Photo courtesy of Anjali Sarker

BANGLADESH: If You See a Woman Being Harassed and Do Nothing You Are Part of the Problem

Street harassment thrives on public silence. Anjali Sarker calls on all of us to take a stand.

If we are in a position to do something, but we don’t do it, the blood stains our hands too.

A few years ago, a male friend of mine slapped me and tugged my clothes on a busy street in Dhaka over an argument. He was just an average guy my age and we studied at the same university. But being a man, he dared to physically abuse me in broad daylight in front of a crowd.

He had already taken away my mobile phone to make sure that I was unable to call my family. I felt numb with fear. My senses stopped working. I caught a glimpse of a group of security guards who were standing just a few feet away, watching the drama. None of them bothered to interrupt and say, “What the heck is going on here?”

Now every time I notice an adult man walking towards me, my mind goes into special alert mode. I start calculating his expressions, appearance, age, movement, and speed of walking to determine what I should do if he comes too close to me. My brain has run this algorithm so many times that it takes only a fraction of a second to get the result and take action—sometimes I just cross the road, sometimes I start running. I know no-one is going to intervene to help me.

I’m not alone. In New Delhi, 40 percent of women have been sexually harassed in a public place such as a bus or park in the past year. Almost two-thirds of women in the UK say they were victims of unwanted sexual attention in public. The figure is even higher for women in Israel. What’s worse is that there are often witnesses to the abuse but they are too stunned, too scared or too indifferent to intervene.

On 20 March 2016, a 19-year-old girl was brutally raped and murdered in Comilla, a small city in Bangladesh. Ten days before that, a woman was gang-raped on a bus in India and her 14-day-old baby boy was killed by the rapists in front of her 3-year-old daughter.

Around the world, many women wonder daily if they will be able to reach home safely. It seems that for women and girls, safety is not a right, it’s a privilege.

It’s telling that while many people like the video of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau saying “I am a feminist” on Facebook, they still turn their faces away when a man gropes a woman on the street. Be it strangers harassing a schoolgirl in a busy city or an abusive husband beating his wife in a remote village, more often than not, there are people nearby who choose to ignore instead of act. This collective silence indirectly offers the perpetrators impunity.

Sometimes people are not sure what to do when they do witness harassment or they worry about their own safety. I acknowledge that sometimes people who intervene get hurt, as recently happened in Los Angeles, or even killed, as happened in Egypt, Germany, and Chicago.

But there are ways to reduce the risk. Thanks to the Internet, creative ideas that motivate bystanders to speak up are just a click away. Distractions and indirect interventions, such as asking for directions, asking for the time, talking loudly on the phone, or simply clearing one’s throat to make a noise, are easy ways to stand beside the victim. Women’s groups such as Polli Shomaj in Bangladesh and Gulabi Gangs in India have successfully shown that bystanders can make a real difference.

Every time a man looks at a woman in an obscene way and others nearby just turn away, he gets a simple message, “Enjoy. No one will stop you.” Encouraged, he may become bolder, and take things a step further. Leering may lead to whistling, whistling to groping, and groping to attempts to force a sexual encounter.

When an attack results in murder and becomes a media sensation, people watch the news feeling a sense of shock and pity for the victim. But they forget that the perpetrator didn’t become a rapist overnight. When he was a 10-year old boy and started whistling at the girls passing by, perhaps no one told him his behavior was inappropriate. Today, someone else paid the price.

I am not suggesting that we should stop talking about the victims of harassment. But we should also focus on those who witness the abuse. Women, men, victims, perpetrators, bystanders - we all are part of the conversation and we all have a role to play. However, discussion around this issue often solely focuses on women, leads to dos and don’ts for women, and pushes the burden of guilt towards women. If we are in a position to do something, but we don’t do it, the blood stains our hands too. So rather than pointing our fingers at women, please, can we instead ask ourselves this simple question? “Next time when I see someone being harassed, what will I do?”


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Comments

This is touching! Women are seen as weaker vessels and as such treated like that! We are all scared of getting involved and getting hurt, but the truth is when you are in a position to speak out against something and you did, you will discover that you are not alone and your boldness can help make a positive change!!  Together we can make the world a better place! 

DEBORAH OLUBUKOLA TAIWO

Dear Sister thank you very much for raising your voice on such an important issue which is being faced by every woman on this earth I believe, these men keep a bad eye on women out side and then keep own women in homes like prisoners because they know that  out side of home all men do the same thing so men should be changed and it will happen when boys will be told from day one to respect women inside and outside of home . 

 

Sister Zeph Founder & Chairperson ZWEEF

Winner of World Pulse Lynn Syms Global Prize 2014

Anjali, it was great to read your wonderful article about how sexual harassment becomes categorized according to the privilege. I wish the society was not built up like that. We already have hopes that sexual harassment will change in Bangladesh, but we are too reluctant to help people when it happens on streets,which means it will continue. I wish I could be as reactive as every woman expects when they experience sexual harrassment 

Amazing writing, Anjali! Your article is definitely immense food for thought and I cannot emphasize enough how important it is! Would love to connect and work with you. Please let us know if we can collaborate.   

Hello Anjalisaker, You are very good at writing! I was pleased to read your article here. You are right. Everyone plays a part in this street harrassment. I'm glad you see the problem so clearly. Whenever you have a chance to do training or education, I know you will include this. Keep talking about it, and you will bring about change.

Dear Anjali,

Reading your story brought to mind an incident i witnessed years ago, I was returning from a church service on the 1st of January. We were walking by a very notorious area that has very huge number of gangs and street urchins. about 4 young men belonging to one of the numerous gangs in that vicinity were dragging away a very young female while her father was pleading helplessly for his daughter to be released. He was desperate in his pleas and no one paid him any attention. It was so obvious what would be done to this young girl. I looked on helplessly with her father with silent pleas in my eyes for someone to speak up. No one ever seemed to act up to stop them. I watched as people walked a way after briefly casting short glances at the victim and her father. That scene has never left my memory till date. Every time I remember I shudder at the thought of what could have happened to that young girl. I agree with you that its important for people to not just stand by and watch but act to stop the violence when its happening around them. Thank you for reminding us again on the relevance of not just being bystanders who watch while abuse is taking place.

Ese

Dear Anjali,

Thank you for speaking out and sharing your story!

Well written article, you clearly spoke the mind and "fears" of many women.

Indeed, we all have a role to play.

Best,

Adanna

Dear Anjali,

I must say that this is an eye-opener. There is a popular parlance that "Silence means consent", which means that the only way to express disapproval is to speak out.

You have ignited the fire again. We all must unite to break the culture of silence!

Your story is inspiring! Thanks for sharing it!

In Partnership,

Aramide

 

Heal the World; Make it a Better Place!

I posted your story on my Facebook page.  We all are world citizens and have a responsibility to step in to help our fellow women and men.

I love this call to action. It's often easiest to just look away, but what a great reminder to speak up and out as bystanders.  We should feel this as our duty to fellow women. I also like that you also acknowledge bystander safety issues and offer some alternatives to direct confrontation. Thank you!

Thank you for posting your story, this was eyeopening. It's a sad day when in the 21st century, things like this are still happening without any intervention. I want to say that educating men is something society needs to work on but its so much more than that. How do we show men that it is not right to touch a women without their consent when the free world has elected a president that thinks its ok "to grab them by the pu**y"! This behaviour needs to stop and the only way this can happen is by saying something. If you see something, say something! I can only hope this will start a trend by which men don't think its right to hassel a woman, or grope a woman. Thank you again for sharing your story!

A very good reminder that its important for others to intervene when they notice something unwanted happening. The suggestion of  'distractions and indirect interventions' is a good point  because often as a female it is too dangerous to intervene directly. Its sad that a lot of women and girls for them safety is not a right, it’s a privilege. I hope this may change in the future and the world can become a place where all woman can feel safe, no matter what country/situation they are in xx

Thank you for sharing Anjali - this is such a great call to action, one that applies to all women in all countries.  Let's all be brave and united in our resolve to not standby as silent witnesses to any type of abusive behaviour.

A wonderful reminder to all to speak up when they see something. Thank you for sharing this with us  and reminding everyone we can make a difference.