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Rahnuma Ahmed

While working on last week’s column, `The Nation, or Chhatra League…?’ (published on Monday, April 12, 2010), I had been in two minds.

Should I include sexual offences—aggressive behaviour, molestation, physical assault, violence, rape, asking a buddy to video the incident of rape for subsequent commercial release as pornography, gang-rape—allegedly committed by Bangladesh Chhatra League leaders and activists?

No, it deserves a separate column, I thought.

I was unaware of media reports on Eden college. For over two months, I’d been totally absorbed in researching and writing the Weather series (1 February – 29 March), and had been oblivious to much of what was happening around me. This included allegations against BCL’s women leaders and activists at Eden. But more on that later.

By all accounts, there seems to have been a sudden and horrific increase in nationwide violence, largely against girls and young women, over the last couple of months. Ten year old schoolgirl Shahnaz Begum of Digalbagh village in Mymensingh was raped by two brothers. Killed. October 2009. Eti Moni, a class ten student of Jaldhaka municipality in Nilphamari was raped. Strangled to death. October 2009. A schoolgirl of class three was raped at Ramanandapur village in Pabna sadar. October 2009. Nashfia Akand Pinky, a class IX student, committed suicide by hanging herself because she had been mercilessly teased and harassed, Pashchim Agargaon, Dhaka. January 2010. Nilufar Yasmin Eeti’s parents were shot dead by a young man after they turned down his proposal of marriage, Kalachandpur area in Gulshan, Dhaka. March 2010. Fourteen year old Umme Kulsum Elora, a student of class VII, committed suicide by taking pesticide because of continued harassment. April 2010. Mariam Akter Pinky, a student of class ten, died of burn injuries fuelled by kerosene in Konabhaban village in Kishoreganj; her mother says, she saw the young man who had harassed her for the last two years run out of the room. April 2010 …. there are many more. I stare uncomprehendingly at the horror of it all.

As I scan the newspapers, a recent headline catches my eye, Man stabs himself over refusal of marriage proposal. One lone man. He had preferred to kill himself. Not the woman.

And what about sexual offences which, according to media reports, have specifically been committed by BCL leaders and activists? Ahsan Kabir Mamun, also known as Mamun Howladar, information secretary of Pirojpur district committee of BCL, raped a class X student in Pirojpur, Barisal. September 2009. The incident was recorded on cellphone by his childhood friend `Ganja’ Monir, who happens to be a BNP activist. It was later available as a pornographic CD for sale in local video shops. Mamun insists it was recorded “secretly,” while Monir says he was carrying out Mamun’s instructions. Mamun did not deny having raped the girl, but added, the recording (not committing the crime itself, mind you) had been done to “tarnish” his political and business image. The two families, he said, were closely related. He was to be married to her soon. Her family responded by demanding that he should receive “exemplary punishment.”

A group of 16 young men, in September 2009, abducted a class VII student of Pakhimara in Kalapara upazila in Patuakhali. The young girl was returning home from a Puja mandap accompanied by her cousin Nasir, whom the men beat up and drove away. They took her to a nearby garden. According to media reports, she was gang-raped, allegedly by ten of her abductors. All BCL activists. More recently, in February 2010, four students of Chittagong Medical College, all BCL leaders and activists, allegedly raped a girl on a hill adjoining CMC campus.

Young women, who are either university students, or walking through campuses, have complained of being physically assaulted by BCL activists. In early November, a Rajshahi university student was assaulted and confined for an hour. One of the assaulters was Kawsar Hossain, a fellow student of the same university who had declared his love for her but had been turned down. A similar incident had occurred several months earlier, on the same campus, when another BCL activist, accompanied by his associates, assaulted a woman student and her companion. On February 21, BCL activists beat up a young girl and her friends who were returning from the central Shahid Minar, in front of the Dhaka University vice-chancellor’s residence. A BCL activist of Jasimuddin Hall approached the young girl, and began harassing her. Her companions and passersby came to her aid but other BCL activists, from nearby halls, joined in the attack. Five people were injured. This month, in April, students of statistics department of Jagannath university refused to attend classes until a BCL activist, who had reportedly asaulted a woman student belonging to their department, was punished.

What is wrong with BCL? Or, more precisely, what wrongs do its leaders and their followers commit? Violence. Extortion. Tenderbaji. Sexual offences are never mentioned. Not by the prime minister, nor by any high (let alone, low-) ranking AL member. It is an offence that has no name. And therefore, it does not exist. If it does not exist, its existence need not be acknowledged… That is how denial has worked. And at the ground level, someone or the other obliges, whether it be party functionaries. Or local-level police. Or the college principal. For instance, in the case of Pakhimara, where the gang-rape occurred, local-level AL leaders fined the 16 young men 10,000 taka each for having “tortured” the girl. Their offence was characterised as `intent to rape.’ Not gang-rape, no. The victim’s family was forced to declare this at a hurriedly called press conference. Forced to file a defamation case against the publisher, editor and reporter of a Bangla daily for having reported the rape as rape. AL leaders pressurised the editor of a local daily to sack his reporter for having reported the rape. The culprits were not arrested. The victim’s family fled in fear of reprisal. The allegation of gang-rape had been manufactured to taint the ruling party’s image, said Rakibul Ahsan, Kalapara upazila AL secretary.

In Pirojpur, Mamun was expelled from his post of information secretary. His membership was cancelled for life, but he, alongwith Monir, is still absconding. In Chittagong Medical College, an emergency academic council meeting suspended the four alleged rapists. News reports add, the identity of the girl was not known. Hence, no rape case was filed. In RU, although Kawsar was expelled from the university, was imprisoned, he was still allowed to take his exams. On flimsy grounds. The departmental chairperson had not received his expulsion order from the university authorities. In DU, although BCL activists who caused assault and injury on February 21 have been suspended, they are still staying in the residential halls. Two have been given executive positions in the newly-formed BCL hall unit.

But after the Pohela Boishakh concert fiasco at Raju chottor in DU, it has become increasingly harder to deny that which has no-name. According to newspaper reports, 20 female students were molested. By BCL cadres. Also, by outsiders. Women concert-goers complained. They were pinched. Grabbed. Breasts. Buttocks. Two women students kameezes were ripped, forcing them to accept shirts offered by male concert-goers, to cover themselves. Police rescued fifteen young women from among dense crowds, encircled by men. The concert was abruptly closed down as things threatened to get out of control. According to newspaper reports, groups of BCL activists had battled with each other over splitting 40 lakh taka given by a private mobile phone company. To DU BCL leaders, for having organised the concert. But no, the university authorities claimed not to know anything about it. Neither did the BCL leadership. No, they hadn’t heard anything.

A Bangla proverb, shaak die maach dhaka, the (foolhardy) attempt to cover live fishes with spinach leaves, expresses well the attempts of DU authorities post-concert. The DU vice-chancellor professor AAMS Arefin Siddique inaugurated a 3 day Rover Scout campaign. Petitioning signatures. Processions. Rallies. The slogan? `No to Eve teasing.’ Surely this undermines last year’s High Court ruling? A ruling which was heartily welcomed by women’s organisations in Bangladesh. Any kind of physical, mental or sexual harassment of women, girls and children at their workplaces, educational institutions and at other public places, including roads, is a criminal offence punishable by fine and/or imprisonment. The ruling has the status of law. So where does this all this drivel about Eve-teasing come from? As feminists have repeatedly pointed out, eve-teasing is a western and Christian construct, it refers to the temptress nature of Eve, thereby placing the responsibility for sexual harassment on women. On the victims, not the perpretators. From earlier denial, looking-the-other-way, to victim-blaming? Is this the new AL strategy being fashioned by its ideologists? Why should women’s organisations and women’s rights activists who have struggled hard for women’s right to public space for many long years be a party to undermining our hard-won HC ruling? One which we had all agreed was a `revolution’?

There are other things that I find deeply troubling. The recent revelations sparked by squabbles over dividing the loot earned from admission profiteering at Eden Women’s University College. According to newspaper reports, factions opposed to BCL unit president Jasmine Shamima Nijhum and general secretary Farzana Yasmin Tania, have alleged that besides admission profiteering, these women leaders are involved intenderbaji, wheeling and dealing, buying up BTV slots, and lobbying. They use first year students, those from village backgrounds, telling them that this is the way to fulfill their dreams of becoming leaders, and becoming wealthy. The girls are encouraged to dress up. They are taken to the houses of different leaders. Sometimes to hotels. And asked to entertain them. According to the allegations, the BCL leaders leave the hostel after 10 at night. Returning the next day, at 10 in the morning. Women students who refuse to do as told are either turned out of the hostel, or their room is broken into, or locked-up. The principal of the college, according to news reports, is fully complicit in these happenings.

Both Khaleda Zia, the leader of the opposition (`the girls of Eden college are being used to entertain the ministers and MPs whose salaries and allowances have been raised’) and Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid, Jamaat secretary general (`women students are used to satisfy the leaders’) have capitalised on these stories, using them as opportunities to attack the government.

While AL apologists shush the leader of the opposition for having defiled the honor of `all’ students of Eden college for a bad apple or two, while a journalist friend tells me that one or two students of Eden have since retracted their statements, I return to my memories of Jahangirnagar university, to the anti-rape movement in 1998 when the university authorities, to quell the movement, had barked: which one among you have been raped? Come, stand up, be identified.

Hundreds of women students had spoken up in a single voice: we have all been dishonored. Both the prime minister, her women cabinet ministers, and the leader of the opposition could take lessons from that.

Published in New Age April 19, 2010

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