Published: “Street Harassment is Still Serious: The violation of women in Dhaka’s public realm”

I wrote this piece for the Forum magazine regarding the issue of street harassment in Dhaka, and why we must still pay attention to this issue, which many may not consider a form of “violence”, but rather a soft approach to sexual harassment. To read, pick up a copy of the Daily Star today. Or follow this link for an online version: http://www.thedailystar.net/forum/2011/November/street.htm

Or, read below:

Street Harassment is Still Serious:
The violation of women in
Dhaka’s public realm

Sexual harassment on the streets is also a form of violence, argues OLINDA HASSAN.

Zahedul I Khan

The laws governing violence against women have made their presence in Bangladesh. From Acid Crime Control Act (2002), to legally declaring eve teasing as a form of serious sexual harassment early this year, crimes that violate a woman — verbally, physically, emotionally — have been, and continue to be addressed by politicians, advocacy groups and NGOs. Violence against women has a history in Bangladesh.

Street harassment against women has also been addressed in some form or the other, usually categorised in the eve teasing form. Defined as being violated — usually verbally — in the streets, this form of harassment is not just limited to the common traits of female victims, or those of a lower social standing, poor and uneducated. Unwanted or solicited attention is given to women of all backgrounds in the streets, in all parts of the city, by all “types” of men. In most of the cases however, commonly, the woman is the subject, the man the predator. It is also something that women face worldwide; The Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights reported that 83% of their women faced street harassment at least once in their life, and similar statistics were found for South Africa, Mexico and France, to name a few.

With urbanisation and the rapid population growth in Dhaka, women inevitably become more prominent in the streets. Women from all social backgrounds are joining the work force or institutions for higher education in large numbers in the capital, as opportunities for female participation increases. This trend is certainly a triumph in the modern women’s movement of Bangladesh.

But with participation comes the notion that sheltering these very women is absolutely necessary. Families with vehicles — another increasingtrend in the capital — will go out of their way to make sure that the women in the family have the priority in transportation. Women are being told to be careful every time they leave their homes, or being told to not go out at all. Working, educated women from the middle to upper middle class are deterred from taking public transportation and being out late at night, both for safety and for preserving certain societal reputations. It is very evident therefore, that the ratio of the two genders in the streets of Dhaka is still overwhelmingly in favour of men. The fear of violence and harassment has led to a series of rules and regulations (often implied than said) imposed on women and their mobility.

Because of these imposed rules by society regarding the movement of women, when they are in the streets on their own, especially during the evening, they are suddenly subject to the high possibility of harassment. This could happen in many ways — it could be a cat call from street vendors, stares from rickshawallahs, sexual innuendos from passersby, being purposefully touched by the young boys in the crowd — all usually men who are the dominating gender in the streets. As one male student in his third year at Dhaka University (anonymous) explained after asking him about street harassment, “these women are not supposed to be in the streets, so of course they are going to get harassed. If they didn’t want that attention, they should have stayed home, and not dressed inappropriately which is going to get them the attention they claim they don’t want.”

Women have also been long taught to ignore such harassment, especially in the streets. Since childhood, women, whether educated or not or wealthy or in poverty, have been told to avert their eyes, look away, and keep walking, and not say anything when they are verbally violated in public. This comes from the fear of being further endangered, but more to do with being humiliated in public. The concern is the disgrace of the victim in public, not of the aggressor whose action goes unnoticed and in turn, avoids his humiliation as he is not confronted but ignored. This then gives him the false idea that he can continue his behaviour in public.

Bryony Beynon from London of HollaBack, a worldwide technology-driven anti-harassment movement that first began in New York explained to The Guardian (March 8, 2011) how “people need to understand that street harassment has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with power.” Aisha Zakira, the founder of HollaBack in Mumbai in their press release explained how street harassment incidents “are rarely reported, and are culturally accepted as ‘the price you pay’ for being a woman and living in a city like Mumbai.” She further went on to explain how this type of violence is a “gateway crime” which creates a “cultural environment which makes gender-based violence okay,” and how while a legal method exists in countries like India and Bangladesh to tackle abuse at work or home, “when it comes to the streets — all bets are off.”

Women are also being told to ignore by other women, as commonly observed by mothers and other older female family members. These members from a young age are giving the impression that they are powerless and must thus simply ignore, that being harassed in the streets is inevitable but avoidable via ignorance. The long standing ideological belief in the “modest” Bengali woman of this culture often promotes such ignorance. Poor urban women for example are often stereotyped as having lower sexual morals, further making them not speak out in public for the consequence of being even more marginalised for their gender. Women, especially those who do not have an access to a private car must change their lifestyle, such as in the way that they dress as a social protection and in order to fit into this ideology and avoid street harassment instead of waiting for the act itself to terminate in society. The violators in turn quickly realise that they will not be held responsible, and gain further confidence to continue harassing in the streets.

Are women supposed to follow the social norms of staying home after sunset and dressing “appropriately” in order to avert such attention? What would happen if more women were to act out and confront the violators, in public? Would it really be that threatening to their modesty as a “good” Bengali woman? Let us assume that public transportation has suddenly become much safer in Bangladesh, for men and women: the rate of hijacking, robbery and threat has significantly decreased, if any at all still occur. Would the roles of women in the streets then change? This question must be asked because, along with violence against women being part of the country’s history, oppressing women by forcing preventative measures (such as ignoring violators) have also become rooted in the historical culture of Bangladesh. And cultures are difficult to change.

Women are increasingly sharing the household income and participating in higher education in Dhaka, a city that is also urbanising at a rapid rate and in a suffocating way. Modern politics encourage such female participation. And for those that are able, women are often being sheltered away in their activities, being told not to be in the streets too much and be in their private shells. Thus, the streets are still overwhelmingly dominated by men. However, what if more women did make their presence known? What if more women had the courage to be independent in their travels? Would the streets still continue to be a boy’s club? We all know of a woman, if not ourselves, who have had at least one form of a story to tell about being harassed in the street. The consequence of ignorance is the continuation of a type of crime that while it may not be considered violent, is as cruel as any other form of violence against women in Dhaka today.

Olinda Hassan studied Political Science at Wellesley College, USA, and is currently a Fulbright Fellow in Bangladesh.

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