The paradox of silence is that it only accentuates the sound of things you may not want to hear. The silence I am talking about here is the institutional refusal to acknowledge, let alone address an unsavoury truth. If this truth happens to be the sexual harassment of an employee, save a rare handful, most institutions will look the other way, leaving the victim exposed and humiliated. For Constable Halima Begum of Mymensigh's Gauripur thana, who, according to her diary entry, was allegedly raped by a fellow colleague, the humiliation and torture was compounded when the officer in charge allegedly refused to accept her complaint. On April 2 she set herself on fire in the barracks of her police station, to escape forever, the pain of her ordeal.
According to her father, who found the diary, she has apparently given details of her rape, accusing a sub inspector which she said, had told her to accompany him on a raid where a female Yaba trader would be arrested and hence a policewoman was required. But this was just a pretext, she wrote, to get her alone and then rape her. In her diary she has said that when she went to the officer in charge to get redress he turned her away. The OC when asked by the BBC correspondent covering the incident, denied that she had come to him with such an allegation, instead he said that the concerned sub inspector had complained that Halima had been blackmailing him. There have been allegations that Halima had some sort of a relationship with the accused but this is refuted by her father. He says that Halima had just joined the thana in Mymensingh last December – around three months before her death. She had even conceded to getting married according to her family's choice. Earlier, he says, she had always said 'later' whenever her marriage was brought up; her dream was to become a high ranking officer and serve in a peace keeping mission abroad.
It is not ironical or implausible that a law enforcer would be the victim of a crime committed by another law enforcer. That's because the victim is a woman and no matter how efficient she is or what her credentials are, that is always what she will be to many of her colleagues. Thus while we are overjoyed to see women in the police force, standing side by side to guard the streets or taking part in dangerous operations, how much do we really know regarding their treatment by their male colleagues? According to a Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative 2016 report, more than 10 percent of women in the police have faced some form of sexual harassment. That is not insignificant considering the small percentage of women in law enforcement (around 6 percent) compared to their male counterparts, in the first place.
Sexual harassment, whether subtle or blatant, is something many working women are familiar with. It could be using lewd language or cracking sexually loaded jokes in front of a female colleague, it could be unwanted texts or calls, it could be blatant ogling and objectifying comments, it could be intentional physical contact that would be brushed away as 'accidental'. Or it could be worse – indecent proposals and then rape if they were refused. Despite an apparent zero tolerance policy when it comes to sexual harassment in most public institutions, the culture of silence and impunity makes sure that on paper, there is no trace of such crimes. Since the victims are almost always women in a male dominated workplace and the culprits are men in superior ranks or have ties with those in influential positions, it is unlikely that they will have the courage to report these incidents. In the case of Halima who, according to what she wrote in her diary, was brave enough to report the rape, she was turned away. She was a constable, lower in rank to the sub inspector she had accused which in any case made it more likely that her plea for redress would be ignored.
Such silence has a way of spreading since other victims of sexual assault will be reluctant to report their nightmare knowing that nothing will be done. And if institutions like the police force do not take such complaints/allegations seriously and punish the culprits instead of protecting them, it does more than just mar their public image. It weakens the institution from the inside by corroding the morale of other women employees making them less trustful of their superiors and male peers. It sends out the message that it is okay to objectify female colleagues, make passes at them, that it is possible to get away with even sexually assaulting them. It may provoke women in the forces to quit and prospective women candidates to never join.
Although the percentage is small, in the last few years, there are more women than ever joining the police force which they view as prestigious and fulfills their desire to serve their country. They have also proved their commitment, intelligence and efficiency in this profession, proof of the fact that the police force needs more women. All the more reason for strict enforcement of a zero tolerance for sexual harassment.
Halima's father has filed a case against the sub inspector in question for rape and instigation to commit suicide. A three-member probe body headed by SA Newaji has been formed to investigate the case and the accused is in jail. The investigators are waiting for a postmortem report to ascertain if Halima had been raped although one can only wonder how anything can be ascertained after such a long time, on a burnt body. It is now up to the institution that employed Halima to prove its integrity by carrying out an objective investigation and set an example to the rest of the force and the public by punishing the individual, if found guilty, who has deprived the nation of a bright young policewoman.
The writer is Deputy Editor, Opinion & Editorial, The Daily Star.