Published in the Daily Star on 16 June 2011.
This piece discusses violence against women that pervades in our society.
She had many former students in Dhaka University IR department, and they were the first to make the brutal attack on “Rumana Madam” national news, through social media and blogs. Some connected this case across class-strata with the beating death of Amena Begum (Bihari Colony) and Halima Begum (Kadomtoli). Others commented on the link between women’s emancipation (“it was all for scholarship”) and heightened male rage.
Predictably there were also elements of “blaming the victim.”
The question is not: Why did Rumana stay silent? The question is why did we? What is this monstrous society we created where a husband can beat his wife for 10 years, and she cannot find the social support to leave and file an assault case against him?
Among many factors is a murderous idea of izzat. Izzat of family, of marriage, of women; forcing thousands of women to silently endure continuous domestic violence. And when society sees those bruises at a wedding dawat, they always politely avert their eyes.
There is a breathless, voyeuristic glaze in some media reports. The extreme violence in this case grabbed headlines. The vision of gouging eyes, the cannibal attack on cartilage. Sumon is an extreme manifestation, but there is pervasive male violence in many marriages.
The 5th Bangladesh Demographic and Health Survey, (BDHS) 2007, revealed stunning statistics on this. In Chapter 14 (“Domestic Violence”, P 197-214), the results showed 53% of women experienced sexual or physical violence from husbands. The most common act was slapping (46%), followed by pushing, shaking and having something thrown at them (30%), punching with fists or something that can hurt (17%), kicking, dragging or beating (15%), and choking or burning (5%).
Actually, the numbers may be higher, as at least some respondents would psychologically block out the details, and this would be even more true with sexual violence. Still, 18% reported some form of forced sexual intercourse (or “domestic rape”).
Tenure does not correlate to any improvement. 54% of those married more than 10 years reported violence, compared to 30% of those married less than 5 years. A 2001 survey also showed very little difference between urban (59%) and rural (60%).
The results of extreme violence sprawl out in many directions. A 2008 study showed desire for suicide (or “suicide ideation”) stood at 14% among married women in Bangladesh, which is high compared with other countries. The suicide of the wife, the domestic maid, the cousin, the schoolgirl has become a convenient endstate for the assailant.
Thinking of elements that normalise gender violence (beyond television, cinema, video games and all the other obvious factors), my friend reminded me about a popular “bazaar” song which ended up on many ring tones. As “Tabiz Faruk” mixes declarations of love with violent threats, the nasty message comes out clearly:
Hey girl who do you think you are?
Think you are Queen Victoria?
You don’t like these Rajanigandha flower sticks
When you get beating by hockey stick
How to take love by force
Boss, should we give her a good lesson?
Ghee does not come up on straight finger
Neither will ring fit on a bent finger
[Excerpt from "Tabiz Faruk"]
In the last decade, every time a friend has left an abusive marriage, there have been social whispers of “she must have done something,” “affair chilo bodhoy,” “she must have provoked him,” etc. I wrote in 2009: “So many people hear of a case of wife beating, hostile factory floor, office sexual innuendo, invasive photography, phone stalking, and then casually make excuses. O to sherokom chelei na. Bhodro ghor theke.”
In this unforgiving, hostile environment, women are forced into silence, or convinced this is the way husbands are supposed to be.
The new normal.
There is a lot of anger after the Rumana case, but I worry when I see the lynch mob, blogging about wanting to “chop off the nose and blind” the assailant. Hysterical to enact an eye-for-an-eye tableau, while the cancer remains untouched.
We need to channel grief and outrage into a push for social support, laws and infrastructure. Demolish this society where izzat, economics, and social prisons force women to stay trapped in abusive marriages.
[Police arrested Syeed Hasan Sumon, husband of Rumana Manjur, in the capital Wednesday afternoon.]