Demanding justice for the gang-rape of a woman in Noakhali a month ago. The perpetrators filmed their crime and the clip went viral recently. Photo: Palash Khan
By Adil Khan 8 October 2020
I don’t know who drew this rape-map of Bangladesh, but this is telling geography of rape culture which has spread widely and reached every nook and corner of the country.
The scrolls on each district which are in vernacular are appeals of rape victims, who are of all ages – from 3 year to 72-year-old – tried desperately to appeal to the conscious of the rapids and dissuade them from rape, saying for example, “Please leave me, I am a mother of my child”, “Please spare the little girl, she is too young” etc. etc. No, none of these helped – rapes did occur in all these cases. These scrolls also include statements of perpetrators – “do it to all of them, the mothers and the daughters and then kill them to make sure that there are no witnesses left to report” etc.
In most cases, perpetrators are known people, some are close relatives and even teachers and in case of gang-rapes, rapists are almost always ruling party-political thugs.
Motives of rape vary though there is one thing that is common in all cases which is that most rapists hold some sort of position of power, political or otherwise, over the victims, and in the case of gang-rapes motives go beyond deviant behaviour. In gang-rapes, motives are either political or perpetrators are politically connected.
The horrific Begumganj gang-rape case the video of the rape was displayed in social media for public viewing speaks of a phenomenon that is deeply concerning. The Begumganj rapists who belong to the ruling party merrily uploaded the video of the rape in the social media a month ago, without any fear of action from the law enforcement agency and as it turned out they were right. Local police and the administration did nothing for a month and acted only after the visual scene of the rape became viral in the social media and caught the attention of the entire country. Had there been no video of the incident in social media whole incident would have simply disappeared in the thin air.
Both politically motivated rapes and rapes by politically connected have become regular occurrences in Bangladesh these days. The most striking of these took place in the immediate aftermath of the December 2018 General Election, again in Noakhali. A 35-year old mother of four who against the will of ruling party activists cast her vote in favour of the opposition was gang-raped by 10 to 12 ruling party faithful, as punishment and nothing more than tap on the wrists happened to the perpetrators.
Similarly, in 2019, a female on-duty doctor at Sylhet Medical College, a regional university hospital in Bangladesh was threatened with rape, again by the activists of the ruling party student wing. Her crime? Apparently, the young female doctor was “disrespectful to the prime minister.”
A research scholar who recently studied sexual violence in Bangladesh quite extensively observed that incidences of sexual violence including rape are much more widespread than what gets reported. A recent report suggests that during 2011-2018 out of more than four thousand rape cases that reached the justice system only five accused received punishments of sorts.
The research scholar concludes that given Bangladesh’s male-oriented misogynistic cultural norms and its lax accountability arrangements where politically connected thugs dictate rule and police are both corrupt and obliging and a country where law against rape is biased (Bangladesh’s current rape law permits questioning victim’s character) and the system is heavily politicised and justice system is selective in administering justice, perpetrators often go unpunished and thus engage in rape in the most audacious fashion. As is expected, in these circumstances, most rape victims do not get justice and in some cases, the victims even face repeat rape for seeking justice.
In view of the above it is obvious that rapes in Bangladesh are not always due to deviant sexual behaviour but as per Dhaka-based UN Coordinator, because of “system failures at multiple levels”.
No doubt, the recent rise in rape is symptomatic of the rapid degradation of the quality of governance in Bangladesh where aggressive politicisation of the institutions has depleted accountability and made the justice system both corrupt and biased, allowing criminals and rapists, especially the politically connected ones to engage in deviant acts, without any fear of punishment. In recent times, in a highly politicised and criminalised system, rape seems to have also emerged as a tool of punishment of political dissidents.
Thus, given the hierarchical, patriarchal, and polarised political nature of current governing arrangements where no price or act is bad enough and where hate and violence are used routinely to mobilize and energize supporters and suppress dissent, have promoted on the one hand, subversion of rule of law and on the other, turned the country into a playground of political cronies where the distinction between the government and criminality has become thin, making ordinary citizens virtual prisoners of the politically-connected predators.
Is there a way out?
Although somewhat muted, it is good to see that the Begumganj gang-rape has prompted the entire nation including the media to protest not just against this case but more generally, against the rising scourge of rape.
Indeed, people must mobilize and do their utmost to eradicate the ever-spreading culture of rape in Bangladesh. However, the question is – in a situation where rapes occur repeatedly and with impunity and where the perpetrators are mostly the ruling party thugs, whether focusing on rape in isolation and treating it as deviant sexual behaviour and reforming misogynistic legal loopholes that often turn victims into villains while ignoring the system that nurtures criminalities would do much to change things? Probably not.
In Bangladesh, it is important to view rape especially gang-rapes not merely as acts of deviant sexual behaviour but as outcomes or manifestations of an evolving governing arrangement that has been criminalised, from top to the bottom, where the government, in fact, relies on criminals including the rapists to keep it going, a situation where asking the source to solve a problem that they themselves have created is delusional. Nothing short of dismantling the factory – the government – that produces rapists and nurtures criminals would restore rule of law, deter rape, and promote decency in the country. Change must be wholesale.
Professor M. Adil Khan is a former senior UN policy manager