S O C I E T Y – B A N G L A D E S H
Ayaan Shams Siddiquee
TW/CW: Explicit mentions of rape incidents and sexual violence
“I was always a good student back in high school; I used to help out in all of my school’s events and always helped the teachers out. My class teacher liked me particularly, as I was always reliable. There was one specific day when it all hit me. The moment I walked into his classroom, without saying anything he locked the door. He removed my bag from my shoulders and started to unbutton my shirt. I tried to say something but my mouth didn’t open. He sat me down and unbuckled his belt. At that moment, I realised that I had always been doing everything he had instructed mindlessly. I was disgusted by the fact that I didn’t get up and leave, that I couldn’t say anything, that I couldn’t stop him from doing what he was doing.”
Asif ur-Rahim (pseudonym), narrates his personal story of sexual violence to us anonymously via MON – মন. “As I spent more and more time with my thoughts, things got darker. I couldn’t forget any of those memories even though I wanted to get rid of them so badly. Neither could I share this with anyone nor could I end this suffering.”
Asif’s incident is an example of one of the most socially-excluded topics in our entire subcontinent — male rape. In Bangladesh’s predominantly patriarchal and heterosexual society, rape is commonly thought to be and defined as a crime committed solely against women. Male rape is generally seen as a very taboo and stigmatised topic. It has a rather negative connotation among both heterosexual and homosexual men, as a result of which, the topic is alienated in our society. The reasons behind this are primarily threefold.
Firstly, as the current narrative of rape goes in our country, it is pervasively framed as an outcome of female wrongdoing. Female survivors of rape are victim-blamed and slutshamed, with their honour and dignity placed on the line. However, when a man is raped, our society finds it hard to acknowledge it, because then, the parameters of what rape is and what rape could be would have to be reconsidered altogether. More often than not, rape is considered the inevitable outcome of carnal male desire provoked by female temptation. If women dressed ‘modestly’ and avoided travelling alone after dark, everything would apparently be fine.
This age-old misconception was challenged back on 19 August, 2019, as Aman Islam (pseudonym), a 45-year-old father of one based in Sreepur, hanged himself from a beam off the balcony of his home after being gang raped by 10 men in broad daylight. Was Mr Aman wearing revealing clothes? Was he asking for it? Was he travelling alone at night?
This unfortunate event came as a wake-up call to many, cementing the fact that male rape is very deeply rooted in our society. A recent anthropological study on men’s experiences of sexual harassment in Bangladesh found that one out of 10 males encountered sexual harassment by another male or female. However, the cases of rape against male children are far more pervasive, with news of such incidents slowly becoming more and more prevalent.
Secondly, a primary causal factor behind such a collective denial towards male rape is patriarchy. To understand the context, it is important to know how the concept of sexuality has been shaped and how the discourse of sexual harassment, rape, and abuse has been understood through the lens of the masculine social power structure.
Zobaida Nasreen, Asst Professor of Anthropology at the University of Dhaka, described the role of patriarchy in suppressing the acceptance of male rape in Bangladesh: “Being a male victim of sexual assault stands in contrast to hegemonic or conventional norms of masculinity. Following the accepted gender norms, men are taught from an early age to be ‘strong’. They are expected to pursue and take pleasure in sexual activities. If they are attacked, they are also expected to be able to protect themselves. Being raped challenges all these preconceptions.”
Since their “manliness” is placed on the line, male rape victims are less likely to report or open up about sexual violence towards them, be the perpetrator a male or female. On the other hand, if we dig deeper into the social reality that presented suicide as a preferred option to Aman Islam than reporting the incident and seeking support, we would realise that in our patriarchal society, rape is essentially associated with social shaming of women, where male victims are invisible and the feelings of being humiliated irrespective of gender has no place in it. Thus, sexually assaulted men face multifaceted difficulties in coping with sexual assault and finding a way out.
Thirdly and lastly, a blind faith in religion propels our Islamic-majority society to turn a blind eye to male rape. Cases of madrasa boys being raped by their local imams are highly prevalent in our country. News of a young boy being raped by his madrasa’s imam for 15 days in Narayanganj about a month ago spread like wildfire. However, the news was ill-received by various religious and authoritarian figures.
It is imperative to understand that sexual violence and rape within religious educational institutions are not problems that are definite to any specific religion or region, but one which exists across the world. It is a consequential result of the unquestioning authority which is unanimously bestowed upon religious leaders, who are segregated from any form of accountability.
A very recent case of a madrasa Imam attempting to rape a boy in the shower was one which disgusted everyone to their cores. “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,” said Taqbir Huda, Research Specialist at Bangladesh Legal Aids Service and Trust (BLAST). “We would then have to hold ‘religious’ figures and institutions to account for not only violating the law of the land, but also violating the very essence of the religion they claim to preach, and we are not quite ready to do that.”
Therefore, the notion that female rape is the only “natural” form of rape not only institutionalises sexual violence against women, but also paves the path for making male rape seem inconceivable as a whole.
As vile as it may sound, neither Asif’s nor Mr Aman’s incidents would be considered to be “rape” in our country’s legal context. And this is because of Sections 375, 376, 377 of the Penal Code 1860 and sections 9 and 10 of the Prevention of Women and Children Repression Act, 2000. These laws do not recognise male rape as actual “rape”.
Section 2(e) of the Act of 2000 clearly states that “Rape means the provision stated in section 375 of the Penal Code in consideration of the provision of section 9 of this Act.”
Section 375 of the Penal Code, 1860 defines rape as the following: “A man is said to commit ‘rape’ who except in the case hereinafter excepted, has sexual intercourse with a woman under circumstances falling under any of the five following descriptions…”
This entire section provides a definition on the central premise that the victim is always female and the perpetrator is always male, completely alienating the scope for a man raping a man or a woman raping a man. It does not include rape of men or male children either.
Now, one may argue that Mr Aman’s cases could have been filed under Section 377 of the Penal Code. However, the act deals with “unnatural offences” and criminalises the act of someone who “voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature”. That means section 377 provides the punishment for voluntary carnal intercourse. The will of the victim is immaterial here, with the offence getting priority. This act has been widely used throughout the South Asian region to criminalise same-sex relations. Therefore, section 377 would not have recognised an adult male such as Mr Aman as a victim of rape.
As for Asif, ideally, sections 9 and 10 of the Prevention of Women and Children Repression Act, 2000 should have been adequate to bring him justice. Section 9(1) of the Act of 2000 provides that “If any man rapes any woman or child, he shall be punished with rigorous imprisonment for life and with fine.” However, there is no explanation or parameters about the word “child”. Nonetheless, there is a scope to interpret the word “child” in section 9(1) subsequently. Section 2(k) of the Act of 2000 sets the legal age of a child up to 16 years. Asif, being an 18-year-old high school student, would not have been eligible to receive legal aid under this section.
It should be noted to analyse the notion of “child”, which includes both male and female children, but is tactfully limited to only female children in sections 9 and 10 of the Act of 2000. While section 9(1) of the Act does not restrict its definition of “child” to a male child, section 375 of the Penal Code, 1860 fails to provide any space for male or male child rape victims. So, there remains a legal debate as to whether the Prevention of Women and Children Repression Act, 2000 covers rape against a male child or not.
With the gross ineffectiveness of legal framework in attending to male rape, combined with the societal disregard and resultant shame, male victims of rape continue to suffer in silence. Be it Asif, Mr Aman, or a madrasa student, the results continue to mirror each other — the perpetrators walk free and the survivors either live a life full of self-hatred and remorse, or end their suffering by taking their own lives. This is the harsh reality of the society we live in.
- Legal Conundrum in Defining ‘Rape’ for Male Victims | BDLD
- What legal action can a male rape victim take?
- Male rape victims yet to see justice
- Rape: The male perspective | The Opinion Pages
- Male victims of rape suffer in silence
- Rape of males: It’s all about patriarchy
The writer is a part of TDA Editorial Team.