Why #MeToo is not happening in Bangladesh
It's certainly not because our men are better
The #metoo and #metooindia hashtags are felling old oaks in Indian media including the likes of veteran actors such as Nana Patekar and Alok Nath, singer Kailash Kher, filmmaker Sajid Khan, author Chetan Bhagat and even deputy foreign minister and former founder editor of The Telegraph MJ Akbar. Multiple women are now using the hashtag to band together and name their perpetrators—the total list as it stands now is approximately 38-strong.
It has been primarily women extending their support—and more importantly their belief—to the other women coming forward with the allegations. Industry maestro Farah Khan tweeted that her brother Sajid Khan "has a lot to atone for" should the allegations be true.
Who will be the ones in our industry to stand up for the vulnerable among their lot?
Several months back, a former Lux Channel I Superstar participant called Faria Shahrin told Prothom Alo that actors routinely get asked by producers to sleep with them. "They straightaway ask me for how much money would I go with them!" the actor had said. The article created a shitstorm on social media—except it was not the #metoo kind. Because the actor had refused to name and shame anyone citing "fear of revenge", the media sphere pounced on her for the offense of "generalising". What she is alleging are isolated events, they said. Not everybody does it, they continued, their thin-skinned defense completely silencing Faria's initial comment, turning it into the tired topic of "not all men are like that". In addition, instead of looking into her allegations, the Actors' Guild allegedly threatened to file a lawsuit against her for "spreading falsehood".
"Who is this girl? Someone please give her some work so that this does not happen to her again," mocked actor Bonna Mirza in a scathing social media post. Later in a talk show hosted by a private television channel, she said, "Faria's allegation perpetuates the stereotype that women in the media industry have loose morals." Mirza stated she did not disbelieve that Faria may have encountered sexual harassment when looking for work—but she added a hundred caveats like the ones mentioned above, which hardly made her an unwavering supporter.
When the women weren't standing up for their lot, the men too saw no reason to. "Listening to her, it seems like she is a very desperate girl, so she should have the courage to take names," said veteran actor and producer Shahiduzzaman Selim, at the same talk show as Mirza. Selim, who is years older than her (something he carefully also pointed out to validate his statement), was seated opposite to Faria Shahrin on the same table. Not once did he mention that he will take her side should she drop the name-bombs, putting the entire responsibility of ensuring accountability, on this young actor. "Who will give me security if I name the producers?" she asked. "Why do you think you are so insecure?" he yelled back at her. His question lacked complete cognizance of the fact that she would jeopardise her entire future if she named to shame.
"Desperate" was the word Selim used. "Agenda-driven" is what it meant. Rarely ever, is an allegation of sexual harassment taken at face value for what it is—a woman wronged, trying to regain control.
There's an even more recent example: Just last week a popular Bangla daily interviewed a rising female actor and a former Lux Channel I Superstar Runner-Up about whether the #metoo movement is relatable to Bangladesh's media industry.
"The men don't have any fault," she said. "It is the women who allow themselves to be violated."
Our women have internalised patriarchy to such an extent that even the "feminist" logic they craft fall within boundaries and lines drawn by men, and carefully toed by the women. They rally around rape victims because rape has ideal, unquestionable evidence, while anything short of a fauzdari crime is not taken seriously. The inherent message is this—for their voices to be heard, women need to shed blood. The activism scene of Bangladesh in this sector fights the cause in general—but rarely has there been any noise surrounding the everyday and particular experiences of women that platforms like #metoo are meant to shed light on.
I was sitting at the Press Club lounge deep in the middle of an interview a couple of weeks back when this older woman interrupted us, introduced herself as a veteran journalist of a reputed Bangla newspaper and then proceeded to ask me to lower my scarf.
"Shape bujha jacche, and everyone is looking," she said, motioning at my scarf which had hiked two inches above its socially-mandated position.
Seeing my stunned face, she proceeded to explain that the male journalists were stealing glances, and that I should be aware of that. Meanwhile the person I was interviewing tried desperately to look anywhere but at us.
As my initial shock turned to vexation to white-hot fury, I politely told her to leave me alone and let me finish my interview. Not that there was much left to salvage—my male interviewee barely met my eye after that.
This incident took place at the Press Club, the one place that is supposed to champion the rights of journalists nationally, by a woman of the same profession—and did I mention she was elected in the committee several times?
Everyone would hail that Press Club journalist as a trailblazer in her own right—a female from the early 90's making it big in the media, an elected union activist fighting for better wages for her compatriots. But this is a fragile space she created—given to her after much negotiations with men—and a space that can only hold a certain type of woman.When this space has not an inch for women whose scarves fall to a side, how will it fight bigger and complex problems, like including more non-Bengali women into the media? Or god forbid, trans-women?
That female journalists—especially beat reporters—deal with sexual harassment and discrimination on a daily basis from their sources, and sometimes their own colleagues, is a truth that newsroom administrators choose to turn a blind eye to. The idea being, it's a hard knock life and women have to suck it up if they want to stay in the profession. A 2015 study from the Humanities and Social Sciences journal interviewed a hundred female journalists from our industry and found that 71 of them faced sexual harassment and gender discrimination out on the field.
This woman who so readily chastised another female colleague for the "offense" of "attracting men" instead of disciplining the men for sexual harassment was simply upholding that same unwritten rule that the mostly male-run news organisations have enforced.
It was also a female journalist who took me aside one day four years ago and told me to make sure that none of my actions are tempting the men around me—all because her husband, the editor of a New York-based Bangla-language television channel—routinely subjected me to non-consensual touching. Her silence meant that the tiny arm and shoulder touches escalated one night when we were alone in a car, and he slid a frigid cold hand down the bottom of my spine, at the place anatomically known as a tail-bone.
And let's not even get into the topic of women who don't have access to this viral hashtag. When even economically solvent middle-class women cannot find receptive audiences, the women on the margins don't stand a chance of being believed.
When was the last time anyone named-and-shamed the employers of the domestic workers who undergo every day sexual violence? How is it that the RMG industry having the largest female workforce, and a known track record of workplace sexual harassment, has hardly found allies willing to hold perpetrators accountable?
For women's voices to be taken seriously, and for their perpetrators to be brought to light, they had to go through the most horrifying forms of torture—and more often than not, the brunt of this is borne by the youngest and the poorest of the lot. It was only when 11-year-old Sabina Akhter came before the public last year with a blue, beat-up face swollen twice its size last year, that anyone took notice. What if she had no visible scars to bear? Who would have been willing to press charges against her military officer employer?
"We cannot act on cases of sexual harassment or violence either by calling the police or the media because if we did that we would lose access to the domestic workers," a social worker told Star Weekend last year. The social worker runs drop-in centres for domestic workers, especially minors, in residential areas of the city. The workers are routinely forced to cover up instances of sexual assault and rape of domestic workers because there is no platform with an inclusive enough agenda to stand beside them.
Our experiences are numerous and our allies are few—and until that order can be reversed, how can we even dream of having a platform to talk about sexual harassment?