The recent assault case of an O level student by her boyfriend has brought out the idea of importance of sex education. The bulk of our population does not want to call the incident rape as the assailant was her boyfriend and the girl travelled to meet him of her own volition. Instead, they frame this act as part of their implied love. People try to excuse the matter by saying whatever happened was with the approval of the two of them: "They were lovers, so how could it be rape?"
The majority of our adults are now using social media. Due to the existence of social media, it is an easy task to obtain a mass insight into any event. In the comment boxes of news portals or personal Facebook posts, people displayed their support for the rapist and blamed the victim.
The support for the rapist made me very surprised and I wanted to explore why the majority of our population is supporting the rapist. We cannot get the answer from people by asking directly why they suppose the murder was not a criminal offense in this instance. Culture is a convoluted and often cryptic thing, made up of layers upon layers of intertwined symbols and signs.
So it is inconvenient to assume a culture instantly: rather, as social researchers, we need to discover and construe the meaning of cultural practices that are not noticeable on the surface. There are a plethora of issues, beliefs, and practices we do not consider significant for research, but they determine the culture as a whole.
Daily life experience comprises every silly item of gossip, jokes, proverbs, slangs, and beliefs, which are so pervasive and influential that they construct the broad communal mindset. To understand what can be termed as 'the rape culture', I therefore want to explore the quotidian experience of people. In this matter, anthropological research can assist in revealing the actual situation.
The anthropologist Clifford Geertz brought the concept of 'thick description' into the parlance of the discipline, defined as "the detailed account of experiences in which the researcher makes explicit the patterns of cultural and social relationships and bring them into context." Geertz recognized that as an anthropologist one should try to include as much detail of a cultural event, situation, and environment. To get that sort of detail it is mandatory to be very informal with the people or culture we study.
To understand the current contested issue, I went very informal with people I studied.I chatted with them regarding their understanding of sex, sexuality, and rape. I will discuss their PENs (Personal Experience narratives) to uphold a thick description of the issue. The following narrative was taken from one of my close female kinsfolk. She was telling me about an event about a girl who was taken to the hospital on her wedding night.
"I was at the hospital after my C-section for my second baby, in the observation room. Another girl was also admitted that night. It was her wedding night. Her husband and her sister-in-law brought her to the hospital. She was bleeding profusely and had fainted. Every girl has two hymens. One hymen breaks after menstruation: another during the first intercourse. The girl did not have a period in her life and never discussed the matter with anyone. So when she got married, when her husband was trying to have intercourse with her, she went through terrific pain and started this abnormal bleeding. The husband got scared and he called the bride's sister-in-law. The condition of the girl was so critical that they later brought her to the hospital. It happens to many girls. But it is very regretful that despite being an educated girl she never discussed the matter with anyone."
The narrative discussed here is the general scenario of how people understand the female body. The idea of two hymens is totally wrong and there can be many reasons for breaking the hymen, though most people do not consider anything other than sexual intercourse.
Why do people not have an accurate idea of the human body? It's because people only get their information about bodies and sexual intercourse through an unofficial process. People come to know about the matter from close relatives and friends, getting 'knowledge' of sex and sexual intercourse mainly through storytelling, jokes, and contemporary legends. In most cases, they pass along misconceptions about these ideas that are then carried for the rest of one's life.
Another narrative represents how people understand sexual intercourse. The narrator is a very good friend of mine and shared the experience of her first intercourse.
"On my wedding night, I was so scared. I heard from someone that sexual intercourse is something very painful so I did not allow my husband to have it with me. He was very disturbed by my behavior and a trust issue began between us at the very beginning of my married life."
It is very common practice to make girls scared about sexual intercourse but, in contrast, males are rarely taught to be frightened about the matter. Knowledge gleaned from the experiences of close relatives or friends are emotionally more trustworthy than information from textbooks. So narratives can easily produce fear about sexual intercourse. It produces the idea of the desexualized reproductive female body as an ideal norm for women and frames the idea of respect and dignity within it. The ideal woman will never question the nature of the fear that society teaches her about sexuality.
Socially it is maintained as a peculiar or taboo topic to discuss for females, so the [mis]information they get from relatives, friends they trust as truth. One report by UNESCO says one out of three girls in some countries have no idea of what is happening to them when they begin menstruating.
Moreover, although males are more open than females in discussing sexuality, still there are some gaps in the accurate information about the human body, sex, and sexuality among boys and men. A male may find the topic of sex entertaining within close groups, but it is also an integral part of human lives with aspects that remain unconsidered.
Society teaches men to be economically solvent to get a girl to marry, but they are neither taught about the female body, nor issues about consent, what is allowed, and what is not. Society never teaches its members, and particularly women, when they are allowed to say no.
Sex Education! More than Sex
To form a family both men and women need to know the process of menstruation, need to understand their sexual anatomy and different types of sexual activity, the ovulation cycle, and so forth. It is important for many reasons, including having accurate knowledge of reproduction and puberty.
Ideally, this form of learning provides guidelines about the importance of relationships and friendships and increases awareness about health and sexually transmitted diseases. Sex education lessons would include basic male and female anatomical structures and physiology, where these structures are located, and their function related to sexual activity and reproduction.
During the transitional period from childhood to adulthood, there is so much curiosity that happens in the human mind about the human body, relationships, and sexuality. During this time, they get answers to their questions from unofficial channels full of misconception and conflicting information. Comprehensive sex education can aid people by making them more informed, and thus they will make safer choices and have a healthier life.
The overall population has the wrong idea about sex education when they do not support policies to introduce sex education into the curriculum. The religious ideologies and traditions are thought to be in conflict with sex education. Those who believe they are speaking for the Muslim majority in our country feel that adopting sex education in our curriculum will make them bad Muslims.
There is also a misconception that by imposing sex education for adolescents the country will be a 'free sex country'. People need to know that sex education is not something that will go against their religious practices. Knowing the science about the human body would not make them bad Muslims: rather Islam as a religion is open to discussing science. In the holy Quran and some hadith, there are suggestions about man-woman relationships and preparation before intercourse.
The policymakers should be sensitive to local people's cultural and religious practices while implementing sex education in the curriculum, and folk cultures and their everyday practices should be kept in mind as they help to shape people's behaviors and responses to any events. In this aspect, anthropologists can assist 'Sex Education' professionals and educators by encouraging them to view the issue of sexuality from the cultural perspective.
Niger Sultana, Assistant Professor, Department of Folklore, Jatiya Kabi Kazi Nazrul Islam University, Trishal, Mymensingh.