Harassment in Anti-Harassment Protests: The Irony

10 Min Read
Image Source: United News of Bangladesh

S O C I E T Y – B A N G L A D E S H

Auruba Raki

“As I delivered my story of sexual abuse in front of hundreds of people at the #RageAgainstRape movement, I was shaking with adrenaline and power. And right after, another survivor, someone whom I didn’t even know, came to me and let tears roll down her face. We hugged and we cried together. It was one of those moments when I did not feel like I was protesting alone, I felt the power of unity and solidarity; I felt loved.”

Swatil Binte Mahmud, founder of Swayong, Gender Activist, and Development Worker, tells us about her experience with protests. Swatil has been working relentlessly to materialise a significant change in the sexist situation of our country.

Bangladesh saw a recent surge of protests after a video of a brutal gang rape of a woman in Begumganj went viral. Men and women alike were left aghast. One could only imagine the freedom that rapists have enjoyed for such a long period of time that they could stoop so shamelessly low. The public, enraged by the indolence of the government regarding the rise of gender-based violence towards women, took to the streets. 

Adhara Ayndrila, one of the organisers of the movement against rape in front of Viqarunnisa Noon College gate, said, “This isn’t new. This has been happening for quite some time. It’s a disgrace that it took such a video to get viral to wake people up. But now that people claimed to have woken up, they can’t stop fighting against this crime. The momentum of the movement can’t be stopped.” 

But the sad reality is that the momentum is dwindling down. It goes without saying that our people only act on a whim. Once the inebriation is over, they scatter and go on with their daily life. A protest isn’t but a change of routine for them. A chance few remain at the end of the day who, despite everything, fight an unyielding society. Faiza Fairooz Rimjhim, an active protestor, insists that our generation still caters to hopes of a far-fetched renaissance, but with every day, that hope is losing its ‘oomph’. She fears that one day, she won’t be able to spark hope either, for there will be no basis for it.

While protests are a form of demanding social justice, it is ironic that women, the main contributors to the movements, have their security infringed in the same movements.

There was the trending শেকল ভাঙ্গার পদযাত্রা movement, wherein women filled the streets at midnight to peacefully protest and demand safety of a female, whatever the time may be. United, the women were there for each other and could ensure almost no harassment taking place within the crowd. Male passer-bys could glance obnoxiously their way, but could not stop a movement of that magnitude taking place. But that is not to say this happened in one day. It is shameful enough that rape incidents had to descend to their vilest forms for the nation to really wake up and shake off indolence. 

Although rape has been happening since times unknown (and have accelerated during the lockdown), we all knew but did nothing to stop it. It took a video of the excruciating torture of a woman to sicken our conscience and take to the streets.

In addition, harassment is not limited to physical touches ranging from brushing to straight up groping. If you are ‘lucky’ enough not to have experienced that, there is the vast online world where people are out-of-reach and close together at the same time. Almost every female activist interviewed by us has had to essentially battle online to establish their stances. Nawal Naz, a participant of the #RageAgainstRape movement, said, “…people have argued with me [online] about the values I preached, and people have tried to spread rumours to defame me, or reduce credibility of the things I’ve said.” 

In Rimjhim’s opinion, profanities are commonly thrown at female activists in the common sections, especially from strangers. Rimjhim played one of the lead roles in the protest in front of VNSC’s college gate, upholding a scale of balance to preach equality among the sexes. She has received appreciation for anti-patriarch men as she found the environment in the protests “…very friendly and supportive.” 

Unfortunately, not all women have a pleasant experience protesting. In Adhara’s words, Every time I went to Shahbagh, I remember being really cautious because of my previous incidents related to harassment in public places. When I had attended Gonojagoron moncho, I remember being touched inappropriately within the crowd and my mother shouted at the individual for that. The same could be said for Mir Hosnay Tasnim Nisa, who, while attending the protest in front of VNSC demanding justice for the murder of Tanu in 2016, was groped by one of the men of the nearby Chhatra League rally. As if the law wasn’t faulty enough to capture Tanu’s perpetrators, it also turned a blind eye to the harassment happening to the individuals who were battling for her justice.

The culture of impunity is so embedded in our nation as a whole that none of us are perturbed until an incident takes place in its vilest form. Criminals are not held accountable, our neighbours are rapists, and crimes occur in broad daylight as much as in the dead of night. The exemption from punishment has loosened the morals of our society to an extent that when we don’t find the culprit, we shift the blame on the victim. This indemnity runs so deep because of how widespread crimes are. Our people know that there is but very little room for hope.

Upon being asked why she attends protests despite scanty hope, Nawal Naz told us,

Because little hope is better than no hope. And because when galvanised, the masses can dream of achieving something. Unfortunately, the trigger only occurs when something truly goes wrong.

The law has, for the most part, failed us. The chief demands made by the feminists in the protests were centred on the reformation of outdated laws, including a 10-point demand issued by the Rape Law Reform Coalition. Declaring gender-based violence a national emergency, Feminists Across Generations, an inter-generational feminist alliance working to stand up against gender-based violence and abuse against women, requisitioned an end to rape culture by demanding the abolition of any and every kind of institutional victim blaming – holding the victim responsible for their clothes, movement, company etc – ostracism of rapists everywhere instead of harbouring them, enforcement of zero tolerance for gender-based violence, institutionalisation of comprehensive sex education, reformation of laws to recognise and criminalise marital rape, male rape, as well as transgender rape. 

Most of the above points constitute the least human treatment that females should have been ensured by now but are not, and yet the law is dilly-dallying instead of undertaking full-fledged action to penalise rape and sexual violence in all its forms. 

Even anti-harassment protests cannot guarantee anti-harassment. That is the harshly ironic reality of the country we live in. But the feminists have not lost hope and are stubborn in their mission. Concluding with Swatil’s powerful words, Changes do not come in a day, and one person single handedly cannot bring about the desired changes. But I reckon, when young girls and women stand in solidarity, with rage, power, and anger, we go one step towards our desired change.”


The writer is a part of TDA Editorial Team.


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