Dhaka, BANGLADESH — At midnight on October 14 this year, hundreds of women took to Dhaka’s streets after sunset to march from Shahbag square to Parliament. Flaming torches held aloft, the participants of the Shekol Bhangar Podojatra, or March to Break Shackles, demanded an end to the normalisation of rape culture in Bangladesh and called for effective state policies to address the country’s sexual violence crisis.
“[Being out on the street at midnight] was something so many of us couldn’t even imagine before the march that night,” said Umama Zillur, an activist affiliated with the newly formed Feminists Across Generations coalition, and founder and director at Kotha, an organization that combats the culture of gender based violence through dialogue and awareness.
“So many people, like myself, had to have serious fights at home to come out. And many people had angry parents they went back home to,” Zillur said. “But for those few hours, it felt like we could do anything.”
Protests against gender violence are not new in Bangladesh, a country that takes pride in its history of revolution. Gender rights activists and organizations such as Bangladesh Mahila Parishad and Naripokkho have campaigned for women’s rights to financial independence, bodily autonomy, and security for years. Many Bangladeshi young adults remember growing up while witnessing impassioned movements against dowry, domestic violence, chemical attacks on women, and child marriage.
Yet, like their counterparts across South Asia, women in Bangladesh — particularly those without class or status privilege — still live with the constant threat of violence. The past two months have been a haunting reminder of this fact.
In September this year, the press reported a long chain of high-profile incidents of rape and sexual violence across Bangladesh. After weeks of mounting outrage, thousands of protestors erupted in rage when a video of a gang rape — shot by the perpetrators to blackmail the victim – went viral on social media.
Since then, a sustained anti-rape movement has rocked the foundations of Bangladeshi society. The protests span several districts and discussions on sexual violence are front and centre in the media. There are regular gatherings at Shahbag Square, and videos of protests and performances from outside of Dhaka circulate all over Facebook. People of all genders and ages can be seen protesting on the streets or posting their opinions on Facebook.
“This has become a truly social movement,” said Mrittika Shahita, a researcher of women’s movements in East Bengal and associate professor of history at Dhaka University. “This is not women saying ‘I am being abused and oppressed, please protect me’. Not at all. This is society raising its voice against this violence.”
Aahir Mrittika is an activist who volunteers at Kotha and is the founder of the podcast series “Not Here For”, a platform that speaks out against social injustice. She is an active member of Feminists Across Generations and was present at the massive Rage Against Rape protest in front of the Parliament Building.
She says, “I remember seeing feminists who have been fighting for over three decades, with their greying hair and wisdom, standing next to high school students with their blue hair extensions, and all of us chanting the same thing, ‘We want freedom, not protection.’ Witnessing it was very emotionally overwhelming.”
Death penalty divide
In a debate familiar to readers who followed the 2012 anti-rape protests in India, many individual protesters in Bangladesh called for the death penalty for rapists — a demand that most feminist movements have opposed.
On October 13 this year, the Bangladesh government responded to the protests by finalizing an amendment to the rape law that would legalize the death penalty for convicted rapists.
Feminists Across Generations and the Rape Law Reform Coalition, organizations which both have long lists of demands including legal reforms, do not support the idea that the death penalty will reduce rape. They demand that the state make more in-depth changes to its rape laws and policies to protect survivors.
They say the primary barrier to bringing rapists to justice has not so much been the severity of punishment in the law as it has been the very low rate of conviction. An anonymous UN survey in 2013 revealed that out of Bangladeshi men who admitted to committing rape, 88% of rural rapists and 95% of urban rapists faced no legal consequences at all. There is a stigma against publicly acknowledging a rape, as families believe this will harm their daughters’ reputations and the families’ social status.
Survivors and their families also do not trust their cases to be handled fairly, as the police have a reputation of asking insensitive questions and letting perpetrators with political or social status off the hook. There are also legal barriers that prevent many victims from reporting their assaulters in the first place.
Boys and men also need remedies for this: healthcare, mental counselling, going to court. They feel so much shame about this as something they think should never happen to them, that this is unnatural Maheen Sultan, a member of the gender rights organisation Naripokkho
The British-era Evidence Act of 1872 allows the court to exempt accused rapists if “it may be shown that the prosecutrix was of generally immoral character”, making it difficult for survivors who do not fit the abstract fiction of a demure, modest woman. Sex workers, in particular, are the worst affected by this anachronistic reading of the law.
Like elsewhere in South Asia — including India — Bangladesh’s rape laws do not recognise marital rape. Chapter XVI of Bangladesh’s Penal Code explicitly states that “sexual intercourse by a man with his own wife, the wife not being under thirteen years of age, is not rape,” effectively denying the existence of marital rape including that of child brides.
Further, rape is exclusively defined as sexual violence perpetrated by a man against a woman — leaving no clarity on how to proceed in cases where the aggressor is not a man, or the victim is not a woman.
“Sexual violence against men — it is such a deep taboo,” said Maheen Sultan, a member of the gender rights organisation Naripokkho, as well as a researcher and a founder of the Center for Gender and Social Transformation at the BRAC Development Institute. She mentions that male street children, as well as low-income young men who seek employment at garages or small businesses, are very frequently assaulted by strangers and employers.
“No one is willing to acknowledge the fact that a boy or an adult man can be forced against his will into sexual relations,” Sultan said.
“Boys and men also need remedies for this: healthcare, mental counselling, going to court. They feel so much shame about this as something they think should never happen to them, that this is unnatural,” Sultan said. “This is something that I think the movement needs to highlight, that it’s not only women who are suffering and being abused but a widespread culture of sexual violence in our society.”
Additionally, she emphasizes the importance of highlighting transgender experiences in the movement, as transgender women encounter a disproportionate amount of sexual violence and in turn receive very little support from the larger society.
“So much needs to change about how we talk about rape cases and acts of violence,” said Aahir Mrittika, the activist and podcast host. “We always define rapists as animals, say they have no humanity, they are monsters. But rapists aren’t these mysterious outsiders, they are people in our own homes. They are real people, our relatives, our teachers, and they’re sheltered by our families and by authorities in our schools and workplaces.”
‘This needs a lot of courage’
Mrittika Shahita, the Dhaka university professor, said the October protests were part of a longer continuum of protests within Bangladesh’s women’s movement. For instance, in 1995, there were massive protests in Dinajpur district after the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl by policemen, leading to their arrest and punishment despite attempts by law enforcers to hush up the matter. The child’s death anniversary, 24 August, is now commemorated by feminist organisations in Bangladesh as the “Resistance Day against Repression of Women.”
But the current moment feels different as well.
“I think this time the media has started to play an important role. The media is broadcasting the news and is also establishing some policies,” Shahita said. “The people who are raped stay anonymous and faceless [this is in accordance with state law that ensures privacy for rape victims], but the rapists are more prominent on the news and sometimes even their family members are being exposed.”
The current movement, like almost every movement around the world, has also played out on social networks — amplifying survivor stories and offering victims a platform to speak of difficult experiences they had suppressed for years.
“Something we can change about our culture now, and a sentiment that I am seeing across social media, is the idea that we have to start talking to our near ones,” said Sultan. “This will require a lot of courage. This may involve confronting your father or mother or loved one about something they may not want to hear. For some it may be even more painful than protesting in public or signing a petition, but it is very courageous. And that’s how you start directly changing mentalities and culture.”
Patriarchy has deep roots in Bangladeshi society, these activists and researchers caution, and societal change must be accompanied by well-implemented state policies.
“While we protest in the city, right now in a far-away village a family is being forced to marry off their teenage daughter because they think it is the only way to keep her safe,” Shahita said. “There must be policies on the state level that will strive to create an environment that provides both opportunity and security to all genders.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost India and has been updated.