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      Volume 12 |Issue 02| January 11, 2013 |


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Special Feature



Photo (staged): Amirul Rajiv

Over the past few weeks our newspapers have been splashed with harrowing accounts of violence against women. Following the gruesome incident of gang rape and murder in Delhi, it was even more disturbing to read about similar incidents that happened much closer to home.

On November 25, 2012, a twenty-year-old woman was attacked in Savar by eleven men and raped as an act of revenge, for rejecting the advances of her stalker. The woman who resides in Singair, Manikganj had been bated into visiting Savar with a female friend, who handed her over to her rapists. The incident was videoed and later showed to the victim's mother for blackmailing purposes.

On December 6, 2012, a fifteen-year-old girl was gang-raped in Madhupur, Tangail for four days after being snared by a female friend with the ruse of attending a wedding; she was left near the Tangail railway tracks on the fifth day where she was found by her brother. The rape was photographed and videoed on the perpetrators' cell phones. This experience caused her to lose her sanity.

On December 21, 2012, a thirteen-year-old girl indigenous girl from the Marma tribe was raped and murdered in Rangamati when she was out tending to the family's cattle, and left in a jungle close to her home. She did not survive the attack.

It is disturbing to acknowledge, but these are just three of the countless cases of rape that are ignored and unreported in this country every single day. Of all the injustices and violation of rights that women are forced to endure, rape is perhaps the most heinous of them all. The victims of rape bear far more than physical injuries, they live in extreme fear, humiliation, guilt, shame, and feelings of degradation and powerlessness. If all that isn't enough, women from our part of the world bear an additional burden – that of social stigma and repudiation.

When we read about these senseless acts of brutality, we try to make sense of it, as though understanding the reasons behind these crimes will help us come to terms with what has happened. There are skewed speculations about the psychology behind rape and factors that influence people to commit such acts, starting from the objectification of women by the media or the pornography industry which leads to declining moral standards, globalisation, to the way women dress or carry themselves and the message that sends to the opposite sex. We tell ourselves that the rate of these crimes have increased in recent times because peoples' minds have been corrupted by the half naked women on TV screens gyrating to the latest item songs. The reality however is quite different.

“Certain types of news are considered to be 'emergency' news and the media chooses to focus on and highlight them,” says Manosh Chowdhury, Professor of Anthropology at Jahangirnagar University. “For example, about fifteen years ago, fires in slums were a big news item, which had been covered extensively. Nowadays you hardly see any news about such fires, but this does not mean the fires have stopped. It just means people are less interested in the plight of slum dwellers and the 'emergency' news has shifted to a different topic. I believe that the rape in Delhi has triggered the recent series of news reports on rapes happening in our country. This does not necessarily mean that there has been a sudden increase in the number of rapes happening here, it just means that the media is focusing more on seeking out these incidents which are now of interest to the public.”

According to Chowdhury, the theory that the media has the power to influence people to commit violent acts such as these is not entirely accurate. “While I agree that watching women being objectified can trigger certain emotions and instincts, it is difficult to find a direct correlation between that and choosing to commit a crime,” he explains. “For example, Bollywood and Dhaliwood movies often have protagonists who are inherently good people who struggle with the hardships of life and yet manage to play the role of hero and saviour. If these protagonists don't manage to move people into performing heroic acts, then the mimic theory has its faults. Also, Hindi TV serials often depict how complicated familial problems are resolved peacefully, often with a moral attached and if the mimic theory were accurate, these would help resolve many family problems and crimes around them that arise due to issues such as property rights etc, but that has not been the case.”

Sadeka Halim, Professor of Sociology at Dhaka University, agrees with Chowdhury's analysis. “I don't believe that movies and television shows have a direct influence on people's behaviour,” she opines. “Of course titillating images shown on screen can incite arousal, excitement and agitation, but there is no conclusive proof that this can lead to violent crimes. In Somalia, there was a law designed for women that stated that they could not go out in public wearing short skirts (micro minis). If women dressed revealingly, they would be arrested. This law was established in order to protect women from sexual predators. Interestingly, the law did not have any effect on the rate of sex crimes committed in Somalia. I believe that these crimes have more to do with the way society operates rather than the way media portrays women or the way women present themselves.”

An Indian father carries his daughter holding a placard during a rally in New Delhi,
following the cremation of a gan-grape victim.

In the Bangladeshi society, there are many taboo subjects that parents are not comfortable discussing with their children, sex being on the top of that list. In modern times however, given the technology and information children have access to, they are bound to be curious and try to find out about these banned subjects on their own and their sources may not be the best place to learn. What with YouTube, internet porn and lack of censorship, the younger generations grow up with a distorted and confused idea about sex and relationships. That, combined with the gender inequality we grow up with in this patriarchal society and social hierarchy, makes women obvious targets for such crimes.

“We have to look at who the victims of these crimes usually are to see a pattern,” says Manosh Chowdhury.” From a very young age, we start learning about things we can and cannot do. For example, we know that we cannot abuse our parents, classmates or social equals, but we can easily get away with abusing the maid of the house, or a rickshaw puller. Even a four-year-old knows it is acceptable to shout at the maid. This show of power and authority is accepted and condoned by our society. Therefore in a majority of these rape cases, the victims are from poor socio-economic backgrounds, such as garment workers, domestic help or women residing in rural communities.”

According to Chowdhury, gang rape is also a form of gaining power and control over someone. In two of the three recent cases of rape reported women had played a role in luring the victims to their rapists. “I find this to be interesting as well as disturbing that one woman would agree to put another in such a situation,” says Chowdhury. “Here again, I believe that social hierarchy plays a big role, for example, these women were also from the lower class of society and dealing with many hardships, so the financial aspect can be a reason behind this. But there is a lack of empathy which is complicated and disturbing in these cases as these women were friends with the victims. These are complex issues,” he opines.

Most cases of rapes are crimes of opportunity. They happen simply because the perpetrators believe they can get away with it. “There need to be strict laws that issue exemplary punishment for the rapists,” says Chowdhury. While the implementation is questionable, there are laws in our country which exist to give justice to victims of rape.

“First of all, we have the 1860's penal code, which was made by the British, in which section 375 of this law deals with rape,” says Shahnaz Huda, Chairman of the Department of Law at Dhaka University. “The punishment for rape under this law was transportation for life (life imprisonment) or imprisonment for ten years. Then in 2000, the law which now deals with rape, the Nari O Shishu Nirjatan Daman Ain was established. Section 9 of this law deals with rape, and the punishment is more severe under this law, which states that if any woman or child is raped, the punishment will be rigorous life imprisonment with additional fines. There is also a death penalty for death caused as a consequence of rape,” she elaborates.

“Under the Children's Act of 1974, punishment for crimes committed against minors are mentioned, it does not mention anything about what happens if the minor is the offender, so there is a big confusion when such a situation arises. There was also one other law that came before the one established in 2000, which was called the Nari O Shishu Bishesh Bidhan Ain, which was a Special Provisions Act, and this had a mandatory death penalty for death caused by rape,” explains Huda. “The judge was obligated to give the death penalty if it was proven beyond doubt that death has been caused as a consequence of rape. This changed because there was a case which challenged that this was unconstitutional. In a way, I agree that this needed to be changed, because in many cases, the judge should have the discretion to decide the severity of the punishment, say in a case of gang rape he sees that one person was more responsible than the others, if he finds them guilty of the crime, he has to give them all the death penalty. I also argue that when the punishment is very harsh, the burden of proof also becomes very difficult, and as a result the conviction rate is very low because in such cases the crime has to be proven beyond reasonable doubt to issue the death penalty and many judges are reluctant to do so otherwise, letting many criminals slip through the cracks.”

If the victim survives the rape, according to the law established in 2000, the perpetrator can still receive a life sentence in prison and there is a fine. In case of gang rape, if the victim dies then every person will either get the death penalty or life imprisonment. Also, if they are charged with attempt to rape or injure a victim, they can receive life imprisonment.

There is also a separate section for rape in police custody under this law. “I don't think that crimes against women have increased or decreased in recent times,” says Huda. “What has happened is that so many social and cultural aspects are attached to violent acts against women, especially rape that it is shockingly unreported. This is because the victims of rape usually get victimised further. In one case, a victim of rape, who got pregnant, had a fatwa issued against her by her village shalish and received a hundred lashings as a punishment,” shares Huda. “There is a mindset that women are responsible for what is happening to them and also the thought of social stigma and their future often lead people to suppress these crimes. In many cases, if a rape incident is dealt with by a shalish, the victim is forced to marry her rapist. The victim really has nothing left after her rape is made public, she is in a sense raped again by the court that asks all kinds of personal questions, and even if her rapists get punished, her life does not improve. She receives no compensation, as the fine paid by her rapist goes to the government directly. All she receives is justice, but that really doesn't give her any peace or closure, and often justice is not served. Only if a child is born as a result of the rape, the state will provide financial assistance to help raise the child.”

According to Sadeka Halim, politics, social class and gender bias all play a role in victimising women. “Rapists are often moneyed and well connected and can pay their way out of prison before the cases even reach a courtroom,” she says.

“I too believe that a lot of political corruption goes hand in hand with these offences,” says Shahnaz Huda. “The rapist may be in a political party or affiliated with someone in a powerful position, and the victim may not be and as a result, this is a crime that is being committed much more than it is being reported,” she explains.

“Another additional thing that happens is using technology, making videos and taking pictures which are later used in blackmailing the victims,” says Manosh Chowdhury, Professor of Anthropology at Jahangirnagar University. “Whenever there is new technology available, people try to use them to test their boundaries and experiment with them. In these cases, the victim has more to lose, due to public exposure of such content.”

There are laws and they are not properly enforced, and law enforcing agencies must be sensitised to these issues, there is no doubt about that, but the problem is more deep rooted than that. We live in what can be called a rape culture, where the society as a whole plays a role in inadvertently aiding and abetting such crimes. They do so by raising women to be submissive and dependent on men both financially and emotionally. By teaching women that they are inferior, they are giving men a sense of superiority and control. Women are taught to draw as little attention to themselves as possible, to depend on men to make important life decisions, and to isolate themselves from each other.

Women's vulnerability to rape is a result of their subordinate relationship to men. The set of beliefs and attitudes that divide people into classes by sex and justify one sex's superiority is called sexism which is prevalent in our society.

In order to curb sex crimes against women, these issues have to be nipped at the bud. A strategy for eliminating women's vulnerability to rape involves altering the power relationship between women and men. Women's vulnerability will not end with individual change alone; there will have to be social change as well. The assumption of male superiority will have to be negated. Rape has to be viewed as a political issue, because it keeps women powerless.

Socialisation of women must change and they must be better equipped to deal with physical and emotional vulnerabilities. Gender issues must be injected into the education systems as well as homes to ensure gender equality.

Most importantly, the society must change its attitude toward victims of rape. They must stop treating them like outcasts. They must stop blaming the victims for what happened to them, help them heal and rehabilitate them into society to lead normal lives. Religious leaders are too quick to say women had a part to play in their rape, saying “when women are raped, they are asking for it”, “women should dress conservatively to avoid unwanted attention” or as an Indian religious leader commented about the Delhi rape “the victim did not protest strongly enough against the 'bhaiya' who attacked her.” It is only when society as a whole comes together to stand up against sex crimes that this culture of rape can be eradicated for good.


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