Stop this Descent

by Zahur Ahmed for AlalODulal

Feedback’s quintessential song for Pohela Boishak, the first day of a Bengali New Year,  “Melay Jaire” has a line on the third stranza, “বখাটে ছেলের ভিড়ে ললনাদের রেহাই নাই — the crowd of ruffians won’t spare the girls”. The lyricist Maqsoodul Haque had a deep insight into our tradition, culture and attitude. What might have been overlooked as a humorous innuendo has become a sad reality during this year’s Bengali New Year celebrations, as a number of women fell victims to horrid gang assaults on broad day light amid the thousands enjoying the festivities.

With men trying to forcefully disrobe women in public, we must be precipitating from the brink.

Who were the assailants? How old were the men or boys who did this? What do they do? Are they students of the campus or visitors? Was this a spur of the moment attack or they ganged up and planned to do this? How did they think that they would get away with this? Are they actually going to get away with this?

According to Liton Nandi, who broke his hand fighting these hyenas to rescue the victims, there were a few groups of 10–15 targeting one girl at a time. The mayhem went for an hour and a half. The attackers did not spare older women –– a mother with a child and her husband or girls with male companions. The police were nearby, did not get the reinforcement for an hour, the crowd and on lookers were not forthcoming to rescue the girls. The proctor of the university “The gates were supposed to be locked around there. What could I have done?”

The Police Commissioner has been reported to have denied that any such incident took place. “Our force present there charged batons and dispersed the students. We still do not know the identity of the female student and no one registered any complaint with us, but we are trying to find out the student. The police were scrutinising footage of the CCTV cameras installed in the campus area. It would take us some time since the recorded footage is around 48 hours long.”

How did young (or all age) male come to this? They must have thought if they attacked in packs they would unlikely to be identified and be caught. Plus who would dare to fight an assaulting mob. Specially when the society anyway tolerates the abuse of its women –– on public transports, in households, in schools and colleges, in shopping malls, on the streets. So these vile groups of male must be wondering now, what is the fuss? If it has been a fair game to tease and torment girls in this society for eons, we were merely helping it to its next natural progression, only to keep up with the time!

The youth is repressed and deprived in our society, without emotional and sexual outlets. An excuse we often hear. Then, this must be the consequence –– an inevitable moral and social erosion. As we have let it, and condoned it. A victim of rape, as the victims of rapes all around the planet, finds the legal proceedings stacked against her. She, the victim, has to go through arduous procedures to prove the “alleged rape or assault”. In most situations she probably does not report it. If and only after she or her family or friends summon enough courage to face the unpleasant situation thrown at them – by the society, by the administration, and needless to mention by the aggressor and his/their patrons, do they file a case.

If the incident is proven, even if the accused is (mildly) punished, what about the victim? Do we spare a thought for her? There are volumes of studies on terrible effect on victims of sexual assaults. From these traumas – some never recover, never get their mental stability back, some take their own lives. The victims would never be able to rub off social stigma. She is inerasably branded. Her loved ones scold her – we told you, you should not have gone there.

As it has been for centuries our society always put the blame on the victim. Why did the girls went there, why was she waring that, why was she alone at that hour. But what hope do we have, when we know that there are sexual predators lurk within families and among close friends –– our homes are unsafe, roads are unsafe, public transports are unsafe.

Yes, it’s happening all around the world, including the most progressive and law abiding places. It is happening in India which, I thought, had better attitude towards women – at least they did in the cities which I had lived about two decades ago. At least there has been forceful, somewhat effective outrage there. They had changed the law, pursued rapid trial and punishment of the culprits – even the PM had issued statements. Would this prevent future incidents, change their society? May be not. But a precedent is set. The state will enforce, even amend its legal apparatus to protect the victims. Of course, the country and the diverse society embedded in it have to go a long way before they can claim that women are safe. It is a complex, complicated and challenging job. But they have acted to start the process.

What have we done? So far, after 48 hours of the event, social media is outraged. A few national dailies have carried the news, the student union hold a protest in the campus. No doubt there would be some OP-EDs (just as this one). Is that it? One may wonder. Where are the mass protests? Where are the campaigns? Where are the activists? [At the time this post made live media has reported a number of protests prompting a High Court ruling-]

The recent rape cases in India have opened interesting discussions about what can be done. Central thoughts are: mete out harsh punishment – chemical castration, even death penalty has been proposed (I am, for sure, not proposing any extremes here, but it is worrying if the Police is correct in stating that no one has come forward to report or file a specific case. Is there a sense — among the victims and the community — that it is better for everyone to forget this has ever happened, that justice will be too tough to get?); women to stay out of the harm’s way; positive messaging through role models such as cricketers and film stars.

It is clear that our society desperately needs some urgent measures. We need to communicate to our youth that it is not right to harm women for pleasure. But before that the “men”, “influential men – the head of family, leaders of corporations, community chiefs” have to show the way to youth. Who else should tell these men –– if they are young ––that one day they would most likely to marry someone, a woman (!) and would have daughter(s) of their own who could (god forbid) fall victims of similar or even more gruesome attacks.

However, it is also obvious in the present state of our society, messaging alone will not do. Aftermath of the Delhi rape case proves that society can put effective pressure on the administration for outcomes. We need to bring the perpetrators to face justice quickly. This has been done in our country (e.g. harsh punishment for the acid throwers to stop the spread of the crime during the 80s).

So the civil society, the police, the legal system, the political class what will you do about the men who think women are fair game? What will we do for women to not get violated again and again?

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