[During the anti-rape movement, in 1998, Rahnuma Ahmed wrote this piece responding, as well as exposing the institutionalized male chauvinism in Jahangirnagar University. Today, listening to the proctor of Dhaka University and the Officer-in-charge of Shahbag Thana, we are reminded of her piece. Nearly two decades later, her words still ring true. In order for us to be able to connect what is happening now with the history of sexual violence and history of resistance against such violence in Bangladesh, we are re-posting Rahnuma Ahmed’s piece from the archive.]
See no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil
-‘But why did she have to take photographs?’
– ‘Huh, crying wolf now. What else can you expect from goondas but humiliation? She should have known better. It’s all her fault.’
– ‘And all this talk of campus rape. It’s nonsense. Why has not any victim come forward? Has anyone said she has actually been raped?’
– ‘The student protest is the work of a group of teachers. They are behind it all. The university should also inquire into their doings.”
– They should also be issued show cause notices. Do they think they can get away with all this?’
– ‘Although they say they are against rape, actually they are not. That’s all eyewash. They are anti-government, anti-Awami-League. They’re just trying to stir up trouble.’
– ‘And anyway, she is characterless. Why do we have to defend her?’
Amidst all these innuendoes, accusations, slurs, doubts several issues gain greater clarity each day, each hour, each minute. The first and central issue is that of rape. Under no circumstance is rape justifiable. Whoever be the woman — whether she be friend or foe, whether she be young or old, rich or poor, Hindu or Muslim, Christian or animist, black or white – whatever be the circumstances – wartime or peacetime, whether she be alone or with family, friends, or in any other company, whether at home or in the ricefields or factory or up on the high street or down in the alleyway – whatever be the time of day – whether it be midnoon or midnight – under no circumstance is rape justifiable. To many readers this statement, that rape is not justifiable, and that it is a criminal offence, may seem unnecessary because it is so obvious. But masculine ways of thinking, of seeing, of evaluating and assessing are so powerful that even those with sure conviction may falter when faced by a barrage of questions. What was she wearing? Why was she there? Was she unaccompanied? Should she have been there in the first place? How did she behave? Did she talk, did she smile, and did she lower her eyes? Does she talk to men? Does she go outdoors, and often? Does she have a good reputation? Is she married? Does she have children? Is she meek and humble or is she the protesting kind? Just as rape is never, ever justifiable whatever the circumstances, so also no woman ever invites rape. It is rapists who grab women, who assault women, who throw them down on the ground and rape them, all by the use of force. No screaming or kicking, no pleading or crying can stop them.
Before the news of Jahangirnagar university campus rapes hit the national dailies, and more since then, I have been talking to faculty members, to teachers in administrative positions, to senior male colleagues about the issue of campus rape and our collective responsibility in ensuring a rape-free campus. Whenever the issue gets raised, invariably and within a matter of seconds, the conversation turns around to a discussion of the behavior of women students. Women students are to blame, they behave immodestly, they dress immodestly, they mix freely with boys, they stay outside the hall gates till late at night, they should be locked up by evening, if they are raped they are to be blamed – the voices go on and on. Senior faculty members, who have many years of teaching and administrative experience, who have take lien from teaching positions to advise the government on important policy matters, who have worked as national consultants on research teams, who have headed inquiry teams, who have sat on high-level committees are all so immersed in masculine ideology that they fail to comprehend the basic fact that rape is a criminal offence. Why do male ideologues de criminalize rape but not other crimes such as the theft of property or murder? Is not de-criminalising rape akin to legitimising it? Akin to declaring male solidarity. But with rapists?
Some Chhatra League student leaders assaulted me in broad daylight on the 23rd of August. This happened while I was taking photographs of their rally, which was held outside the JU Registry building. They encircled me, grabbed my camera, tore the strap away from my neck, smashed the camera and the film inside it to bits. They also abused me verbally. As an university employee I went by the university rules and lodged a formal complaint, naming my assaulters – Mir Mehedi Hossain Tito, Mahmudul Alam Babu, Hamidul Haq, Hasibur Rahman Barkat – and the student who I later learnt had orchestrated the assault – Jasimuddin Manik. The university Discipline Board, a body consisting of all Provosts and Deans and the Proctor, headed by the Vice-Chancellor, enquired into the complaint. I was asked to be present at the Discipline Board proceedings and to bring witnesses who would give evidence on my behalf. At the hearing, I was asked to narrate the incident and was subjected to cross-examination – the whole interview lasted an hour and a quarter. Four persons (a colleague, a senior officer of the university, and two journalists) gave evidence on my behalf. Those accused were also asked to be present, to defend themselves against the charges. One among those accused presented three witnesses, the others didn’t.
All the accused students flatly denied the charges of assault. Regular newspaper readers know by now the university authorities’ verdict: three of the five accused have been acquitted, of the remaining two, Mir Mehedi Hossain Tito has received a two-year expulsion alongwith a 5,000 taka fine and the other, Jasimuddin Manik has received a one-year expulsion. The other three have been issued letters of warning. The Discipline Board, by its very constitution, is a body, which tries cases of breach of discipline and misconduct by students. It also looks into complaints against students for the adoption of unfair means at university examinations and formulates rules and regulations for disciplining students. The outcome of my complaint of assault raises questions regarding the effectiveness of the Discipline Board. The outcome cannot but be considered as being prejudicial to the interests of maintaining discipline, protecting the personal safety of teachers, and that of the university teaching community as a whole.
A central concern of the disciplinary regulations of the university is student misconduct and breach of disciplinary norms. Teachers who occupy positions of authority within the university such as Proctor, Provost, House Tutor, Assistant House Tutor, and of course very obviously the Vice-Chancellor, enjoy proctorial powers ranging from mildly rebuking a student for misconduct – issuing a letter of warning, imposing a small fine- to imposing more stricter penalties such as, stiffer fines, debarring a student from sitting for the exams, and expulsion. Expulsion may be for a small period such as six months, or it may be for one or two years or it may even be lifelong. Teachers who are not in positions of authority, general teachers, like myself also enjoy proctorial powers. One of the university rules states that for a teaching-related misconduct a teacher may levy a fifteen taka fine, or she may cancel the student’s classroom attendance; in case of tutorial or practical classes, it may be attendance for that day and in the case of general classes, it may be attendance for three days. The rules also state that the teacher’s decision is final, and he has to report the matter to the Head of Department, who will in turn report the matter to the Provost concerned.
A serious perusal of the disciplinary rules, the Statutes and the Act, reveal two central assumptions: one, general teachers who do not occupy positions of authority (as stated above or as members of Senate, Syndicate, Finance Committee, Academic Council) are, individually or collectively, responsible for the university’s pursuit of providing instruction, or of providing and maintaining an academic atmosphere in which knowledge can be advanced and disseminated. It is envisaged that each teacher has a role in contributing towards maintaining an academic environment, which will encourage learning and the instilling of community values. Second, it is envisaged that teachers, individually or collectively, will not misuse their powers over a student; nowhere is there even a hint of the possibility that a teacher who brings a complaint towards any particular student may do so out of sheer malice.
The mode of enquiry adopted in my case by the Discipline Board, its methods of evaluating evidence and arriving at the truth clearly raises questions regarding its effectiveness. Not only did the burden of proof fall on me; I was made to feel embarrassed at having lodged a complaint. My naming the assaulters, my narration of the whole incident, my ability to identify the assaulters physically if necessary, my description of which of the assaulters was located where, of who did what, who obstructed my path, who pulled at the camera, who tore it away from my neck – nothing was weighty enough. As a result, the outcome has, in effect, protected and even emboldened those elements, which are responsible for campus indiscipline. Some of these students have been expelled before, some are alleged to be extortionists, some are alleged to be armed cadres, some are alleged to be rapists. [For reasons known to Daily Star, the following sentences of the paragraph have not been printed, R.A.]. And why should a flat denial have more weight than a positive identification? Is the same procedure to be followed in allegations of rape or intent to rape? If female students bring accusations will they have to produce several strong witnesses who can corroborate their statement?
It could have been different. The university authorities could not only have taken disciplinary action against those accused, they could also have initiated legal proceedings since the action – assault on person and property – is a criminal offence. Or, since I maintained that I had been assaulted by more than one student, they could have taken steps to find out who the other assaulters were. After all, the Jahangirnagar University Act, 1973 empowers the university ‘to supervise and control the discipline of the students…’ Surely that is also the University’s duty? Further, in view of the nearly month-long student protests regarding campus rape, the university authorities could have shown some concern about recovering the university’s lost image, about gaining the teaching, student and residential community’s confidence, and most of all the public’s confidence, in its sincerity. [This last sentence was also not printed, R.A.] If there was any reason to have confidence in the effectiveness of the existing arrangements for maintaining discipline, would I as a teacher with a considerable length of service, be airing my grievances publicly?
The piece was originally published in The Daily Star on September 28, 1998.