Let’s talk about Rape (in Bangladesh)

Let’s talk about Rape (in Bangladesh)

By Nadine S. Murshid for AlalODulal.org

There is something fundamentally wrong with men (and women) who rape. It is a maladaptation of sex, a manifestation of psychopathology, a sign of being a sociopath or a psychopath, a tool to garner control, and an outward expression of deep internal anger and resentment.  In the context of Bangladesh (as elsewhere), it is also a response to sexual repression, lack of education about sex and appropriate sexual behaviors, and patriarchal values that give men (or those with power) the right to dominate and control women and their bodies (or, whichever party is deemed to be powerless).

And there are different kinds of rape—ones that happen within closed doors, between husbands and wives, or between significant others; acquaintance rape or date rape, where one is raped by someone they know, or someone they are trying to get to know; rape by strangers that may occur not only in public secluded places but also within the confined spaces of peoples’ own homes; gang rape; and then, there is rape as a weapon of war, a tool of both individual and mass oppression.

What is the etiology of the use of such a vile act to punish your significant other? Put him or her in “their place” as if it is up to them to decide who belongs where? How has it become such a tool of oppression on all levels – micro (individual), mezzo (households), and macro (national/international) levels?  How does it continue to go on with consequences that do little to protect potential victims of rape?


News just in: the highly publicized trial of the Delhi gang rape and murder found one of the teenagers involved guilty and sentenced him to 3 years in prison on the grounds of juvenile offence (Read more here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-23908176). Had there not been the intense demand for justice in this particular case, he would have gone scot-free. Had he been tried in the US, he would have been tried as an adult given the nature of the crime he committed. As the victim’s mother pointed out, such lenient sentences do nothing to stop the next rapist from raping. Such sentences, on the same vein, reinforce the idea that people should not seek the help that they need in these situations.

Help-seeking for rape is rare to begin with, particularly in Bangladesh, despite the severity of violence involved. Be it from friends and family (due to shame, stigma, fear or being ostracized, fear of being blamed), law enforcement agencies (because justice is illusive, expensive, and public), and service providers (due to lack of information about them, misunderstanding or no understanding of the services they provide, and in many rural areas – the dearth of such services). To add to that, the legal system in Bangladesh protect rapists by further traumatizing rape victims who seek justice by using questionable rape kits that use the “two finger rule” in gender insensitive ways (Read more here: http://www.dhakatribune.com/law-amp-rights/2013/sep/01/%E2%80%98two-finger-test%E2%80%99-deters-rape-victims-seeking-justice).  Public knowledge of law enforcement officials raping little girls further deters women (and men) from seeking help (one such case: http://www.humanrights.asia/news/urgent-appeals/AHRC-UAC-167-2012).  Where men/boys are concerned, help seeking is close to non-existent. For them there is an added layer of stigma: stigma of their manhood being stripped; and fear of being ridiculed for not being able to stand up for themselves that prevents them from seeking any kind of recourse or justice.

Consequences of rape are well documented: mental health issues – particularly PTSD, guilt complex, and self-esteem issues; physical health issues such as arthritis, digestive problems, chronic pelvic pain, and seizures; and engagement in risky and unhealthy behaviors such as substance abuse and self-injury. At the root of some of these consequences is perhaps the belief that it was their fault, that they were somehow responsible for what happened to them, for the rape.  In an environment where there is extensive victim blaming (for example: in the media, in social circles), and normalization of rape (for example: via violent movies, pornography) there is increased likelihood of both feeling further victimized and being further victimized.

Needless to say, such trauma is debilitating for those who are at the brunt of such heinous acts. It is also debilitating for a nation that has limited resources and understanding of how to deal with rape and rapists, in spite of laws such as the Violence against Womens and Children’s Act in Bangladesh that are well intended, but rarely accessed due to lack of knowledge, fear of retribution, and a tendency to keep private things private. That rape remains one of the most under-reported crimes in the world is indicative of 1) how exclusionary that experience is; and 2) the perception that there is no “safe” place to get help from.

That unsafe place is, to an extent, an element of mistrust that is adaptive for those who experience such violence. However, a large part of that mistrust is fuelled by the environment in which they live. It is safe to say that friends and family, together with the larger social world including institutions such as the media, education, the arts, and literature have a large role in making the environment a safe one – safe to speak, safe to share, safe to feel what they feel – without fear of gossip and retribution, judgment and ridicule.

An example of what contributes to an unsafe environment is an article by Rahman (2013) on the Financial Express. He argues that “free mixing of males and females”, “dating”, and “Bollywood syndrome” (whatever that is) among others is what “causes” rape. In doing so, not only does he condone rape, he justifies it based on victim-blaming notions. Moreover, there is no reference to where he got his police data and what the causal mechanism that he identified is based on. That a leading national daily printed such an article without providing a different perspective on it by someone else is absolutely irresponsible. There is free speech and then there is dissemination of sexist ideas, especially given the impact that such ideas can have on rapists and those who have experienced rape in terms of further victimization.  It is time that media outlets such as the Financial Express takes a solid stance on such issues and call a “spade a spade” as Rahman snidely says, because a rapist is a rapist is a rapist. There is no justification for rape. (Rahman’s article: http://www.thefinancialexpressbd.com/index.phpref=MjBfMDNfMTZfMTNfMV8yN18xNjMzMDU=).


Scholars have produced a large body of work to understand rape. Some have studied “forced copulation” among other species (Lalumiere, Harris, Quinsey, & Rice, 2005) to conclude that Homo sapiens have characteristics that overlap with other members of the animal kingdom as a tactic to increase reproduction.  Similarly, it has been argued that rape is “the behavioral expression of a mechanism which has evolved to enable men of low mate value to circumvent female choice” (Apostolou, 2013, pg. 1). This is because women are seen as a scarce reproductive resource over which men (attempt to) gain sexual access (Trivers, 1972); which in turn provides women with the ability to choose.  Women, argues Buss (2003), do not choose randomly; instead they choose men with high(er) social status, “good” genes, and ability to obtain and control resources, which leaves out men who do not have these desirable characteristics.  These men, as such, suffer reproductive costs because they are left out of the “market” and choose rape as a mechanism through which they produce their offspring. However, a new body of literature contends with this idea given that women’s mate selection was controlled by their parents during human evolution which means women’s choice had little to do with the selection process.  As such, it is unclear as to what exactly led to the evolutionary adaptation of rape – women’s choice, parental choice, or something else (Apostolou, 2012).  And to learn what constitutes “something else” we can look at the body of work that focuses more on the individual perpetrator of rape, where rape is seen as a byproduct of characteristics such as high libido, desire for novelty in sexual partners, and willingness for causal sex (Thornhill & Palmer, 2000).


Evolutionarily derived or not, rape is a problem. It is arguably the most dehumanizing problem we have today, one that has become commonplace, normalized. It is one of the cruelest weapons of oppression and dominance used by a wide variety of offenders and purported by enablers.  However, the shame, taboo, and (perhaps) limited understanding about rape has rendered it a problem that receives various levels of empathy ranging from “they were married, there can be no rape within a marriage” to “she provoked her rape by wearing the kinds of clothes she was wearing” to “let’s hang all rapists” and anything in between. The mild sentences handed out to rapists probably add to the misunderstanding of rape, and prevents (potential) rapists from thinking about it as aberrant behavior.

So, when is the right time to intervene?

At very young ages. In schools. In systematic ways.

Our children are social learners, as are we. They learn from the environment in which they live, from what they see around them. And that environment varies drastically based on the family in which they were born. As such, a child born in a slum community is likely to have a different set of values and survival instincts than someone born in a middle class family, given that they are surrounded by different problems, types of behaviors, and ways of living.  At the same time, they see and are affected by the same billboards that adorn the streets, they are affected similarly by the burning buses that accompany every strike/hartals in Bangladesh, they are accustomed to the same begging children who get scolded for knocking on car doors. So amidst differences, there are similarities. Amidst different upbringings, they all normalize violence; they all learn how to use violence. Children learn what they see, they practice what they learn. When a child sitting at home next to his mother hears her say, on the phone, “I’m on my way, I’ll be there in 5 mins,” he learns that it is okay to lie. And he chooses to use lies when the opportunity arises. When he sees a lit up car in the middle of the road, he learns that things can be put on fire. But not everyone will put things on fire; whether or not they re-use that behavior will depend on what else is going on in their lives, including (but not limited to): whether they have acquired other coping skills, whether they know other conflict-management skills, whether they are prone to anger, and whether they find these acts protective or destructive.

The solution?

The solution is to install a civic course in schools that would teach children what it means to be a good citizen. It should teach them that lying is not okay – not because Allah will give you “gunah”, but because it is morally wrong. It should teach them that it is not okay to beat people; it is not okay to touch them in inappropriate ways. It should teach them how to respect and love people, irrespective of age, sex, race, religion, and color. And the way to do it is not by telling them, because that would only reinforce that behavior, but by devising programs in which these behaviors will be modeled to them. The program will have to be tested, contextualized, and ensured that it is culturally competent before administration.

As of now, most schools in Bangladesh do not provide any kind of civic education (other than the religious kind, and that too is directed towards the predominant Muslim population, not minorities). There are no tested and validated courses in which students are taught values, ethics, and what constitutes good citizenship.  There are no sex education courses that demystify sex.  All of that has to change.

At the same time, we, as individuals and parents, need to model behaviors that we want to see in the people around us, in the children that we see and rear. We need to be good citizens. And we need cooperation of all citizens. Through mass media. Newspapers. Blogs. TV shows. Through discourse with our educators and moral guardians (imams and priests). We need to spread the word: violence and rape is not acceptable and will not be tolerated. In any form. In any manner. And importantly, we need to remember that those who commit these crimes need help too. They need mental health interventions. They need treatment. They need help to deal with what caused them to do what they did.

Instead of asking the government (and in doing so, empowering them), we need to take this on ourselves. We need to take responsibility of our actions, because children learn from us. We need to take responsibility of our reactions, because they learn from that too.


Apostolou, M. (2013) The evolution of rape: The fitness benefits and costs of a forced-sex mating strategy in an evolutionary context. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 18 (5), 484-490.

Apostolou, M (2012). Sexual selection under parental choice: Evidence from sixteen historical societies. Evolutionary Psychology,10, 504–518.

Thornhill, R. & Palmer, C.T. (2000). A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion. The MIT Press, Cambridge.

Trivers, R. L. (1972). Parental investment and sexual selection. In B. Campbell (Ed.) Sexual selection and the descent of man, 1871-1971 (pp 136–179). Chicago, Aldine.

This article is dedicated to Nurjahan Murshid, whose 10 year death anniversary was on Sept 1, 2013.

8 thoughts on “Let’s talk about Rape (in Bangladesh)

  1. good article. rape has always been there and sadly will still be in the future. i agree about starting the solution in schools with young children and also having very very strict laws and violent punishment to drive home the point.

  2. good article. we have to start educating in schools. get them young before they are corrupted by the behavior around them. and we also need violent punishment and strict laws. we have to punish publicly, give maximum humiliation to the perpetrator.

  3. Excellent article! For me, the highlight was the emphasis on socio-cultural approaches to curbing Rape – as opposed to viewing it merely as a law-enforcement / legal / forensic challenge. The research / reference links were very helpful in adding layers to the overall analysis. Timely and to-the-point. Thank you very much.

  4. Cudos for tackling such a difficult issue. However, I find the article to be probelmatic for several reasons. First, it suffers from a bad case of hesitancy. Your analysis should logically lead you to call for massive social reform, for radical (from the root) overhaul of existing gender relations and practices governing sexuality in Bangladesh, but you end up offering relatively conservative solution of civic courses. And the kind of civic course you envision is full of tensions. First, can a civic course provide the kind of life lessons and moral values that take individuals life-time to learn? And they learn these lessons and values from they experiences in all sort of social situations and institutions. If a course can teach us these values, then what are we learning from our families, friends, the media, and the rest? Suggesting that civic courses can teach us these lessons and values you are looking for a technocratic solution to social/political problem. I think that such civic courses will certainly be helpful, but they won’t achieve anything until social political structures regarding sex and gender are challenged and reformed at some more fundamental level. The second problem with the idea of civic courses that it assumes that there would be people who would be able to teach these courses. To work through that assumption we will have to ask…. who will teach the courses? who will design the curriculum? Who will teach the teachers? This is of course one of the oldest, yet still unsolved, question of political philosophy. However, for our discussion this is not merely an abstract philosophical problem but a concrete political problem. The civic course you envision will have to be designed and taught by men (and women) who are already product of social structures that have demonstrated its tolerance for rape and propensity to oppress women. How can we expect these same men (and women) to design and teach civic courses teaching our children to be better? We need to change our ideas, attitudes, culture, and practices for the better…. in a direction towards gender equality and non-oppression. The question, which very urgent, is of course, how do we do that now?

    1. I personally think that the people who already inhabit the world have the shackles that they have acquired, the mind set that have already formed. Social reform means treatment and that means we have to treat every person in the world. I doubt that will do anything. Because we xant treat everyone. Awareness is not the issue, especially with rape getting more attention these days. It has not prevented it from happening. The right idea IS to start early. Just the way we learn we need oxygen and trees need carbon dioxide, in class, we need to learn that we can’t hit people. How, is a different question. The writer suggested modeling behaviors. That’s a good start. Get them early. The new generation will benefit from it. We are done for. We have learnt that it’s ok to hit your wife. How long will it take got us to unlearn that?

    2. Humayun: How do we do that, you ask? By taking individual responsibility. You take responsibility for your thoughts/beliefs/actions – you model behaviors that exhibit gender equality, respect, and tolerance. Others will learn from you. Children will learn from you. You will have played your own individual role.

      More generally, I suggested civic education in schools. Who will teach these courses, you ask? We will. If we develop a curriculum, test it, validate it, administer it, test it again, we will have a curriculum that (has to be) devoid of human error – it has to be straightforward enough and easy enough to administer. You talk about ‘life long learning’ – well, that has to start somewhere. I suggest it starts as soon as we can get to them. We can’t get to them in their own homes as easily as we can in schools, and so that’s where we should start; that’s where we can make a difference.

      Social reform – what exactly do you mean by that? How do you change the attitudes and beliefs of a 50 year old woman who believes that women deserve to be beaten up for certain behaviors, how do you change the idea that men are superior among ‘senior villagers’, the types who administer 101 lashes for getting pregnant from rape? Social reforms, or whatever you mean by that, will have marginal effects on them because they have had that lifelong learning that you talk about.

      Awareness campaigns, movies with social messages, advertisements on TVs and billboards – all will help towards creating an environment that does not condone rape and violence (as I have mentioned in this write up). BUt that alone cannot bring about the changes you seem to want.

      1. First of all let me admit that I do not have a picture of what I mean by social reform or how do we achieve social reform. And I think the task for us now is to answer these questions both philosophically and politically. I appreciate that you do provide an answer. I agree with you that education can play a vital role in shaping conducts.

        However, the criticism I have of your solution is that it is too technocratic and it does not adequately take into account the political dimensions. Education or knowledge in general is outside of power and politics. As Foucault has taught us, there is no truth that is not a function of power. There is no right answer devoid of human errors. A system of education or lessons in moral philosophy will effective only in so far as it is deemed legitimate. Here your proposal of civic courses runs into some serious troubles.

        Take for example the line where you say “It should teach them that lying is not okay – not because Allah will give you “gunah”, but because it is morally wrong.” For this sentence to work you need a system of morality that can prescribe “right” and “wrong” based on some authority other than that of god, religion, or tradition. What that authority should be? What should be the basis of its legitimation? People like Sam Harris [http://www.samharris.org/the-moral-landscape] has argued that moral values are objective and can be determined through “science.” However, he has come under wide spread criticisms from many moral philosophers. But even if we accept Harris’ argument, there remains the task of challenging the traditional moral authority and replacing with new scientific moral authority. Such a task necessarily involves power struggles and political contestations. To replace Allah with science as the moral authority will not be easy, to say the least. And this will be great challenge in designing the curriculum for your proposed civic courses.

        In the sentence that I quoted above there is an assumption that a system of morality based on god, religion, or tradition will not be able to solve the questions of rape or gender oppression. But why should that be? Many 19th and 20th century reformers have sought progressive social changes within the framework of religious and traditional authority. Currently, some interesting works are being done by the likes of Kwame Anthony Appiah who is challenging honor killing Not by denouncing religion, tradition, or even the idea of honor but by reinterpreting these ideas to argue that protecting women’s lives and treating them equally are honorable and right thing to do by god. [http://appiah.net/books/the-honor-code] Or you can look at works of Azizah al-Hibri, who is advocating women’s rights and gender equality within the framework of Sharia Law. So the point here is that its possible to fight for egalitarian principles without dismissing the moral authority of God, religion, or tradition.

        All that is to say, designing a civic course or course in moral standards is not a simple task and it will involve working through various political and philosophical challenges.

        You have said that “we” will design the course. How will that “we” be determined? Through democratic elections? Or, on the basis educational qualifications? Or, on the basis of some expert knowledge? Or, on the basis of social status? The NGO culture has been functioning on the condescending assumption that they can “teach” the poor, the underclasses the proper way to live and function in the modern world. Such approaches may be valid for micro-credit lending or even sanitation. However, for rape it may not be valid. Rape is prevalent not only among the poor or uneducated but also among the most educated and urbane circles. No amount of education, wealth, or social status ensures guarantees against rape. So who has the right values and who has the moral authority to teach remains an open question.

        My apologies for such a lengthy and pedantic response. However, I was troubled by certain assumptions and tendencies in your article, regardless of its good intention. I am challenging them not to undercut your argument but to bring out these complexities that we need to consider as we think about reforms and social transformations. Being a student of political philosophy, I can not help but to engage with these questions philosophically and politically. I hope that my contribution has done more than to annoy you. I hope we can continue to think through these complexities in search of concrete actions and programs of social transformations.


      2. The reply bellow was written in a hurry and full of typos and grammatical mistakes. Please accept my apologies in advance. Just wanted to point out one Big mistake. The second sentence of the second paragraph is missing a “not” between “is” and “outside”. Without the not the sentence does not make sense.

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