A Long, Collective Hug in Photos (Oct 2020 - Dec 2022)
Shocked and horrified at the brutality of the assault1, we, who had been friends and fellow activists for ages, shared notes on our urgent need to go see her, to tell her she was not alone. We were her sisters, we stood by her. By then, outrage had spread like wildfire, hundreds were out on the streets in Dhaka and elsewhere, protesting against what came to be known in the English language press as the "Begumganj gang rape" (and in the Bangla press, Begomgonjer bibostro nari i.e., the "woman who was stripped naked in Begumganj").
Khushi Kabir didn't come along to Noakhali due to covid restrictions but she 'made things happen' by calling people in the district administration, and civil society leaders and activists in Maijdee.
Meeting civil society leaders, and the Deputy Commissioner
Begumganj thana, "If I drown.."
She was staying in Begumganj thana premises as the High Court had ordered that the victim be provided round-the-clock security by the police. We waited for her in the office room of the Officer-in-Charge (OC). After our meeting with the DC we met the Superintendent of Police (SP), and after his initial reluctance, he assented to us visiting Begumganj thana to meet her.
She entered, sat in a corner, we huddled around her.
She asked us if we had watched the video, not many of us had, it was too brutal to stomach. She said, "Haven't you seen it? All of it? Close your eyes and mouth and watch it [till the end]. I was so ashamed I kept shut, I fled. They looked for me, when they couldn't find me they released the video…I'd told myself if they release the video I will commit suicide."
"But I think Allah will not make me leave the world as a sinner… They threatened me…[But] What wrong have I committed? I have lived without my husband for 12 years, I don't have a bed to lie on, no electricity, no one wants to know whether I have eaten or gone hungry. No one has ever offered me a ten-taka note.
"If [they are] hanged, our status will increase. If they live, people will say what if they [raped], they were let off. If I drown, the women of Bangladesh will drown. With my help you can rise up.
"Yes, [people] may say, she was a bad woman. But why did the boys do this? What faults have they found in me? Not everyone gets along with everyone else. Not all mix with all others. Not everyone visits everyone else's home. One may quarrel over land, but [that does not mean] I trade bad things [implying she had refused to give in to Delwar and his gang's demand that she join their drug trade).
If only someone had helped me, [but] no one did. There are about three hundred inhabitants. They carried me stripped naked, I cried out for a bit of cloth, whoever I turned to went ahead and video'd me. I don't know how Allah saved me. I was barely in my senses. It's true I screamed, but I only saw darkness all around. They beat my skin to a pulp. They hit me on the head. I can't see properly [now]. My face, my eyes hurt from the beating… My head hurts. My throat is dry.
Earlier she had told us, "I can't sleep. [It's the video], it keeps running in my head. I can't eat, I can't walk. I'm sitting up the whole night, no sleep. Last night, it was 2'o'clock, I still couldn't fall asleep. So what do I do but get up and pray. Nofol prayers, and then it's time for tahajjud [prayers]."
"I don't understand politics but what kind of politics is this that such incidents happen in the lives of hundreds of women, but there is no justice. Don't you wonder why, don't the people of this country wonder why this happens?... What they did to me even a dog wouldn't do this to another dog.
"If this goes unpunished then [it's not only me], you too will suffer.
"If the guilty are not given the highest punishment [then] not only the women of Begumganj but all the women of this country will be defeated. If justice does not prevail such incidents will not stop. Whether Muslim or Hindu, whether rich or poor, whether educated or illiterate, women must leave behind these divisions. We must only think of ourselves as women, we must think of the barbaric torture faced by a[nother] woman, and fight against that unitedly. Just as I won't be able to show my face if I don't get justice, you too, will not be able to hold your head up high. Because the rapists and torturers have not only stripped me, they have stripped naked all women of this country.
"Tell all those who are fighting for me that it is not about me, the fight is about reclaiming one's honor." (transl from Bangla)
On return to Dhaka, Shipra Bose named her 'Shahoshika' [the brave woman].
Note: It was a day-trip and we returned to Dhaka after meeting Shahoshika. Our press statement stated we had spoken to different strata of people in Noakhali and learnt that Delwar bahini, alongwith Samrat bahini and Sumon bahini, ruled in Begumganj through terror tactics, a fact also confirmed in national media reports. It further stated that this situation was only possible because of political patronage. It was urgent to build up a social movement which did not stop at calling for the arrest and trial of rapists, but questioned the source of power of these bahinis. It would not be possible for women to lead safe lives and move around freely if the political linkages of Delwar and other such bahinis was not exposed.
On October 19, 2020, we shared our experience of the Begumganj visit and meeting Shahoshika with women's rights organisations and women's rights activists in a zoom meeting. The organisations and groups included Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, Naripokkho, Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association (BNWLA), Sromojibi Nari Moitree, Action Aid, WeCan, Bangladesh Garment Workers Trade Union Centre, Garment Workers Unity Front, Nari Sangbadik Kendra, Ain Salish Kendra, Manusher Jonno Foundation, Samajtantrik Mahila Forum, Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST). Individuals including women's rights and human rights defenders, academics and lawyers joined in the zoom meeting.
Peoples Rally in Noakhali, "Resist Rape and Violence Against Women"
We had quickly made friends with the large number of social and cultural activists who had known and worked with Khushi Kabir and Nijera Kori for many years. As part of the nationwide protests against rape, they had organised a Peoples Rally in early December under the banner of Resist Rape and Violence Against Women. We were invited to participate. We did so through speeches, and a photography exhibition on sexual violence, rape and protests against rape, which was organised and curated by Drik.
Verdict of Trial-1: Delwar Hossain and Mohammad Ali awarded life sentences for rape
Webinar, "Shahoshika of Begumganj: Legal and social struggle, October 9, 2021 organised and hosted by Nari Samhati
A House for Shahoshika
When we met the DC on October 9, 2020, we had raised the issue of a liveable abode for Shahoshika, he had assured us that the government would build her a small house once she had decided where she wanted it built, whether on her father's land or in her shoshur bari (in-laws village).
When her house was being built, a Noakhali activist fwded us a facebook screenshot, which translated stands thus,
"Honorable Al-Haj Mamunur Rashid Kiron (MP), a symbol of humanity,
had promised to build a house for the tortured woman [name added]
who is the talk of the country of Eklashpur union Joykrishnapur village. Construction is ongoing."
(from Facebook, transl.)
Verdict of Trial-2: 13 sentenced to 10 years in jail
Webinar-2 Shahoshika of Begumganj: Verdict of the second case and future struggles, December 29, 2021, 8:00 pm
Visiting Shahoshika at her home
Taking Shahoshika for a medical check-up
Our long, collective hug binds us, and will shepherd us through the ongoing
trial, and make our sisterhood with Shahoshika last forever.
A Collective Hug
"It is more common in some cultures than others. More common in some relationships than others, but the healing power of the hug, is something we all recognise. There are times when a hug is what is most needed. What is most missed. What one longs for more than anything else. The coronavirus has affected our lives economically and physically, but perhaps its biggest wound has been the gaping void left by the inability to hug. To reach out. To comfort. To simply say, 'I'm here. I'll be here. I'm here to stay.'
For a woman who has been abused, there can be no better balm than the knowledge that one is not being judged, that there is a place where she can let her guard down, weep openly, cling if need be, where she can be hugged.
Who knows what we achieved by going out to meet the 39 year old woman brutally gang raped In Begumganj? The outcome of meeting the SP, DC, OC, media, local leaders, students, activists, might result in little. But there was one person who needed a hug more than anything else. It mattered to her, it mattered to us. It matters to a society that has lost its way."
-- Shahidul Alam
 Jannatul Mawa took a photograph of one of us hugging 'Shahoshika' as we left Begumganj thana after meeting her for the first time on October 9, 2020. That photograph, blurred to hide faces, became emblematic, photographer Shahidul Alam wrote about the significance of the hug for both victim and for women's rights activists in a "society that has lost its way." This photo story borrows his words for its title.
 Teacher and cultural activist Bithi Ghosh, photographer & teacher Jannatul Mawa, human rights activist Khushi Kabir, cultural activist Mahfuza Haque, writer Rahnuma Ahmed, journalist & researcher Saydia Gulrukh (she joined the group later), development activist Shipra Bose, and photographer & labour leader Taslima Akhter.
Other activist friends who went with us or on their own, to attend court hearings or to visit Shahoshika at her home to cheer her up were: anthropologist & filmmaker Nasrin Siraj, activist Esha Dewan, researcher Anha F Khan, sociologist Samina Luthfa Nitra, university student Nazifa Tasnim Khanam Tisha.
We would like to express our deep appreciation for Awal bhai, Mamun bhai and Laila. We drowned in hospitality in Mamun Bhai's home. Awal Bhai's lovely office (NRDS) became our home, to eat, to sleep and open up to others. They are now our extended family. Laila Parvin was ever present, come what may, a sister in the truest sense. Thank you all.
1A 35-year old woman was brutally attacked by Delwar Hossain alias Delu and members of his gang in Begumganj upazila of Noakhali district on September 2, 2020. As she resisted, some of them stripped her naked, another penetrated her vagina with an object, while others recorded it on their mobile phone. After the incident, the woman fled to her sister's house and hid there. The gang had demanded ransom, when they were unable to find her they released the video on September 4, 2020 (32 days later). It went viral; Delwar's gang had not foreseen the public outrage that would follow, it forced the police to conduct manhunts, and make arrests. Later, the woman confided to members of the National Human Rights Commission that Delwar and his associate Mohammad Ali alias Abul Kalam had raped her earlier. The police filed three cases: of rape, the accused were Delwar Hossain alias Delu and his associate Mohammad Ali alias Abul Kalam. On October 5, 2021 (a year later), Judge Joynal Abedin of Noakhali Women and Child Repression Tribunal-1, delivered the verdict. Both were found guilty and sentenced to lifelong imprisonment. The second case was of attempted rape, the verdict was announced on December 13, 2021. All 13 accused were sentenced to 10 years of rigorous imprisonment: Noor Hossain Badal, Abdur Rahim, Mohammad Ali alias Abul Kalam, Israfil Hossain Miah, Moyeen Uddin Sazu, Shamsuddin Sumon, Abdur Rob Chowdhury, Mostafizur Rahman Arif, Jamal Uddin, Noor Hossain Russel, Mizanur Rahman Tareq, Anwar Hossain Sohag and Delwar Hossain. The third case, of pornography, is under trial.
All convicts are in prison, the convicts and their lawyers, insist that they are innocent. They are also convinced that the lower court judgment will be dismissed once they appeal at the High Court.
2Though Shahoshika's sisters included two professional photographers, the flurry of activities, the loss of mobile phones, and a host of other technical issues, meant that individual credits could not be provided for most photographs. This is a collective endeavour and the collective credit line (Shahoshika'sSisters) seems fitting.
3Parul Akhter was gang-raped the night after the national parliamentary elections were held on 30 December 2018. Nearly a dozen men forcefully entered their house at night, tied up her husband and children, dragged her outside and raped her. According to media reports, Ruhul Amin, the publicity affairs secretary of Subarnachar Awami League ordered his accomplices to rape her, a mother of four, for having voted for a "sheaf of paddy" and not for the ruling party's electoral symbol, the "boat." We have learnt that the hearings were completed many months ago, but the verdict has not yet been delivered. Observers think it has deliberately been put in cold storage.