In Hasan Azizul Huq's remarkable fiction 'Sabitri Upakhyan' (the tale of Sabitri), the author painstakingly recreates the experience of a young girl who was abducted by a gang of three. After gang-raping her, they hide her away and then move her from village to village, finding shelter with influential local people. They too gleefully join in assaulting her, killing little by little every bit of her desire to live. Finally, as the news reaches the police, the three rapists are arrested and put on the dock. Ironically, not just the rapists but Sabitri too are put on trial. Everyone has a theory of why she was raped, usually finding fault with her instead of holding rapists accountable for their horrific violence against her. Her story spreads far and wide, and people who have never seen her compose a song. Each time they chant the song, the rape scene is enacted all over again, sending male testosterone level through the roof.

'Sabitri Upakhyan' is based on a true story that happened during the British period nearly a hundred years ago. In all these years, our penchant for blaming the victim - victimizing the victim of sexual assaults - remains largely unchanged. We are more curious about the victim, searching for her faults, often giving the criminals a pass. The most recent example is that of a Dhaka film actress, who has publicly accused Nasir Uddin, President of Uttara Boat Club, an exclusive hideout for male elites of the city, of trying to rape her. He was aided by Omi, a go-between. The two along with four possible accomplices have been arrested. Shockingly, instead of investigating the two thugs and their profligate character, the focus of Bangla media and of those on the internet has almost exclusively been the actress. Thanks to the vicious sleuthing of our diligent investigative journos, we now know every bit of her past. Particularly vicious are those on Facebook and YouTube, many of them running their one-man TV channels. 'Oh, this is a terrible woman, a femme fatal, who lures men to move up the ladder. She deserves what she got.' Frothing at the mouth, they pronounce the verdict, guilty, serving as jury, judge, and executioner, all at the same time.

In our part of the world, women have always been treated as chattel, and rape has been its naturalized consequence. After the Babri Mosque violence in India, Bangladesh was hit by a series of attacks on the Hindu minority, women being a prime target. When the issue was raised in Bangladesh parliament, a ruling party MP - most likely a state minister - flatly denied any such occurrences. 'If something like this happened, I would be the first to try my luck,' he said amidst uproarious laughter from his male colleagues.

The truth is, no matter how exulting are our poems written about women, or our passionate dedication to goddesses, we treat women like dirt. Just think of the treatment meted out to rape victims of the liberation war in 1971. Most families refused to take them back and the State was forced to organize special shelters for them. We felt so ashamed of the children that they bore that many of them were 'exported' under official patronage to Western countries.

Watching women's public humiliation, for some, is a deeply satisfying experience. A few years ago, during the New Year's celebration at Dhaka University, a young woman was caught in a melee. Everyone that was around her lunged at her, hoping to get a piece of the poor girl's bare flesh. A video posted on the web of the incident is still available. I do not recommend watching the content but I would not be surprised if you find someone you know.

Rape and sexual assault against women is a serious criminal offence, and we have tough laws on the book to deal with it. Yet, much of our efforts are expended finding fault with the women and thus excusing the perpetrators. What was she doing so late at night? Did you see how short her skirt was? Imagine, she was without a body cover! When a woman was recently gang-raped on a bus in Tangail, many people questioned, what business did she have to travel on a bus unaccompanied? The tendency to gloss over men's sexual advances and the violence that often results is even more commonplace. 'Well, boys will be boys,' is a refrain we have heard so many times. This gamely attitude towards women is further heightened by our media's tendency to glamourize women's bodies and invisibilize any responsibility over violence by men.

As the sexual assault on women is normalized, women find themselves unwilling or unable to seek legal redress. The police look upon such allegations suspiciously, the media treats them as entertainment, and much of the society finds fault with the victim. Consequently, a crime like rape remains hidden and thus unpunished. The truth is - women (like all human beings) - do not have to explain or justify how they look, where they go or what they do with their bodies. They have the power to make choices about their bodies, mobility and lives. Men and other perpetrators however do not have the right to rape, harass or sexually abuse. This violence is not acceptable and our society should be ashamed of rapists, not women practicing their basic rights to bodily autonomy.

When will the situation change? It is unlikely that overt reliance on traditional law will yield results. Hoping for men to understand and change is also a distant dream. Our media is complicit and thus cannot be expected to take a bold stand. In such a situation, women themselves will have to step up. In countries around the world, we have seen powerful men tumble after brave women challenge the old narrative and demand justice. As did the film actress in Dhaka. She knew she would be blamed by men and the media, and yet she refused to yield.

If you think rape is a crime and not a sport favored by men, stand by her.

30 June 2021, New York

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