Parsa Sanjana Sajid
National cricketer Rubel Hossain recently appeared in a Robi commercial. The 40-second spot is the stuff of nightmares complete with an ominous, climactic warning: he’s back with a vengeance and is gonna break you if you cross him again. It has the subtlety of a cheap horror flick, unimaginative music slapped with a poorly lit mute palette as backdrop against which Rubel lurks, leers, lashes out, speeds through in determination while the camera rolls over his face, arms, eyes, and he ultimately issues his warning. It’s meant to evoke ferocity and you get the feeling he’s here to draw blood.
But whose? Clearly not the viewers’. Exceptions aside, the assumption is that the viewers are on his side, in on the story, and ready for the ride. Nightmare, no, it’s a vicarious revenge plus comeback joyride. Dripped with sympathy, “you go, bro” is the assumed viewer sentiment. But, then, who or what is the “object” of Rubel’s wrath? What’s he avenging? And what affront has him so riled?
A non-literal translation of the final warning is, “Don’t mess with Rubel or else,” but “dekhai dimu jemnei hok, erpor aar keu bachaite parbona, bhainga dimu” drops with the weight of a kettlebell. Where an “or else” leaves a touch of room to muse on the exact nature of the threat, the actual message delivered in Bangla is even more direct, more in-your-face — I’ll show you whatever it takes, nobody can save you next time, I’m gonna break you/it. As far as figures of speech go, “bhainga dimu” lands as a punch devoid of equivocation.
It’s plausible that the intended “object” of Rubel’s anger is an opposing cricket team, or even an entire “rival country” onto which sporting hostilities are routinely extended and mapped. So “fira aisi” could refer to his breakthrough performances during the World Cup earlier this year. Such rivalries borne out of and forged in the firmament of ultra-nationalist sentiments entangled with corporate and political interests are troubling enough and lend themselves to an interesting critique in and of themselves, but there’s another story, another context and narrative, another “object” of Rubel’s wrath that’s impossible to ignore.
And that’s Naznin Akter Happy. In late 2014, Happy, as she is popularly known, filed a case against Rubel under the Women and Children Repression Prevention Act accusing him of cheating on her and reneging on a promise of marriage. The suit also included separate accusations of assault and rape. Confrontation over his cheating led explicitly to the assault: “At one stage of quarrel over the matter, Rubel assaulted me. I was injured.” The rape allegation, on the other hand, hinged on Happy’s understanding of the conditional nature of their relationship (as all relationships are conditional in their own explicitly and implicitly negotiated ways), and its subsequent breach. That is, she only agreed to have sex with him on the condition they marry. Promises were made; there were “intimate relations.” It continued for nine months, during which she caught him cheating, they fought, he assaulted her, she wanted to file an assault case but was dissuaded, she brought up marriage, he said he’d think about it, and then finally left her. All these details per the complaint she filed after the relationship ended. Even after filing the complaint, Happy professed love for Rubel and made public statements that she would withdraw the case if he married her. Rubel was detained and spent a few days in jail before jetting off for Australia and the cricket World Cup where he put on an admirable bowling performance.i
He was back, vindicated. His fans – pretty much everybody in the country – were euphoric. A classic comeback story. But even before his heros turn on the cricket pitch, the Happy-Rubel saga had morphed into a social media and IRL sensation. Now, with proof of his hero’s mettle, opinions skewed as they seemingly always do: in favor of the man (controlling, of course, for race, religion, class). Some narratives as tired and clichéd and dangerous and pathetic as they are, never get old, and so in the tradition of Alex from Fatal Attraction, Anita Hill, and any number of known or unknown fictional or real life characters, she was the bitch. She was responsible for whatever it was she was responsible for. Now, while it’s true that the examples I cite are each very different from the other, not least because of the fictional/real and time/space divide, it’s also true that a thick noxious trail binds such stories together when the accuser is female and the accused is male (so long as we, of course, control for factors such as race, religion, class). So with Happy, tropes that recur, recurred – whore, famewhore, gold digger, crazy ass person, mentally unstable, unreliable narrator.
One can of course walk out on a relationship, married or not. Cheating on and lying to your partner make you an asshole, but are not legally punishable offenses. Pre-marital, non-coercive sex cannot bind anybody to marriage. One can always change one’s mind about a relationship. All valid arguments. And also the easier arguments to make. And made they were in Rubel’s defense.
But the juxtaposition of Happy as “that girl” and Rubel as the unwitting victim of that crazy ass bitch in a drama of ‘she said – he said’ that many of us participated in with varying degrees of voyeurism and sympathy peddling must force another question, one around believability and culpability. Where do our sympathies lie and whom do we believe? If we imagine ourselves in the “you go, bro” train with Rubel, why?
Since Happy’s allegation doesn’t fit our common and impoverished understanding of sexual violence she’s naturally made to bear the weight of misogynist insults. Her particular allegation sat on the foundation of her understanding of sexual intimacy with Rubel, that it was conditional. Which she made without minimizing her own sexual agency. A promise of marriage had to be on the table. He had no obligation to agree to the terms but he did. And then reneged. It’s worth repeating that pre-marital sex doesn’t and shouldn’t bind one to marriage. But it’s also worth remembering who still carries the preponderance of shame when deviating from sexual prescriptions and proscriptions – women. An alarming number of men would take advantage of women just to sleep with them, including making false promises of marriage. If the allegation of rape seems extreme at first and second blush, is it on deeper consideration though, consent is certainly inadequate here, when it’s satisfied only through deception.
Yet this isn’t about prying information and uncovering what happened behind closed doors or pushing us into a misadventure of establishing just the facts because truth is rarely simply stateable facts. Nor is this about getting to the truth of the matter even if we expand our notion of truth from the confines of just the facts. Given the incomplete mess of a story, the narrative that gathered force, the one that we all helped shape by participating and discussing, is about privileging one version over the other. Using whatever we strung together from the public and partial statements and from Happy’s filed complaint, we passed judgment and assigned benefit of doubt in the most predictable of ways. Complete with misogynist invectives we sided with the accused and castigated the accuser over her allegations of assault and rape, ultimately inverting the role of victim and assailant. When instead of taking her allegation seriously, we dismissed Happy in favor of the accused, we revealed how deep the slime runs. And that requires a reckoning.
I ask again. Whom do we believe? Where do our sympathies lie?
Consider this then –
Sexual harassment and rape cases are incredibly difficult to prosecuteii – all too conveniently credited to there being few if any bystanders. Only a tiny minority of victims goes to the police and press charges at all. And those who do are routinely disbelieved and subjected to humiliating character tests. In our collective imagination, unless the victim is of good moral standing and the violation creates a tabloid worthy sensation (think the Delhi gang rape), it ain’t rape. As if somebody’s character or morality precludes them from experiencing sexual abuse and aggression. As if our notions of character and morality themselves weren’t infected by the virus that is everyday misogyny. As if every sexual aggression fits into a neat check-the-box narrative. As if consent and coercion weren’t complicated and mediated by overarching structures of power.
It follows then that believability and sympathy for a victim, including an alleged one, must rest both on stripping her of complete sexual agency and on a narrowly defined parameter of what constitutes a violent encounter even before a case can be adjudicated. Otherwise, she has no standing. What about the murky territory of marital rape? What about violence against sex workers? How do we think about consent if a supervisor makes unwanted sexual advances and an employee relents? Or when a supervisor abuses positions of power even if a given encounter is quote-unquote consensual? I could go on and these are not merely rhetorical questions.
Every uncomfortable encounter of course isn’t rape, but a staggeringly high number of women live daily situations ranging from the uncomfortable to the violent. And more often than not their response is to accommodate or relent. To go away without making a fuss because of stigma, because of the firestorm that normally ensues if she’s not the right kind of accuser, because if she can’t walk in with airtight proof she’s crazy or lying or both. We forget that our definitions of sexual violence and consent are often lines in the sand when misogyny is everywhere, when every woman grows up and lives with the risk of sexual violence against them. And for a distressing number of them it’s as real as the air they breathe.
So when somebody comes forward with an allegation, even if we don’t and may never know the whole story, what is the default reaction? Who has the benefit of our default sympathy? If somebody knowingly risks public humiliation by going public, where is our moral standing when we label her whore or famewhore?
Humiliation, suggests literary critic Wayne Koestenbaum, is usually a three-way affair between the humiliator, the humiliated, and the witness. Presence of this third party, the witness, is what substantiates humiliation if we understand it as “to be made humble.” Where victims of sexual assault are concerned, the involvement of this witness routinely collapses, conflates, inverts the distinction between the humiliator and humiliated. The accuser seeks justice, but humiliation,iii if we think of it as a corollary of redress, rarely sticks to the accused. Instead, the accuser is chastened, “humbled,” and put in her place, doubly maligned, first by her alleged abuser and then by the witness. The accused on the other hand triumphs as the victim but isn’t humbled – he receives sympathy, reverence, devotion.
That Rubel is a proficient thrower of balls shouldn’t have had any bearing on our perception but it did, as it usually does. He is a professional sportsman, he plays for Bangladesh, and he played well for Bangladesh. Which is all to say he performed well in his job. But being good at a job is not sufficient cause for being placed above scrutiny, especially when we’re so reckless with the accuser. And not only is he above scrutiny, he’s valorized in a way that doesn’t stop with erasing and ignoring accusations of assault. The terrain of that valorization festers with misogynist schadenfreude as if competence in a ball field somehow absolves him of any possible misconduct outside.
And beware, as the Robi commercial cautions, “erpor aar keu bachaite parbona, bhaingya dimu.” The behind-the-scenes video is even more telling where the accusation against Rubel directly referenced. Rubel’s career was about to tank because of a “cinema parar meye” (i.e. entertainment industry girl) but now he’s back with a vengeance. Raised from the ashes, the hero has made us proud and it’s time for comeuppance. The assumption being that “cinema parar meye” equals unreliable raconteur at best, slut at worst.
Unsurprisingly, the fertile ground of misogyny that sprouts these attitudes enabled Happy’s lawyer to drop her as a client without any hint of self-awareness or repercussion while making a public show of it. Simply because Rubel is a national hero. Standing on trashy ground, fanboys and fangirls find easy company where a greater cause – nationalism or other forms of institutional affiliation – trumps minor distractions like assaulting your girlfriend. I’ve to wonder though if Rubel weren’t a national hero but touted another kind of institutional attachment, would this ardor remain? If he hadn’t tapped into a reflexive jingoistic pride and was instead a religious figure accused of partner assault would anybody use shabash in any context to describe him and would he ever get a glorifying TV spot?
I’m not here to offer a conclusive definition of rape or sexual violence. Nor do I want to advocate for an ever-widening state dragnet in the name of protecting women. Meaningless slogans and gestures of empowerment are just that. I must also acknowledge the sordid history of colonial, imperial, liberal and conservative, classist tendency to render certain bodies unimpeachably suspicious – black men, brown men, poor men, queer/trans men and women, sex workers, to name only a few. And I want to disavow a strain of feminist activism and thinking whose central vision of social change rests on expanding the carceral state. Universalized categories of women and men without the contingencies of class, race, ethnicity, religion, and gender itself, as well as other socio-political contexts ring hollow.
But revenge can be hers too.
i There are obvious dangers to forcing victims of violence into pre-defined categories they wouldn’t identify with. Or prescribing specific public or legal actions as the only or better choice even if they necessarily don’t want to or excoriating them for unwillingness to do so. Which is why it’s worth noting Happy didn’t eventually pursue the case and even congratulated Rubel on Facebook after his World Cup performance. That doesn’t make her any less of a person or any more of a crazy person. The purpose here is to engage with the substance of her complaint and the reaction it generated while attempting to situate both against the larger narrative of misogyny and violence against women.
ii Our evidence based legal systems are built on the logic of property to primarily protect property owner interests. By extension, one owns one’s body, a property of the self. Which means, overwhelming evidence wrought on the body or “property” carries more cache than any other narrative. Inherent problems with eyewitness accounts further complicate this where in a given scenario the party with more structural privilege is more likely to be trusted. This also means coercive use of power frequently does not count as crime, but actions that are reactions to that powers are. [I would like to thank my friend George Smith for many illuminating conversations on this particular issue and also for other helpful comments on this piece.]
iii I should be careful about casting the process of humiliation as a public good since generally it isn’t and Koestenbaum says as much. But it’s nonetheless interesting to think about how humiliation works in sexual assault narratives. When an accuser goes public with her allegation she seeks redress, a necessary ingredient of which is to shame (in addition to punish) the alleged assailant. Yet more often than not the accuser risks humiliation since the “public” or the “witness” directs its scorn to the alleged victim and sympathy to the alleged assailant. Going public in other words is to court humiliation as a victim in an inversion of roles.
5. Wayne Koestenbaum. Humiliation. Picador, 2011.