During the Liberation War in 1971, Bangladeshi women disproportionately suffered and bore greater attrition than their male counterparts. The Pakistani Army and its allied Bengalis brutally raped nearly 400,000 women as a tactic to subdue the nation.
After Bangladesh was liberated on December 16, 1971, many women believed they would share in the new nation's freedoms and no longer face misogynistic subjugation. Without any fear or hesitation, they would also be able to roam freely and independently, and live anywhere in the country. Indeed, women expected that their state would at least ensure these fundamental freedoms and take initiatives to break the millennia-old patriarchal power structures—the primary culprit of all oppression and discrimination against women. Independence did not refer only to gain geographical autonomy. Different segments of people joined the war with disparate aspirations. For the elites, independence may be meant replacing displaced elites and becoming the nation's new rulers, but for the masses, independence meant getting socio-economic emancipation.
Particularly, women from all walks of life expected their state to work towards establishing the socio-economic and politico-legal equitability they had so long hoped for.
But the trust that women placed in their state at the dawn of independence soon evaporated as they quickly realized that the new state also bowed down to the old patriarchal dominance..
Immediately after independence, women were emboldened by hope and an initial trust. For the first time in history, they came out en masse into public places—a move that unnerved adherents to a deep-rooted chauvinist system. Thus, to swiftly quell these demonstrations of independence, misogynistic men started harassing, abducting, and raping women.
With utter dismay, women learned that their state failed to serve them justice. It did not take long time to dash women's hope of becoming an equal, dignified citizenry. Indeed, they found that they remained the same "second-class citizens" they had been in feudal or colonial eras—a realization that motivated them to think that without a strong feminist movement, they would be unable to emancipate themselves from the harsh, systemic patriarchal subjugation.
The embryonic feminist movement of the early 1970s has become a distinct and powerful force woven into the social fabric, striving to establish gender justice in every aspect of life. Though not all feminists speak with the same voice, they share a desire to alter the existing masculinist power structure and establish male-female equality.
Neither persistent gender injustices nor enduring gender violence could prevent these women from moving forward. Their gradual progression currently places them in such a distinctive position that they have become the chief contributors to the national economy upon which the very existence of patriarchy now itself depends. This accomplishment presented a new dynamic that the patriarchy had never faced in its traditional, male-dominated economic sectors.
The apparent rise of religious fanatics on the Indian subcontinent is a frantic response to women's dominance in economic sectors and an attempt to protect a masculinist culture seen as endangered by women's more prominent role in this sector. Although these political ideologies are seemingly antagonistic, they have one thing in common: extensively exploiting religion and traditional values to subjugate women and preserve conventional masculine power structures.
Followers of these extremist groups believe that women are biologically inferior and should not have equal rights and opportunities. Their major political enemies are women, as the bourgeoisie were to the communists or colonizers to nationalists. Supporters of these ideologies rely extensively on social media to spread the politics and culture of misogyny in a desperate bid to protect male dominance in society; for them, feminism is an "evil" ideology and halting it is crucial to protecting social integrity.
To keep the masculinist social fabric intact, followers of these fundamentalist ideologies continue to produce and reproduce the dominant paradigm of male chauvinism on the social media and religious gatherings. At present, the religious fanatic groups have effectively established a women's dress-centered discourse responsible for rape and sexual assaults. They passed the whole blame on women's clothing and lifestyle rather than accusing the perpetrators.
Another entrenched narrative is that the commodification and objectification of women are the leading cause of sexual harassment. Although men and children are also commodified in capitalism, the narrative only targets women and ignores the commodification of almost everything else in capitalism. There is a debate about whether commodification itself is good or bad or what would be the alternative of commodification.
Many critics believe that the commodification relatively or comparatively empowered women in capitalist patriarchy than in feudal economy. Notably, those who criticize women's commodification do not speak against capitalism—or advocate an alternative economy or socialism—because they believe that these systems at the very least give women a voice.
Lack of empowerment is the primary cause of sexual assault. Rape is not a sexual act; it is the brutal sexual domination of the powerful over the powerless. The source of the rapist's power is the patriarchal power structure and prevalent misogynist culture.
Given the fact, keeping the existing cultural and power structures intact by merely adopting harsh punishments would not eliminate rape. The aim is to establish gender equity, which requires breaking patriarchal socio-cultural-econo-legal-ideological power structures. Therefore, it is imperative to raise voices against patriarchy and the culture of misogyny—the main culprit of rape. In this case, the state must come forward and establish equal legal rights for women—the very first step toward breaking the gendered power structure.
The author is a faculty member at the School of Security and Global Studies at the American Public University System. He is the author of Water for Poor Women: Quest for an Alternative Paradigm.