Bangladesh’s southern Feni District recently saw 16 individuals, including school students and a headmaster, charged with the murder of Nusrat Rafi, a 19 year-old student who was burned alive on the roof of a local Islamic seminary. Nusrat had accused the headmaster of harassment, landing him a temporary jail sentence in a local prison, from which he ordered Nusrat’s callous murder when she refused to rescind her harassment complaint, symbolising a wrath ingrained by a deeply patriarchal society against those seeking justice.
Musa Manik, the father of Nusrat, described her as “an innocent girl”, who raised her voice against injustice and died brutally because of this. “Now I want justice for her,” he concluded in his statement. Nusrat’s death leaves Musa emotionally rallying for justice for the sake of his daughter and women as a whole. More so, the Police Bureau of Investigation (PBI), as the primary organisation pursuing the justice Nusrat’s family so desperately seeks, intends to “recommend the death penalty for all 16 accused,” as quoted by Mohammed Iqbal, the lead investigator (AFP news agency).
The wider context of this heinous crime must be considered; Maleka Banu, Head of Mahila Parishad, a national woman’s rights organisation, expressed the urgent need to develop safeguards for vulnerable Bangladeshi women. She stated that “ensuring that the Nusrat case is taken care of is not enough. We need to do a lot more to make the situation better for Bangladeshi women”. Maleka’s empowering sentiments are understandably necessary given the dismal statistics; 14% of rural Bangladeshi men openly admitted to rape, citing entitlement as the overwhelming reason (United Nations). More historically, the independence struggle from West Pakistan (present day Pakistan) – in which the army used mass rape as a means of instilling fear and intense powerlessness – and the British introduced ‘2 finger test’, which tests women’s virginity by the most gruesome means, infected the Bangladeshi psyche. These events bred a culture of shame and encouraged shying away from reporting harassment, a curse that the Bangladeshi consciousness remains trapped in.
More than anything, the willingness of the suspects to commit a callous murder on the roof of an Islamic seminary, a religion deeply enshrined in respect for the female gender, lifts the veils on a deeply patriarchal society, decorated in elements of blame, shame and guilt. In essence, a hidden and fractured national core, tainted with the ruins of colonial legacy and struggles for independence, manifested itself onto a religious institution; concerning upon contrast to an egalitarian Islam. “No big deal,” stated the police officer who illegally filmed Nusrat’s accusation against her headmaster, aptly conveying this sour picture. In essence, the victim bears the burden of shame for the family, as a synonym for the threat to familial reputation resulting from the victim’s courageous accusation towards an individual of greater perceived status.
Despite her gruesome murder, Nusrat’s courage to speak up symbolises a beacon of female empowerment in Bangladesh. Her courageous actions shed light on the pertinent cultural issues which continue to germinate gender inequality, encouraging politicians, rights groups and citizens alike to look inwards before making the necessary institutional changes. Positive signs are already emerging, including Bangladesh securing first place in gender equality amongst South Asian countries for the second year running in the Gender Gap Index 2017, and the introduction of Northern Area Reduction Initiative (NARI). NARI is a World Bank project seeking to facilitate female participation into less traditional industries, encouraging female support networks outside of the family village, with the intention to teach how to recognise signs of harassment, economic rights and exercising empowerment.
Image: Family Handout.