One big hurdle down

Zahedul I Khan

Zahedul I Khan

Hana Shams Ahmed

[THE DAILY STAR, May 19, 2009]

JUST like it took the rape of three women students at Jahangirnagar University (JU) to recognise what an extreme form sexual harassment had taken at the universities it took the suicide of Art College student Simi Banu to bring to mass consciousness the extreme forms “eve teasing” has now taken in this country. And until the defiant JU students took to the streets in 1998, the mere concept of “sexual harassment” in educational institutions was only spoken about in hushed tones among girl students at the university halls.

But now it’s finally here — institutional recognition of sexual harassment. 11 years after the JU case, and many hundreds of silenced and vocal cases in between, the High Court has directed the government to make a sexual harassment law based on the guidelines drawn up by lawyers and human rights activists.

The effort by BNWLA lawyers to fight this case was very commendable. The news got even better when the High Court made another positive ruling in another case being fought by human rights organisations and eminent citizens — directing neutral authorities to re-open the sexual harassment case concerning a teacher of the drama department of JU.

Many of us never accepted the absurd reasons given by the JU university authorities for exonerating the teacher in the first place. The charges of sexual harassment filed against him by four girl students (and many others corroborating), the authorities found to be not “beyond reasonable doubt.” There were no eyewitnesses, they claimed. Those who were placed in mediating positions by the university authorities actually expected a teacher to carry out a sexually intimidating act in front of eyewitnesses!

Formal, written complaints from four girls who were putting their academic career on the line in such an unreceptive university environment should be substantial enough evidence against a person in authority to carry out an investigation. After the student campaign to get justice in the JU case failed, one of the girls who was very actively involved attempted suicide, but the authorities continued to show indifference.

Thankfully, the High Court decision negates the university authority’s wall of silence and non-cooperation. The court recognised that in cases of sexual harassment it is not always required to prove allegations. Although a group of JU teachers in collaboration with human rights activists had drawn up a set of guidelines against sexual harassment, they were never adopted by the authorities. Now, the guidelines accepted by the High Court will be applicable to all educational institutions, workplaces and even public places until a formal law is passed. There will also be a five-member harassment complaint committee headed by a woman at every workplace and institution to investigate allegations of harassment of women.

In Bangladesh more women are visible in the public sphere than ever before. And it is not just men who preach obscurantism under the veil of religion who are uncomfortable with this visibility. Supposedly progressive men who have gone through the mainstream education system and worked in supposedly progressive institutions too get uncomfortable and uncooperative at women’s presence in places formerly dominated by men.

This was recently illustrated in a meeting which discussed what problems are faced by women in work environments. These women complained that men who work with them form groups to bully them. From making sexually suggestive comments, to watching pornography in the women’s presence, it has all been experienced. One woman complained that she would often arrive at work and turn on her computer to find that someone had replaced her wallpaper with a nude woman’s photo.

Drishtipat recently organised an event, Ey Poth Amadero, to raise awareness about eve teasing in public places. The JU students and a section of the progressive teachers have been writing and campaigning against sexual harassment for years. The two High Court judgements are just a first step against a form of exploitation that has been put up with for too long.

Now come the challenges of next steps. How quickly will the government pass the comprehensive laws required by these court decisions? How many educational institutions and workplaces will abide by these guidelines? Will employers and administrative authorities be open to recognise this abuse that is all-pervasive? The acid test of the success of this HC directive will only come in its actual implementation.


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