S O C I E T Y – B A N G L A D E S H
Ayaan Shams, Fairuz Shams
Sexual violence has long been a perennial problem in most South Asian countries, with a over 50% of women being reported as victims of sexual violence atleast once in their life. However, the rise of a culture of impunity has propelled the scope of harassment and violence to multi-faceted levels.
At its roots, Bangladesh is a country which is historically male-dominated, religiously driven (with Islam at the centre), patriarchal, and prone to condemning victims as opposed to the perpetrators. With 81.3 million female residents in the country and as many as 13 (reported) rape cases on a daily basis, it is evident that our country has egregiously failed to provide its female citizens with social security. With the massive boom of social media and social media-oriented movements, one of the most detestable facets of society has been nurtured and given yet another voice, and that voice is rape culture.
So, what is rape culture?
Nusrat Karim (pseudonym), a twelfth grader, had recently called-out her ex-boyfriend in a social media post, who (after their breakup) leaked her private pictures. After the post went viral, she was horribly slut-shamed and publicly harassed for taking the pictures. Instead of the culprit being penalised, it was the victim who got blamed and shamed horrendously.
Real life implications such as Nusrat’s case are many in number. In order to contest the numerous cases of sexual violence in our country, we must properly and thoroughly understand what rape culture is. Now, from an anthropological viewpoint, culture generally refers to practices that a large sect of people or a society engage in collectively. Our ‘civilised’ society, find it difficult to associate a heinous appellation like “rape” with culture, a common term. Rape culture, at its core, is comprised of much more complex and implicit factors.
Amanda Taub, Former Human Rights Lawyer, writes in Vox, “Rape culture is a culture in which sexual violence is treated as the societal norm and victims are blamed for their own assaults. It is not just about sexual violence in itself, but about cultural norms and institutions that protect rapists, promote impunity, shame victims, and demand that women make unreasonable sacrifices to avoid sexual assault.”
Patriarchal and misogynistic desires to dominate women, a male-dominated social structure, chauvinistic rage — altogether, these constituents create a vicious atmosphere for women in contemporary Bangladesh. Rampant rape incidents and attempts are cornering the country’s female citizens with immense fear.
Shallow Religious Teaching: Fueling Rape Culture?
Ill-received and twisted misogynistic religious sentiments play a massive role in ratifying rape culture. Most, if not all, people have seen various celebrities and influencers posting their own and their close friends or relatives’ pictures on Facebook. In many recent examples, extremely religious sentiment driven and misogyny-driven people have been very quick to showcase feats of inappropriate comments and displays of abusive attitude, engaging in acts like belittling the person by judging their clothes, poses, past, etc. A growing trend is being noticed, of people altering their beliefs and sentiments to serve their own revoltingly misogynistic mindsets.
In Bangladesh, Muslims (followers of Islam) constitute over 90% of the population. However, our country lacks proper religious specialists, as a result of which, proper religious knowledge remains at a very shallow level. This is a very problematic scenario, with an example being the cases in 2019, when 15 so-called religious leaders were detained by the police for preaching sectarianism, misogyny, bigotry, and even terrorism.
With the sermons of various hujurs and imams gaining and maintaining popularity, misleading information has been a threat to targeted communities. With religious processions having a gathering of thousands of people, spreading misinformation can go a long way. Rape culture is disseminated in a similar way.
Late Bangladeshi Islamist leader Shah Ahmed Shafi, in his gatherings and speeches, urged his implicit followers to prohibit their daughters from going to school. He, along with hundreds of other religious figures, blame women for being raped, instead of men for raping. Additionally, he (Shafi) became popularly known as ‘Tetul Hujur’, after he compared women to tamarinds (tetuls), as products of lust which made men salivate. This is a prime example of how he openly supported and preached female objectification to his followers.
Besides contributing gravely to rape culture, the Islamic leaders in our country also partake in sexual violence and rape. Madrasas are religious educational institutes in our country. These institutions, led by local Imams, serve as the last resort for poor families to send their children to for education.
However, recent reported cases of sexual violence in Madrasas have skyrocketed. According to Manusher Jonno Foundation, at least 433 children, aged 7-12, were victims of sexual violence in 2018, with most of them occuring in Madrasas. A recent report in which the news of the imam of a local madrasa raping one of his students for 15 days by keeping him sedated, shows that the actual number of such incidents are even greater.
Taqbir Huda, Research Specialist at Bangladesh Legal Aids Service and Trust (BLAST), in one of his social media posts, talked about the prevalence of sexual violence in madrasas, “Firstly, we are uncomfortable in recognising that males can also rape other males (because then we would be unable to view rape as we typically do i.e. as an outcome of female ‘temptation’ and ‘indecency’). We would then have to rethink rape as being caused by something other than female wrongdoing, and we are not quite ready to do that. Secondly, we are uncomfortable in admitting that such a cruel and inhumane kind of abuse is happening in the very schools and at the very hands of the people entrusted to teach the religion we hold dear to our hearts.”
What is female objectification and where does it come from?
While mass media is one of the most visible agents of female objectification, women are seen as and treated as objects from the root levels, starting from their homes. Examples of such instances are manifold, starting from mandating a child’s outfit from the perspective of how men would view them, to pre-marriage stigmas, when the to-be bride is forced to walk around and show off herself from different angles to her future in-laws. This is perhaps the most vilifying form of objectification, where a girl is judged based solely on her physical appearance.
These agents of objectification of women originate and function due to the prevalence of highly conservative mindsets. When asked about the origin of this mentality, Swatil Binte Mahmud, Founder of Swayong, said, “From a young age, children are taught that one sex is better than the other. Patriarchy teaches men, women, and others to discriminate, to hate, to be intolerant, and to be unfair. Patriarchy hurts everyone, regardless of gender, sex, race or age.”
In Bangladesh, patriarchy is maintained in the family through the misinterpretation of religion and the non-recognition of unpaid work done by women at home. Men dominate, oppress, and exploit women through private and public patriarchal acts. In the family, women are considered passive dependants and property of their husbands. Women are excluded from economic and political power through public patriarchy. In the public arena, women are only considered sexual objects and patriarchy is maintained through sexual harassment. However, those same women end up actively contributing to female objectification.
Swatil says, “It will be unjust to only blame women who actively contribute to victim-blaming and rape culture. They are part of a culture that believes in victim blaming and shaming, this is what they see when growing up, and when they are adults, some of them end up practicing such patriarchal mannerisms. This mentality did not grow in them voluntarily, it was taught to them, fed to them, and expected from them to behave in this way.”
The enormous pressure that young girls and women feel to live up to an unrealistic image due to the age-old, prejudiced mentalities of judgemental people is fuelled by standards that suggest the importance of being a beautiful object. The Steinhardt Applied Psychology Opus states that persistent experiences of sexual objectification causes women to internalise society’s scrutiny. The resulting self-objectification further leads to habitual body monitoring and self-consciousness, which in turn increases feelings of body shame and appearance anxiety and diminishes the regular state of body and mind.
An interviewee, who would like to keep their identity private, upon being asked about the psychological effects of objectification, talks about the existence of objectification in different forms in our society. “Because the harassment is not ‘explicit’ in some cases, the consequences are often unnoticed. But they exist, and they are severe. Objectification is severely harmful in the sense that it eats away at your mind over time. Things like anxiety and self doubt arise without us often realising that they stem from a place of facing constant objectification.”
“The act of being reduced consistently to something less than who you are, the act of being undermined and being seen as potential girlfriends/being less than men, is excruciatingly difficult to live with. And we live with it everyday. On the other hand, even if it’s a more implicit objectification, like a simple comment made on someone’s clothing choice, it still leaves a subconscious impact. That person will probably think twice about wearing sleeveless clothes the next time,” the interviewee says.
Age of Social Media: A New Voice to Rape Culture
Be it sharing personal and familial photos or one’s own opinions, social media has indeed come a long way. However, how far do these opinions go in terms of credibility, utilitarian values, and legal conduct? In recent times, social media has become a medium for giving rape culture, in particular, an augmented voice.
The role of social media in amplifying rape culture is primarily twofold.
Firstly, before the expansion and popularity of social media, newspapers and news-outlets were the main sources of information for the public. Although these sources weren’t unanimously trustworthy, they were mostly acceptable, having thorough editorial and content policies and going through various stages of editing, revisions, and content research. That is not exactly the case with social media.
As of 2018, there were a reported 30 million active social media users in Bangladesh. Of them, 74% identified as male and 26% as female. It can be seen that male-dominance is noteworthy in the field of social media as well. And as social media gained prominence, the current generation of male perpetrators who hold misogynistic values began expressing their thoughts on social media, perpetuating rape culture online as well.
The perpetuation of rape culture in common society has created generations of women who have had to live in a state of diffidence and generations of misogynistic chauvinists who have been doing exactly what their predecessors did. However, in Bangladesh, this unspoken state of affairs has been subject to change too. People who originally held these beliefs have started using social media as a platform for preaching their sentiments.
“Social media means more echo chambers and online ‘locker rooms’ to exchange and perpetrate toxic ideals. A lot of explicit violence stems from normalised sexist attitudes, and so much of that normalisation happens online,” says the interviewee. And as women became more aware, these unethical people started to be seen for what they were — twisted people with horrible sentiments.
However, this is only one side to the role of social media in ratifying rape culture.
Carrie A. Rentschler, scholar of Feminist Media Studies, emphasises on the scope of social media sites to be ‘aggregators of online misogyny’. She further emphasises on how social media is a space where rape culture in particular, is both performed and resisted. Her study, surrounding active social media users and their exposure to rape culture, found the participants to be surrounded by a matrix of online sexism, wherein elements of rape culture formed a taken-for-granted backdrop to their everyday lives. Factors such as victim-blaming, slut-shaming, rape jokes, etc. seemed a normal aspect in their exposure to social media, which is exactly what happened with Nusrat Karim.
Nosheen Iqbal, in The Guardian, highlights the part Facebook has played in allowing angry men to fan the flames of each other’s rage online. This rage is particularly seen during instances of bigoted commentary under inconspicuous posts. Whilst harassment and cyber-bullying take place against a victim openly, we fail to intervene or empathise with the victim, and even when we sunder often continue to shame the victim privately within our exclusive friend bubble. As for legal help, the offences regulated under section 68 of the Bangladesh Information & Communication Technology Act 2006 are non-cognisable in nature.
The victim has to file an allegation to the law enforcing agencies to get legal aid. This is the main weakness of the said act. At the time of enactment of the act, it was said in its section 68 that a special tribunal named Cyber Tribunal would be established in every district of Bangladesh. But till now, only one tribunal has been established, which is in Dhaka City. Because of the lack of technology specialists and well trained lawyers and judges, the acceptance and proper handling of cyber cases are almost nil.
As such, a cycle of disregarded sexual harassment continues, for which our response times have been inexcusably slow and the magnitude of our responses far too meagre.
The continued presence of rape culture in Bangladesh has created a society where the prevalence of sexual violence and non-consensual sexual activities has been normalised with no consequences. The victims are indirectly coerced into withdrawing their pleas for legal justice. As such, the culprits roam free and the victims remain shackled.
With the recent uproar of rape cases all over the country, a constant thread of alarm flows through all of us. We may be unknowingly and unwillingly contributing to rape culture on a regular basis. It is up to us to educate ourselves and the ones around us to shape an inclusive country for everyone, everywhere.
- Bangladesh sees nearly 13 rapes every day
- (PDF) Rape in Rural Bangladesh
- Rape culture isn’t a myth. It’s real, and it’s dangerous.
- 25 Everyday Examples of Rape Culture
- Rape Culture
- The Effects Of Sexual Objectification On Women’s Mental Health
- BANGLADESH Rape cases in madrasas are up as one principal is arrested
- Rape culture and social media: young critics and a feminist counterpublic
- Digital Marketing and Social Media Marketing Stats and Facts of Bangladesh
- Weakness of Cyber Law in Bangladesh
The writers belong to TDA Editorial Team.
The piece was created in collaboration with BRAC-CGSRHR, BLAST, and CREA under the project “Strengthening the voices and capacities for addressing gender based violence”.