Nus­rat Ja­han Rafi’s mur­der must change how we view sex­ual as­sault

The National - News - - OPINION - SHELINA JANMOHAMED Shelina Janmohamed is the au­thor of Love in a Head­scarf

Nus­rat Ja­han Rafi was just 19 years old when she was lured to the roof of her school, days af­ter re­port­ing her head­teacher for sex­ual ha­rass­ment. There, class­mates and teach­ers poured kerosene on the teenager from Feni, south of Dhaka in Bangladesh, and set her on fire. She died of her in­juries a few days later.

While those re­spon­si­ble for her mur­der have just been con­victed, at every stage, the treat­ment of Rafi has been found want­ing – by the po­lice of­fi­cers who in­ter­viewed her, then re­leased the footage on­line, her class­mates and the teach­ers who treated her in this vile man­ner.

As part of a plan or­ches­trated by the head­mas­ter while un­der ar­rest, her class­mates tried to make it look like sui­cide. But Rafi es­caped the rooftop and in an am­bu­lance on the way to the hospi­tal, her brother recorded her state­ment in a video in which she named her at­tack­ers and said she would fight the crime un­til her “last breath”.

The in­ci­dent sparked out­rage in Bangladesh but this in­ci­dent is not an iso­lated one. Sex­ual ha­rass­ment is rife in Bangladesh and across south Asia. Ac­cord­ing to Ac­tion Aid, 84 per cent of women in Bangladesh have ex­pe­ri­enced deroga­tory com­ments or sex­ual ad­vances in pub­lic. At least three women are raped on av­er­age per day, yet only 2 per cent of women who face vi­o­lence seek jus­tice. This makes it even more re­mark­able that Rafi chal­lenged her at­tacker.

Ac­cord­ing to UN Women, 35 per cent of women glob­ally have ex­pe­ri­enced phys­i­cal or sex­ual vi­o­lence. Rafi’s case joins a long list of crimes against women across the world that have ig­nited a much-needed global grass­roots move­ment.

In De­cem­ber 2012, the world was hor­ri­fied by the gang rape and sub­se­quent death of Jy­oti Singh, a 23-year-old stu­dent, on a bus in Delhi. The same year, a high school girl in Steubenvil­le, Ohio, was sex­u­ally as­saulted while un­con­scious by foot­ball play­ers on the school team, who doc­u­mented the crime on so­cial me­dia. Some in the com­mu­nity blamed the girl and ac­cused her for cast­ing a neg­a­tive light on the town and the foot­ball team. One CNN com­men­ta­tor even sym­pa­thised with the stu­dents who raped the girl and mourned the loss of their “promis­ing fu­tures”. And in Au­gust this year, col­lege stu­dent Uyinene Mr­wetyana, 19, was al­legedly raped and blud­geoned to death by a postal worker when she went to col­lect a pack­age from a post of­fice in Cape Town.

These are just a few cases that have led to an ever-louder clam­our of voices in the fight against sex­ual vi­o­lence. In too many of these cases, the so­cial struc­tures that per­pe­tra­tors hide be­hind and the pre­vail­ing so­cial at­ti­tudes that pro­tect them have much in com­mon.

Men who tar­get women are un­con­cerned with the con­se­quences. For some like Rafi, they are fa­tal. For so many other vic­tims, the psy­cho­log­i­cal scars of as­sault are life­long and dam­ag­ing and af­fect women across classes, ge­ogra­phies and cul­tures.

When sex­ual vi­o­lence is al­lowed to pro­lif­er­ate, whole so­ci­eties suf­fer – not just the vic­tims. Time and again we see that the price vic­tims pay for speak­ing up is too high but the chance of be­ing served jus­tice re­main low.

Whether or not you agree with the strin­gent sen­tence is­sued to Rafi’s killers, one can only hope it will in­sti­gate change. The dan­ger is that as long as those in au­thor­ity pri­ori­tise per­pe­tra­tors over vic­tims, jus­tice will not be done. To tackle this, we need a global re­sponse.

Nus­rat Ja­han Rafi had courage. We must not for­get her legacy. In seek­ing jus­tice, she spoke for vic­tims ev­ery­where.

Bangladesh is not the only coun­try where women pay too high a price if they seek jus­tice for be­ing ha­rassed

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