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The 16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence (GBV), with the theme “Orange the world” — tells us to fund, respond, prevent, and collect. But how do we resist, show support, and empower women? Of course, NGOs at the global and national levels work towards ensuring a safer environment for women — free of violence — by establishing reporting mechanisms, providing legal aids, engaging men and boys, economic empowerment of women, etc.

But unfortunately, we are somehow failing to ensure a safe — let alone establishing an equal — society for women. Every year, GBV increases, and new forms of violence emerge. In recent times, digital platforms have been used to harass women, and psycho-social violence has become rampant.

A recent multi-country survey by Telenor and Plan International has revealed that 85% of youth in Bangladesh believe online bullying is a severe problem, and 8% of the youth have experienced online bullying at least once a week or more since the Covid-19 pandemic started in 2020.

Besides, a Brac report revealed, in the first 10 months of 2020, the organization received more than 25,000 complaints of GBV, requesting legal aid services. However, we must consider that the actual numbers would be much higher, given that reporting and seeking legal recourse brings social stigma to the victims.

So, how do we get ahead of this tendency and eliminate GBV or, more specifically, violence against women? Finding a solution is not easy. Globally speaking, women face physical or psycho-social violence for not adhering to “standards” that are seemingly contradictory.

Sometimes, the use of a veil incites violence against women in the Western world. The debate around the ban of burkini — the bathing suit that some Muslim women consider consistent with their desire to veil — on French beaches is a case in hand. It is argued, if used in public spaces, this attire being a religious symbol diminishes the spirit of French secularism. Contrarily, the opposite is happening in Afghanistan; women are forced to maintain strict veiling, apparently for upholding the religion.

Let us shift our attention to the micro levels of families. Why do husbands beat their wives in rural areas of Bangladesh? Sometimes, only because the meals were served late, or the rice was not warm enough? These events incite violence and are sometimes not reported because these reactions from the husbands are considered their rightful actions.

Warm meals should be served as soon as the husband returns from work. Any deviation makes it imperative to beat the wife, and no complaints are welcome. We can tease out other gendered stereotypes: It is the right of the husband to hit his wife if she does not listen to him.

Women feel their opinions do not matter, and men believe their “aggressive” attitudes are consistent with community norms. Many studies across Bangladesh have identified this pattern. Even a nationwide survey conducted by Brac James P Grant School of Public Health in 2020 identified 63% of men — from both urban and rural areas — who think “wives can be hit if they deny to have sex with their husbands.” Not so surprisingly, 62% believe, “there are times when wives deserve to be beaten.”

One could say, GBV is widespread in rural areas where illiteracy is high, and women are somewhat financially dependent on their husbands. But a careful observation reveals, among the urban and educated families where both spouses work and earn — women face psycho-social violence in juggling the double burden of home and office.

Why are some working women charged with managing the household also? Why must the final decisions of the family come from the husband? One reason reappears: We cannot escape the social stereotypes that exist for “woman” and “man.”

Even for incidents of rape, some people ask: What was she wearing? Or why did she go “there” at night? In all these cases, women are judged by the fixed parameters of what a woman should do. How they should behave. The parameters of any gendered stereotypes take form collectively and, thereby, culturally construct men and women.

As Judith Butler (1988) has argued, our gender is not a stable identity or locus of agency from which we learn to act; instead, our gender identities are constituted over time through a stylized repetition of acts compelled by social sanction and taboo.

While these examples show the contextualized nature of state-sponsored and societal or family-level violence against women, it also indicates a global problem: We always define women with a set of parameters. Whatever a woman does, her ultimate worth is measured by whether she is married or not, takes care of the child, oversees the household tasks, or how she is dressed and conducts herself in public. And so on.

If someone is different, we find it hard to accept. We try to change the woman — even if she is our mother, sister, wife, daughter, friend, colleague, or neighbour. We try to find examples of “ideal” women — even characters from movies, novels, TV series, publicity campaigns, etc — and ask others in our family to be like them, and belittle them for deviating from the so-called ideal.

Most women have heard, or some may even have told others: Be like “her.” We try to impose “fixed” standards at the individual, societal, or global levels. Hence, the world envisioned in Sultana’s Dream by Begum Rokeya — where women and men experience role reversals — is still a utopia.

If we are to eliminate GBV, we must get over the stereotypes of masculine or feminine characteristics and accept every human is different. We must stop judging women or men by comparing them with others. If not, violence in various forms will keep appearing.

Even if we disagree with the iconography, we must not shy away from accepting differences — the uniqueness that every woman and man brings to the world.

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