Why the silence surrounding rape?
Going through the comments sections of most controversial Facebook posts is a bit like playing Russian roulette, but whether you’re playing with five empty chambers or one is also left up to chance.
If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to scroll comfortably by, smug that strangers on the internet confirmed your biases. If the odds are against you, however, you’re due a disapproving raise of the eyebrow at best, and an hour-long keyboard war in the worst-case scenario.
The comments sections below Facebook posts of various daily newspapers often offer a peek into what the prevailing, or the loudest, views might be on a particular topic, and the news story of Hamida Begum’s funeral was no different. The unprecedented case of a sex worker from a brothel in Daulatdia receiving an Islamic funeral was welcome news to some, while others decided it was an indicator of the apocalypse.
Arguments on both sides included, and I paraphrase: “Why should there be funerals for customers of sex workers, but none for the workers themselves?” and “Allowing them proper burials will only encourage more people to engage in sex work.” Religion was often brought in to justify barring sex workers from receiving funerals, while others yet advocated for the suspension of brothels and criticized the legality of prostitution in Bangladesh.
Setting the spectrum of responses aside, perhaps one of the most important things that this particular news story did was crack the surface of the taboo around sex work and make people talk about it, although the discussion already seems to be fleeting. But it’s a start, right? It has to be a beginning, of whatever sort.
In a global context, sex work is an umbrella term which covers a broad range of professions including adult film stars, webcam performers, and escorts, among others, a lot of which is consensual, ie the people involved willingly choose to be in those professions. In Bangladesh, most of this is still unthinkable: Sex work almost exclusively refers to prostitution, which is vehemently frowned upon, and it only seems to be a justifiable occupation when the women involved have either been trafficked into it against their will, or have no other resort — and even that is debatable.
It comes as no surprise that the practice itself is stigmatized to this extent when even the discussion around sex and sex work is still largely stunted. Whenever relatively “progressive” lines of thought enter mainstream conversation, such as socially acknowledging and granting sex workers the same rights as any other citizen, or even the mere possibility of considering consensual, willing sex work, conversations are likely to go wildly awry. Comparisons to countries more developed in regards to sex work will often be pelted with responses yelling at people to “go move to the West if you like their culture so much”. There’s no place for such things in our culture, in other words.
But is it really “a difference in culture” if the difference you advocate for is actively harming women, and often already marginalized women at that?
Since the majority of the Bangladeshi sex work industry is women, the bias against sex work can easily translate to a patriarchal prejudice against women that is still endemic to our country. This bias feeds into a system which makes trafficking women into the industry easier due to poverty and stigma, but one which makes it incredibly difficult for women to get out because once they do, their past leads them to be labelled “tainted” and “immoral.” They are harassed and shunned out of work spaces and social circles until the only choice left is to return to where they were fleeing from.
Women in sex work should not, and cannot be blamed for this vicious, systemic cycle.
This prejudice also makes it difficult for these women to seek legal recourse. Since they do not have any form of social support, they are more likely to be further exploited when they try to access the legal support they are due. One of the worst effects of this is that it makes it nearly impossible for them to make complaints against sexual harassment and violence.
Many argue that just because these women have either chosen to go into or remain in sex work, they are to tolerate whatever harassment comes to them without resistance, because it’s something that they’ve brought upon themselves.
The dialogue around consent in Bangladesh is murky even when it does not consider sex workers’ rights. The multiple daily reports of sexual harassment, rape and violence are testament to that. This societal reluctance and aversion to even speaking about issues concerning sex not only facilitates the exploitation of women in sex work, but also affects the lives of most other people in our society, including children.
It also leads to wild misconceptions. Because the conversation around these issues is so concealed, social media often provides a window into just how absurd these misconceptions might be. The most recent case I saw was a multiple-paragraph-long Facebook rant about how the “younger generations” having a more casual approach to sex is particularly heinous because pre-marital intercourse “is automatically rape.” Multiple paragraphs, and not a single sentence about consent. And not one about marital rape, which is still not legally recognized in Bangladesh.
More often than not, all I can feel after reading through these, is incredibly jaded. Of course, there is anger. But this anger lacks an outlet, and witnessing things inexplicably deteriorate for year after year is more than enough to drive someone to complete mental exhaustion.
Perhaps this burnout is what typifies our youth — in more regards than just sex and consent — especially those among us who are willing to ceaselessly speak and scream and rage on about the sheer injustice of it all. But how long can you scream into the void without losing your voice? How long can you march on if what you say barely scratches the surface of your own bubbles, let alone make it to the outside?
There really is no answer, except perhaps working through the exhaustion. At the very least, we are willing to talk about things. And there really are far too many things for us to keep talking about till the tides start turning.
As a country, our attitudes towards sex have more reach than we might think. They affect our women, both who are and are not in sex work. They affect our men, because we have not even begun having conversations about how they are also entitled to the right to consent; that men can be raped is not even legally recognized in Bangladesh, let alone socially.
What is most haunting is that our attitudes directly affect our children. Children in Bangladesh are raped, molested and violated. Instead of being given free, comprehensive sex education, so many are still taught to be quiet about it because of whatever godforsaken reason — patriarchy, social stigma, who even is keeping count anymore?
These are not isolated issues, and they cannot be treated as such. And they cannot be tackled until they are talked about openly.
Amreeta Lethe Chowdhury is an intern at the Dhaka Tribune.