A few dos and don’ts in the movement against sexual assault

Copyright: Awrup Sanyal
Copyright: Awrup Sanyal

By Nadine Shaanta Murshid 

UNPRECEDENTED levels of outrage and activism surround the Pahela Baishakh sexual assault; we have finally reached critical mass: people are out on the streets and those who are not, are on social media fighting many a battle with individuals who still resort to victim blaming and slut shaming. These are oft-used tactics to further subjugate women and take agency away from people who fight for the rights of women subject to sexual assault and rape. That the synchronised bomb-attack style sexual assault on multiple women have enraged so many people comes as a surprise in a nation where topics of sex and sexual assault have remained taboo, despite extremely high rates of sexual violence against women. This is a welcome change. So while we are at it, here are a few things we should add on to the list:

1.    We need to demand the criminalisation of marital rape. By not criminalising marital rape we allow violence against all women to thrive. The system, if you will, sends the message that women can be touched without consent. If you can touch your wife without consent, you can touch anyone without consent, the message reads. We need to change that message. This is particularly important given that most violence against women are committed not by strangers (even though, as we can see, that happens too) but by people who are known to them, including men they’re married to.

2.    We need to demand the inclusion of sex education courses in schools and universities. For children and for adults who haven’t had sex education. Part of that education is to demystify sex so that people don’t go to such lengths to quench their curiosity. It’s not unexpected that young men and women will be curious about their bodies and the bodies of others. But that doesn’t allow them to touch someone else without consent. This message has to be taught and taught again till it becomes part of who we are.

3.    Women (and others who are marginalised) need to stand up for themselves. And men and other women need to encourage and support them when they do. For every person that was sexually assaulted on Pahela Baishakh there are hundreds and thousands of others who have been sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. We need to create a culture where people can stop excusing sexual assault as “accidents” or “mistakes” or whatever else that people use to excuse such vile behaviour.  Even when the perpetrator is a relative or a family friend. They need to cut ties with them, and they need to be outed, even if it means they’re losing every friend they thought they had.

4.    If you are being violated, please know, you don’t deserve it. No matter what. And every time someone touches you without your consent, you are being violated. And nobody deserves that. Just because you are not bearing physical scars and bruises does not mean it did not happen to you.

And a few things to be mindful of:

1.    Language. The language that we use to talk about rape, starting with that first report about Liton Nandi saving the “honour” of a woman, needs to change. A woman’s honour is not dependent on whether she is raped or sexually assaulted. Her honour doesn’t disappear because other people have chosen to assault her. Her honour is not what is at stake when she is assaulted. Her safety is. Her physical and mental health is. Her sense of control is. Her sense of trust is. But never her honour. Till we stop speaking about sexual assault in the same breath as shame and stigma, violence against women will remain a tool to control and assert power over them.

2.    Eve-teasing. What is that? The poster of four men with “say no to eve-teasing” that made the social network rounds is not helping anyone. Great job in making men a part of the movement, that’s a step in the right direction towards enhancing gender equality. But when you call it ‘eve-teasing’ – a word that marginalises the very essence of the problem of sexual assault and rape – you are taking away from all the work that has been done to change that language.

3.    Protesting against sexual assault is a great first step towards change; however, justice does not equal to cries for more violence. We need to be cognizant of the fact that the calls for castration and dehumanisation of men won’t change the problem that we have today.  (And the parallels that are being drawn between rapists and animals don’t work either. Don’t do it. Dogs don’t rape. Humans do.)

4.    Restorative justice as a way forward. Yes, even in such cases where heinous crimes were committed. If it worked with war criminals in Rwanda (and it did) it will work with rapists in Bangladesh. We need to give that a shot. If the ultimate goal is to ensure that sexual assaults and rape don’t take place, people need to be on board with the idea that sexual assault affects people negatively in many ways and people who assault need to see the effect that their actions have on other people. For every man (and woman) who said they were asking for it, for every man (and woman) who justified the sexual assault on women because of what they were wearing or how they were wearing it, I believe that they actually believe that. That belief system needs to be broken. They need to see that these women were not asking for it, that just like they have the right to wear whatever they want, women have that right too. They need to be taught how to see women as human beings and not objects of desire or marriage. That is a lot of work. And, I repeat, castrating men won’t do it. Mindsets need to change. Not body parts.

5.    What was the protest with the shari-churi (sari and bangles) about? To cite my cousin Rubaiya of Obhoyaronno, to signify weakness? Unless the idea was to show that the shari and the churi are symbols of strength, you had no business using those symbols at the protest against police insensitivity and inaction. That takes away from the strength that you’ve garnered in making these protests a reality. You have strength in numbers, you have strength as individuals, and you have implicit strength in your cause. Please don’t derail from the larger objective of making the world safer for women, the larger cause of inculcating respect for women, erasing the notion that women are inferior to men. By associating women with saris and bangles (only) you are inadvertently reducing women to those traditionally feminine symbols that depict only a certain kind of women, indicating that a particular type of women need to be protected, elevated. This notion that only certain kinds of women deserve respect is against the very grain of the movement that you have started.

The writer is Assistant Professor, School of Social Work, University at Buffalo. 

[Copyright The Daily Star: http://www.thedailystar.net/op-ed/few-dos-and-donts-the-movement-against-sexual-assault-78534%5D

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