From darkness into light

Namira Hossain writes about two initiatives on social media through which actual victims of sexual abuse in our society are coming forward to share their stories

in101One of the greatest ironies of living in our society is that while it is not considered impolite in a social setting to discuss one’s bowel movements, any mention of sexual harassment or abuse and it will be most likely be confronted with embarrassed silence. If one has been unfortunate enough to have been a victim and has the courage to speak up, they are usually told to keep quiet or are made to feel responsible for it in some way, which further encourages a culture of victim shaming and lack of justice for sexual predators.
‘There are two sides to every story’- the age old adage is trotted out far too often when someone shares an experience where they have been victimised and it needs to stop. It is difficult enough for a person who has had to deal with such experiences to openly talk about them anyway, so when they finally gather up the courage to do so, one ought to quell that overwhelming urge inside to play devil’s advocate and just simply listen, with compassion. And importantly, also not put accountability on the victim in anyway for what they wore, where they were or what they did. In a twisted way, the vile public attacks on women on April 14, 2015 have served as a blessing in disguise, at the expense of the women who were assaulted in broad daylight as the perpetrators got away scot-free. The treacherous monster that tends to lurk in our closets, hidden in the dark finally presented itself in broad daylight and our society was confronted by it, face to face.
This incident not only dominated the news headlines for some time, but also conversations as people voiced, in some cases for the very first time, that they too had gone through similar experiences. This is how two initiatives – Voices and Break The Silence began, with the intent of letting victims of abuse share their stories while retaining their anonymity. Both got overwhelming responses within the first few days as stories started pouring in where harassment and abuse play villainous starring roles.
During the recent cricket World Cup, there was much furor regarding the incendiary use of the word ‘rape’ in reference to the 2012 Delhi gang rape, during banter between cricket fans of different nations. It was apparent this time, on social media that Bangladeshis imagine themselves to be standing on some sort of moral high ground, in denial of the fact that ‘these things’ happen in our country. While we are on the topic, let us not fool ourselves here, this is not a gender issue – a huge percentage of both men and women are likely to have gone through some form of sexual abuse or molestation at some point in their lives. But as a result of this being a taboo topic, it is difficult to get reliable qualitative data on this fact according to a recently published report by Unicef.
Unicef’s report titled ‘Child Sexual Abuse, Exploitation and Trafficking in Bangladesh’ states, ‘child sexual abuse permeates all levels of Bangladeshi society. Children are at risk of abuse or harassment in their own homes, from relatives and family “friends”. It is found in schools, communities and the workplace. While disadvantaged and disabled children are more vulnerable to abuse, it is not limited to them. Most children know their abuser, who is usually someone close to them.’ This is a blaring wake up call to a society that would rather pull wool over their own eyes than see the wolf dressed in grandma’s clothes for what it is trying to do – devour the innocent and the unsuspecting.
Such was the situation of a 27-year-old girl who shares her story from when she was only seven or eight on ‘Break the Silence Bangladesh’ page on Facebook. She writes, “An elderly relative made me sit on his lap (he always did that when we met). He then started fondling me. There were no grownups in the room at that moment. I didn’t properly understand what was happening but my instincts told me to be wary. I felt that something inappropriate was happening to me and managed to wriggle out of his grip…I never told anyone but every time someone mentioned what a nice guy he was, I felt a little sick inside’.
Chowdhury Rashaam Raiyan who initiated the Facebook page says, ‘when the attacks on Pahela Baishakh happened everybody was talking about it, as it was so shocking. As many of us spoke about this incident, we started sharing our own stories and realised all of us had experienced some form of harassment or abuse, whether in public or in private. Many of us never shared these stories with each other or anyone else before, as our culture does not encourage us to speak up about these things especially. We thought by allowing people who had been victimised to share their stories, our society in general and the older generation in particular, will be forced to wake up and note the need for awareness on this topic’.
Users of Facebook need only to ‘like’ the page and click on a link, that will lead them to the surveymonkey site to submit their stories, anonymously. The stories are then posted to the page with the hashtag #BreakTheSilenceBangladesh. As a result of allowing users to remain anonymous, Rashaam says that their inbox has been flooded with stories from both males as well as females. Rashaam, who has a Masters in Criminology, has plans for this page to be put to it’s best use, and is only posting one or two stories per day for maximum readership. This way it can serve as an awareness tool, a platform to start a dialogue between parents and caretakers of minors, and also to collect statistical and qualitative data for a survey.
The incidents in Voices, another similar platform on Facebook, delves into the culture of victim shaming following such incidents. A post reads, ‘He was clearly embarrassed and kept looking at his shoes. That’s when the people around began saying things like ‘Apu maaf kore den.’ I would’ve kept on walking when this man – who could’ve well been my older brother – says, ‘Ato tight shirt pant porle amader ki dosh?’
Samira Sadeque, a journalist at Dhaka Tribune, and Kazi Tahsin Agaz Apurba of the Daily Star, began the initiative, which posts to Tumblr as well. Voices was initiated around the same time as a result of the Pahela Baishakh incident at TSC sparking similar conversations between friends about similar experiences. They hope to collaborate and engage in a shared platform with Break The Silence, and if the chilling number of stories on both pages are any indication, the need for awareness and dialogue is badly needed as this is a nationwide issue.
Kazi says, ‘We hope that by allowing people to share their stories, the victims can let go of the shame they had been forced to feel for years, for the actions of other people which they had no control over. So that they know that they are not alone in dealing with this trauma. As more people share their stories, we hope that others understand that this is a real issue in our society and not just isolated incidents that you read or hear about in the news. We hope that this creates a feeling of empathy for the victims, without making them feel at fault.’
Sexual predators, who are often close to the victims, get away freely for years in our country, often never facing any consequences, preying on the victims’ fear of causing embarrassment for their families by exposing them. Harassment in public also needs to be considered as an act of sexual harassment, made punishable by crime and it’s sickeningly cutesy nickname of ‘eve-teasing’ needs to be tossed out along with other antiquated attitudes. There is much need for the offenders to be brought to justice and face real consequences for their actions which remain a cause of life-long trauma for their victims.
‘Other countries have counsellors and psychologists in their schools, and they inform the children and make them aware of such incidents because prevention is better than cure. Most of our parents had felt uncomfortable discussing such topics with us, and so many of us were not made aware of inappropriate behaviour before experiencing it ourselves. Our culture has a weak understanding of boundaries as well, and children especially young girls, are not taught to be assertive. We think nothing of telling our children, “go give so-and-so uncle/aunty a kiss” and we teach our children that it is rude to say “no”, but this mentality has serious consequences’, says Rashaam.
An Indian online print magazine for short fiction stories, ‘Out Of Print’, took out a special issue on gender violence with a mapping initiative that allows victims to share their geo-tag locations along with their stories, so that a better understanding of the prevalence of such incidents can be gained. One of the stories from this issue, ‘Escaping The Mirror’ which is described by its’ author Farah Ghuznavi, a Bangladeshi writer, as ‘faction’ recounts a chilling tale about a little girl who was compelled to live in silent fear, tiptoeing at every turn to avoid the advances of the family driver as he continued to take advantage of her silence well into her teenage years. Says Ghuznavi, ‘my aim with this piece was to try to make the adults in our society, in fact adults everywhere, understand how important it is to listen to children, to really HEAR what they are saying, to read between the lines to understand what they can’t or won’t say, to listen to the rhythms between those words that tell the real story; most of all, not to silence them or ridicule them or shame them, which happens all too frequently. Too often, we fail our children.’