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Zafar Sobhan is editor of the Dhaka Tribune, a daily newspaper.

Bangladesh has a dirty little secret

The vast majority of sex crimes here are never reported and never become part of any official record.

Some things are hard to admit, but keeping them hidden or under wraps is even worse. The prevalence of rape, molestation, and sexual assault in Bangladeshi society has long been our dirty little secret, and as difficult as it is to face up to this shameful truth, the only thing more shameful is our refusal to recognise or acknowledge this disgraceful state of affairs and to pretend that it does not exist.

With shocking new revelations and stomach-churning incidents coming out now on a daily basis, we can no longer bury our heads in the sand and pretend that we do not see the extent of the sexual sickness that pervades our society. It is time to come out and admit what we have known for a long time: that rape and molestation is endemic in Bangladesh.

The incidents which have hit the headlines of late are just the tip of the iceberg.

It is not that incidents such as these did not occur before, it is just that now they are more likely to be exposed.

Nor is it any secret or mystery why this sorry state of affairs has been permitted to continue for so long.

The first and foremost reason we have not addressed this cancer is that admitting that we have a serious societal problem on our hands does not correspond to our self-image as a nation. We like to think of ourselves as a moral, gentle, and enlightened people, and this is one reason we have willfully ignored this cancer in our midst.

The second reason is the culture of shame and stigma that has developed around sex crime, whereby it is considered almost more shameful to have been the victim of such sexual violence than to be the perpetrator. This has led to a culture of impunity and silent collusion.

The vast majority of sex crimes in Bangladesh are never reported and never become part of any official record. It takes a brave person to report her (or his) abuse to the police or other authorities. Not only is the process harrowing and humiliating, but everyone knows that the chances of finding justice are extremely slim.

When added to this is the burden of shame and stigmatising our society places on victims of rape, the reason so many victims remain silent becomes clear.

But if we ever wish to bring an end to this epidemic, we must all face up to our collective complicity and understand how the seeds of rape culture exist within the values and mores of our traditional, conservative culture.

Let us start at the start. At a very basic level, the problem stems from a basic lack of respect for women and a lack of acknowledgment of their basic equal human rights.

Please spare me the pious drivel we always comfort ourselves with as to how Bengali culture venerates the mother and our deep abiding cultural respect for womanhood.

The opposite is true. From the moment they are born, girls are subordinated to boys, and mothers are expected to subordinate their entire lives to their husband and children. Indeed, a woman is granted no identity in our society other than that of daughter, wife, and mother. A woman who tries to live her life independent of these identities, with no man in her life at all, faces endless difficulty and condemnation. There is scant space for single women in our society, and even less respect.

Nowhere is this second-class citizenship more evident than in the realm of sex and sexuality. Now, we might try to comfort ourselves by thinking that we are not rapists or molesters and that there is a world of difference between us and those who went on a rampage of molestation and sexual assault on Pohela Boishakh (Bengali New Year), or rape school-children, or gang-rape women in microbuses. But anyone who thinks that women who dress in clothes deemed to be revealing or provocative lack decency or morality and bear responsibility for being the victims of sexual assault or that it is wrong for a woman to live alone or to go out at night or to mix with men or to be sexually active is contributing to the culture of contempt for women and impunity for sex crimes against them, and is part of the problem.

It is our society's hypocrisy and double-standards when it comes to male and female sexuality that underpin the sexual violence that all women in Bangladesh either experience at some point in their life or must live in fear of.

If we want to truly address endemic rape and molestation, then we need to look at it not just as a law and order problem, but as a manifestation of a deep sickness in how our society looks at women and women's sexuality, and work to eradicate this corrosive contempt for the two that is embedded within our culture.

In a society where women are not permitted sexual agency, the result will be a culture of male sexual entitlement and impunity, which will lead to an epidemic of sexual violence against women, as night follows day.

Zafar Sobhan is the Editor, Dhaka Tribune.

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