Every serious conversation about rape gets hijacked by pointlessness
Bear with me for a moment, if you will.
In my early 20s, for the span of about a year or so, I became supremely aware of an intolerable injustice that had become invisibly pervasive in society. It became increasingly apparent to me that men, especially young men like me who had seemingly desirable qualities as human beings but were not very good looking or were not financially fortunate, were being villainized by women and society at large.
It seemed to me that women had, over the course of the 20th century, utilized their role as victims in order to manipulate society into believing two completely contradictory things simultaneously: One, that they had always been treated as the weaker sex throughout history even though they were perfectly capable human beings who could do anything a man could.
And two, in certain situations, they were, in fact, weaker, for example physically, and deserved special treatment and assistance because, otherwise, they wouldn’t be able to protect themselves. Or because their history of oppression had prevented them from becoming competent in some way or the other. Or because a certain trait was not a weakness at all and was, in fact, a source of immense strength that we had not understood before.
As an under-confident and awkward young man desperately seeking what I deemed to be love and, perhaps more importantly, to have my thoughts heard, my opinions validated, and my existence understood, the former of the two appealed to me enormously. An equal society would mean that I, as a man, would be valued as much as a woman in every sphere of society, even romantically, and I would not be expected to exhibit traditional masculine qualities -- I could be shy and meek and awkward, sensitive to confrontation, unable to assess my own value as a person, filled with doubt, and still be considered attractive.
But, of course, as time passed, my experiences told me otherwise. It became apparent to me that the latter was true -- we had been duped. I waited for women to approach me, to find my jittery self-consciousness charming, to delve with curiosity into my mind, bursting as it was with thoughts unique, revelations profound, emotions unfathomable.
Observe me, standing in the corner of a room filled with music and youth, leaning against a wall, scrolling through my phone with erudite pseudo-nonchalance, performing for an audience that does not exist, waiting to be recognized as a heart-breaking work of staggering genius.
Observe me observe and see this: Hot girls dancing and making out with abusive douchebags, giving away their bodies to men who had done nothing to deserve the pleasure.
Observe me fill with a quiet rage and leave, traversing across an era of immense digitization, uninhibited capitalism, and Third World industrial revolution to arrive at the doorstep of a permanently present internet, filled with identities unlimited, where every opinion and every struggle could be validated by a community of like-minded individuals, even mine.
This rage transformed and evolved over the course of several months into an ideological stance, one which did not only concern itself with the romantic landscape but also sought to look after and protect the rights of the male human being, who was currently being persecuted with an unacceptable level of hypocrisy.
In virtual communities, I found my rage reflected in words written eloquently, spoken scientifically, spewed vehemently by identities whose alphanumeric usernames were able to provide me with a semblance of interconnectedness heretofore never experienced in my life.
One problem, different solutions
And while the rage, especially its birth, was mostly similar amongst my new cohorts, their actions and solutions differed. Some wished to bring back stereotypical gender roles because, they argued, men and women were inherently different as physical beings and, as such, were better suited for certain jobs (such as homemaker or nurse) instead of others (such as CEO or engineer).
Others wanted to “go their own way” and live a life devoid of women, seeking self-fulfillment and rejecting the extremely tempting allure of sexual gratification, which had increasingly become a tool through which women control men.
Certain others had transformed the landscape into a game which one had to play and, if one paid attention and learned the rules, they could very well win and become successful where success, in most cases, meant sexual contact.
Some started to propose extreme measures. Violence, they said, was where the answer lay, if we were to have any chance of society recognizing our struggles as men. Sometimes, conversation threads took dark turns: Rape, they claimed, was what women deserved, after what they had done to us. Some of these people would go on to congregate, create, and nurture communities which would become infamous for producing lone wolves.
Increasingly uncomfortable with these increasingly violent narratives, many left, unable to accumulate the necessary amount of rage or, as is natural, grew up or graduated or fell in love and left their frustrations behind, coming to the healthy realization that such bitterness is not only unwarranted, small-minded, grotesque but, at the end of the day, it is based on the ignorant experiences of hormonal youth. As did I.
Did similar frustrations continue to exist? Sure, but it became evident that people are complex individuals, and that attraction is a multifaceted experience that, while patterned, could not be governed by singular experiences, by winners and losers, by all-encompassing generalizations.
Many, however, could not leave, stuck as they were inside their bubble of frustration. A few months later, on May 23, 2014, Elliot Rodger, a 22-year-old young man, went on a killing spree in Isla Vista, California, killing six people and then himself. Part of his 107,000-word manifesto read: “I’ve been forced to endure an existence of loneliness, rejection, and unfulfilled desires all because girls have never been attracted to me. Girls gave their affection, and sex, and love, to other men but never to me. I’m 22 years old and I’m still a virgin. I’ve never even kissed a girl … It’s not fair. You girls have never been attracted to me. I don’t know why you girls aren’t attracted to me, but I will punish you all for it. It’s an injustice, a crime … I’m the perfect guy and yet you throw yourselves at these obnoxious men instead of me, the supreme gentleman.”
I was 23 years old myself, just a year younger, sharing July as our birthday months, finding in his manifesto some of my very own thoughts. And, I think, so did many of you.
Seven years later, the world is gripped by the coronavirus pandemic while Bangladesh is gripped by a more man-made disease: Rape. One particular incident in Noakhali stands out as being especially unpalatable, the gruesome story having played out over the course of several months, that too at the hands of an all-too-familiar political entity. Protests pop up, demanding justice.
We are told that, in the first nine months of 2020, almost a thousand women were raped of whom 208 were gang raped. This means four women are raped every day in Bangladesh on average. This is discounting the hundreds of thousands of rapes, including marital rape, which went unreported or unrecognized.
The answer is clear without necessitating the asking of a question: This must stop. Rape isn’t a new phenomenon. Perpetrators must be punished to the fullest extent of the law. Safety is a basic right and law enforcement must do everything they can to ensure that women have that right. Economic progress alone is not enough. And so on and so forth.
However, in the midst of this national conversation, two types of contributors to the narrative gain traction for attempting to provide an answer or solution to the problem.
The existence of the former is disheartening but expected and, generally speaking, comprises the working class, people on the streets you and I most likely will never befriend or form close relationships with, people the media love to interview in order to highlight stereotypical retrograde notions.
They have the classic responses. Their greatest hits incorporate the victim’s clothes, the time of day, and the uncontrollable urges of men, among others -- the one place where women suddenly have all the agency afforded to them.
And these views are by no means exclusive to a particular class -- many of our friends, uncles, and parents have expressed similar sentiments, but they tend to be more hidden, sometimes a tad subtler than the crassness displayed on TV. The changing of their viewpoints and attitudes will require widespread reforms across an endless list of sectors: Education, law enforcement, economy, etc.
But it is the existence of the second group which highlights perhaps a more dangerous attitude and consists almost entirely of young men from well-to-do families, who most likely have acquired or are in the process of acquiring a university degree.
Angry young men
On account of the language in which I am writing, the newspaper I am writing for, and my socio-economic status, I can make certain assumptions about my audience, one of them being that they have had similar experiences to mine, from upbringing to schooling to ideologies.
Which naturally pushes me towards my second assumption: A significant percentage of my audience consists of people from this particular group of passionate young men, a demographic I, too, once belonged to. It is as a member of this group that I spent my early to mid-20s, and for a brief moment in time, foraged into the bitter netherworld of anti-feminism, misogyny, and entitlement, all three terms that the educated young man from Dhaka knows to reject, and believes in the truth of that rejection.
One of the most common arguments against policies or conversations which promote equity, such as affirmative action and awareness campaigns which prioritize women and emphasize their empowerment, involves responding with a question: “What about men?”
This response comes in a few other forms: “What about men’s rights?” or “Are women’s rights more important than men’s rights?” or “How can there be equality when there is explicit preferential treatment?” or, to be more relevant to this moment, “What about the rape of men? That happens too.”
Similar to the All Lives Matter movement, this particular line of response involves a hidden assumption. For example, “Black lives matter (but white lives don’t)” or, in this case, “Women are getting raped every day (but men aren’t).”
Some other examples: “Women deserve to be paid as much as men for the same amount of work (but men will be expected to pay more or adopt a greater financial burden)” or “Let us celebrate International Women’s Day (but not International Men’s Day because they do not deserve to be celebrated)” or “Patriarchy has created a society that harms women (and only women; men are not affected at all).”
In most cases, this group argues against the assumption without addressing the initial premise. Imagine you go up to a friend whose mom has been admitted to the hospital and, subsequently, ask them how she’s doing only to be responded to with this: “Why don’t you ever ask about my dad? Don’t you care about him at all?”
The increased importance of something at this very moment does not negate the importance of other things. When firefighters try to rescue people from a burning building, do you feel it fit to ask: “What about my life? Why aren’t you trying to save me?”
Before my dishonourable discharge as a white knight, why not spend a minute or two considering the circumstances which surround a victim even before the rape occurs? Does she live in the village? Does she have her own source of income? If not, is it because she was not allowed? If yes, is this what she really wanted to do? How many years of education did she receive? Was it less than that of her brothers and husband?
How many children does she have? Did she have a choice in the matter? Does she own property? Will she inherit property? If so, will she inherit the same amount as her brothers? Has she been harassed, assaulted, or molested before in her life? If yes, did she bring it to anyone’s attention? Was she believed? Was action taken? Was the perpetrator sent to jail?
Is her worth as a person inherently tied to her role as a producer of children and provider of sexual gratification? Is her value as an individual dictated by how physically attractive she is deemed to be, that too based on the colour of her skin? Did she have to leave her home after she got married? Is it as safe for her to go outside of her house as it is for her male counterparts?
Does the very act of leaving the house require in-depth calculations of time of day, type of clothing, and company? Are comments about her body expected occurrences which must be adapted to in order to survive in the country? Does being alone with a man always carry a slight risk or threat of violence? Is there a pervasive attitude in society that constantly assesses her as a stereotype when she attempts to do something untraditional?
Were her parents disappointed with her arrival as their child? Was she a victim of child marriage? If she’s working and pregnant, will her place consider the situation or replace her immediately? If they do consider, will the extent of her career progression be limited? Does the law only recognize her value in conjunction with her relationship with her father or husband?
Does the existence of affirmative action or any sort of attempt to increase her value as a member of society result in a discussion regarding how we can eventually make affirmative action unnecessary or, counterproductively, is the society she lives in so blind to the overwhelming number of challenges she has had to overcome to live a normal life that they see it as a privilege that she is using to her advantage?
And, finally, when her body is forcefully grabbed, touched, groped, and handled without her permission, her clothes are ripped apart, and she is violated by an individual or group of individuals so violently that she is traumatized beyond repair or killed or physically deformed or sees suicide as the only solution, does the society she lives in have the audacity to believe that her suffering is getting too much attention or that she should’ve known better than to wear a pair of jeans, despite the fact that little children and women in hijabs or niqabs are raped all the same, all the time?
That any conversation that seeks justice for her must be hijacked by the pointlessness of a viewpoint that only exists to defend, and does nothing to improve the actual situation for anybody? That they are unable to fathom that you can’t ask for rape in the same way you can’t ask to be mugged?
That, at the end of the day, even if all the counterarguments are true, all the reasoning is justified, all the privileges of womanhood are granted, and all the double standards are noted down and admitted to, does it really matter when we have successfully normalized the complete and utter destruction, humiliation, and dehumanization of 50% of the people who exist in this world?
SN Rasul is Editorial Assistant at the Dhaka Tribune and a Lecturer of English at North South University. He can be found everywhere @snrasul.