Susannah Savage November 23, 2020
In January 2019, Monira Sultana Popy was summoned from her office in City Bank’s training centre in Banani to the bank’s head office in Gulshan. She was taken to a room known as “the banquet hall,” she says, a “special place” for “this type of activity”. There she was greeted by three of the bank’s most senior figures, she adds. Drunk, they attempted to rape her.
Popy recently recounted her ordeal, tears streaming down her face, to crowds of men and women in Dhaka. Those listening were among the thousands who gathered across the country to protest against sexual violence in Bangladesh in October, following the circulation of a video showing a gang of men violently sexually attacking a woman in Noakhali.
Popy’s decision to speak out is rare, but, as the protests highlighted, her story is one shared by women and girls across Bangladesh. Like most of these women, Popy is unlikely to see justice. Her alleged attackers are too politically well-connected.
The reasons for what is termed “rape culture”, which underlies everything from sexual harassment to rape itself, are as myriad in Bangladesh as they are in the rest of the world. In a 2013 study carried out by United Nations Women, among the men in rural Bangladesh who admitted to committing rape, more than 80% said they had done so because they felt they were entitled to do so. Nearly 90% said that they had faced no legal consequences. Access to justice for victims of sex crimes in Bangladesh is also marred by patriarchal norms, as well as flaws in the legal system — especially the law’s colonial relics.
The reasons behind both sex crimes and the failures in prosecuting them are exacerbated in Bangladesh, however, by a culture of political impunity. Nearly all of the publicised cases in the run up to the recent protests involved Awami League members, activists or their relatives and associates. These cases are unusual not because they implicate the ruling party but because, unlike most, they reached the headlines.
Men in Bangladesh, along with most other countries, have a higher status and wield more power than women. The extra power afforded to men with political connections, though, bolsters their sense of sexual entitlement yet further. “My father is a ruling party guy, how come this girl, the daughter of a rickshaw puller or the daughter of a farmer can refuse me?”, says one veteran Bangladeshi journalist describing the mentality that leads to sex crimes.
As well as entitled, those with political power feel confident that they will face no punishment for their acts — perhaps because they so rarely do. “If you are an Awami League activist you can get away with anything”, says the journalist, comparing the power of Bangladesh’s ruling party members and affiliates to that of Brahmins in India. He adds that the police are “very much part of the power structure.” This, he notes, is the “societal impact” of “one-party rule over the past 12 years”.
Men are not used to women speaking out. Powerful men even less so, says Popy. When in 2018, she launched a sexual harassment complaint in City Bank, where she has worked for nine years, she was the first to do so. She was not, however, the first nor the only woman to experience harassment, she says. According to Popy, her bosses routinely tried to coerce other women to have sex with them, just as they did with her. This was often in exchange for higher salaries or other benefits, she adds. “They would throw their wallets on my desk and say ‘how much? Take any amount. Just surrender yourself’”.
Instead, she complained. When word of the complaint reached the International Finance Corporation (IFC), which holds a 5% stake in City Bank Bangladesh, the international finance institute intervened. Popy was transferred to a new role, she says, away from her harassers.
The reprieve was brief, however. “He snatched me forcibly to engage in sexual activity,” she says of one of the three men who summoned her to City Bank’s banquet room in the Gulshan head office last January. She shouted out and managed to fight him off, but “he threatened me that he would ruin me”.
He held true on his promise, according to Popy. Turned away by Gulshan police in January, when she first tried to lodge a criminal complaint, she succeeded in August 2019, only for her alleged attacker to retaliate. The City Bank boss filed a series of counter criminal charges against her that same month, she says, adding that he used his close connections to politicians and heads of law enforcement agencies to support the charges, all of which she claims are bogus.
Later, when Popy gave an interview to Channel 71 about her experience, one member of parliament with links to her attacker telephoned the channel’s owner in a bid to stop the interview being broadcast. After the recent protests, Popy’s story was widely shared on social media. Soon after, officers from the Counter Terrorism Intelligence Bureau (CTIB) of the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) contacted some of those people who had shared her posts and threatened to take action against them if they did not remove them.
“He [her City Bank boss] has influenced political leaders, police and courts [using his] money and power,” she says. He remains in his ivory tower while “I have lost my job” and been left “humiliated and utterly devastated”. This, she adds, is all made possible thanks to Bangladesh’s “system of corruption”.
City Bank has not responded to a request for comments to the allegations made by Popy, though it has previously denied claims that she was sexually harassed. A police investigation found that there was no evidence to support her claims, and the courts also have refused to take up the case.
Responding to public anger over sexual violence, Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister of Bangladesh, has promised a “zero tolerance” policy for men who commit sex crimes, especially those within her own party and its youth and student wings. They too, the government has keenly underscored, will face the death penalty.
Retributive justice does little to deter sexual violence and nothing to dismantle the culture that promotes it, however. Further still, even if some among the Awami League rank and file are taken to the gallows, it seems unlikely that the top brass and their cronies will ever follow — no matter what their crimes. Instead, they remain untouchable.●
[City Bank has not responded to a request for comments by Netra News, to the allegations made by Monira Sultana Popy, though it has previously denied claims that she was sexually harassed. A police investigation found that there was no evidence to support her claims of sexual harassment, and the courts also have refused to take up her case.]
Susannah Savage is a journalist covering Bangladesh — she writes for The Economist, The Telegraph, the Financial Times and other publications.