Whose face are we saving?

Asif Saleh

Published in BDNews24 on 15 June 2011.

This piece challenges the culture of silence when it comes to domestic violence.

The year was 1983. I was 9. In those days, colour TV was a rare commodity in Dhaka. We didn’t have it. But our neighbours next door, a middle-aged couple with a young girl, did. Luckily when we were at the roof, right by the water tank, we could hide and still get a direct view of the room where they had their brand new Sony colour TV. Once in a while, we would go and hide next to that tank to watch the ‘coloured’ ‘Incredible Hulk’. Who needs to listen to the dialogue when you can see the characters in colour? We were peeping toms watching our favourite monster go green in anger.

One night, however, the TV was not on air. Instead, we were introduced to a different monster – a live one, and it was none other than the man of the house. The husband was beating the wife while their 7-year-old daughter was begging mercy for her mother. I had never seen anything like that before. There was swearing followed by slaps, kicks followed by more swearing, slaps and kicks and it went on and on.

“Abbu, ar na, abbu, please ar na” – I still can hear the girl screaming at the top of her voice trying to save her mother, a respected teacher at Eden College.

Since the incident, I never tried to watch the green monster on their TV; I’ve seen that in real life. But a few days later, I saw the couple again. The husband was sipping tea and the wife reading a newspaper. Life went on as if nothing had happened.

Shhhhh… The culture of silence continues. Mum’s the word.

10 years later, I went abroad for higher studies. I took a job at the International Student Office at the university I was studying. I was the first point of contact for all the international students and so I knew the small group of Bangladeshi students there. We used to hang out as well. One of the most crowd-pulling members of that group, a PhD student, had just gotten married. He married his long time girlfriend. There was celebration, bodhuboron amid much laughter and fanfare.

Then, after a while, there was that phone call in my office:

“Asif, I don’t know if you can do something about this but he is very abusive. He kicked her out of the house and had her shiver in cold for hours.” One of the local bhabis was calling for help on behalf of the newly-wed girl, without her permission. “He beats her because he cannot control his anger,” she added.

Bewildered I asked, “But I thought this was a love marriage and they were together after a long separation”.

“He just has a strong temper” – was the rationalisation.

So I secretly sent her a note about the possible help she can get should she decides to leave him. But she didn’t. A few weeks later they both came to a party. We acted as if nothing had happened. She was putting on a smile of a lovely wife while he was cracking jokes and lecturing on how Bangladesh could be saved.

Life went on for the immigrant NRBs.

Shhhhh…The culture of silence goes on. Mum’s the word.

17 years later in 2010, I have moved back to Dhaka. A friend working at a very prestigious institute calls up.

“I have been trying to reach you for some time. You cannot tell anyone about this but you need to help me. I was living with a monster for 10 years. I was beaten unconscious once.”

How long did it continue, I asked?

“It started after a couple of years of marriage.”

“You are a highly educated, economically independent woman. Why did you stay with him for such a long time?”

“I thought it was going to be okay. He would apologise after every incident and everything would be fine for a couple of months and then it would start again. Finally, I had the courage to leave him. Now he wouldn’t leave me alone. But please don’t tell anyone. This is not very pleasant.”

Shhhhh… Still the culture of silence continues. Mum’s the word.

I don’t know the epilogue to the first two incidents I mentioned as I am not in touch with them. But I bet it is not much different from the third incident where the woman painfully woke up to the reality that once an abuser, always an abuser.

It has been 30 years since I saw the Eden College teacher get beaten black and blue by her husband in front of her daughter. A lot has changed. Colour TV is now available even at slums.

And yet, on some important matters, how little has changed!

The optimist in me would get excited in the statistics that 80 percent of the divorces in Dhaka last year were initiated by women — signalling that at least some women are realising that enough is enough. But I know I will be a fool to think that they are the majority. If Rumana Monzur too had shown the courage a little earlier, probably — just probably — her eyes would not have been ruptured to the point of going blind.

Hers was an extreme case, perhaps, and the ‘shobhbhyo shomaj’, as one newspaper called it, has been stunned by the sheer brutality of the crime. But this very ‘shobhbhyo shomaj’ would regularly pressurise the woman to ‘compromise’ (maniye cholo) in the other not so brutal (to-be-more-brutal) cases.

It took a monster to bite the nose off his wife to wake us up to the reality that we have a very serious problem in our society. But in all likelihood this culture of silence and ‘maniye chola’ will continue — sometimes for the children, sometimes for the society.

But how long? How long will it take us to realise that staying in an abusive relationship is more harmful to the children than not staying in it? How many slaps will it take before we realise that we have a problem here that will not go away unless we take an initiative?

Yes, I am talking to you — you, the parents of the abused daughter, who think that looking the other way would make the problem go away. I am talking to you, the patient wives, who think these ‘little incidents’ of the ‘hot tempered’ husbands must be ignored for the sake of a peaceful coexistence.

All you people — take a cold, hard look at the battered and brutalised face of Rumana Monzur and ask yourselves — whose face are you saving?

Shhhh….don’t answer. Mum’s the word.

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