<%-- Page Title--%> Perceptions <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 115 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

July 25, 2003

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Exploiting An Already Exploited System?


Almost every woman has had to suffer harassment at some point in their lives -- be it an overtly offensive look or an insignificant comment. Working women have to deal with hostility for “trespassing in a man's domain,” schoolgirls can hardly ever walk home without someone on the street passing an offensive comment or making lewd gestures, using public transportation usually equals being “accidentally” touched by a pervert and these days even sitting at home will not save you from being harassed.
As African American abolitionist and writer Frederick Douglass once said, “Without struggle, there can be no progress.” Dhaka is definitely progressing, and the women responsible for these changes have their fair share of struggling. The problem is, where can women draw the line? Do we fight every comment and every look, screaming “injustice”? Do we opt to ignore everything and go about our business? Or do we learn to choose our battles?

We now live in a country where the abuse of women has received serious attention, and many steps have been made by the government and NGOs to protect them. There is, however, the other side of it. What happens when a woman uses the politically and socially loaded catchphrase of “harassment” to pursue a personal vendetta?
Aliya Alam got a call on July 10 from her friend, Sumon Mallik in the middle of the night. The two of them had been friends for a long time. At one point in their conversation they began a heated argument and the conversation ended on bad terms. The next morning, Aliya went to the Gulshan thana and filed a General Diary against Sumon claiming that he had been harassing her for three years, using obscene language, or gala gali. She stated that because of her closeness to his mother she sympathized with the family and had kept quiet. Three days after she filed the GD, she talked it over with some of Sumon's friends and then went back to the thana with Sumon and retracted her statement saying that she did not “mean it” and did not want to press charges.
Unfortunately Sumon and his parents did not care if Aliya “meant it” or not. It did not stop people from talking. Within a few days most of Sumon's parents' friends had come to know bits and pieces of the story. The damage was done.
“I was so shocked when I heard about the GD” says Sumon. “We were friends and she used to call me all the time. I even showed the thana my cell phone records. If you are getting harassed by someone why would you continue to call the harasser all the time? I don't think she realised how serious a GD is. It is way beyond a 'lesson-teaching' as she explained to me later on.”
Aliya was unavailable for comment.
“We get these situations a lot,” says an official at the Gulshan Thana. “More than half our GD's are personal vendetta issues. Women get mad at their husbands and boyfriends and in the heat of the moment come to the thana and file a charge against them. Then they go back and patch up with them and retract the statements. It is hard to determine whether these women are really scared and retract them out of fear, or whether they actually make amends with the person and decide to take back their statements. What they don't understand is that although it is our duty to file these cases and look into them, we get these false charge cases so often that it gets hard for us to be able to distinguish what is exaggeration and what is fact.”
“Most of our cases involve domestic arguments -- women fighting with their husbands, and then being threatened by them, or something along those lines. Sometimes a woman doesn't like the way her husband speaks to her and files a case against him saying that he threatened her life. But almost always, it ends up in the same way. The woman comes back and says she heard wrong, or they talked it over, and he didn't mean it.”
But does it make them hesitate when yet another harassment charge comes in?
“It is our job to protect women and do whatever is in our power to assure their safety,” he says, smiling a little. “We file the case and do as they ask, but it does make us slightly cynical, because more often than not, it is a personal fight or a domestic argument and women are using the GD to basically blackmail the accused.”
So do false cases and charges ruin the chances of justice being upheld for women who are really being harassed?
“Not in the way you think,” he says, shaking his head. “We will do what we are asked to do, because it is the law, but at the same time, you have to understand that these things happen so often, that it is difficult to not be a little doubtful. Otherwise we might be charging someone who is completely innocent, and where would the justice be in that?”
It is true that sometimes, even friends go too far. People lose sight of where their boundaries lie. Reading the newspapers can make any woman fear walking out on the streets by herself. If someone says something or does something that makes you feel even the slightest bit threatened, it is true that most of us will react.
At the same time, it is human nature to be skeptical when so many false charges are made and then retracted. What is a source of worry for all of us is that we cannot afford to have our women not taken seriously. In a country were acid throwing, rape and violence against women has reached appalling heights, should we not be extra alert and extra careful? It is important to make sure that a serious crime being committed -- one worthy of filing a case against a particular person -- instead of just an angry need to teach someone a lesson, or scare a person into behaving themselves. After all, it is not the police's job to play personal vendetta games, but their duty to uphold the law.
It is a shame that while girls like Rumi are being murdered, or pushed into suicide because of harassment, other women are inadvertently and perhaps unknowingly exploiting the already exploited system and impairing the process of justice for people who really need it.


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