Jesmin Chowdhury: It’s happened again. I feel the horror and grime in every hair of my body. I feel as if filthy creatures are crawling all over me. I stand under the shower for a long time as my own warm tears, mingled with the tepid water, wash my once again dirtied body. I go for a walk but flinch at every sound, every movement in every bush, even at the touch of the cold wind on my cheeks. I bitterly wail inside as I offer a forced smile at a stranger. I come home but can’t sit still.
I keep reading the painful details again and again- yet another young girl has been brutally raped and murdered in Bangladesh. I stare at her innocent face beaming with a mischievous smile; I minutely read every single article on social medial; I sadistically absorb every bit of the anguish the news offers; my eyes burn with tears of anger and frustration but I don’t even try to take them off. I can’t eat. I can’t answer phone calls. I can’t sleep. I write an email to the Bangladeshi prime minister’s office, my fingers tapping on the keyboard unwillingly getting on with the futile act.
Since I have heard about what happened to Shohagi Jahan Tonu, I have flinched even at the gentle touch of my loving husband unable to accept intimacy of any sort. You would be right if you thought I was abnormal. I have never been normal. I wasn’t brought up to be normal.
I have asked myself why a girl being raped thousands of miles away is affecting me so much. It’s not that rare. Rape, gang rape, child rape happens all around the world littering the papers every day. Then why am I feeling like this? Is it sympathy or empathy? Am I a great human being capable of crying for others? Or am I a self-centered person whose own pains surface on hearing another’s misery? The answer came- it is because I can’t help identifying myself with Tonu.
Every time I read about a rape, I feel raped myself. Every time I see the picture of a dead girl with black eyes and blood- stained clothes, I visualize myself in a similar situation. While I live an apparently safe and secure life, I can tell you I have been raped many times, and I know I will be raped many more times till I die.
As I morbidly gaze at the picture of the beautiful Tonu, I go back years down the memory lane when I was about the same age. I see the adolescent me fooling around with other girls at school, sporting two pony tails adorned with mismatched laces. We were so naïve and yet so curious! So unaware of ourselves, so indifferent to the meaning of the changes happening in our body and mind.
Our girls-only school campus located in the centre of the town, before it went through the metamorphosis brought about by the high-rise market culture, was very picturesque indeed. Tall shirish trees formed canopies of light and shade here and there. Our first floor classroom window overlooked a humongous pond at the back of the school covered with beautiful water hyacinth. We were fond of sitting by the window during tiffin time looking out at the floating green mass dotted with the innumerable purple flowers. But one autumn afternoon our beautiful purple heaven outside the window got corrupted. Attracted by an excited shriek, I rushed to the window only to encounter the most unexpected sight to say the least. Just below the window, right there under a tall shirish tree, stood a man holding up his lungi with one hand and shaking his erected manhood at us with the other hand. I stood there dumbfounded, unable to move as some of my classmates rolled with laughter. I guess I was more inexperienced than they were. Or could I have been more experienced than them? I didn’t know how to react to this as it was the first time I was looking at, or being forced to look at, a male genital. I had seen naked little boys before but it had meant nothing whereas this sight put me totally ill at ease. I couldn’t pay attention in lessons for the rest of the day. I couldn’t speak to my classmates on the bus on the way back home. I didn’t go to play badminton with my friends that evening. I didn’t even say my prayers. My mother asked if I was Ok but I didn’t feel like speaking to her. I had already learnt she was incapable of understanding the difficulties her growing daughter faced on a regular basis, nor did she have any power to change anything in this in this filthy world. As I cried myself to sleep that night I felt angry, humiliated, and helpless once again. There was no one I could share this with, no one I could believe would understand. That day we were mass raped, or reverse gang raped if you like, a gang of young girls gesture-raped by a single dirty-minded man.
Although I have said this is the first time I had seen a male genital, this was not the first time I felt I had been raped. In primary school in class one our friendly math teacher, a man in Jinnah toupee and black-dyed beard, paid inappropriate attention to the girls, especially to the pretty ones. He would pick a girl every day and caress her inappropriately, sitting her on his lap for the whole lesson. The rest of us knew what was going on and dreaded our turn. One day when I refused to go to school, which was my repeated act of defense mechanism, my mother asked why. I told her that my math teacher was a bad man. My mother wanted to know what he did that was so bad as to make me not want to go to school. I so badly wanted to tell her of the horrific experience my friends and I had to go through on a regular basis, but words failed me. I didn’t know what to say, let alone how to say it. The extensive effort of trying to say something sensible rendered me more unable to do so, and I blurted out, ‘He pees on our slates.’ Immediately I received a tight slap on my cheek, my defense mechanism failing miserably once again. My mother told me to stop telling stupid lies about teachers and forced me to go to school. And the horror went on.
I can’t remember if we girls talked about this at school, but there was an understanding among us that we had to try to protect each other, comfort each other though most of the time we didn’t know what to do but offer a fruit or a candy to the victim after she was released from the teacher’s loving attention. So the mass rape, rape of a bunch of little girls by a single man who was meant to be their protector, went on till we got promoted to class two, to our greatest relief, and he was no longer our teacher.
To say the least, the horror returned in my life a few years later when my father arranged for a private tutor to help me with my scholarship exam preparations. Every drop of the blood in my body curdled as I tried with all my might to keep my eyes away from the Jinnah toupee and black-dyed beard across the table, only two feet away from me. I can never put into words how humiliated and helpless I felt when his mocking words reached my frozen ears, ‘Remember the fun we all had in class one?’
He must have left several more insinuating words and smiles in the air which I didn’t hear or see as I was busy tossing and turning in my mind the innumerable ‘fun’ incidents that had taken place in my life between when I was in class one and then, perpetrated by the innumerable people around me- the servant who was meant to be looking after me while my sisters wanted to study undisturbed, the cousin who was waiting for a cup of tea being made by another cousin he was courting, the ‘uncle’ who had just finished his prayers and needed a fun break before he started reading the Quran, the doctor who was supposed to be doing a check-up for a urine infection; the horrific events passed over my mind’s eye like the slides of a viewmaster and I found myself unable to breathe, charged with a mixed feeling of anger and anguish.
Finally, I heaved a sigh of relief when the asar azaan from a distant mosque came floating in the evening breeze and he got up and went outside to perform wadu. I went straight to my father, looked him in the eye, and told him I could prepare for the exam without the help of a private tutor. There must have been something in my voice which gave away the story because he didn’t ask me any question, and after the prayer was over, I saw a stooping Jinnah cap go down the hill disappearing forever among the yellowing trees.
With him he took the weak little girl in me who didn’t know what to do or what to say. It was the first time I was able to relate to someone a humiliating experience dished out to me by a man without having to say anything. I wasn’t going to take it ever again; not quietly, not without a fight anyway. I wasn’t going to feel ashamed or blame myself ever again for what had been done to me. I was a survivor who was going to take care of not only herself but others too. And this meant a life of battles ahead of me.
Once I found myself beating up a rickshaw puller for trying to touch me inappropriately while offering a rain-cover. Blind with rage, I beat him with my sandal as a curious crowd of men looked on, some of them begging me to let him go saying I had done enough. This made me even madder and turning around I asked, ‘Why do you have so much sympathy for him? Do you identify yourselves with him?’ My question was answered with nothing but consenting silence. In a country where people beat pickpockets black and blue, no one from the crowd came forward to find out what had happened. They tried neither to help, nor to stop me. Evidently, they all knew what had happened without my having to say anything.
For me, the wheel had turned; I felt as if I singlehandedly beat up a crowd of abusive men.But I myself was short of words when my six year old son, who had seen me fighting to protect rickshaw pullers in the past, asked me why I had beat up the poor rickshaw puller so mercilessly on this occasion. I felt ashamed that he had to experience this; I was ashamed that I couldn’t control myself, or didn’t know a better way of handling this. But I was not ashamed of myself for what he had tried to do to me.
Another time I swung a shopping bag containing a three kg Dano tin to hit on the head of a man who was unnecessarily pressing his body against mine in a crowd. The blow didn’t kill him but threw him on the floor. He somehow managed to pull himself up and staggered off without saying a word. He knew he deserved it. As usual, the crowd around me did nothing; said nothing. Everyone knew what had happened, and went their own way quietly.
I have fought and won many battles since then, and yet I can’t rest in peace knowing that a war still rages out there where women get raped and killed while going about their businesses; little children get abused, and don’t know how to tell someone or if it is safe to tell someone. I wait for the day when we will be able to talk about these issues freely, when girls will be taught to fight back rather than to cover themselves up. Till then I will continue to feel raped every now and then because I am another Tonu myself who has been lucky enough to manage to survive.