The Lesser Sex
ROME, Aug 24 2016 (IPS) – Sakina’s glare is empty. Her defeated, glassy eyes scan the room passively. The subdued silence and withered frame expose her fragility.
As a young girl, she endured both the physical and emotional trauma that had aged her into a state of lifelessness.
Sakina’s childhood innocence had already been ruthlessly beaten away. She was only 12 years old.
Sakina’s expressionless stare showed indestructible detachment.
As hard as a rock, her inner turmoil had obligated her to push her emotions aside and live in a state of heartless survival.
However, once encouraged to voice the perils of her childhood, Sakina’s face softened.
The gushes of tears that flooded her eyes remind one of a coursing river that has burst at its banks, wild, chaotic and finally free of limitations.
Sakina articulated her experience of what can be considered years of irreversible trauma and abuse in her family home in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
“I remember my mother’s crushing custom of spitting venom. Her vicious words wounded me more than the beatings. Somehow, her malicious remarks always seemed to cut deeper than the whip.”
However, the root of Sakina’s abuse is not founded in ignorance or poverty.
The cause of her mother’s fury stemmed in her being a “kalluni”, a dark-skinned girl. She would never fare well in a marriage market so focused on the South Asian standard of “fair” beauty.
In spite of having grown up in a privileged manner, attended to by dozens of servants in a household of plenty, violence was rife within the four walls of what appeared to be “paradise” for those who could not look inside.
“I recall being locked in the bathroom for 2 days , deprived of food and water as a punishment for my disobedience. Most of the time, I felt like ending my life in that suffocating bathroom, I couldn’t take it any longer.” Sakina said.
When she was not being made to starve or dehydrate, she endured severe physical punishment under the wrath of both her mother and father, her younger brother never failing to report on the shame she brought on to the family once he discovered Sakina’s exchange of love notes with a local boy.
“There is one nightmarish memory that refuses to leave my mind. I shudder in fear when I think of it. It comes back to me in the form of a recurring dream, my mother’s snarling expression as she takes out a one and a half metre long whip , freshly chiselled from the branch of a “kadam” tree, thrashing me with it mercilessly, for hours on end.”
She paused to compose herself.
“The grotesque image of my blood spattered on the wall will never leave me” she stated.
Although Sakina’s tragic story happened over five decades ago, has Bangladesh made any radical change for the better in terms of female security and development?
It appears the great lengths the local government has gone to eradicate violence against women and young girls have not stretched far enough.
Even today, cases of abuse and violence against women and girls are commonplace in male-dominated Bangladeshi society.
Recently, a woman was reported to have been caned 101 times in rural community in Bangladesh for what was considered to be a shameless “extramarital affair” by the local village arbitration committee.
In reality, the “affair” was a case of breaking and entering as the woman shamefully labelled “adulteress” fought off a neighbor who entered her home by force.
In spite of this violation of privacy and act of male-perpetrated violence, the woman as the “weak” scapegoat was obligated to take the blame for the man’s reckless behaviour.
As a direct consequence, she was relentlessly beaten in the presence of 400 villagers. The final court ruling obligated her husband to conduct the caning.
Readers of the Daily Star Bangladesh report commented on the sheer barbarity and sexism of the caning as the male perpetrator of the attack’s sole punishment was 20 lashes.
Young women and girls in Bangladesh are punished for the crime of being the “lesser sex” on a daily basis. They are pushed into child marriages, slain for dowry and subjected to severe familial and marital acts of gender-based violence.
In many ways, young girls and women are seen as nothing more than “financial burdens” on the family.
There is far less investment in education and healthcare for young girls and women across Bangladesh and once they reach puberty, their mobility is heavily restricted.
As the high number of child marriage, gender-based acts of violence and adolescent motherhood soars, it is clear this growth surpasses the setbacks of social disparity and lack of education.
The UNICEF country programme document states that in spite of significant progress in the reduction of poverty and gender equity in the education system up to secondary level, gender bias still exists.
The document emphasises that “the low socio-economic status of women is reflected in the poor health services provided to them, their inadequate food intake and their limited decision-making authority. Early marriage, dowry practices and sexual harassment, as well as violence against children and women continue because of social acceptance and gender norms”.
In this sense, Sakina, in spite of her prestigious family name and affluent background, is just as much a victim of violent brutality as the isolated village woman who was mercilessly caned.
In South Asia and elsewhere, ruthless violence against young women knows no bounds, it unleashes itself in all classes of society, from the marginalised to the elite, like a threatening plague.
In most cases, the abuse is rooted in the home where girls decision-making power is most limited. Women’s “intrinsic role” relegates them into a position of subservience.
Violence within the home perpetrated by women who target other vulnerable young women and girls, much like in the case of Sakina and her abusive mother, are by far the most difficult cases to tackle as few have the courage to condemn and speak out against the actions of their own families.
In a recent research study, more than half of women interviewed aged between 15-49 experienced some form of physical or sexual violence in their homes.
Ironically, UNICEF has reported that even in the wealthiest quintile of society, 13 percent of girls are underweight, possibly due to food deprivation as a form of punishment.
Acid throwing, whipping, and sexual harassment are also common forms of violence perpetrated against women and young girls.
The rampant culture of violence and abuse has led many young women to contemplate suicide, as UNICEF reports suicide to be most common among girls aged between 14 and 17 in Bangladesh.
The need to implement gender-equal initiatives with the outcome of delimiting women and young girls mobility is vital. Through innovative education, the perpetrator of violence in Bangladesh will benefit just as much as the victim.
Through the widespread implementation of anti-violence initiatives, those most affected by abuse will come to realise that brutal castigation is by no means embedded in the national culture, nor is it an acceptable manner of monitoring and “controlling” female behaviour.
It is time women in Bangladesh and elsewhere speak out in the face of violence and realise that the open condemnation of abuse is key to addressing the entrenched discrimination against women and girls that dominate the nation.