Our lives, as women, in Bangladesh, are founded on a twisted interpretation of “Honour”. This concept is based not on honesty, integrity and fairness, but rather on some perceived “worthiness” and “respectability”. In this light, the Bangladeshi family is viewed as a unit of honour, and the family affects a woman’s identity and social standing; simultaneously, there exists a mutual feedback loop wherein a woman’s conduct, and how it is perceived by others and the society at large, has an impact on the family.
Therefore, it becomes important for us to fulfil the expectations held by family and society in order to be accepted and to experience feelings of belonging to this central institution that we are tied to through birth or marriage.
Unfortunately, the reality of maintaining this honour in our lives is often at odds with our own individual freedom, choice, will or achievement. Our lives are not based on “freedom”, on “liberty” or on the ability to live within a free spirited space. Yet, as a nation, as a society, collectively, we pride ourselves on values such as freedom and democracy.
There is a great deal of research on-going on women across the world, and specifically in South Asia. Increasingly, there are cold hard statistics that clearly indicate escalating levels of violence against women. Missing in these numbers are numerous unreported nightmares faced by women in trying to reconcile with their place in society. No amount of progress in terms of education, class, and development has resulted in the evolution of our society.
Every move, every decision that a woman takes must ensure that this honour is restored. So, when a girl is raped or sexually abused by family members, it becomes a secret that must be kept forever, because it will hurt the “honour” or the social standing of the family. Honour, then, is far more important than any damage created within the daughters of families. So, the daughters of these numerous honourable families go through abuse thrice in their lifetime- first, when the actual event occurs; second, in the aftermath of dealing with trauma for a lifetime, and third, dealing with the silence and ignorance of her family.
Even outside of the family boundaries, if a woman is sexually harassed, abused or raped, it is still her duty to keep the honour of her family intact. If she does stand up and fight it, which entails breaking away from silence and talking about it, will invariably hurt the honour of the family, of the acquaintances, of the greater society. Starting from families and the greater society, everyone will continue to use their combined forces to “justify” rape or any form sexual assault- “she was not honourable enough”, she was not dressed appropriately”, “It must have been her fault” and more.
The streets tell women that sexual harassment is all right and honour has a different meaning than we think. Being grabbed, being pinched, being verbally abused is normal. ‘A little bit of sexual abuse is all right and it is common’, that’s what they will tell you. Silence is the “key”. Who would appreciate a woman standing up in the street and creating a chaos? This is definitely not respectful or honourable in the eyes of our society.
Even in a marriage, it must be the woman who must keep that honour intact. Once you sign up, no amount of violence or emotional abuse is justified enough for a decision for walking away. It is the woman’s duty to maintain the honour of her family and her in-laws. Being pushed or thrown by your husband, in the middle of a fight, is simply a moment of anger and nothing more. It in no way indicates violent tendencies. Leaving is often not the first choice a woman is able to take, because walking out leads to series of battles with their own families and the entire society.
Honour even extends to our achievements as women. How can you, as a woman, achieve so much in your work place or in your career? How can an honourable woman put her career first? There must have been something wrong. It is not about intelligence or efficiency or anything more.
It does not end. Honour extends to how we, as women carry ourselves. From what we wear, to what we do, to whom we mingle with, and what we say, is constantly under scrutiny. If you are a daughter of an honourable family, if you are the wife of an honourable husband, if you are a mother, you must maintain the norms that this society has created for you and live up to the expectations that the society has carefully designed for you.
It never ends, really. Not from birth; not even till our very last breath.
Many men, and unfortunately women themselves, too, believe that the well-being of the entire society lies on the shoulders of a woman and, more importantly, in her ability to suffer every wrong, in utter and submissive silence. This means that, while there will be many legal and technical arguments, the actual arena in which all cases of violence against women may be won or lost are the hearts and minds of the ordinary men and women of our society. Because it is really not the law alone that has failed to prevent violence against women; it is the collective, colossal force of prejudice, chauvinism and insensitivity of this very society that has brought us where we are. Unless we change this mindset, unless we change the fundamentals through which we shape a woman’s place in this society, we will continue the twisted legacy of imposing our perverse sense of honour on our daughters, and on women for decades to come.
Tahmina Shafique works in an international development agency in Bangladesh. She is a part of VDAY Dhaka and a member of the core organizing group of One Billion Rising Campaign Bangladesh.