“My silences had not protected me. Your silences will not protect you.”
-Audre Lorde, Your Silence Will Not Protect You (2017)
The horrific murder of Nusrat Jahan Rafi, a student of Sonagazi Islamia Senior Fazil Madrasa in Feni, had caused a massive outcry from the public and intensive media coverage. The 18-year-old was set ablaze on April 6 for refusing to withdraw a case filed against the principal of her religious school for sexually harassing her. In the last week of her life, the story of her fight for justice broke through our endemic numbness and brought the issue of sexual violence into our everyday public discourse.
What set her story apart was the courage and determination to keep on fighting till the end to resist sexual harassment. Even as she lay critically injured in hospital bed with burns to 80 percent of her body, she displayed her fighting spirit. She had her brother record her account of the attack and said, “The teacher touched me, I will fight this crime till my last breath.” She did not give up.
The viciousness of the crime against Nusrat, its supposedly “safe” setting of a religious school where the violence occurred, and the indifferent attitude of the police led to the eruption of popular anger in social media. When Nusrat died on April 10, her fight-unto-death ignited intense discussion on sexual violence. Many people called for punishment of the culprits and some felt the need for a long struggle to change the patriarchal culture. For a fleeting moment, there was a feeling that Nusrat’s tragedy would lead to a transformation of our society’s attitude to sexual violence.
The government responded to the public outcry by cracking down on the culprits. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina vowed that none of the culprits would be spared. Her government also took over the responsibility for her treatment. In addition, she handed over a job appointment letter to Nusrat’s brother Mahmudul Hassan Noman. However, as we look into the state discourses and responses, we find that the government took only a sympathy-producing approach and has not done anything systemic to suggest these were not mere charitable gestures in one single case. While those were laudable moves, the process of responding did not address the real causes of sexual violence and the possible solutions.
Does any parent feel safe now if their daughter is out of home in any part of Bangladesh? The answer is no. Even as we were mourning for Nusrat, at least 41 children were raped in the nine days between May 1 and 9, according to Manusher Jonno Foundation (The Daily Star). Sexual violence in public spaces remains a largely neglected issue with no or insufficient provisions in place to address it.
It is symptomatic of a crisis fast unfolding in the country. It is sickening that 17,289 incidents of women and child rapes were recorded between January 2014 and December 2017—as revealed by home minister Asaduzzaman Khan in parliament—in a country where rape is not easily reported. ActionAid found that over a half of urban women experience violence, including sexual harassment. Such a high prevalence of sexual violence suggests that the problem is turning into a nation crisis.
Yet, the government is not taking any meaningful step to ensure the safety of all women and girls. Our education system is failing our women and girls. The committee to prevent sexual harassment has not been formed at all educational institutions and workplaces in line with the High Court directives of 2009. No effort has been made to impart sexual education for boys and girls. Our transport system is also failing our women and girls. There is no effective monitoring and regulation of transport services to make them safe, accessible and available to all.
Our law enforcement and justice delivery systems are also failing our women and girls. The police are largely biased against women and are sometimes hesitant even to register cases of rape and sexual harassment. The fact that women and children repression cases had a conviction rate of as low as 0.3 percent in 2018 shows that the perpetrators enjoy a high or near-complete impunity. We need an overhaul of the systems of investigation, prosecution, and trial of rape and sexual harassment to end this impunity. As long as rapists and abusers think that they can get away with it, women and girls would continue to be raped and abused every day.
Some people describe sexual violence in public places as isolated incidents perpetrated by some psychopaths. They often suggest that the world would be safe for women and girls if those few psychopaths are removed. By drawing the abusers as alien to us, they completely ignore the reality of everyday violence against women and girls. Nusrat’s incident clearly shows a terrifying circle involving sexual abusers, their influential backers and law enforcement at play in normalising sexual violence. The accused in the incident are neither psychopaths nor loners. They had a whole band of people behind them.
In Nusrat’s death, the whole system was complicit—politicians, police, teachers, students, and ordinary men and women. As the story has unfolded, local ruling party leaders supplied money to silence her; the police showed indifference to the case and took the side of the abuser; teachers planned and ordered her killing; students executed the plan and set her on fire; local people came out on the street in support of the perpetrator. This is symptomatic of a disease not just of a few individuals, but of the whole society. So the responses must go beyond the legal measures and enforcement of the law, and hit the patriarchal core of the society.
There is no doubt that we need sexual harassment and witness protection laws. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said in parliament: “If necessary, we must enact tougher laws and ensure that maximum punishment is given to those who commit sexual harassment.” The point is when that “necessity” would be felt. How many lives do we need to see destroyed, how many lonely battles do we have to fight before our leaders feel that the crimes have continued unabated for long enough?
In recent years, we have seen the phenomenon that no real change was initiated without an outpouring of protests on the streets. It is unfortunate that in Nusrat’s case, the protests that took place on social media did not spill onto the streets, and the visibility of public protests against the government for failing to provide adequate security for women and girls was very low. But we should also not forget that public outrage is almost always subjective. The rape of Marma sisters or Hindu women or a poor/uneducated village girl may not stir up as much anger as that of an urban, educated, middle-class woman. When the outrage is too intense, the government steps up, mostly by making a spectacle, as it needs to create an impression of “doing something”. Also, in a society where patriarchy is so intensely embedded in our homes, our institutions and in our laws, there is no guarantee that the people would side with the woman or girl victim. Usually, the opposite is the case. So we cannot always rely on public outrage to stop sexual violence.
If women are to participate more fully in our collective life, we must create an environment where they feel free to move on the streets, in public transports, to go to educational institutions and workplaces without fear. But it is deeply worrying that the state, instead of taking the responsibility for its failure to protect women and girls, is putting the burden of protection onto individual women. Just drafting strict laws would not be enough; changes in the patriarchal and misogynistic culture must accompany it.
The way Nusrat’s case has been handled does not make us hopeful that a change is going to come. Nevertheless, we need more discussions on sexual violence like the one it had generated. When more people talk about sexual violence in a very public way and we have more Nusrats determined to get justice, real change would follow. At least, we can hope so.
Nusrat fought till the end. She did not give her life in vain. Her struggle should awaken everyone to act for cultural change to ensure respect for women and to make public spaces safe. Let her death spark a revolution in our society’s attitude towards sexual violence.
Zobaida Nasreen is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Dhaka. She is currently a Fulbright Visiting Scholar at Rice University, USA. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org