Even in the midst of a pandemic that still provides fertile ground for some nefarious theories to abound regarding the origins of Covid-19, what was most disturbing to me as a Bangladeshi this week was the account of a female returnee migrant from Saudi Arabia, who suffered unspeakable torture and abuse during her time there. Her plight is far from over though, having made it back home. You see, this 32-year-old woman originally from Brahmanbaria, instead of making her way home to the family she would left behind, handed herself over to airport security. The reason being she had brought back with her another person, a 6-month-old-son. The father is her abuser, who raped her and when she became pregnant, had her sent to jail. That is where the son was born.
Of course no Bangladeshi can ever miss the horrific historic parallel. And I wish I could say to you that the appalling fate of the woman from Brahmanbaria was a one-off, an isolated incident. The fact is that we have heard of all kinds of deplorable stories from those among the hordes of women forced to return in desperation, after having left these shores under a G-to-G (between the two governments) agreement in 2015 that paved the way for Bangladeshi women to go and try their luck in the Holy Land, under the kingdom’s guest worker program. Even just a year back, you couldn’t help but notice how many of these women were actually coming back dead.
Now what is noticeable to observers is the increasing number of women forced to deal with the same fate as our unfortunate Brahmanbaria woman, whose name is protected with good reason. Brac, the development organisation, have alone documented 12 such cases through their migration program. Almost all of them paint the same picture: leaving for the Middle East full of hopes and dreams, before their lives turn into nightmares. Constant abuse and torture, including rape, instead of respectable work. Typically no freedom of movement. The most galling point of all: if they became pregnant, the abuser would wash their hands of the case by having them thrown into jail, or onto the street. From where if they are lucky, they may make it to a deportation centre.
This is nothing short of modern day slavery, and we cannot hesitate to let Riyadh know. If they act to try and downplay it, let them, but Dhaka must fulfil its obligations to its own citizens. It is absolutely unacceptable that 50 years after Liberation, Bangladeshi women have to deal with the same nightmarish scenario that many women bore as the price of independence. The unspeakable barbarism of a society where the powerful – almost always the abuser is a household patriarch, or senior male member- deem it fit to act in such a manner towards those who are its weakest and most marginalised –female migrant labour - simply because they can, cannot be ignored. But even more so, questions must be raised as to whether the brave and hardworking women chancing their luck each year are actually given an adequate sense of the risks they face from our side.