Sexual harassment and our morals police

by Hana Shams Ahmed.

Published in the Daily Star on 25 February 2010.

This piece discusses paternalistic hypocrisies of our society in the wake of a recent Bangla movie.

“A single woman is like molasses, ants will follow her wherever she is kept.”

– A lecherous landlord (the character played by Abul Hayat in the film Third Person Singular Number)

Nick Henderson

AN interesting debate popped up around Mostafa Sarwar Farooki’s film “Third Person Singular Number” when it was released late last year. It began in a Bangla newspaper and poured onto the English blog Unheard Voices. The newspaper reported that students of a private university had held a human chain to protest obscenity in the film — among others, the discussion centred around the concept of “living together” not being acceptable in our society, a scene showing someone purchasing a contraceptive device, and questions about the “character” of the film’s protagonist Tisha because she was living with a man she was not married to.

The main focus of the film was the portrayal of a woman who is single partly because of circumstances and partly so by her own choice. A “victim” because when her partner Munna (Mosharraf Karim) is put behind bars she is no longer wanted by his father’s family because she is not wedded to Munna and also can’t get back to her mother who is married to someone other than her father, which had earlier led to the alienation between mother and daughter.

She then makes a choice to be a strong woman and not break down in the face of these circumstances, and also not be afraid to confront those who sexually objectify her because of her single status. The plot ultimately shows that the single woman has to take help from other men to establish herself in society. She goes to live from one place to another, and after several failed attempts and tired of lecherous landlords wanting to only rent their apartment to her in exchange for sexual favours, she ends up taking help from Topu (her childhood sweetheart) to rent a luxurious apartment for herself. Also after several failed attempts to find a job without running into more lewd employers, she ends up taking help from her brother’s contacts (all men) to get a job. The film shows that no powerful position in urban Dhaka’s corporate world is occupied by a woman.

All the other notable women in the film — Tisha’s friend, who suspects her husband will sleep with Tisha if she is allowed to stay in their house, her female cousin who is a housewife and controlled by her mother-in-law, and the mother-in-law of her cousin who labels Tisha a bad woman because she does not have a husband — are all negative and weak characters.

Despite all the feministic expectations from Tisha’s character, she is ultimately shown to seek male protection, not independence.

But it was refreshing to see Farooki’s attempt to portray alternative lifestyles and a strong female protagonist that is not afraid to throw away her chastity belt to be accepted by society. Farooki does not judge Tisha with all her ‘mistakes/faults’ and shows the reality of a non-conformist woman in a society, which demands her conformity from all directions. And the discussion and the critique in the end seemed to come from those very conformist forces.

And all this critique is about a character in a film! What are all these men and women on their moral high horses afraid of? That it is wrong for a responsible filmmaker to endorse a single woman to go out by herself in the middle of the night and articulate her freedom to express her interest in someone sexually? Why is there such a reaction to such a seemingly innocuous plot, talking about a woman’s freedom by self-appointed morals police?

A few days ago I ran across a story in The Daily Star about a 15-year-old girl who after divorcing her abusive husband was now struggling for her life in a hospital. Her enraged ex-husband had stabbed and tried to kill her in broad daylight. There was however no human chains by anyone seeking justice for this poor teenager. It seems there are two separate groups when it comes to raising voice about social issues, and those who demand sanctimonious moral standards invariably never talk about ending violence against women.

How long is it going to take to change this system that forces a girl like Beli to get married at the age of 13 and what made her decide to get divorced at 15? The age at which Beli should have come home with her SSC certificates, what made her come home with a divorce certificate?

In May last year the High Court finally issued a set of guidelines to ban sexual abuse and harassment of women, girls, and children at their workplaces, educational institutions, and other public places. Years of campaigning, which started after a series of rapes carried out by a ruling party cadre in Jahangirnagar University in 1998, finally led to this ruling. Of course, in the process, a countless number of girls had to go through the fear and humiliation of being sexually harassed by their teachers, bosses, colleagues, employees, classmates, and any random person they came across in any random public place.

The guidelines that are there now are meant to work as an interim measure until new laws can be passed in the parliament. It gives a directive to concerned authorities to form a five-member harassment complaint committee headed by women at every workplace and institution to investigate allegations of any ‘mental, physical, or sexual harassment’ and recommend to the authorities for taking action against the accused persons. But in reality such a judgment may only prove to be a cosmetic remedy at most. Academic institutions and workplaces will be able to prove how gender sensitive they are by showing their “sexual harassment trump card.” In a country where women’s characters are judged by what clothes they wear, what is a committee full of possibly these very morals police going to achieve?

Even now when I speak among certain enlightened circles about the Jahangirnagar incidents many make comments like, “so what was that girl doing out all by herself when she knew there was an evening curfew for women” or when discussing a harassment someone faced on the street, “well, did you see the way she was dressed, she was asking for trouble!”

Anyone would think twice before approaching a committee composed of people with possibly these very views. Should she ask for justice for getting harassed by a man in her office who everyone is very good friends with and risk getting a “not guilty” verdict because of what she wore or her smile, or should she just keep it to herself and get on with her work? If she didn’t have enough friends at her workplace, she may just opt to do the latter.

In November last year, there was a case of sexual harassment at a very well-known private university in Dhaka. An English newspaper ran a story on it. The authorities were extremely reactive. Although they promised to punish the perpetrator, they were quick to put the blame on the girl and indirectly punish all the female students for it. The warnings ran, “…the authority has observed with great concern that many of the students attend the classes with dresses that look indecent. Therefore, they are advised to come to attend the classes in decent dresses with immediate effect…”

Samokal published a report on the rising rate of divorces. Above the title Bere Jachche Talaak is a photo of the back of a woman, looking away from the camera in shame. After all, a divorce is a woman’s shame, so is sexual harassment, so is domestic violence, so is rape, an accidental pregnancy, a secret footage of a physical relationship with a man outside marriage. She has to either get married to hide her shame away in small closet, or face the stigma forever.

Last year many legal battles were won on the feminist front. The government has accepted that a student can designate either her father or her mother as her legal guardian in registering for a public examination. Earlier only a father’s name was accepted. A Bangladeshi woman can now pass on her citizenship to her children if her children’s father is a foreigner (although she still cannot pass it to her spouse, whilst a man can pass it to her foreign spouse). And of course the sexual harassment guidelines, the shortcomings notwithstanding, were a historic win.

But the battles on the social front are going to be long and arduous. A girl child’s sense of self is greatly dependent on how others, especially her closest family members think, feel and behave towards her. External influences like mass media, the educational system and the society at large create the fundamental differences between identity formation of men and women. Until the foundation stones laid on women’s sense of self are strong, they will continue to be victimised, first by the perpetrator and then several times by several layers of our moral policing society.

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