"Being a woman is a terribly difficult task, since it consists principally in dealing with men," says Joseph Conrad. Conrad has thus theorized about women's vulnerability to suffering in today's society and hinted at their enemies at large. It hardly matters if you agree with the good novelist, but it has become a reality, a harsh reality of life. The position of women throughout the world is more or less fragile. From the cradle to the grave, they are subject to myriad problems, and vulnerable to numerous physical and psychological exploitations. Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm has rightly remarked: "The emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says, "It's a girl". With the rise of human rights awareness and feminist movements, the overall condition of women is gradually improving. That is much below the expectation line especially in countries like Bangladesh.
The position of women in Bangladesh is doubly fragile, first, for being a woman and second, for being a Bangladeshi woman. The condition of the women from the lower social stratum is far worse. Like the sitting ducks, they are easy targets for the male hunters. The shattering blow to their womanhood first falls down upon them in the guise of dowry. Although a penal offence, the dowry system is rampant in the rural Bangladesh. Daughters are liabilities to the family while the sons are assets. The parents feel relieved of their liabilities by marrying them off for dowry in cash or kind. The full payment of this dowry sometimes takes longer time or the venal husbands grow greedier for more. Both cases lead to tortures on the wives that range from physical tortures to homicide. The women grin and bear it. They cannot protest because they have to live with their tormentors under the same roof. The US journalist Evelyn Cunningham precisely puts it: "Women are the only oppressed group in our society that lives in intimate association with their oppressors.
The enmity towards women is also seen in what we call eve teasing. Lots of girls and women every year fall prey to eve teasing or sexual harassment and many of them die by it. Who could forget the Faridpur housewife- Chapa Rani Bhowmik, and the Bogra- girl Rupali Rani, who had been the worst victims of eve-teasing in 2010? Those killings had caused quite a stir across the country, but finally died down as usual with the passage of time. The teases/stalkers kept carrying on their operation by greater or lesser degrees and the bereft sufferers would grin and bear it in the forlorn hope that one day they would get the justice. However, the hope does not come true. Eve teasing always remains a real teaser of the day.
The fatwa-trial is a heinous manifestation of women oppression in the country. It is violence against women in a demonic way. Although it is detrimental to both the sexes, in our context it is more hostile towards the women. This horrific torture-mode meted out to women by the pathological quasi-religious fanatics has been a concomitant of other domestic, social, ethnic, violence against Bangladeshi women. The doctrinaire fatwa- jury-men are tougher on the women. Most of the victims of fatwa-trial in Bangladesh are women. Maybe it is ingrained in the mind of the misogynist adjudicators that the first human sin was committed by a woman. So at their hands, the women are more sinned against than sinning.
Hena Akhter of Shariatpur was a luckless victim of what can be called fatwa-trial in Bangladesh. She was condemned to a hundred and one lashes by a fatwa-court, and on execution succumbed to it. She died or in other words, she was whipped to death. We could not help thinking what age we were in! You just close your eyes and imagine. In broad daylight, in a crowded locality, a mighty man was cracking his whip on a minor-girl called Hena like the imaginary demons torturing the sinners in Hell. The girl was shouting out in pain. But nobody came to her aid, because she was under a sentence passed by a fatwa-court. An absolute human being fell prey to a pack of wolves in human shape.
How long can flesh and blood endure these tortures? The persecuted women sometimes give up completely, and seek refuge in suicide. There are numberless suicide incidents resulting from torture. When the burden of torture becomes unbearably heavy, the victims kill themselves by hanging with their sari around their neck or by taking poison. Following things are the routine procedures. The forensic analysis of the dead bodies testifies to the suicide, and they are laid to eternal rest. Although their men are the root cause for their abnormal death, the long arm of law cannot touch even a hair of their head. The men however, shed crocodile tears to the deceased's near ones, but do not forget to wear the wedding crown once again even before the funeral rites are properly observed. This time the rate of dowry is lower than before. However, it is there. They are males and therefore the 'golden rings', which are better even if curved. This is the popular belief to the compatriots where are rooted the seeds of all forms of women exploitations. The society is always forgiving of men's behaviour towards women and therefore the 'curved rings' tend to gain the upper hand. The author Raine Eisler agrees: "For the most recorded history?men's violence against wives was explicitly or implicitly condoned."
Our long-borne attitude towards women is the main reason for women persecution in Bangladesh. Ours is a male-dominated society where women are subordinated to family interests. They are the proverbial 'necessary evils'. Something profoundly immoral and wicked, but something we cannot go without! Our societies, our cultures, and our religions have suo motu prescribed their province by which is determined their social position. The families still feel encumbered with female children and fortified with male ones. The girls are subject to lesser care while the boys enjoy preferential treatment. The head of the fish hardly goes to the daughter's plate. The load of the marriageable daughters is the heaviest load on the father's shoulder. He is the most unfortunate man whose daughter's hand is not asked for. If the stalkers take advantage of this vulnerability of the women's social position, how can we stop them by administering the law alone?
Despite our women's being the prime minister or the opposition leader or the speaker of the parliament, the total scenario has not changed expectedly. Women are still the most vulnerable creatures in the society. They are the easiest tease-hunt, and all too easily obtainable sex objects. They are the weaker sex. So, the stronger ones tend to tease them. Stalk them. They do this primarily for fun and flirtation. If allowed they forget to mind their p's and q's, and leap over the boundaries of decency. And if not allowed, the fun turns into irresistible anger that arouses the beast in them, which unleashes its primordial impulses upon the innocent prey. The angry beast may reach the point of killing them.
So, to keep the beasts in fetter, our old and rusty attitudes towards women ought to be changed hook, line, and sinker. Women are the right equals of their male counterparts. We should shrug off all the stereotype views of women as inferior beings. This could be achieved through a wholesale awakening. And the process should begin at home. Every home should be a fortified abode for the women. We should equally value the male and female members of the family, and equitably treat our mothers, sisters, daughters and the corresponding in-laws. This is especially applicable to the female guardians of the family.
Some, however, suggest that the women should stay away from the stalkers, and go back to the zenana for seclusion. They may come out occasionally with burka or niqab or hijab or the like. Screening women from men or strangers by means of clothes sounds absolutely preposterous in the highly progressive world of the 21st century, especially in a secular-democratic country like Bangladesh. Besides, this conditional security measure is antithetical to human rights and sartorial liberty and would sure lead the women to a retrogressive return-journey towards the dark Middle Ages. What the women will do, what they will wear and how they will interact with men, should not be guided only by scriptural orders. They should also be left to their own sweet choices and be guided by good reasons and practicality. Women's right to clothing has also been endorsed by a court order. Besides, being unveiled does not necessarily mean female seduction of their male counterpart and justify eve teasing. If it does, that is not a civilized society.
We believe, we are in a civilized society. Women in Bangladesh shall enjoy equal rights and liberty with men as enshrined in the highest law of the land-the Constitution. As per the law of the land and civil codes of conduct, women in Bangladesh must be protected against all sorts of persecution. New laws should be made and enforced to try the offenders. Social and cultural movements for attitudinal change with regard to gender relations should go alongside the enforcement of stringent legal measures. A harmonious development of rule of law and gender equality campaign can cure the crux of the matter.
Dr Rashid Askari writes fiction and columns and teaches English literature at Kushtia Islamic University.
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