Time to take back our place in the public sphere

Shumu Haque:

“Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is
more important than fear.” – Ambrose Red Moon

Recently, we have been hearing about a disturbing trend in public transportation in Dhaka. Along with the hundreds of years old tradition of groping and physical harassment of women in the public area, now there is this trend to embarrass them by ripping or cutting out pieces from their clothes while they take public transports so that once they get out of it, their torn clothing makes them stand out in the crowd and embarrass them by pointing out the obvious flaw in their so-called “modesty” in public.

Why do men do that?

Apart from the usual suspect of repressed and therefore sick and twisted sexuality in societies such as ours, it seems like there is another covert and yet very sinister agenda behind such behavior, to scare women out of the public sphere of any kind.

The only thing for us to do is to not leave our ground.

We shall not be driven out of the public space because it is rightfully ours just as much as it is theirs. In her Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, Susan Brownmiller said,

“[Rape is] nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all
men keep all women in a state of fear.”

I think it is safe to say that the same is true for all kinds of sexual assault that happens to us in public and private every day.

In the end, it is all about the politics of fear to keep us chained forever.

If we give in to the fear of being shamed and ridiculed and start avoiding public places, the patriarchy and misogyny win.

All the major institutionalized religions across the globe have been unified in their desire to limit women’s possibilities by confining them within a very limited area of so-called “freedom” that leaves them with a life slightly dignified than that of the household pets or livestock.

The past two decades have seen an alarming rise of Islamic Fundamentalist social and political views in Bangladesh and as always, it has been the women who are getting the worst out of the deal.

During my trip to Bangladesh in the winter of 2016, I was horrified to hear from my friends and family members about numerous stories of harassment of women that they have witnessed or experienced as they take public transportation to and from work in Dhaka.

Along with the eternal fear of being groped and touched in the vilest manner in the crowded public spaces, the women of Dhaka now have to contend with being spit at for drinking water during Ramadan (Although, Islam is supposed to allow women who are pregnant, going through their period or any other significant illness to abstain from fasting during Ramadan, although they are supposed to make up for those lost days once they are well enough to fast. To say nothing of the non-Muslim women, in a fundamentalist Islamic society they are not even counted as human beings), spit at for putting a Tip or dot on their forehead (This is a traditional part of Bengali women’s make up that is, like anything else to do with Bengali heritage, considered un-Islamic and therefore, condemned by the Islamic fundamentalists), or even wearing saree, the traditional attire for Bengali women for thousands of years.

I was shocked to hear the story of a pregnant woman who was not allowed to drink water in a public bus during a very hot and humid Ramadan day and being told, “No no, you can’t drink water during Ramadan. As for your child, if it’s Allah’s will, it will survive, if it’s not His will, it will die anyway. You can’t use this excuse to not fast.”

There are incidents of being asked to cover their heads as they walk down the streets, and calling out names if they are dressed in anything that can be considered “less than modest” by the religious radicals.

But these recent incidents of cutting pieces of their clothes as the women take crowded public transports is taking it down to quite another level. Apart from the obvious factor of embarrassment involved, the use of sharp objects to cut them in crowded and confined spaces also has the risk of physically injuring the women.

Recently, we have seen a viral post on social media with pictures of a middle-aged man getting caught and beaten up as he cut a piece from the back of a woman’s kameez in a public bus.

While I applaud the courage of the victim of his attack for speaking out and spreading awareness, it angers me to think that animals such as this man can think of committing something so vile openly in a crowded public bus. We must not forget, that ultimately the target of all such attacks is to scare us, the women, away from all public places, until we stop going about our daily life and work and simply sit at home as the sub-humans that such misogynistic ideologies will have us become.

While the increasing number of young women who are fearlessly moving forward to keep their mark in all spectrum of the society in Bangladesh makes me really proud, this simultaneous misogynistic tendency to hold them down and keep them locked up inside their domestic existence makes me increasingly fearful.

The sad reality of the women in Bangladesh remains that they will have to continue their battle to win back their place in the public sphere without any support from the state, legal system, or society.

However, if we let all these misogynistic forces around us control our lives, before long, we will have none of our individual identities or freedoms left. Just as has happened to the women of Afghanistan just in the course of as little as six decades and just what the women of many Arab countries, especially those from Saudi Arabia have been battling against.

Let us be brave in the face of all these obstacles.

Let us speak out against these barbaric attacks against our personal freedom in the public space.

We have just as much right to be anywhere we want, any time we want, be dressed any way we want. This society is ours too and we do not need the permission of anyone else to live our lives to the fullest, to live up to all our potentials and possibilities.

Remember, unless we take back what rightfully belongs to us, no one will hand it over to us, that, sadly is the law of nature as well as the twisted society that we live in.

I would love to end by quoting Gloria Steinem,

“Power can be taken, but not given. The process of the taking is empowerment in itself.”

Shumu Haque has Studied Print and Broadcast Journalism at Humber College, Toronto. She works for a Canadian Not- For Profit Organization and in her spare time, likes to study and write about issued related to the status and rights of women across the globe
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