There are few things that could make a college student so disgusted at her fellow countrymen to make her want to not live in that country anymore. Being molested by a mob of men on the streets—supposedly there in celebration of a major milestone of this country's independence—is definitely one of them. Most of us are probably aware of the status by the college student, which was being shared all over social media. She had just been heading home after classes when 15-20 men from a procession surrounded her. According to her status, she was harassed, slapped and molested while others took pictures and videos on their phones. She went home with a torn uniform, and it would take a seriously disturbed person to not be affected by her words: “My two hands were not enough to stop so many hands from touching my body.”
And while her Facebook status about the horrifying incident was being shared all over the internet, instead of the only possible response, that of outrage and condemnation, there were those making excuses for a political party, and some even outright claiming that she was lying to belittle that party. Because of the politicisation of her post, she eventually took it down. And yet, she was not the only woman that day caught in the midst of beasts. Other women too came forth on social media about their experiences of being harassed, verbally and physically. One woman had her hair pulled while on a rickshaw and then drenched with water from a bottle. This was in her own university campus. Another woman spoke of a similar experience of these men pouring water all over her at a major intersection in the city. Talking to this paper, a student of Dhaka University said a mob heading towards Shahbag surrounded her near Karwan Bazar and groped her and tried to pull off her scarf. There were policemen nearby, but they did not come forward.
But then again, are we really surprised? These incidents happened only a day after Brac presented a report which showed that 94 percent of women surveyed had been victims of sexual harassment in public transport. Only a few years back, a very similar public incident sparked outrage, when mobs of men encircled women during Pahela Baishakh celebrations and molested them. Yet, judging from the defensive gesture of people online, it would seem they find it very hard to believe that men in our country can commit such acts. Instead, one party official went so far as to claim that these incidents might have been cooked up to create controversy regarding March 7. Of course, speaking out against sexual harassment on March 7 does as much to discredit the day as speaking out about it on April 14 discredits the idea of Pahela Baishakh.
So why the defensiveness? We as a nation have failed miserably when it comes to being vocal against sexual harassment and taking action to prevent it. Not only in terms of punishing offenders, but in bringing up men who do not feel that it is deplorable to harass and molest women. We are absolutely fine with shaming women for being molested, blaming them even for bringing it on themselves, but then in the same breath, we excuse men for their behaviour. We will go as far as to call women whores for going out of the house, or not wearing an orna, but act incredulous when men and boys feel they can assault a woman for refusing their advances. Despite all our laws, the powerful feel they can get away with harassing women. From the loopholes in our laws to the impossible burden of proof in courts and hospitals, it is no surprise that more often than not women do not even speak up about the harassment they go through. This is a country where rapists can go inside a house and rape women and still enjoy institutional protection, while the women are subjected to further abuse. How else would you explain that in broad daylight, in public, in the presence of law enforcers, a group of men can dare to do something they know is a crime? And it is not enough to say that the harassers are uneducated men, “from the slums,” who took advantage of the situation. Ask any woman, and they will say that sexual harassers are not confined to any class or section of society—from classrooms and offices to public transport and on the roads, they are everywhere. For too long we have taught girls to be careful on the roads, while forgetting that teaching boys to be respectful would be a far more ideal solution.
It was incredibly brave of these women to speak out about the harassment they faced on the streets that day. Let us not forget, most women face this every day. If these incidents made the news, it was because of the audacity of it, because these were committed in public by mobs of men. I cannot imagine the trauma of having gone through it, and subsequently again for speaking out.
Our Home Minister has assured that CCTV footage has been collected of the incident and those responsible will not be spared. Great—except, let us also not forget that much was made of CCTV footage of sexual harassment during the Pahela Baishakh celebration in 2015. What came of that investigation? Some have pointed out the irony of the sexual harassment incidents happening a day before International Women's Day—but, what good is one day, when we have failed to stop such cases happening every day throughout the year, and still failed to do anything to stop them, socially or legally?
Moyukh Mahtab is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.