Nasrin Siraj and Nazm Us Saadat
Recently, many Bangladeshi women have taken the opportunity of the global upsurge of the #MeToo movement and broke their silence on sexual harassment. Online social networking sites, and Facebook in particular, have proved crucial for the victims/survivors to share their experiences. The space has also been vibrant with supporting write-ups as well as questions and challenges.
We welcomed and supported the wave and could not stop reflecting on the writings in our daily conversations. Like in online platforms, our real-life discussions have also been intense: we often found ourselves cutting off our conversations, accusing each other of either blaming the victims or celebrating women’s victimhood. We also realised that no matter how heated or frustrating our debates may be, we didn’t want to stop them because continuing the dialogues is perhaps the most effective way to engage with the movement against sexual harassment. So, here we are, with an aim to analyse a few issues that have been recurring in our conversations linked to the #MeToo movement.
What disturbed us the most about the Bangladeshi #MeToo movement is that the issue of implementation of guidelines on sexual abuse and harassment, which the High Court had declared on May 14, 2009, has been entirely absent in the discussions. These guidelines were supposed to be followed and observed by all the workplaces and educational institutions until adequate and effective legislations are made in the field by the state. What we revealed, however, by examining the testimonies of Bangladeshi #MeToo victims/ survivors, is that the owners/ managers of workplaces and authorities of educational institutions were reluctant to follow the guidelines. Apparently, only after the #MeToo disclosures did one news agency take the initiative, probably the first of its kind, to follow the guidelines.
The victims/survivors, on the other hand, opted to talk about their experiences with close friends right from the beginning, but that was not to form a collective movement to implement the guidelines. It was only an attempt to vent out the feeling of being wronged in ways beyond the victims/ survivors’ contemplation. It is clear from the writings of the victims/survivors that in the process of telling their experiences they have emphasized more on their individual stress-relief by talking to a person or a group and less on fighting battles in a systematic way.
We spoke to one of the #MeToo victims/ survivors directly and found out that in the wake of the movement in Bangladesh, she could gather the courage to uncover one experience that she had buried in her heart for years; her employer attempted to rape her. During the process of her ventilation, however, she undermined the fact that the perpetrator she had exposed publicly would deny her claims and in turn would sue her for defamation. Furthermore, after the public exposure of the perpetrator on Facebook, the victim/survivor started receiving countless unwanted phone calls from strangers that made her believe strongly that the perpetrator must have posted her mobile number on porn sites. Consequently, she began to feel insecure out of fear as the trauma she had experienced earlier crept back in her mind. Although she did not withdraw her allegation yet, it is clear that she will not be able to continue her battle alone.
Here, we do not indent to preach the victims/survivors on how they should fight their own battles. On the contrary, we would like to emphasise on our point of view that all women who have come forward in the wake of the #MeToo movement were practicing their human capability to take decisions in their respective social contexts. That is to say, women are indeed active agents not only when they are speaking out, but also when they are apparently remaining silent about the pervasive culture of sexual harassment in Bangladesh. Nevertheless, we think that it is necessary to take certain actions to bring about a change that prompted us to pen down this write-up – this is our version of engagement with the movement.
The declaration of the HC’s guidelines was neither automatic nor an individual effort. Instead, it took over seventeen years of women’s movement and active initiatives by countless women’s rights advocates and lawyers to make the declaration come into being. Discussing sexual harassment in workplaces and educational institutions without engaging with the guidelines, thus, not only means a total ignorance about an existing state mechanism to prevent sexual harassment, but also an outright disassociation from an important women’s movement and its historical achievement. It is important for us to take note of the fact that no movement can gain traction if there are constant hurdles from the very institutions (society, law enforcement agencies, communities etc.) that are supposed to uphold the values carried by that particular movement.
When it comes to the idea of informed choices regarding exercising one’s rights, awareness about the rights available is key. We find a huge gap between the introduction of a directive and the informed application of it. Not only is it necessary for a citizen to know and claim the rights, it is necessary for those involved with the administration to have a grip over such directives. Otherwise, misapplication of such directives is imminent and the possibility of denied justice may loom large.
*The article has appeared first in The Star Weekend on 7 December, 2018.