By Rahnuma Ahmed
November 16, 2015
I love writing. I want to study. I want to develop myself, I want to express my ideas — that’s my dream.
Hajera’s mother died when giving birth to her younger brother, her father re-married. Her stepmother was cruel. Hajera ran away from home, got on a bus and ended up in Gulistan (Dhaka’s city centre), she was taken in by kids her age, “8-9-10 year-olds.” She was picked up several times with other street kids and forcibly taken to government-run vagrant homes — Godnail in Narayanganj, Mirpur in Dhaka, Kashimpur in Gazipur.
She was raped by the ‘manager’ of a vagrant home, gang-raped in Mirpur zoo: When I was in Kashimpur, a ‘director’ of the social welfare department took me to his house for domestic work. His son would ask me to massage his arms and legs. I knew what he wanted, I’d seen so much of this kind of stuff, but I knew they wouldn’t believe me, so I ran away. But I was soon picked up and sent off to Godnail. When the ‘manager’ was transferred to the head office, he insisted I go with him. His wife worked in Narayanganj, she would come home late, he would come home early. One day he came home soon after midday and raped me, my menstruation hadn’t started yet. I screamed in pain, a neighbour woman heard my cries, she came over. I had put too little salt in the curry, I’d cried out because he’d slapped me, that’s what he told her.
I ran away again, to who else but my friends in Gulistan. Three-four days later, it still hurt, but they had all decided to go to the Mirpur zoo, I couldn’t walk properly, so they left me sitting near where the crocodiles are. A guard at the zoo, and seven other men, eight in all, they came and took me to an empty field outside. I didn’t want to go but they said, you are a thief, we’ll hand you over to the police.
It has been so many years, but I feel just as terrified. Remembering still hurts. I have never talked about it like this.
Two of them held down my hands, two others, my legs. One by one. I cried, I screamed, but no one came. When I came to my senses, I found myself in the police station. An elderly man had picked me up and taken me there, but they didn’t keep me, she’s a kid, they said, she can’t name names; we need names to file a case. He took me to his house, cared for me for three days, then put me on a bus with bus fare in hand. I returned to Gulistan.
A young boy told me his sister would find me employment, the woman turned out to be a shordarni in Kandupotti. He sold me to her. A policeman came and questioned me, do you really want to be a prostitute, are you doing it willingly? I said no, I begged him, help release me, please, but the shordarni had bribed him. They got an affidavit for me. But I couldn’t actually work, there was something wrong with my vaginal passage, it was because of what had happened at the zoo, so I would go catch clients for other girls. One day a bideshi client drugged me, I passed out, I don’t know what he did down there but I discovered myself in hospital. I was badly bruised, skin sores, it was all swollen. The doctors filled the passage with gauze, I was hospitalised for many days. The doctors said I’d never be able to have children.
After I was released, the shordarni took me home for a month; she did various things to enlarge my opening. Slowly, the problem was cured. I was then, maybe, thirteen at most.
I worked in Kandupotti brothel for two years. I worked the streets of Shakhari bajar for a couple of days, and then I went and got myself registered at Tanbazar (old Dhaka). This time, I told the police, I had come “willingly.” After three years and a couple of incidents, I left Tanbazar and began working the streets around the National Press Club.
I was picked up again and sent off to Gazipur, I stayed there for seven years, the only good thing that happened to me there was the adult education centre run by Concern.
I learnt to read and write.
Why recount what are largely tales of suffering and humiliation? Because it is only through recounting every humiliation suffered, that one can resist oppression. Our task, as Walter Benjamin reminds us, is not to sympathise with the victor. It is to “brush history against the grain.”
Saydia Gulrukh: Ruling party thugs yelled “bessha, bessha” as they beat me
Q: Why had you gone there?
A: Like others, academics, writers and activists, I went there to express my solidarity with the Tuba (also spelt, Toba) garment workers, they had gone on a fast-unto-death strike, they had made the official jerseys for the World Cup games in Brazil, but had not been paid four months wages by the owner Delwar Hossain. Delwar was also the owner of Tazreen Fashions which had caught fire in November 2013, leaving more than 119 workers dead. The Tazreen trial was going on, he was in prison and interested quarters were trying to get him out on the excuse that Tuba workers needed to be paid.
It was early December, I was speaking to Saydia, a close friend, who was leaving soon for the United States to complete her doctoral thesis; although I knew what had happened on that day, I wanted to get the facts down on paper. Saydia, a member of Activist Anthropologist, had been badly beaten (eye, jaw, and shoulder injuries) on August 6, 2014, first by the police, and then by ruling party thugs (including women), outside the Holland Centre Shopping Complex in Moddho Badda.
Q: How can you be sure that those who beat you up belonged to the Sromik League (workers front of the Awami League), and the Jubo League (youth front of the Awami League)?
A: I had seen two of the women thugs at Delwar’s court hearings a couple of times, court reporters had told me who they were, and well, outside Tuba, it was so very obvious. Why else would the police be protecting them, and also, the owner’s goons? And not protecting workers, garment activists, and well, people like us, who had gone with medical supplies. It was obvious to all, who was on which side.
Q: What happened?
A: Masum bhai, Mohammad Ali Haider, Shabnam Hafiz, Quamrul Hasan, Faruk Wasif, and many others were at the factory entrance, a collapsible gate which was locked. Samina Luthfa Nitra (Dhaka University teacher, playwright and actress) and I were pleading with the police to let us enter, we had medical supplies and water bottles for the workers inside, some were badly dehydrated, but the police charged us instead, they wanted to remove us from the factory gate. It had been chaotic, but when the police attacked us all hell broke loose, we got scattered. Nitra and I ran into the alley opposite, the police came and encircled us, we were beaten separately. They crowded me, pushed and shoved me, a policewoman slapped me hard (even in that pandemonium I noticed that she was young, a pahari woman), someone beat me with the baton, I fell, tried to get up, I could hear Faruk Wasif yelling at the top of his voice, “She’s a writer, a researcher, leave her alone, stop!” Several photographers and Faruk rescued me, I came out and found Nitra, her glasses were broken. We spoke to TV journalists as the police milled around, they kept shoving and harassing us, they wanted us to leave.
It was then that Masum bhai rushed and told me that the police had arrested Shabnam and Quamrul. I quickly got out my mobile to inform activist friends elsewhere. Nitra, Haider, Bindu, Bratya Amin and I ran and crossed the road. But the whole place was so charged, so noisy, things were threatening to get out of control any minute, there were workers peering from above, thugs in motorcycles, police in riot gear, I couldn’t hear anything on the phone. So I entered a small alleyway absent-mindedly, that was so stupid!
Suddenly out of nowhere, came the League’s Petoa Bahini (gang). They surrounded me, they began thrashing me, many hands flailing wildly, hitting me on the head, jaw, it was terrifying. They’d thought I was a university teacher so they began chanting and yelling as they hit me, “Bisshobiddaloyer Bessha Maagi, Ja Bashay Ja” (university whore, harlot, go home). They hit me on the head real hard, it was then that I heard the two women thugs yelling above the din, “Arey Na Court Parar Bessha, Maira Besshagiri Chhutay De” (hey no, she’s a court area whore, beat the whoredom out of her).
Solidarity is not permitted; those with a social conscience must be attacked and beaten away.
Prolonged ties of solidarity are a bigger threat: Saydia, a member of Activist Anthropologist, belongs to a group of three who had filed a writ petition in the High Court seeking directives for Delwar Hossain’s arrest so that he could be tried for criminal liabilities.
A young woman’s life not cocooned in class privileges is a threat to the ruling order; her active struggle for social justice must be declared illegitimate. The functionaries of the ruling class rush forward, what better means at their disposal than patriarchy’s time-honoured ideological weapon for dishonouring women?
What a powerful metaphor, to be deployed at Shaheed Minar in defence of muktijuddho, outside Tuba, in the service of global capital, and beyond, by the socially and politically powerful, whenever purposes collide.
Qurratul-Ain-Tahmina and Shishir Moral, Bangladeshe Jounota Bikri: Jiboner Dame Kena Jibika (“Selling Sex in Bangladesh: Livelihood purchased with one’s life”), Dhaka: SEHD, 2000.