For a girl or a woman living in Dhaka city, the possibility of being sexually harassed is a reality she has lived with from a very early age. Our archaic laws and the cryptic wording of penal codes—where Section 509 of the Penal Code 1860 defines sexual harassment as "gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman, utters any word, makes any sound or gesture, or exhibits any object, intending that such word or sound shall be heard, or that such gesture or object shall be seen, by such woman"—does not make it any easier for sexual harassment to be identifiable; since these aren't the only words that cause more chaos than calm for women.
The law further trivialises the crime by providing consequences such as "simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both." And although Section 10 from the Prevention of Women and Children Repression Act 2000 mentions "criminalising the act of someone who touches a woman or child (with any part of their body or an object)"—it also uses the term "women's modesty," (narir shilota) with regard to sexual harassment, thus promoting a gender bias in our legal framework and the victimising of complainants.
With men being raised to fight back when harassed or attacked, physically or verbally, the instinct to defend ourselves has not been taught to most women. Simply put, our society and the current legal framework only makes us normalise a crime like sexual harassment. And by that order, the monsters we had under our beds are now out in the open, giving us myriad suggestive propositions on the streets and buses.
In a 2018 report from The Daily Star on women's safety outdoors, the number of victims of sexual harassment were mammoth. A survey showed that 94 percent of women were being harassed in different ways, resulting in uncomfortable situations that led 20.5 percent of them to avoid using public transportation. Being harassed for their clothes is also among other inconveniences that women have faced on a daily basis; this further caused them to dress more conservatively, just to keep stalkers at bay (45.4 percent), although even doing that does not necessarily ensure protection.
Be it physical harassment or verbal, the research also showed that 74 percent of women were victimised in their daily commute, and 26 percent while walking on the streets. Adding to their miseries, public vehicles such as buses, tempos, rickshaws and auto-rickshaws were red flagged as unsafe as well.
In connection to this ordeal, the BRAC research paper titled "Safe Road for Women: Reducing Sexual Harassment and Road Crash in Bangladesh" found that the majority of perpetrators harassing women in the streets or in public transport are between the ages of 41 to 60; 66 percent of women have admitted to being harassed by men of this age group.
In my experience of being harassed, I noticed that the men were very confident in their acts. This experience tends to be quite common, as reflected in an opinion from 2018 in this newspaper—"the perpetrators appear to be convinced that they will bear no consequence for their unrelenting and atrocious acts." And indeed, they don't.
Such experiences, as mentioned in BRAC's research, leave a long-term impact on the victim's psyche. Looking back at one of the many instances of harassment I faced, I too can certainly vouch for this. Back in 2016, I was taking a CNG ride to Khilkhet. Those of us who use this mode of transport regularly are well aware of the notorious "mirror move" made by the drivers—sometimes focusing on our faces, and other times strategically focusing on our chests, no matter how well we wrapped ourselves up with an orna (scarf).
This particular driver however, had done neither. "Safe at last!" Or so I thought. Upon reaching Khilkhet, I heard him mumble something under his breath as I was stepping out. When I inquired, he asked a rather graphic question about my body, repeating himself twice. In a fit of rage, I held the caged doors of his vehicle and started shaking the CNG. But he had got what he wanted (the satisfaction of being able to verbally taunt a female) and fled the scene instantly.
What I learned that day was: the orna only obligates women to cover, and fails to restrict the male gaze; I was almost certain that this probably wasn't his first time. I shouldn't be the one dwelling over shame and guilt, yet unfortunately, women are conditioned to almost always experience these feelings and take the blame onto themselves.
Over the years, I gradually understood that navigating the streets of Dhaka requires a thick skin and more humour in mind than hellfire, especially knowing that help from the law enforcing authorities is unlikely to be right around the corner. As I decided to deconstruct the societal expectations regarding what constitutes as modesty in terms of dressing, I began confronting the men who leer and taunt me on the streets.
This includes counter-questioning the many men who question me on the lack of my orna, or expressing my irritation at those who stare and giggle as I walk by. On occasions, I also keep one of my hands behind my back in crowded places; just to grab those hands that "accidentally" touch my buttocks.
Safe to say, I've been able to stand my ground and come back in one piece.
But what works for me, doesn't apply for those reeling from past experiences, or those who don't know the city or the country well enough to tackle harassment.
Moreover, incidents like the 2015 Pohela Boishakh sexual harassment case reduces our faith in the law enforcers for not paying heed to the severity of the situation. The nation is still baffled as to how, despite witnessing the sexual harassment of 20 women by 30 to 40 men in the TSC area, the police remained unstirred from their stations. In other instances, police themselves have contributed to harassment.
Sexual harassment has been talked about for decades. In 2011, a case was filed as "BNWLA vs government of Bangladesh and others", where the High Court clarified that sexual harassment can take place in all private and public places, not just workplaces and education institutions. It goes to show that there is an acknowledgement from the judiciary and legal divisions. What is missing, however, is the urgency to implement policies to prevent and punish such harassment, especially in public spaces.
While offices and educational institutes have received guidelines from the judiciary on this issue, public spaces are still devoid of such rules. It is time to hold our lawmakers to account regarding the lack of effort in reducing sexual harassment. As days go by without provisions such as CCTV cameras (that work) in public spaces, messages in public transport conveying the need for decency and decorum, or necessary interventions from law enforcing authorities, we fail to make women feel safe and included, that too in public spaces.
Reforming a penal code from 1860 may not happen overnight, but what seems feasible at the moment is to take sexual harassment prevention policies that are applicable in the workplace or educational institutions and extend them into public places. Such policies must translate into laws, and they must be implemented and not just enacted. Potential perpetrators should be aware that such acts will be dealt with severely, and women must also be given the agency they need to fight against public apathy and police indifference.
Rubab Nayeem Khan is a member of the editorial team, The Daily Star.