How conforming to societal misogyny breeds gender-based violence
If I had to pick only one trait of my own that I admire, it would have to be my ability to adapt. Growing up in a (then) low-income part of the city but attending an English medium school in a quintessentially affluent area, I learned early on to modify my behaviour and personality to suit different audiences. Still now, the last thing I want is to stand out. Or, to stand out for the wrong reasons. As such, I have always tried to abide by the saying of "when in Rome, do as the Romans do." After all, fitting in is a survival tactic. When you fit in with the dominant crowd, you are safe. From attention, criticism, debate, and from the possibility of your opinions being proven "wrong." In some contexts, the need to fit in—or rather, be invisible—becomes a requirement or necessity, for the sake of self-preservation.
So while my skills of adjustment do come in handy when solving problems in a crunch, there have been many times when this trait became the cause of my subjugation. For instance, on a 2018 morning when I spotted two men taking photos of my then-hijabi and amply-clothed self while crossing the Mirpur 10 footbridge, I confronted them. The phone's photo gallery was riddled with images of women—in salwar-kameez, burqas, niqabs—taken from that same location and on that morning. I yelled many choice words at the two men, one of whom seemed nervous while the instigator seemed to be finding my reaction hysterical. I was, I will admit. In that moment of rage and insecurity, hysteria should not seem that inappropriate of a reaction. Of the bystanders who did nothing but watch, one was a man who chuckled disparagingly at me, while his young son watched and, I would assume, learned: Harassment is no big deal and women overreact to it. Not knowing what to do—"Would any nearby law enforcement agents help me or would they laugh at me, too?"—I took pictures of the offenders on my own phone, threw theirs down onto the footbridge's floor, and stormed down the stairs to catch my bus.
People commented on my social media post about the incident later on, all kudos to me for standing up to the harassers.
The unsavoury truth is that I was very scared, during and long after the incident. In fact, given that my family was moving to another area the next month anyway, I took a different and lengthier route to my bus every morning after that. "Like a coward," I'd tell myself. But I had heard and read too many accounts of how scorned men have harassed, stalked, thrown acid at, assaulted, abducted, and/or raped women as revenge—or even just because. Not only is harassment on the streets, in and of itself, mentally and emotionally harmful to the recipient, but it always has the potential to be dangerous and life-threatening. And this is a constant fear that all women carry within themselves.
A common rebuttal of rape-apologists in our country is that rape takes place because women do not dress "properly" here. One can assume that "proper" means covered, preferably from head to toe. So I was, on that morning of 2018, and back then it was because I was trying to fit into the narrative of a "properly dressed" woman, so as to avoid being sexually objectified. And so was 19-year-old Sohagi Jahan Tonu, before she was raped, brutally murdered and discarded in March of 2016, inside the "safe" area of Mainamati Cantonment in Cumilla. Nusrat Jahan Rafi (18) of Feni, too, was a "properly" dressed madrasa student, who refused to withdraw the sexual assault case she had filed against her school's principal and was in turn set ablaze by a few miscreants in broad daylight on April 6, 2019.
So, in our country, even when women do as the Romans do (or, as the Romans want them to do), it seems that Rome perhaps is not fully ours. We do not have as much claim to it, or as much freedom of expression and movement in it, as our male counterparts are allowed to have. In order to stay safe and "dignified", we try to fit ourselves to the image of a "good" woman, as much as possible.
We may go out to school or work, but we make sure to be as unnoticeable as possible. When men on the footpaths walk towards us head-on from the opposite direction, with no indication that they will give us space to walk past them, we take a few steps to one side ourselves, so as not to "allow" the men to bump into and/or grope us. Just as I used to in my teens, when a man sits next to me on a public bus, I give him his space. When his hand still manages to brush against my side, I tense up and put myself in the corner of the seat, as much as I can. I ignore catcalls now, but still look out for phones positioned a bit too vertically, with the camera pointing in my direction. I know now which outfits will get me too many stares for comfort, and I keep them tucked away in my cupboard, pretty as they are. This all helps me fit in and keeps me safe from judgement and harm; keeps my dignity intact, too—or so they've told me, and then I've taught myself. You see, after a point, fighting against the misogynistic rules of our society does not seem worth it, and simply conforming gives women some rest from all that.
Of course, violence that is birthed from these rules and our (voluntary or involuntary) conformity to them exists in many forms (mental, emotional, sexual, physical) and can be of varying levels. But when mild forms of violence (such as obscene comments thrown towards women on the streets) go unchecked, or are made into laughing matters, it lends a certain kind of acceptance to acts which fall under this level of violence and, by extension, to acts worse than them. When such acts of "mild violence" against one gender are normalised, more dangerous forms of violence veer closer towards being acceptable in society, too.
Putting aside the need for the state to train its representatives to be more gender-inclusive and to eliminate/reform all laws which allow for gender discrimination and violence to persist, individuals as conscious members of the public must actively fight back against gender-based violence even in its mildest forms. Violence against someone based solely on their gender is everyone's responsibility to counter. Whether it happens in broad daylight or behind closed doors, gender-based violence is no laughing or "private" matter.
Afia Jahin is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.