Sometime during the pre-lockdown era, I was standing in queue at the Dhanmondi branch of a renowned bank. After about 10-15 minutes when I finally approached one counter, the teller looked up at me and then peered into his computer screen and again returned his gaze to my face. I shifted uncomfortably as I could not understand if he was suspicious about my identity. I was, after all, visiting the particular premises after a while. Finally, the fellow asked, "you used to have long hair?" "Yes…" I was thoroughly confused by the question. He nodded. "Yes, Ma'am, the picture on your account is one with longer hair." I heaved a sigh of relief. But it was too soon. The teller said with a beatific smile, "grow your hair long again; you'll look so beautiful."
As I walked away from the bank, I kept on asking myself what happened in there. Did I ask or behave in a manner that could prompt such conduct on part of the teller? A complete stranger, he had no right to say what he said to a client who had approached him for a service. Not just that it is unprofessional, but also inappropriate. It took some time for me to realise that what the bank teller did was a form of harassment. At the same time, I am also sure that many would take it as a compliment simply because we are not taught where the boundary between compliment and sexual harassment lies; or who can compliment us and who cannot. When I shared this story with others later, most were outraged, but one or two also said, "oh, he meant well. He thought you're beautiful!" I would say when we encourage this kind of comments, it leads to worse.
Most forms of sexual harassments start with teasing or inappropriate comments. Teenage girls going to school are teased by local boys with cat-calls and provocative comments. The unbelievable part is that in most cases, the girls are told by their friends and family members that it is normal for boys to do that, but a girl should never respond to the boys' comments or teasing. For women, therefore, sexual harassment is the norm. If you are pretty, you will be harassed because of your prettiness. There is another picture that says that if nobody teases you on the way to school or college, or bothers you ever on social media or by phone, it is because you are not attractive. Years ago, a friend of mine had confided in utter mortification what her older sister had observed: "doesn't any boy follow you and call you pretty? I had so many boys disturbing me on the way to the school! That's so strange!" Strange indeed!
It is actually high time that we ask ourselves where we stand ethically and morally. What do we want to teach the future generation? Can sexual harassment be a form of acceptable praise? To what extent are we willing to put up with workplace harassments where women are expected to shrug off or even accept such comments as compliments?
I belong to the educated class, work at good institutions and am more privileged than most women of my country. I do not have to face the day-to-day harassment that the larger class of working women have to endure. The male colleague sitting across from me does not ogle me as if I am a tasty morsel. And yet, I have to admit that I have heard some of the so-called educated men say, "women work for no good reason. They are greedy and dissatisfied with their husbands' income and hence they work." Or, "what will you do with so much money? You are a woman!" Such comments arise from the typically chauvinistic attitude that tend to trivialise efforts and achievements of women.
Unfortunately, the entire social system of Bangladesh is full of harassments of all sorts. So much so, that sometimes we do not even realise that we are being harassed or that sometimes we are participating in it. In fact, this is only a part of a deeper cultural problem. We may shudder at the racial firestorm that has engulfed the western world at present; we may feel blessed that we are not residents there; but that should not make us feel any more secure. When I first went to the US for my doctoral studies, I suddenly became aware that I was brown, and I was different from most of the people around me. I felt awkward when I was asked if I faced difficulties using commodes or hand-showers because after all everybody knows that Bangladesh is a poor country and everybody lives in hut. But when I came back to Bangladesh after getting my PhD, I was reminded of another aspect that I had forgotten in the US—the fact that I am a woman and I cannot act, behave or dress as I feel comfortable. I must act a part; I must act the way society expects me to.
Somehow, the social discourse in Bangladesh includes making fun of others, insulting and laughing at people's shortcomings. Body shaming and snide remarks on complexion are also a big part of the culture. The shaming culture which we minimise as "leg-pulling," starts early in life—sometimes even in one's own family for being a girl or having dark complexion. Children with dark skin are often called Kalu, Kali or Patila (bottom of a pot), and nobody is bothered by the pain such nicknames cause. This culture is widespread in schools, where even teachers often participate in insulting or humiliating students who are different, overly curious, or sometimes simply because they belong to different ethnic or minority groups. Digging at one's private matters and airing the dirty laundry of our neighbours are our favourite pastimes. Of course, this practice exists in every culture, but we have taken it to a different level altogether. We thrive on it and it exists at every level of the society.
During my stay in the US, a friend had asked me, "why is Bangladesh so poor? Why is your country so backward when I see so many talented people from Bangladesh here?" I had deflected the question with a smile back then; but I have often wondered why we are the way we are. Why can't we stand united and why do we indulge so much in a culture that involves shaming, humiliation and harassment? I have not yet found an answer. Perhaps there is none.
Sohana Manzoor is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh. She is also a Deputy Editor at The Daily Star.