Pohela Boishakh is approaching. Amidst all the protests to save the Sundarbans, retrieving stolen money, and justice for rape-murder, many of us have not been able to lose sight of the day when a group of organized men sexually assaulted a number of women at one of the most culturally enriched premises of Dhaka city, the TSC. This year, we will not only be celebrating Pohela Boishakh on 14th April but also commemorating the passing of one year since those events of organized sexual violence against women. What shame!
A surge of protest flooded the country after the event. People from every walk of life demanded justice. It was refreshing that women started speaking out about sexual violence without worrying about shame and stigma. Social media was flooded with life stories of women who suffered from sexual violence at some point in their lives. These women could no longer be shamed and silenced for sharing their experiences of sexual exploitation, as is often done to young feminist writers in our country. Through that event, women realized that their experience of violence connected them with every woman in the world despite differences of class, race, nationality and religion. A collective conscience of women came into being through this mass protest and sharing of life stories.
Left-wing organizations started forming groups like “Pritilota Brigade” to equip women with the basic tools of self defense. Great effort indeed, but once the upsurge was tamed we hardly saw any activity from these groups. It was also the time for Dhaka city corporation election. Candidates and supporters from left-wing organizations wholeheartedly focused on their campaign to win the mayor election. It almost seemed as if politicians exploited the “women issue” to fulfill their broader political agenda, and highly visible campaigns demanding justice for sexual violence were used as a tool to draw attention to win the Dhaka City Corporation election.
These may seem like baseless accusations against left-wing organizations, which are often the quarters that come across as our only hope for receiving justice. In a country like Bangladesh where affiliation with major political parties promise ultimate power to commit any offence you like and still be untouched by the hands of law, such criticism may shake the root of the little hope for justice we have. But the truth is there is apparently a silver lining. It is the young women of today, it is their collective conscience, sparked to life by events like that on Pohela Boishakh, which is actually our only true hope.
The spontaneous protests under various “apolitical” banners are the true change makers of history. A similar group of concerned young women organized a protest on 24th March demanding justice for rape-murder of Tonu. Two of the major newspapers reported the event. Surprisingly one of them forgot to use the term rape in its headline and reported that they wanted justice only for murder. The other newspaper simply skipped the issue of possible rape-murder. These incidents remind one of the writer Arundhati Roy. She once remarked that we have to learn to ask where does the money come from? Who is funding of big corporations and media houses? The young women and activists who are organizing these protests should learn to ask who their friends and foes are? Who will lose the most if justice is served? Their decision of not affiliating with any political party is praiseworthy. Whether it is the two major political parties or the so called left-wing radicals, young women today should learn to be highly suspicious of all political leaders. The personality cult of political leaders of both left and right, and their highly publicized protests are merely eyewash to make women forget that we bear the responsibility of our own emancipation.
Many may also accuse this perspective as an attempt at deradicalizing and depoliticizing women’s efforts of emancipation. On the contrary, this newly formed conscience of young women today, and their newly emerged platforms of protest has to have the long term goal of educating themselves with the history of women’s movements and social justice movements worldwide. They will be happy to find that ordinary women have always been the driving force behind social change, but they are systematically denied the recognition. Mass protests and political upsurge of epoch makings will always take the face of the selected few who choose to remain entangled with power. Women today have the responsibility to defy them and be the change maker themselves. After all we must not forget the worlds of anthropologist Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizen can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”