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OP-ED: Have demonstrations lost their way?

  • Published at 02:13 am December 6th, 2020
Speaker loud noise protest megaphone

A clear manifesto is at the heart of any protest

Public demonstrations have played a crucial role in most (if not all) major revolutions in history. The effectiveness of hosting public demonstrations to shed light on a cause, spread awareness, suggest solutions, and demand reform goes unquestioned. 

But everything that could once only be achieved through mass gatherings and persistent public dissent can now also be achieved through trending hashtags and memes. 

Social media circulates hard and fast news in short bursts at double the speed of light. Our consumerist attitudes have led to us producing -- and preferring -- fast news like fast fashion. Nowadays platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are pumping information faster than verified news outlets, and orchestrating most contemporary social and political change. Take the role of Facebook in the 2016 US elections, for example. Or how the memes broke the news of Maradona’s passing before anyone else. 

The purpose of public dissent is to raise awareness and demand reform, not abolish an issue on the spot.

We judge whether or not sufficient awareness has been raised by checking the coverage of the event through mainstream media, not by counting heads at the demonstration itself. That’s because demonstrations have become increasingly unstructured and it’s hard to gauge the facts on the ground at the events themselves. Anyone following the protests in 2020 (especially in Bangladesh) will know that most activists ultimately rely on social media and news outlets to convey their point anyway, because the lack of unity in today’s protests makes it hard to have all voices heard. 

As a friend of mine aptly put it: It’s not a movement unless everyone is pulling in the same direction.

During the pandemic, Bangladesh saw a significant rise in cases of sexual assault (most of them domestic), resulting in active protests in Dhaka -- rightfully so -- burning throughout October and well into November. 

Posters and fiery speeches demanding capital punishment for rapists and would-be sex offenders flooded social media feeds and mass media platforms. The government made some amendments accordingly, and suddenly that solution became a cop out.

Amnesty International expressed their disapproval of the government’s decision to introduce the death penalty as punishment for rape by stating that “executions perpetuate violence, they don’t prevent it.” The Daily Star reported on the rape protests in Dhaka and quoted Shireen Huq, founder of Naripokkho, saying: “We’d be wrong if we think that rape is a matter of law and justice. It’d be a mistake to assume that a law passed in parliament will reduce the number of rape incidents.” Human Rights Watch criticized the call for capital punishment by writing: “Bringing the death penalty is easy -- what takes work is overhauling a justice system that ignores and maligns survivors, that doesn’t provide legal support or proper health services to survivors” and emphasized that “there is no conclusive evidence that [capital punishment] curbs any crime and could end up deterring reporting or encourage rapists to murder victims to reduce likelihood of arrests.” 

And so the protests raged on.

There is a clear lack of unity in the dialogue being perpetuated by those fighting for the same cause. We as citizens hold the responsibility to be structured in our battles against injustice, especially when we have a problem with present circumstances, and we cannot hold the government responsible for our lack of structure. 

The Rape Law Reform Coalition, which unites women’s rights issues and is against capital punishment for rape, drafted a 10-point to-do list. A clear manifesto on how to tackle rape culture in Bangladesh without advocating for capital punishment. Quoting Human Rights Watch: “This includes changing the definition of rape to include all victims, regardless of gender identity or marital status, prohibiting the use of character evidence in rape trials, training police and court officials on sexual and gender-based violence, and providing sexuality education to all children.” 

Ideally speaking, a structured version of the anti-rape protests would be chanting a simplified, digestible version of the 10-point manifesto, which calls for specific reform, instead of “phashi chai.” 

When it comes to spurring dialogue, the conversations are anyways taking place digitally. So it’s within reason to question the continuation of mass gatherings in 2020, the year of the Covid-19 pandemic, when everything that’s happening on the streets can be adapted to a more creative, far-reaching digital platform. 

Also in November, Al Jazeera reported that around 50,000-100,000 Bangladeshis gathered to participate in an anti-France rally. This has been the biggest anti-France demonstration that this country has ever witnessed, certainly within the pandemic. The goal? To reach the French Embassy. The demands? To “shut down the French embassy” immediately. 

Quite a manifesto.

To assess the effectiveness of physical demonstrations, think about the impact of getting a cause trending on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter. Any news trending on social media during the pandemic has harboured international attention and, more importantly, got a global dialogue rolling. Even if it only harboured national attention -- like when the DSCC decided to sterilize and relocate dogs within its municipality -- change was asked for, and eventually facilitated, in a structured, orderly manner.

Sure, members of Obhoyaronno, People for Animal Welfare (PAW), Stella Animal Welfare, Care for Paws (CFP), We are Nature, and Animal Lovers, along with independent volunteers and university students, formed a human chain in front of Nagar Bhaban demanding an immediate stop to the illegal relocation of Dhaka stray dogs. But they also held a press conference and organized follow-up meetings to tackle and counteract DSCC’s unreasonable initiative in an orderly fashion, instead of solely relying on persistent physical demonstrations during a global pandemic. 

Sufficient awareness has only been raised when hard, tangible change comes out of public dissent. Given how important the role of digital media has become in instigating change, the way public dissent is carried out nowadays -- amidst a raging pandemic -- seems unstructured, unruly, and sometimes downright unnecessary. 

A clearly thought out, point-by-point demand -- a manifesto -- should be at the heart of any protest or public display of dissent. That is why some protests work, and some don’t. Unifying our voice as justice seekers is crucial if we want structured change reflected in governance.

Rushmila Rahman is a recent BFA graduate from the University of British Columbia and can be reached at @rushmilarahman on Instagram.