The Inner Beings of Bangladeshi Women



The subject matter of this writeup, I am afraid, would not be taken kindly by most Bangladeshi men and in most likelihood be considered as 'trivial' 'nonsensical' 'imaginative' ' viewpoints of radical feminists' and many other terminiologies that I am unaware of. The issue at stake is the pervasive and rampant violence against women in Bangladesh. I know, all eyebrows are raised. And kinds of questions are being asked. Has not the issue already been a part of national and international agenda? Aren't there barrages of legislation, at least, to stem the tide of acts of violence against women in the country? Isn't Bangladesh a signatory to the Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discriminations Against Women? Isn't media playing a positive role in this regard? Isn't there a keen awareness among the populace about the issue? Interestingly the answers to all these questions are in the positive. Indeed there are now numerous legislation under which the perpetrators are liable to get even death sentences in case of extreme form of violence against women like acid throwing. Indeed the media is extremely helpful in raising the general consciousness. And indeed the issue is a part of international and national agenda.

However, despite such impressive achievements the grim fact remains: that most Bangladeshi women are subjected to physical assaults ranging from wife beating to dowry deaths and from rape to acid throwing. Women's vulnerability and status in our society become visibly graphic as one goes through the findings of Naripakkha conducted "Pilot Study on Violence Against Women," which points out that sixty percent of Bangladeshi women are assaulted by their husbands and that they occur well within the four walls of their homesteads. The report's authenticity is beyond doubt as it is based on interviews of 719 women living with their husbands in Dhaka and rural areas and from the police, court and hospital records. And the saga goes on. Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST) reports that in the year 2000 alone 772 women were killed in 1,100 recorded incidents of repression throughout Bangladesh. During this period, the Bureau of Human Rights of Bangladesh (BHRSB) recorded 1,120 incidents of suicide, most being the repressed women. It's a nightmarish situation. But the good thing about it is that the government, institutions, media, civil society leaders are keenly aware about it and looking for ways and means to mitigate such occurrences. In particular, it is praiseworthy by the way domestic violence, which used to be viewed as private affairs, has been brought to public domain in the light of the clear conceptualization of women's personal liberty about her body and self. However, from the above scenario it is gauged that the present agenda on violence against women mostly revolve around domestic, community and state related violence.

It is to be seriously noted that violence against women does not stop here. There is another dimension to it that has remained like a well-kept secret from public attention till date. What has been kept hidden and felt like almost a taboo even to mention it is the form of violence that the working women confront occurrences like sexual assaults, coercion and sexual harassment in mixed-gender environment. The fact that most Bangladeshi working women are subjected to sexual harassment by their male co-workers in their workplace has neither been raised nor considered as any kind of violence against women. This is an issue about which there is almost a total silence, deliberate attempts of denial on the part of the victims as well as the perpetrators as if it does not exist. That is why I mentioned in the beginning that raising such an 'non-existent' issue is a high-risk matter. Because most men would simply not understand what women are talking about. They would term such 'accusations' (as mentioned earlier) as 'trivial,' 'nonsensical,' 'imaginative,' and 'view points of radical feminists' etc. Most would not even recognize that with increased participation of women in all spheres of public life they do face sexual harassment and experience it almost on daily basis. The relevant question is why do women accept such behaviour from the men in silence? It's a difficult question and consequently the answer is even harder. The following is an attempt to throw some light in that direction.

First, there is lack of conceptualization of the term 'sexual harassment' at workplace in our culture and for that matter any culture that is dominated by patriarchy. Men's use of sexuality that is manifested in certain behaviour patterns in exerting power/control over women at home or at work have been in existence from time immemorial and been somewhat accepted as a norm. Those so-called norms, which got embedded in male psyche due to patriarchal beliefs, are visible in varying forms beginning from "sexist language and practices in the work places that women describe as degrading, demeaning, humiliating and sometimes infuriating" (Thomas and Kitzinger: 1997) to character assassination and physical actions like touching and grabbing. All along the display of such masculinities by men and silent acceptance by women in the work place has been considered as a natural male-female behaviour pattern. In this context who can forget the famous dictum (coined by men) that the 'boys would be boys' when some men act in certain manner that enhance their control over women. As a result the society at large view most leniently such male behaviour and expect women to tolerate and internalize the whole process simply as everyday experience, which they do.

Second, in Bangladesh there exists a culture of discrimination a product of lethal combination of patriarchy and misinterpreted religious strictures. In such a culture there is an on going hidden but devastating process that erodes and fragments "women's sense of the self (Cairns: 1997)." The most prominent feature of this process is that a woman is never perceived as 'Whole' but as 'Other' because she lacks male qualities. " Thus, humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being...He is the Subject, he is the Absoluteshe is the Other (De Beauvoir: 1952)." In Bangladesh, this process of fragmentation of the sense of self is most acute and a woman starts experiencing it (the process) from the very childhood. She knows that a boy is more welcomed than a girl is. Akkika, the name giving ceremony is characterized by discriminatory practices and it continues all throughout a woman's life in terms of nutrition, opportunities for education, dignity, and self-respect. She learns, as a little girl, that she is less valued than her male sibling is. She is not a "Whole" as she has been created from one of the cage bones of a man. She is told repeatedly in the religious sermons that her heaven lies at the feet of her husband (obviously coined by the so-called Ulemas). She is to serve her husband and her entire mission in life is to conform to male prescribed ways of life. And that she is fitna, living embodiment of disorders with her sexuality and it's disruptive potentials. Consequently she becomes keenly aware of her fitna characteristic and becomes convinced that her very presence is responsible for men's behaviour towards her. So whatever harassment comes in her way must be endured in silence lest she is misunderstood or her male-defined femininity comes under societal criticism. Her loss of self is so profound that at no stage of her life can she ever claim equality with man whether entering into a marriage or participating the public life like taking up a job at an institution. As such sexual harassment at work place is viewed differently by men and women. For men it is a natural male-female behaviour pattern whereas the women consider that it must be their faults for inviting such aggression from men. And they should not complain about it. And if such submissive behaviour is not forthcoming from the women the men do not hesitate to hit them below the belt by castigating them through public humiliation (Incident involving Dr. Nasim Akhter Hossain is a case in point that is discussed below).

And lastly, there are other practical problems in dealing with sexual harassment in work place. The fact is that though increasing number of women are entering the workforce due to economic pressure there are no specific codes of conduct and grievance procedures to deal with it. In the neighbouring country India they have New Delhi Prohibition of Eve-Teasing Act of 1984, which comes closest to the concept of sexual harassment in the West. But by definition it does not deal with any physical contacts or acts and only deals with verbal or general teasing. As such Women's groups in India are finding it increasingly difficult to deal with the problems of widespread sexual harassment in the workplace, especially in unorganized sectors, and calling for more comprehensive definition of eve-teasing in order to bring the incidences of physical harassment under its purview (Bagilhole: 1997). It should, however, be noted that though the government's response is somewhat negative, at least, women's groups in India have some kind of legal basis on which further development in the libel and law can be construed.

It is unfortunate that in Bangladesh we have not yet any such Act. At least our Indian counterparts have some locus standing on which sexual harassment cases can be addressed. At least it is recognized that there is sexual harassment in the work place. In our country, we are "blissfully" unaware of its existence. And there is a tendency to bury our heads and pretend that it is simply not there. As a result, this vital arena where hundreds of women are the victims of violence has not been brought to the fore. In the absence of a clear-cut definition and absence of legislative protection a few women who have the courage to bring up specific incidence of sexual harassment are not getting any justice. Two very recent occurrences are cases in point. For the sake of documentation these deserve our attention.

In May last year Prothom Alo, a vernacular daily, carried a report on a sexual harassment incident involving Najma Rahman of Jatiyo Population Research and Training Institute (NIPOT). According to the report the lady was verbally abused and endured near physical assaults by two senior officials of the said Institute for making a query about some official decisions. Ms. Rahman's complaints of sexual harassment at work place could not be dealt with due to the absence of its definition and the fact that such behaviour of men was not considered as violation of women's rights and consequently was illegal. Ms. Rahman was effectively denied her constitutional rights that prohibited sex discrimination in clear terms. Subsequently, however, both the officials were temporarily suspended under 1985 Government Official Discipline and Order Act (Jugantor, May 31st 2000). And that also was due to the fact that there were already a number of complaints by others against those officials. It was not specifically due to Ms. Rahman's complaint that the 'punishment' was meted out. The second incident involved a female teacher of Jahangirnagar University. Dr. Nasim Akhter Hossain of Government and Politics Department recently has become a victim of malicious and widespread character assassination campaign allegedly by a couple of male teachers of the same Department due to some previous professional conflicts (Prothom Alo, December 21, 2000). Dr. Hossain has sought justice through administrative interventions.

Most of the female teachers of the same University also have submitted a memorandum for a proper inquiry of the incident and demanded sexual harassment policy to be incorporated into University Ordinance. As per today, as in the case of Najma Rahman, the University authority is grappling in the dark as how to even approach/ address such an occurrence. In the absence of any specific definition of sexual harassment, codes of conduct and legal procedures it would perhaps be difficult for the University Administration to deal with even such blatant demonstration of male power over the females.

The sexual harassment at work place such as the above are only the tip of the iceberg. It is happening at an alarming rate in the work place as more and more women make their entry into different economic spheres, especially in the unorganized sectors. Why the silence? In a nutshell, first, women feel that as such acts of violence against women are yet to be recognized there is no point in complaining. On the contrary, without societal awareness and absence of legislative protection reporting of harassment incidents construe negative response from the authority and only cause further harassment, trauma and humiliation. Second, the fragmentation of the sense of self is so acute in Bangladeshi women that they fail to perceive themselves as autonomous and independent and consider their very existence depend on male approval. If they cannot live upto those expectations and operate within those male dominated norms then it is their fault. And lastly, working women, especially in the unorganized sectors hang on to their jobs despite physical and verbal abuse due to their dire economic necessities.

In conclusion it can stated that though the women in Bangladesh have made a lot of strides in various fields, especially raising their voice against the rampant violence against women, there has not been any kind of awareness about the sexual harassment of women at work place. There is an urgent need for its definition, codes of conduct and established legal procedures so that the perpetrators can be taken to task. Otherwise the erosion of the self is bound to affect women adversely both psychologically and physically as evidenced by the numerous reports pointing that those women who face sexual harassment at work place suffer from insomnia, nausea, depression, uncontrolled anger and frustration, which obviously affect their ability to work and constrict them from making their contribution to national development. Recently Bangladesh has ratified the new addition to UN 1979 Convention which gives the women victims of violence right to lodge their complaints directly to UN if they have not been addressed in their home country. Dhaka has committed internationally. Now Bangladesh must honour its commitment by taking cognizance of the violence against women in their work place and rectifying the situation. Dhaka cannot expect to harness women's full potentials without making the working environment woman friendly. If it were not done who then would be the loser? The Bangladeshi women alone or the nation itself?

Source: The Daily Star, Dhaka, January 30 ,  2001
Home Page

Previous Page