when they see them" and hence should not be "seen" outside the confines of the four walls of the house.
But what is most shocking is the total silence in parliament after such abominable words regarding women were uttered. Forget all the men in the House, how could not a single woman member of parliament or other women holding high positions object to such an outrageous and clearly misogynistic comment? The occasion was the passing of the Women and Children Repression Prevention (Amendment) Bill 2020 which added the provision of the death penalty for rapists, when several MPs proposed circulating the bill to get public opinion on it and sending it to a select committee. The MP in question claimed that feminists were continuing to "expose" women in the name of women's liberation, which was actually encouraging rapists to rape. Pray tell, what is the reasoning behind such twisted assumptions?
Human rights activists and feminists are appalled at such remarks in an institution that is supposed to represent the people, men and women. They are especially dismayed at the silence of the women MPs, the Speaker of the House, and the leader of the House at such objectionable statements about women. We may recall that the prime minister herself had categorically criticised the comments of Allama Shafi in a congregation which showed such disrespect for women. Surely, reiterating those ideas cannot be something that can be acceptable to her or any of her cabinet colleagues. Apart from the sheer crassness of his words, MP Rezaul Karim's statement runs contrary to all the goals that the government is trying to achieve in terms of empowering women through its ministries and international commitments. These include access to education for girls, opportunities for employment and earning an income, encouraging women to enter male-dominated professions such as in the police, army and air force.
What he said cannot be dismissed as a careless remark made without thinking. It was made by a sitting member of parliament over a bill on rape at a time when we are deluged with incidents of rape, gang rape and all kinds of sexual violence against women and girls, crimes that you would think would be universally condemned. The "tetul theory" that the MP was referring to included a prescription for women given by the late religious leader that declares that they do not step outside of their home and just stay inside, dust the furniture and take care of the children—the only tasks they are meant for. During his infamous "tetul" sermon, the cleric condemned men for "allowing" their wives and daughters to work, to go to schools and universities to be doctors, to work as garment workers—which somehow meant they were of "loose character". Girls should have a maximum of grade 4 or 5 education so that they could help their husbands to calculate household expenses. At that time, we were outraged, as was our prime minister, but we did not really take it as seriously as we perhaps should have.
One cannot deny that religion is a powerful tool to influence people. So when these regressive, anti-woman ideas are spewed out misusing the name of religion at gatherings attended by hundreds and thousands of men, many of whom will blindly support anything prescribed by a religious leader, it is something to be worried about. When an MP advocates these ideas in parliament, implying that the victims of rape had brought it upon themselves, it basically absolves the rapists of their crime and is, therefore, dangerous and damaging. And when no one in parliament, not even those women holding such high positions of power, objects to them, it is shocking and disturbing.
The lawmaker has shown extreme contempt for the tireless work of human rights activists and feminists in trying to bring to the forefront the gross gender inequalities that have led to women being physically, emotionally and economically abused. If it weren't for their continuous protests condemning violence against women especially, the resolute demanding of justice for survivors and victims, their nationwide campaigns to create consciousness about such violence and their determination to get their voices heard by those in power, we wouldn't have seen the changes in laws and policies to protect the rights of women; we wouldn't have seen the murderers of Yasmin and Nusrat be brought to justice. If it weren't for these feminists who have dedicated themselves to helping women survivors escape indescribable torture by providing shelter or through pro bono legal aid, many would not have survived. To try and make "feminist" sound like a dirty word is the oldest trick in the book of patriarchy that cries of blatant ignorance and a total disconnect with the ideas of equality and justice which our constitution guarantees.
In an interview with The Daily Star's Golam Mortoza, MP Rezaul Karim gave a somewhat befuddling explanation for his statement. In a nutshell, what he said was that the onus of not getting raped fell on how women dressed and appeared in public. So when girls wear T-shirts, it is only natural for men to want to rape them. When asked why girls like Nusrat and Tonu who adhered to the religious dress code had been sexually abused and raped, before they were murdered, MP Karim was evasive and said those examples did not apply here. How convenient! And how would MP Karim explain why rapists rape children (including small boys), babies and women who stay at home and in front of their husbands, and why children are sexually abused inside their homes by close relatives?
It is tragic that a lawmaker who represents the people and who takes part in passing laws would—instead of condemning rapists and sex offenders and advocating for sensitisation of the male members of society including law enforcers in treating all women and girls with respect, and for removal of the culture of impunity of rapists—chose to use the cheapest misogynistic scapegoat: how women are dressed.
The MP in question has shown extreme disrespect to all the women in the House as well as to all women and girls of this country. He has also sent the wrong message to rapists and other sexual predators.
Aasha Mehreen Amin is Senior Deputy Editor, Editorial and Opinion, The Daily Star.