Many have welcomed the government's introduction of the death penalty, misconceiving Bangladesh's rape problem as a quick-fix punishment problem. Reckless rape reporting concentrating on graphic details, sensationalising disturbing rape cases, and the new fashion of sharing trauma porn to raise awareness on social media have all contributed to misdirecting collective outrage against sexual violence.
But let's get one thing straight: death penalty is not a solution to gender-based sexual violence—which is a much larger systemic problem deeply rooted in the fabric of our society.
The Indian government had also responded to the 2012 Nirbhaya rape case by introducing the death penalty and what has that done for India? This March, after seven years, four perpetrators of the case were executed, while according to recently-released figures from the National Crime Records Bureau, the police registered 33,977 cases of rape in 2018. The numbers have been consistently rising over the years.
As for Bangladesh, what positive change in favour of rape victims will the Women and Children Repression Act Ordinance 2020—replacing life imprisonment as the maximum sentence for rape with the death penalty—accomplish? Most of us overlook the fact that the death penalty already exists in Bangladesh for certain cases of rape, under Section 9 of the 2000 Act which include gang-rape and rape leading to death. In other words, the ordinance isn't bringing any new form of "justice" for the victim in the Noakhali gang-rape case, which has galvanised the series of protests last week.
The reintroduction of the death penalty essentially means rapists in all rape cases will receive death sentence as maximum punishment. But the rape law—section 375 of the penal code 1860—still hasn't changed its narrow definition of rape, so it's rather hard to imagine the authorities holding speedy trials, prosecuting and executing all rapists in the 975 cases from January to September, 208 of which were gang-rape, per Ain o Salish Kendra. And even if that were to happen, does it realistically counter rape culture and the culture of impunity? Can we really imagine a future where husbands won't rape their wives because they're afraid that the wife reporting on them would lead to their death? It seems far-fetched to even imagine all these scenarios of "justice."
We must not be satisfied with this death penalty announcement that we know all too well will accomplish no such justice for rape victims. We must not fall for this punishment debate trap either, which essentially trivialises sexual violence as an exceptional problem that can be solved by addressing those few exceptions.
Addressing the recent introduction of the death penalty, a panel discussion organised by Feminist Across Generations—an alliance established by a group of young and experienced feminists who have been fighting gender-based violence for decades through legal and social advocacy—asserted that "legal reforms is one part of the puzzle, an extremely crucial part, but it needs to go hand in hand with bold ambitious plans to bring societal change."
Moderating the conversation, Umama Zillur, founder of KOTHA, added that, "even if we were able to pass every single law and reform that has been put forward over the last couple of years and decades, and if we were able to have the most airtight strong legal framework," we would not feel safe because at the end of the day we would be coming back to our "homes and our families and our schools and our friends who would continue to inflict violence on us."
More often than not, we tend to other rapists as psychopaths and monsters and not men who live amongst us, in our communities. It's high time to put a stop to all these counterproductive and harmful practices we have normalised in society. We must use our anger and pain productively and strategically to dismantle the system that upholds a culture of impunity and holds so much space for men to rape women.
The Rage Against Rape movement overhauled by Feminist Across Generations has declared gender-based violence a national emergency and put forth 10 demands to the society and to the state which must complement each other to holistically fight rape culture. Their demands include: an end to all gender-based violence by private and state actors; zero tolerance for victim-blaming at all levels of society (structural, institutional, societal and individual); that families hold their boys and men accountable for any and all violence they perpetuate; that rapists are no longer sheltered in our homes, schools and workplaces; that women have the right to occupy public spaces without fear of violence, at any time or for any purpose; rejection of the idea that women's bodies hold their and their family's honour; that comprehensive sex education, including consent, is made mandatory in school curricula; that swift action is taken against all those weaponising cyber tools to commit violence against women; that existing rape laws are reformed to recognise and criminalise marital rape regardless of the age of the victim; urgent and immediate adoption of 10-point demand issues by the Rape Law Reform Coalition, including: i) redefining rape to ensure that it covers all forms of non-consensual penetration, irrespective of gender; ii) reviewing Evidence Act of 1872 to remove scope for institutional victim-blaming; iii) ensuring protection and access to justice without discrimination for all rape victim/survivors (irrespective of gender, religion, race, ethnicity, disability, gender identity, sexuality); conducting sensitisation trainings for police, lawyers, judges and social workers so rape survivors are treated with respect and due responsiveness during reporting, investigation and prosecution.
Fighting systemic sexual violence requires us as a society to start questioning all the harmful sexist myths we have accepted as normal in our everyday lives. Kotha has envisioned a pyramid to explain how the culture of sexual violence functions like a toxic system in Bangladesh. At the bottom of the pyramid, you have attitudes and beliefs that normalise sexual violence. This leads to degradation which leads to assault. According to Kotha, "the tolerance of the behaviours at the bottom supports or excuses those higher up."
So for example, everytime we say "orna koi"—no matter how "well-intentioned" the phrase may seem—we perpetuate victim-blaming and recycle the harmful myth that victims can prevent rape. Every single time we invoke a woman's modesty to slut-shame her—even if we do it as harmless gossip—we ensure that women in this nation feel unsafe, we sustain the toxic system that allows men to rape women every day. Every time we excuse wolf-whistling, groping and inappropriate advances on Facebook, citing "boys will be boys," we as a society take one step backwards from fighting towards a society where every single woman wouldn't feel unsafe in one way or another.
Every single time, we entertain or allow microaggressions that don't outright seem harmful, we recharge the system that allowed the vile Noakhali gang-rape case to happen in the first place. It's difficult to lessen the distance between our "normal" lives and face that our mindsets have contributed to the crime that continues to plague this nation year after year. But this fight isn't supposed to be comfortable. It's time to start these uncomfortable conversations with family members and friends and face each and every one of our complicities. It's time to challenge ourselves to change the attitudes and beliefs starting from our own homes.
Ramisa Rob is a masters candidate at Columbia University.