How long shall we go on to blame the victims?

The Daily Star  January 14, 2021

Incidents leave such a devastating impact on us that it halts the normal process of thinking. The rape and killing of an O-level student in the capital’s Kalabagan area is one such incident. But that wasn’t the end of it. The post-incident scenario is turning out to be more pathetic.

 

First, a section of people reached the conclusion that the victim and her family were responsible for this. Why did she go to her friend’s residence? Why did her mother allow her to go there? Social media has been flooded by such types of questions. For many, the rape was a foregone conclusion. They also raised questions about the dress of the girl, her intention to go to her friend’s house, and her “love affair” with the boy, thus conveniently shifting the blame onto the victim herself. In short, she created the situation that led to her eventual murder.

 

Unfortunately, our society is accustomed to blaming a rape victim whether she belongs to the lower class, the middle class or the upper class. Maybe this mentality is a new phenomenon, or maybe it has been going on for long. It’s hard to determine since there was no social media in the past that could give us unfettered access to the deepest reaches of people’s minds. But social media has certainly brought this to the fore, and its impact has been far-reaching as more people seem to be influenced by this toxic mentality.

The role of police in such cases has long been a thorny issue. Police are often seen to spread unfair claims and insinuations centring the victim. Then the gossip mill goes into overdrive, spreading these insinuations far and wide. In case of the Kalabagan rape victim, police have adopted almost a similar approach. A short summary of what police said would be that she was not raped. Rather, everything happened through mutual understanding. It appears police were rather quick to conclude that it was consensual sex.

After the incident, the accused, Dihan, took the girl, who was suffering heavy bleeding, to hospital and said she was 19 years old although, in reality, she was 17 years and three months old. When the girl was dying, Dihan could sense that she would have to be presented as being above 18. Police picked it up and mentioned the girl’s age as 19 in their case statement. Even when the victim’s mother showed a certificate proving she was indeed 17, police refused to correct it and instead gave priority to Dihan’s statement. The mother brought this allegation against the police. The law enforcement agency members reasoned that they had collected her age from hospital documents. But hospital authorities only recorded it based on Dihan’s statement without any verification.

Two things become apparent from police activities: First, police want to hold on to the claim of “mutual understanding”. Second, they want to prove that the victim was above 18. If these two things can be proved, the pressure on Dihan would be significantly less.

Why would police want that? What are the reasons for such attitude? Why would police give priority to Dihan’s statement instead of the victim’s age certificate?

There are other issues that we should also talk about. For example, the role of media in such cases cannot be avoided. Most of the mainstream media organisations did not disclose the photo or identity of the victim. But her identity was disclosed in many substandard media outlets and social media. The police version of the story was overplayed by theses platforms. The sensitivity expected of newsmen was invisible in these cases. True, not all media outlets did it, but the fact that some of them did makes it a burden for all.

The media should have asked police why they tried to shift the responsibility onto the victim. Instead, they readily accepted the police version. This is irresponsible journalism. There is no chance to get the victim’s version of the story as she is no more. But attempts are being made to justify the crime by pushing forward the theory of “mutual understanding”, so much so that it would appear as if the victim gave consent to her own murder.

The fact of the matter will be known after a fair investigation. The irony is, police will conduct that investigation. If police have made those comments based on assumptions or bias before the actual investigation, it already constitutes a breach of trust. This is a fate that many victims of various crimes have to suffer from.

Incidentally, class division continues to prevail in our society. There is an anti-English medium school sentiment among a majority of the people. It is often assumed that those who study in English medium schools belong to the upper class and are therefore isolated from mainstream society. Their lifestyle and behaviours are thought of as imports from the western society. But the fact is, not just children from the upper class, but those from the middle class now also study in different English-medium schools. Many middle-class families are opting for English-medium schools as the quality of education in Bangla-medium schools is deteriorating. The same can be said about private universities. It is wrong and even dangerous to assume that the students of these schools and universities are isolated from society. Their involvement with the movement of Gonojagoron Mancha and anti-VAT movement are good examples that show that they are not.

Dihan’s father has recently retired from his government service. Some media outlets have reported that he owns a huge amount of wealth. Everybody knows how much salary a sub-registrar gets. Most of them are allegedly involved with corruption and irregularities. This is applicable not just for sub-registrars, but all so for many bureaucrats. As per information from the foreign minister, those who laundered money and bought houses in the Begumpara of Canada are either former or incumbent bureaucrats. So, irregularities and corruption have become an integral part of the society. And it got institutionalised due to lack of good governance.

Now, it seems the society is facing the consequences. When a young person gains access to unlimited money and luxurious cars provided by their guardian’s illegal income, it is bound to have a negative impact on them. In such a situation, someone like Dihan can abuse his freedom and enjoy his life through unfair means. He does not have to fear the consequences of killing and rape, as he is protected by the “safety net” of ill-gotten wealth. It has nothing to do with the English vs Bangla medium division. It has become the “way” of our society.

Society is changing fast, as is the entire world, thanks to modern technology. Guardians, therefore, will have to be more careful. Research can be initiated on how parents should act with children of different ages. It is a necessary first step. But the most important thing is to change the deep-seated patriarchal attitude of the society and state machineries. We must understand that shifting responsibility onto the victim is similar to taking a stance in favour of the accused.

Golam Mortoza is a journalist at The Daily Star.

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