Women in any place on earth have been a target of sexual violence and attacks. Bangladesh is no different. Women’s groups over the years have been on the streets protesting and providing follow up and succor to the those who have borne the brunt of this, as well as worked towards bringing the issue to the forefront of the discussions on basic human rights and the right for all women to be able to live without fear and to be able to survive in security. So why the need right now to take action against this everyday ongoing occurrence? Everyday is a good day, as everyday women are facing a severe violation of their rights over freedom of movement in public spaces, of their right to live in peace and without fear in their own homes and workplaces, However, in Bangladesh, this year, a series of incidents took place which made the need to raise our voice for our Revolution even stronger and urgent.
14 April is the Bengali New Year. From early dawn till late into the night everyone dresses most colourfully to participate. Hundreds and thousands of people gather together. At the break of dawn, the day begins, under the huge tree in our central park, with singing. The crowds are so huge there is no place to stand sometimes and the roads are chock-a-block with people, so no cars can enter. At noon, there is a carnival parade and in the evenings, songs, moving around, eating street food etc. This year was no different until the afternoon. Around 5 pm, in front of the Teacher Student Centre at the University of Dhaka, where the crowds were very thick at that time, an organised group of men dispersed into smaller groups, and suddenly at what appeared as a preplanned timing, started blowing whistles. Each group would then surround a woman, separate her from the people she was with, and began stripping her. This happened simultaneously in about 6 to 7 spots around the same location. The background of the statue of the protest of our youth almost as if bearing witness to this. What was worrying is that many people were there, who did not come forth to help these women. One young woman, with her adolescent daughter, too was not spared. When a student of the University came to rescue and stop this, he was beaten up, his arm broken. The police were standing there doing nothing even after they were told to intervene. The University authorities were equally nonchalant.
A series of protests began. When the student wing of the group which protested, tried to meet the chief of police to give a memorandum, almost a week after the incident, to protest at the inaction of the government the group was beaten, particularly targeting a young female student. She was kicked, her hair was pulled and about 3 to 4 police were after her. This sparked a series of even more protests! CCTV cameras showed who the perpetrators of the 14 April violence were, yet the authorities were lax or reluctant to act in any way whatsoever. Meanwhile, other incidents of rape and violence took place, around the time the protests were on, one being the rape of a young indigenous woman in a moving van. When she was thrown out of the car, she managed to get home, her sister and aunt who she lived with, went to four police stations to record their complaint. Her medical examination was deliberately delayed. The whole nation seemed stunned and then outraged! Later on the rapists were identified, the public has no idea what happened next. If they were brought under trial, the media would definitely have reported.
What those of us protesting throughout this time noticed was that it was the same group of activists and feminists who were on the street. What could we do to engage the general public? One of our young activists, suggested why not have a public concert. Bring in popular bands, who are committed to fighting violence, to not only sing but make to a statement. The idea was agreed on, and the venue chosen was the exact spot where the harassment of women and the stripping during the Bengali New Year. We raised funds locally, the date chosen was 15 May, being a weekend and a month after the original incident happened. Everything was ready. The stage was built, sound system, lights all were in place. The artists, bands all ready. Just half an hour before the concert was to begin, it started to rain, it poured, it came down in torrents. There was no sign of letting up. The light an sound system guys were unwilling to risk their equipment even if the artists were willing to sing in the rain, and we were sure the audience would come. Unfortunately, we had to pack up. We were all so dejected. All the money we raised ourselves, personal donations went to naught. Literally washed down the drain.
On hearing of what happened and the difficulties we were facing with raising funds once again, One Billion Rising decided to support the organizers. This time the date we chose was 14 June, exactly two months to the day after the Bengali New Year. We took no chances. Heavy tarpaulin covering was ensured to make sure that nothing would happen to the equipment. We were not sure if people would come, since we had cancelled the concert before. When we first began at the dot of 4 pm there were very few people in the audience. Then it started to rain. Hearing the music people came, braving the rain, they brought out their umbrellas. Luckily the rains stopped. We then had one of Bangladesh’s top stars. He came on stage and a huge surge of people just appeared. No standing room. At the end he made the audience take an oath against sexual harassment. Either they themselves harassing others, or not taking a stand. We, the organisers spoke out also. We said it was time for men to act, to protest, to unite with women’s groups. As each group began, the crowds started increasing. It was a sea of people, no standing room, even if it was on one of our major crossroads, a large intersection, very wide streets, everything was jam packed. Our young volunteers were alert, not a single incident of sexual harassment of any kind. We had to forcibly stop the concert at midnight. I never counted how many people came as it was open air, on the streets, but a conservative estimate would be a minimum of 50,000 but what people who usually organise such massive rallies told me that it was easily a hundred thousand. Mostly men, but men got the message, each band, each singer was clear in giving the message loud and clear. Over 15 singers and Bands participated All for free as part of their contribution and to express their solidarity with us. We have to now bring them into this year’s One Billion Rising events. We had all kinds of singers, indigenous bands, fusion bands, hard rock bands, populist bands and some of our best known singers.
Photos below were provided by event organiser and One Billion Rising Coordinator Khushi Kabir