Recently, a chain message floated on the Facebook messenger where female Facebook users requested each other to keep their profile pictures black condemning the recent incidents of rape in Sylhet MC college and Begumganj Upazila in Noakhali.
The text read "It's a movement to show what the world might be without women. Your profile photo should just be a black square so that men wonder where women are. Pass it only to women. It's for a protest against woman abuse,".
The Blackout movement itself became debated in the country as it was perceived differently by divergent interactions of Facebook users. Multiple meanings were suggested by and about the users based on their different socio-cultural and political context. Is the Blackout movement as trivial as commonly perceived or Blackout movement socially matters?
Violence is on the increase in Bangladesh. Over the years Bangladesh has turned into a country with the highest rate of rapes and sexual assaults. A culture of impunity and social degradation is responsible for the increase of rape culture in Bangladesh.
According to recent statistics, at least four women a day were raped in the last five months in Bangladesh. In reality, the number is more than this: we do not get the actual numbers due to social attitudes towards the raped person. The victim faces greater slights and contempt than the rapist in this patriarchal society.
The recent gang-rape case in Sylhet MC college and Begumganj Upazila in Noakhali went viral and an outpouring of anger was unleashed on social media. Facebook became a platform of social protest against these unending incidents of rape, sexual harassment, and torture against women in Bangladesh. Hundreds of women and students have protested on social media.
The protest is called the "Blackout movement" where female Facebook users turn their Facebook profile picture black. Women mostly shared images of black squares in solidarity with raped victims and expressed a demand for justice.
Some criticize the movement while some embrace the digital protest. But a correlation should have been made between face to face protest and the digital one. This is where folklorist's concern and research can elaborate on how every small thing is significant for society. As a discipline Folklore looks at both micro and macro moments of a society that works not in a direct interaction but it is no way less significant, rather small event shapes the big experience.
The Blackout movement is not a truly new event happening in Bangladesh. Before Bangladesh, in many other countries' women protested virtually to express their concern about sexual violence.
The origin of the blackout movement can be traced to the United States and the Black Lives Matter movement, dating back to 2013 as a response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
Hashtags associated with the movement are used for a range of purposes, from posts in solidarity to activists sharing information about attending protests to the documentation of police brutality.
Later, a "Blackout Tuesday" protest was organised by two black women working in the music industry: Jamila Thomas, senior director of marketing at Atlantic Records, and Brianna Agyemang, a former Atlantic executive who is now the senior artist campaign manager at Platoon.
After that many countries protested through digital protest to express the solidarity of seeking justice. The thriving rape cases influenced to shape digital protest in the name of the blackout movement in Bangladesh.
The response to digital protest is split into two groups: one group that disapproves of the blackout movement and another that takes part in it. The basic arguments of those who criticize the digital protest are that it is not logical to make a profile hidden with Black Square to have justice.
Some posted on social media that women should not hide their faces to seek justice: rather they need to be brave and come out in the road to protest the violence against women. The blackout profile pictures, or frames, or the sharing of particular images are symbolic acts.
They are, almost literally, the least one can do to express solidarity. Cynics might emphasise the meagerness of the action, that it replaces real protest with a single mouse click. It is a performative social act.
But even though the gesture is small it is not meaningless, so the non-cynic could counter with "it may not be much, but if repeated enough it speaks volumes." Denouncing the modest actions of blackout seems to introduce divisions between people who are ostensibly on the same side, and detract from the true targets: rape culture and patriarchy.
A protest is a kind of festival: a reconfiguration of the public space by a mass of people who collectively direct attention to an issue. Some are more performative than others, but even choosing to be in attendance with little contribution save for spectating is a contribution of sorts.
The audience completes the performance. It is a small gesture but it keeps the "social performance" going on.
The Blackout movement exhibited common people's engagement, and understanding of, and even a sense of responsibility for violence against women in society. It reflects a unique form of social responsibility.
When there is little room for protest especially in the current lockdown due to Covid-19 Blackout movement has become a space for expressing people's protest over the issue that James Scott defines as an everyday form of resistance (1985).
The everyday form of resistance takes new forms through digital protest. Some researchers call it a protest made by the powerless against the powerful. When official protest or criticisms are dissuaded to circulate, people fall back on the small mechanism or unofficial protest.
Informal practices like making one's profile picture black are one form of everyday resistance. It is less direct and disguised, unclear, anonymous, and thus creates a symbolic form of resistance. The covid-19 has lessened the virtual-reality distinction and amid pandemic, Blackout movements is therefore not a trivial protest.
Niger Sultana, Asst. Professor, Dept. of Folklore, Jatiya Kabi Kazi Nazrul Islam University, Trishal, Mymensingh.