Every time we read the word “rape” and “gang rape”, we cringe with horror. Yet these two words keep coming up too often in our daily dose of nightmarish news. And the profiles of the victims are so widespread they could be anyone—an infant, a primary school student, a madrasa student, a garment worker, a lawyer, a college student, a housewife, a mentally challenged minor, a nurse. One of the latest horror stories is Shahinoor Akhter Tania’s, a young nurse of Ibne Sina Hospital, who was on her way to see her family in her ancestral home in Kishoreganj. She was going on a Swarnalata Paribahan bus from Mohakhali and had talked to family members a few times until 8pm when her phone was found switched off.
A switched off phone is always a cause of terror for loved ones.
And Tania’s family had their worst fears come true. She had been raped by three men including the bus driver and helper, on the empty bus, after which they hit her head with a blunt object and then threw her out of the bus so that it would look like an accident. Tania did not survive. The police gathered this information after five individuals were arrested including the driver and helper and placed in remand, after Tania’s father had filed the case.
But for Tania’s family, her friends and colleagues, there is little solace in knowing that the possible rapist-murderers have been apprehended and there is hope that they will be meted out the punishment they deserve. For the rest of us, we must accept that another bright young woman’s life has been cut short after experiencing the worst kind of sexual violence.
We want so many things for our girls. We want them to go to school and university. We want them to be doctors, nurses, lawyers. We want them to work, earn their own living and contribute to the development of the country. But we cannot provide the most basic environment for that to happen—one which is not constantly hounded by fears of sexual violence and even death. We cannot make sure that they will be safe in school, while on the streets, at home or while travelling on a bus.
What is most frustrating is that nothing seems to deter these monsters who feel they are somehow invincible and perversely entitled to rape and even kill a girl/woman and get off scot-free. In Tania’s case, how did the rapist-murderers feel so confident that they could carry out their horrific crime and get away with it? That, too, after 27-year-old Rupa Khatun’s rapist-murderers were given the death sentence by a Tangail court. Rupa Khatun, a law student from Sirajganj, was raped and killed on a bus headed for Mymensingh in August last year by the bus driver and three assistants, and her body was flung off into the Tangail-Mymensingh road. The court gave the verdict after only 14 working days. So, did Tania’s assaulters not know about this? Is this all because of an information gap?!
Obviously not. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the accused in Rupa’s rape and murder case have all appealed and the hearing for their appeal has not yet started. Generally speaking, the low conviction rate and the lengthy legal process contribute to the idea of invincibility of these sexual predators.
Which brings us back to that ugly term—“gang rape”—how can a group of men plan together to rape a girl/woman and then kill her? Do we have an epidemic of sexual predators?
“Gang rape” is a terrifying word in modern jargon and is the perversion of a society subsumed in an overindulgence of male entitlement. It is also the consequence of the normalisation of rape by considering it to be a “lesser crime” compared to, say, petty theft in the streets, where the perpetrator, if caught, will be beaten to a pulp, even killed, by the mob. It is part of a patriarchal culture in which females are regarded as lesser, expendable beings, mainly sex objects. It is a culture that imposes the burden of shame on the victim rather than the rapist.
In a society mired in male chauvinism, a female whether child or adult, if alone, is seen as easy prey. Often religion is falsely cited to dictate all sorts of justifications for a female to be raped: her clothing; that she was outside the home by herself; for working outside the home; for going to school (again outside the home).
But of course, we know that these are myths, that rapists have raped women who wore the “right” clothes, girls who were at home, women who did not go out for work. In case of the two gang rapes in Shubarnachar, Noakhali, both victims were housewives and subjected to sexual violence by groups of men because they had “dared” to support a political candidate of their own choice, not because they were breaking cultural/religious norms. The rapist gangs were affiliated with the politically influential.
In one case, the woman who has four children was gang-raped during the December national election because she defied a former upazila parishad member by voting for “sheaf of paddy”; he later ordered his men to rape her to teach her a lesson. In the second case, a 48-year-old woman, a mother of eight children, was raped by a group of men sent by an upazila vice chairman candidate, as she had been campaigning for a rival candidate.
According to studies, gang rapes are more violent, the injuries to the victim more severe than single individual assaults, hence the trauma is multiplied. Members of the group tend to dehumanise the victim before and during the rape. According to a 2013 Lancet study, the motives of rape include entertainment (two-thirds of gang rape perpetrators), to inflict punishment to the victim (30 percent) or because of alcohol consumption (alcohol consumption).
In the horrific Delhi gang rape case of 2012, a 23-year-old physiotherapy student, Jyoti Singh, who became known as Nirbhaya (meaning fearless), fell victim to six assailants on the bus she had boarded with a male friend. The assailants included the driver of the bus. Her male friend was also mercilessly beaten up. Jyoti later died of her horrific injuries in a Singapore hospital. The rapists had been drinking and had earlier robbed another person on the bus. The phenomenon of sexual assault on a moving vehicle has been around for quite a while.
After the Nirbhaya case which caused national uproar, several amendments were made to India’s existing laws on sexual offenses to provide better protection to women although women and girls continue to be raped in that country. We too have very stringent laws to deal with rape and murder after rape. Yet little has changed in terms of deterring such sexual predators from carrying out their despicable crimes. It is crucial that the entire legal process is sensitised to favour the victim and not the rapist—from the time an FIR is filed at the police station to the treatment of the victim by the police, medical examiner and courts during the trial, to the carrying out of the sentence.
The state, moreover, must take a strong stand against rapists who take the shelter of their political connections to get away with such heinous crimes.
But along with this, what is most needed is sensitising our boys regarding their perception of females. Boys must be taught at home, and in school, to respect and honour women and look at them as equal human beings. It will require a collective effort by the government and the public through massive campaigns in all media to change the misogynistic views that have allowed this rape culture to pervade our society.
Aasha Mehreen Amin is Senior Deputy Editor, Editorial and Opinion, The Daily Star.