Eve teasing or Adam terrorising?

15 Jul

TWO news items ran side by side on BBC’s website this week: Bangladesh will deploy women police officers to international peace keeping operations, and the government has designated June 13 as “Eve Teasing Protection Day.” Progress on one side and retrogression on the other, they exemplify the schizophrenic state of affairs for women in Bangladesh today.

In a country where the prime minister, foreign minister, home minister, agriculture minister, deputy leader of the House and the leader of the opposition are female, women and girls cannot walk on the streets, use public transport, or go to school, shops, parks or other public places without often being ogled, taunted, harassed, humiliated, sexually molested, groped and assaulted — and in some cases, attacked with acid, abducted and raped.

Some adolescent girls have been so traumatised and humiliated by their experience that they have committed suicide.

According to the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association, almost 90% of girls aged 10-18 are victims of public sexual harassment. The perpetrators range from college students and unemployed youth to street vendors, rickshaw pullers, bus drivers, fellow passengers, colleagues and supervisors — in other words, men, young and old, rich and poor, educated and illiterate.

The victims are equally diverse, from factory workers and domestic servants to students and highly qualified professional women. Poverty increases the risks but affluence is no guarantee of safety.

The minister for education recently acknowledged that stalking of female students and teachers had reached such severity that some schools closed down and exams were postponed. Education — the path to gender empowerment — is itself a hostage to gender violence.

Concerned about their daughters’ safety, parents have pulled girls out of school and married them off, triggering other problems associated with early marriage and teenage pregnancies, including higher risks of maternal and infant death.

“Anatomy is destiny,” wrote Sigmund Freud. His statement has gained new meaning in Bangladesh, as women and girls find their lives, livelihoods, mobility and independence devastated by the scourge of publicly practiced gender violence.

You can’t go out alone after dark. You avoid public places where ogling youths loiter. You are dependent on your male family members to escort you. You wear baggy clothes or don a hijab to avoid attracting attention. But you do not escape harassment.

You swallow the humiliation and pretend not to notice the lustful stares, lewd gestures, persistent advances and groping hands. You dare not complain for fear of more attacks, or accusations that you provoked the attack, or even tighter control of your movement by your family.

Public sexual molestation is a blatant display of male power in a country where women (and that term includes girls) do not enjoy equal rights and in a conservative society where women are stigmatised and shamed. A man can insult, attack and destroy a woman’s life with no consequences for him. The law is inadequate, society indifferent or complicit.

The very term “eve teasing” or “woman teasing” downplays the gravity of the offence. Teasing is playful, harmless behaviour. It can be used to describe little boys pulling girls’ pigtails, not men groping women’s breasts and buttocks, hurling abuse, stalking, or pulling off their clothes in public.

Elora, Pinky, Tonni, Sima, Rumi, Runa, Rina and others were not teased. They were tortured and terrorised to death.

What’s happening is sexual terrorism. It is terrorism, because it harms the victims psychologically as well as physically. It is terrorism because the perpetrator uses asymmetrical power to subjugate, frighten and destroy his victims.

Governments respond to international terrorism by curtailing human rights in the name of national security. Society and families in Bangladesh are responding to sexual terrorism by curbing women’s freedom in the expectation of greater physical security. But the War on Terror showed that sacrificing liberty to gain security ends up damaging both. The same is true of sexual terrorism. Women are facing ever greater restrictions on their freedom, but are not any safer.

The education minister has called for public mobilisation to resist stalking. That is good, but not enough. Much more needs to be done to protect and support victims, uphold women’s human rights, punish offenders and attack root causes of such violence.

Parliament should adopt a law banning all forms of sexual harassment. It should also give serious and urgent consideration to gender equality legislation.

Policing should be made more responsive to the needs of women, for instance with dedicated police cells and help lines for victims.

State and public institutions should take more seriously the implementation of the directive on sexual harassment issued by the High Court last year — or face severe sanctions.

Civil society organisations and women’s groups should be given more resources to support and counsel victims, and launch public awareness campaigns.

Many offenders are members or affiliates of major political parties, or thugs enjoying political patronage. Our top political leaders are women — how can they tolerate this outrage? They must tackle offenders in their respective parties and among their supporters, and empower women to denounce without fear those who oppress them, no matter where they sit in the political hierarchy.

A repressive social environment fosters a negative image of women in the minds of boys and young men. Religious leaders condemn women who seek autonomy as immoral. Bollywood movies depict women as objects of sexual desire.

Segregation of the sexes prevents boys from learning how to relate respectfully to girls. Taboos about sex education leave no space at home or in the school curriculum for young adolescents to understand and manage their growing sexuality. Creating an opportunity in schools to discuss sexuality, gender roles and gender violence would go some way towards educating boys on why women and girls must be treated with respect and dignity.

As ordinary citizens, the way we bring up our children is also relevant. Many parents do not treat sons and daughters equally. By applying different moral codes to boys and girls, they not only bolster legal inequalities but also instill a sense of inferiority among girls and superiority among boys.

Sexual terrorism thrives on patriarchical attitudes, prejudices, cultural norms, double standards and discriminatory laws that devalue women and deny them their rights. Eradicating it will require transformative social change. It will be challenging, controversial, complex and time-consuming. There is much that state, society and individuals can do to begin that process and make streets, schools and public spaces safe for women and girls.

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