Behind Closed Doors
Illustrations: Fahim Anzoom
There are times when stories pass us by and we give no more than a furtive glance, provide no more than an iota of our attention to it, before turning away and carrying on with our lives. And then there are times, such as this, when the gravity of the situation forces you to stop and turn around and stare at the macabre scene unfolding in front of you. And as you work hard to tear your eyes away you quietly wonder, “Is no one else seeing this?” And as the words bleed onto the paper now, I can only pray that you take notice now and hope you don't turn away.
Growing up in the city, many of us have lived our lives in a cocoon of familial comfort. For many of us growing up, gender inequality and violence against women are but issues that we lend our vocal support to every now and then, and move on to matters of 'import' like the new smartphone on the market that we wanted to buy or the chic restaurant we haven't tried out yet. And so it's easy to shake it off when you come face to face with it for the first time, but as the incidents start to accumulate, what happens then?
“I would be happier if I was a guy. I think guys have more freedom than us. And socially, women face so much trouble. Once, I went to this bank where after 3 men, 1 woman can deposit/withdraw money. It was in Dhanmondi."- Kashfia*, student, 18. You could probably shrug this one off; say that it's nothing too serious, that no harm was done. After all, we've been a patriarchal society for a long time.
“Lots of people think I'm a “beyadob”. They don't approve of the way I live my life. And why do they think that? Because I want to be independent. I don't want to get married and become a housewife. That makes me a “beyadob””- Musarrat, student, 20. Perhaps the first stirrings of unease are starting to ripple through you. Something's definitely not right.
“I think we can't go everywhere because this is Bangladesh. There is a high possibility of us getting raped or even getting kidnapped if we walk alone in the streets. It sounds far- fetched but it's true. I wouldn't feel comfortable walking on the side of the road alone, people ogle at me. One day I was walking with my mom, we received so many dirty looks, I seriously felt bad.” – Tasmia*, student, 17. And all of a sudden it's there and it's real. The carnivorous elephant in our society, feeding on our hesitation and pained indifference. It has always been there, seeping in through the cracks of every class of our society. Every second of every day, women in this country are being subjected to discrimination and physical violence. The magnitude of the occurrence is enough to make you nauseous with disgust.
With the sensationalist tone of the mass media nowadays, it is commonplace to open any newspaper and find instances of rape being reported. But the nature of this issue is such that the deep-rooted points always remain overlooked. Shireen Huq of Naripokkho, an NGO which aims to improve women's rights through social activism, lends us her thoughts on this matter. “I think this is a double-edged sword. The recent spotlight on rape has definitely helped bring the topic out to the general public more. But the fact remains that these are not individual cases that happen once in a blue moon. These are happening every day and sometimes in the 'safety' of people's homes. Even then, it's not helpful to just focus on an extreme form of violence when what are behind it are attitudes and beliefs about who women are and how we can treat them.”
A damning nationwide survey carried out by Naripokkho, which calculated the amount of police cases filed for violence against women for the last 10 years, states that 184,422 women have been subjected to some form of violence in the past decade. When you're viewing these numbers, bear in mind these are just the ones that have been reported. What goes on behind the closed doors of our society is yet to be known.
Firmly focusing our attention on the youth of the country, there are several reasons to be optimistic, as Shireen Huq points to the recent demonstrations against rape cases that were carried out in the capital. “The turn out by young people was certainly very encouraging and it's instances like these that fill me with hope. But a large number of young people are almost apathetic to their surroundings today, with very little concern for the society in which they live. This needs to change if we are to mount any serious effort in changing the perception that society has of women.”
Social media, so often derided by many factions for being the single-most efficient way of wasting time, can ironically play a very instrumental role in this. Information is no longer at a premium and there are now millions of ways to make yourself heard. Speak up. Do not carry on in hushed voices; let the world know that the injustice ends now. And you don't even need to share the usual 'deep' quotes on Facebook to get your message across. Just a simple two-worded one will do: Respect Women.
As we drive deeper into this murky topic, several issues rear their heads. In the face of the ever expanding statistics, parents could hardly be blamed if they want to keep their children inside. But the fact of the matter is, it feeds a vicious cycle that will keep on repeating unless someone takes a stand. And it can only happen once we redefine masculinity and femininity for ourselves. All of the above has not been written to incite your pity. Women do not need your saving. It's best if you leave your knight-in-shining-armour act at the door. What can be done is preach tolerance through education and by creating an atmosphere where men and women alike are not embarrassed by this subject. More of this and less of people huddled together passing sexist jokes and we might change for the better.
As Shaer Reaz says it, “We aren't oblivious to the elephant in the room. It is a genuine concern, and we have to realize at the end of the day women play some of the most important roles in society and are equally important.”
“I firmly believe that families have a crucial role to play in this regard,” says Osama Rahman, “If a man grows up accustomed to seeing women getting abused and demeaned, he will grow up to be just as abusive. And at times, it's carried out not because of the sense of dominance it exudes, rather because it's become the norm for them. This needs to change first and foremost.”
A week from now, on February 14th, One Billion Rising will hold a worldwide demonstration in celebration of the 15th anniversary of V-day (google it). There will be several programs all around Dhaka, including rallies and human chains which will help unite billions of voices across the globe to sing one synchronised tune. Rise up on that day and every other day and let everyone know that we aren't, in fact, mired in apathy and that we will make a dent in the norms of our patriarchal society. And perhaps one day we can dare to dream of a land where our minds are not kept locked behind closed doors. And on that note, we finish this piece with a few wise words.
“I don't like it when people say 'she's a girl, o parbe na' or 'you're a girl, you can't talk like that', when, as we all know, WE do most of the work in life. We bear children and we keep the family together. Not to mention, people think it's a common phenomenon to think that girls HAVE to do the housework and women HAVE to raise the kids. I'm sorry, but my husband will have to share household chores equally with me, and if I have to make tea for him, then he should, too.”- Devni Yasara Weheragoda, student, 17.
*Some names have been changed. Special thanks goes to everyone who talked to us and to Sarah Nafisa Shahid, who conducted most of the interviews.