Cowardly Acts of Passion

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MEENAKSHI GANGULY DhakaIt is always hard to comprehend violence--the anger, jealousy or plain sadism that can drive people to commit acts of unimaginable horror. How, for instance, are we to understand the evil spite of the man who crept into Minara Khatun's bamboo hut in the middle of the night, poured concentrated sulfuric acid on her face and walked away as she woke screaming--all because she refused to sleep with him?And how do we explain why scores of women in Bangladesh are attacked in this manner every year? There were nearly 200 acid attacks in 1998, according to the Dhaka-based Bangladesh National Women Lawyers' Association, which provides legal aid to the victims. Often, the perpetrators are spurned suitors who feel that, if they cannot have the woman they desire, they must mangle her so badly that she has no other takers. Others use acid--sold openly in hardware stores--against women as punishment in property feuds or because a bride did not bring enough dowry. This is a relatively new form of violence that is spreading fast, says Salma Ali, who heads the lawyers' group. These men are driven by revenge, but it almost seems as if throwing acid has become a fun thing for them.There's nothing remotely funny in the grisly tales that fill the folders compiled by Naripokkho or Women's Side, a support group that helps victims of acid attacks. Roksana Begum, 15, was propositioned by her cousin and, according to the Naripokkho report, she did not respond, so he threw acid. Chan Miah, 21, emptied a container of acid on 13-year-old Sonia and her two younger brothers as they sat watching television at home, to punish her for complaining to her parents about his excessive attentions. Sonia lost her sight. Shoma, 14, did not want to marry Romel, so he and two friends accosted her on the street and flung acid on her. Then there's Taslima, whose husband Mustafa, not satisfied with the cash and gold jewelry she brought in dowry, demanded a goat. When his father-in-law said he could not afford anything else, Mustafa poured acid on his wife's genitals.PAGE 1  |    |  
 
Under pressure from activists--and to help win over female voters--successive Bangladesh governments have tried to enforce laws to protect women. In 1995, as the acid attacks spiraled, parliament passed the Women and Child Repression Control Act, stipulating the death sentence as maximum penalty for such assaults. But because of a lengthy judicial process, there have been fewer than 10 convictions since then, and each languishes in higher appeals courts while the guilty men are out on bail, sometimes harassing the victim's family to drop the charges. I am fed up, complains U.M. Habibunnesa Habiba of Naripokkho. They keep making new laws, but wherever we go, we just see violence and more violence against women.Even in a region where abuse and neglect are facts of life for many women, the acid attacks are alarming for their frequency. Incidents have been reported in all corners of the country, among practically every economic class and involving both Hindus and Muslims. The trend has even spilled over into India, where similar incidents have been reported in recent months. Last year, a young woman in New Delhi was attacked with acid by a former boyfriend just before her wedding, as punishment for marrying another man.Some sociologists explain the violence as a reaction against the new-found independence of women in the subcontinent. Or perhaps the attacks reflect the breakdown of an older order, where women were rarely seen and therefore less likely to be objects of lust and violence. Although the acid victims usually identify their molesters, whose guilt can then be established with certainty, many women find court appearances traumatic. Defense lawyers invariably portray them as flirts who drove the assailants to an extreme form of revenge. But as Habiba points out, These crimes can never be spontaneous acts of passion because the offender has to arrange for the acid and to carry it in a safe container. She says the attacks are a favored means of retaliation because they can totally break a woman's spirit. The idea is to damage the face or the vagina, because that will hurt a woman--and her honor--most, she says.  |  2  |  
 
Nagen, the man who seared Minara Khatun's face, certainly wanted to assault her pride. Minara had been wedded at age 14 to a much older man willing to forgo dowry because he had been married twice before. After six years of almost daily battering, Minara walked out. Though only 20, she had matured well beyond her years, according to her mother Noorjahan. She told me, 'Don't worry, I will work and take care of you and my brothers and sisters. I will be your son.' Minara found a job with a local volunteer group that opposed child marriage and violence against women. She soon became one of the group's most vocal activists, to the dismay of the men and conservative elders of her Bagdogra village in northern Bangladesh who wanted her to behave like other apologetic, deserted wives. They often made vicious remarks when she walked by.A divorced woman in rural Bangladesh is considered fair game. Nagen, a barber, often made advances on Minara but was firmly rebuffed. One evening, she returned home exhausted from a meeting. I woke up because my daughter was shouting, 'Mother, my body is burning,' says Noorjahan. I touched her face and it was slippery. I ran to light the lamp, but she had gone out and jumped into the water tank. Hearing the screams, villagers gathered outside and rushed Minara to hospital. The left side of her face, including the eye and ear, was almost entirely burned. Doctors prescribed medicines, but the family couldn't afford them. My daughter's body had started to smell and she was running a high fever, Noorjahan recalls. Eventually, a journalist reported the incident and the United Nations Children's Fund arranged to bring Minara from the remote north Bangladesh hospital to Dhaka, where she is now being treated free of charge. The police have arrested Nagen, but that is of little comfort to Minara, who tosses about on her hospital bed in great pain, calling out for her mother. Nagen has been granted bail.With reporting by Farid Hossain/Dhaka  |    |  3