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Special Feature

Deadly Obsessions

Dressed in the guise of romantic 'eve-teasing', sexual harassment is a pervasive crime.

Kajalie Shehreen Islam

It starts with a look -- an outright leering for some -- and may be followed by a rude comment or song from a distance or, at closer range, a nudge, pinch, or brush against the body. For some, it ends there, but for others, this is only the beginning of an unhealthy-bordering-on-dangerous obsession. That's when the following starts -- to school, a friend's place, and of course, below one's balcony. This twisted version of Romeo serenading Juliet is accompanied by phone calls, text messages, e-mails and, for the more traditional ones, letters and flowers. “I love you”… “marry me”… “I know what you're doing”… “If I can't have you then no one can”… The threats grow with the frustration of repeated rejection. Suicide and murder are some of the unhappiest endings.

This is what is commonly known as “eve-teasing”, now also referred to as “stalking” by some in the media. But, while stalking connotes a repetitive pattern of unwanted, harassing or threatening behaviour, eve-teasing is a trivialised, even romanticised term for what is essentially sexual harassment. Most often committed by men against women, it can range from staring, commenting and touching to pursuing someone with aggressive communication and behaviour over time. Victims may suffer from severe psychological trauma, sometimes ending in suicide.

Woman -- the object of men's obsessions. Photo: Zahedul i khan

Samina Rahim (not her real name), 30, has grown up harassed. The boys on the streets leering at her, the men in crowded markets touching her, the strangers outside her workplace commenting on how nice she looked, the ex-boyfriend-turned-stalker parked outside her house.

“Going out is an everyday ordeal,” says Rahim. “It doesn't matter how old you are or what you wear. You can be 10, 18 or 28, be dressed in a frock, shalwar kameez or sari, it never stops. It may be a complete stranger or a previously intimate partner; you can ignore it only for so long. It eats away at you, and at some point, you break down. The fear may slowly harden into defiance, but you always feel like a victim.”

The phenomenon is anything but new; neither is it unique to Bangladesh. In fact, sociologists claim that the trend is more common in the west where men are socialised into a rigorous “hegemonic masculinity” or macho culture and women into a fixed gender regime where they are objectified.

“In our society, on the one hand, women are victims of crimes such as sexual violence as well as traditions such as widow burning, but on the other, there is a matri-focality with the mother as a superior being and women depicted as gods,” notes Professor Dr A I Mahbub Uddin Ahmed, Chairperson at the Department of Sociology, University of Dhaka. “It is due to this schizophrenic duality that the machoism of the west has not developed here in the same way.” The data and legal structure are proof of how rampant crimes against women, including intimate violence within the family, are in the west, says Ahmed.

This is not to say that it does not happen here, he says; in fact, the trend is increasing. This does not surprise the sociologist, however. “The whole social structure teaches you that women are inferior, that they are objects to be possessed. From religion, which promises men virgins in heaven, to literature and music filled with stereotypes of women as monumental beauties to be desired -- even in the works of Rabindranath and Nazrul, the patriarchal culture objectifies women for men to desire and harass. It is made to seem natural -- even to women.”

In addition to the social structure is the economic system, says Ahmed. “Our economy is characterised by lumpen-ness, where capital accumulation occurs through dispossession. A certain class comprising bureaucrats in collusion with the bourgeoisie gain possession at the cost of dispossessing others. This lumpen class was a previously dispossessed, marginalised, uneducated group devoid of culture whose only motive was to make profit. Our lumpen culture, a product of westernisation and globalisation filtered in through Bollywood, comes from this lumpen capital. From film and advertising to pornography, this culture posits women either as madonnas or whores -- there are no normal women.”

In this culture, where the idea of women as objects of men's obsessions is naturalised, the masculinity of men who do not follow suit is threatened. Prof Ahmed cites the example of women in rural areas who have told him that, of course their husbands beat them, what kind of men would they be otherwise? Harassment is also one of the manifestations of this masculine power, says Ahmed.

The recent rise in reported cases of harassment, followed in many cases by the victims committing suicide -- 14 girls in four months, according to a Daily Star report -- have caught the attention of law-enforcing agencies along with the media. Arrests have been made, cases have been filed, and some men on the streets have even been made to publicly do sit ups holding their ears as a form of humiliating punishment.

According to Additional Inspector General (AIG) of Police, Chowdhury Abdullah Al Mamun, the police are taking the issue of harassment very seriously. “Police units throughout the country have been directed to take strict action against culprits,” says Al Mamun. “However, the severity of action depends on the seriousness of the offense. Less serious offenders who seem as if they will rectify their mistakes are let off with mild punishments. We also counsel them in the presence of their parents, a measure which has proven effective, as parents then play a role in guiding their children away from such behaviour. For more serious offenders, punitive measures are necessary and they are arrested.”

Preventive measures are also in force with police officers visiting educational institutions across the country, raising awareness against harassment and providing students with phone numbers to call and report offenses. “Efforts are also being made to protect the identity of victims,” says Al Mamun. The measures have been effective so far, according to the AIG.

Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) too has been taking measures against harassment, increasing intelligence activities and patrols, especially near educational institutions, according to Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) Kamruzzaman of RAB. “We have launched our own social awareness campaigns against the offense and the message is clear -- no one who commits them will be spared,” he says.

For many women, going out is an everyday ordeal. Photo: Zahedul i khan

According to Prof AI Mahbub Uddin Ahmed, while legal measures are needed, the root causes must first be eliminated in order to control the problem. First, the ideological level must be addressed where women are seen as objects. “School textbooks are very important,” says Ahmed. “They are filled with stereotyped images of women as docile and men as fierce. These must be removed and an image of the equality of the sexes presented. Many of our social values are related to religious ones, but while we can't change religion, we can at least tone down the parts that go against women and highlight the parts that uphold their rights.”

Second, says Ahmed, the process of socialisation, through the family, peer groups, the education system, media, etc., needs to be modified. “Parents must not differentiate between sons and daughters and never let them feel as if boys are superior to girls. Gender discrimination must be removed at all levels.”

The third measure should be what Paulo Freire called “conscientization” or consciousness-raising, says Prof Ahmed. The media as well as non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have a major role to play in these advocacy measures. “We have to change the social structure. We may not be able to eliminate harassment but we can reduce it by controlling these factors,” says Ahmed.

Following the recent spate of incidents, not only legal but social measures too are being taken, with human rights organisations teaming up with law enforcing agencies to raise awareness and decide on measures to prevent and protect against sexual harassment. While having effective legal and social mechanisms to deal with the consequences is essential, acknowledging the seriousness of the crime is the first step to preventing it. In a society where men persistently pursuing women with roses and letters written in blood until they give in is viewed as romantic, it has taken the deaths of 14 women for us to fathom the fact that harassment is an offense that can have fatal consequences.


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