Discourse—the production of knowledge through language—as the famous French philosopher Michel Foucault has defined it, consists of language as well as practice. Discourse determines what is and is not talked about, and how people should conduct themselves in relation to it. Foucault has argued that truth is unattainable, because it is embedded in, and produced by, systems of power. This makes the study of discursive processes, which construct discourses, and, in turn, truth, so very important. According to scholars of discourse studies, Norman Fairclough and Ruth Wodak, discursive practices may have major ideological effects, producing and reproducing unequal power relations and passing off (often falsifying) assumptions as mere common sense.
Over 20 years ago, on the eve of the new millennium, a woman was sexually assaulted near the TSC on the Dhaka University campus. Protests broke out, demanding arrest and punishment of the accused, a member of the ruling party's student wing at the time, Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL). Amidst all the protests and demands for justice, on January 25, 2000, erstwhile Awami League (AL) lawmaker, Joynal Hazari, stood in Parliament and argued that during the previous Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) regime, women had been raped and killed, their bodies left lying on the streets, but people did not raise their voices then. He claimed that it was only to undermine the ruling Awami League that people were making a big deal about some drunkards attacking a woman who he implied, was asking for it for being out late at night.
Hazari suggested that even though the woman was apparently wearing a saree, there were "other matters" involved. While the culprit should of course be punished, he said, the woman's actions were also unacceptable. He strongly demanded punishment of the woman as well, because such women created such perpetrators—if they did not come out on the streets half naked, such incidents would not occur, he said. What the woman had done was not a part of Islamic culture, it wasn't even Bengali culture, and Hazari stressed the need to ensure that young women did not come out at midnight to observe such "Christian culture". While there was widespread criticism of his statement, most Members of Parliament (MPs) who were asked for comments by the media at the time, denied being present the day he made the statement.
Less than 20 days ago, on November 18, 2020, BNP-backed independent lawmaker Rezaul Karim Bablu stood in the same Parliament, speaking on the Women and Children Repression Prevention (Amendment) Bill, 2020, which was passed that same day, allowing death penalty as the highest punishment for rape. The lawmaker found it necessary to point out, however, that "the acceptability of rape" had increased so much that "rapists are encouraged to rape" because "feminists are encouraging women to become freer". According to the lawmaker, the onus lies on "our mothers and sisters" to dress and act decently and not provoke rapists to rape them.
He also made reference to recently deceased Hefazat-e-Islam leader Shah Ahmed Shafi's infamous 2013 sermon which had gone viral on social media. In the sermon, the cleric had compared women to tamarind, describing how men covet women like a child craves tamarind when they see another child sucking on it. Shafi also made insinuations about working women, stressing that women should be confined to the home, caring for the furniture and the children, educated just enough to be able to manage their husbands' accounts. Later, in an interview with The Daily Star on the subject, Rezaul Karim Bablu clarified that if women go out on the streets in "indecent clothing" like T-shirts, "perverted men with ill intentions will look at them". Again, while women's rights groups and social media users have protested the lawmaker's statements, MPs, particularly parliamentarians belonging to reserved seats for women, have been criticised for not responding in any manner.
Joynal Hazari had several cases filed against him from the 1970s to the 2000s—for murder, possession of arms, money laundering, and the torture of journalist Tipu Sultan, among others—from all of which he was eventually acquitted. He was suspended from the AL for his statements against the party in 2004, but in October 2019, he was made a member of the party's advisory council. Rezaul Karim Bablu was in the news soon after winning his seat in the December 2018 general elections because of several allegations of fraud, including concealing information from his statement of wealth prior to the polls. He was again in the news in October of this year for a photo going viral on social media in which he was seen brandishing a gun. Both men continued to hold their positions despite all of the above. The offensive comments made by them about women and rape, while criticised by the public, elicited no response, let alone action, from the institutions and parties which they represent. Not even a Parliament and a government led by women and which prioritise women's development and empowerment.
Political power is linked to the management of information and the power of rhetoric, particularly in democracies. This power is derived from key institutions where individuals in specific positions within these institutions have the access and ability to publicise their perspectives and to be heard. As Linda Coates and Allan Wade note in their work on language and violence, they are social agents, whose discursive actions either reflect or depart from institutional ideologies, policies and objectives. When these agents make objectionable and offensive statements which are overlooked and they are not made to face any consequences, it gives them and others a certain legitimacy to continue to speak in a similar manner, and ultimately to even act accordingly.
In the case of Rezaul Karim Bablu, MP, when his statements were shared on social media, even university students became divided. In response to a female student's sharing of the news, one young man stated that both women and men should dress "decently", and that in a Muslim-majority nation like Bangladesh, decency is not a matter of personal choice (as suggested by the woman) which is a "Western, atheist notion". The vulgar clothing and movements of some women provoke some men to rape; this is not to blame women but to protect them from such men, he said. Another young man commented that if a jackfruit is laid out, flies are bound to descend upon it.
Research on language, symbolism and discursive violence has shown how the strategic use of language conceals violence, obfuscates perpetrators' responsibility, conceals victims' resistance and blames and pathologises victims, demonstrating an inextricable link between the problem of violence to the problem of representation. In the case of violence against women, research has also revealed that common historical constructions as well as repetitive media representations of women as "prostitutes", criminals, victims of sexual crimes, etc, enables the state to maintain a position of limited involvement in addressing and alleviating discrimination and violence against them.
How we think, what we say, and what we do, are all intertwined. What we allow to be said and done is also a reflection of endorsement. Whether or not the words of our public representatives are representative of and acceptable to the general public has become apparent from the competing discourses of agreement and protest. But what does the passive silence on the part of the institutions which these men represent say about what they allow, accept and endorse? Justifying violence, even through words as these men have done, legitimises violence, as does the silence of others around such legitimising discourses. Holding people accountable for language, rhetoric and representations which violate, may be the first step towards prevention of violence, before discursive violations are allowed to become translated into acts of violence.
Kajalie Shehreen Islam is Assistant Professor, Department of Mass Communication and Journalism, University of Dhaka.