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Make photo uproar an opportunity for change in Bangladesh

It's ironic that the dreamy photo of young lovers kissing in the monsoon rain caused such an...

Posted: Aug 10, 2018 8:55 AM
Updated: Aug 10, 2018 8:55 AM

It's ironic that the dreamy photo of young lovers kissing in the monsoon rain caused such an uproar in Bangladesh, resulting in the photographer being beaten up and fired from his job. A picture of intimacy that incites violence is something we need to examine, especially in this global moment in which intimate violence and violent intimacy are finally being exposed and questioned, from the most humble spaces to the most hallowed ones.

It's not that young people kissing on a university campus is all that unusual, especially in the capital, Dhaka. What's unusual is that it was photographed and the image went viral. Conservative and religious quarters consider public displays of affection to be a bad influence from the West, too brazen to be acceptable in a moderate Muslim country. Younger and more liberal Bangladeshis, however, have responded on social media in support of the photo and condemned the assault on the photographer.

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It's important to understand that Bangladeshi culture is a commingling of a deeply traditional South Asian heritage and a religious conservatism which is unfortunately on the rise. In the cultural divide between the liberal, progressive, and secular and the traditional, conservative, and religious, the often explosive fault lines make it clear that the young nation is still in the process of figuring out its identity and values.

However, a moment of a consensual affection being attacked as being immoral or culturally offensive is especially hypocritical in a culture where everyday sexual harassment is so common that it's euphemistically called "Eve-teasing," as if it were merely playful and harmless. What should offend Bangladeshis is the everyday sexual harassment on streets, buses, and public spaces; in workplaces and marketplaces; in slums and in corporate offices. What should be called immoral is women tortured or killed for dowry; underage girls forced into marriage against their will; sexual assault and rape; stalking, intimidation, and revenge porn; and young women having their faces permanently disfigured by acid for rejecting unwanted advances. It's mind-boggling how many girls and young women in Bangladesh commit suicide every year as a result of these crimes.

Even more appalling is the pervasiveness of violence suffered by women even within their own homes. A report submitted to the UN by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics reports that 87% of married women in Bangladesh have experienced marital violence, with 67% reporting physical and/or sexual violence, 53% economic violence, and 82% psychological violence. This is especially shocking in a country that has had female leadership for the last 27 years. The daily assault on women's physical and psychological integrity is a trauma not only at the level of the individual psyche, but the also at the level of family, society, and nation.

It's not that Bangladesh isn't trying. Laws have been enacted and a special tribunal set up to deal with violence against women. But change is always slow, and cultural norms remain entrenched in a traditional, patriarchal, and religiously conservative system of values. Violence against women doesn't happen in a vacuum -- it's the culture and the social system that is unfortunately still very misogynistic.

The photograph, on the other hand, is a stark contrast to the deeply embedded misogyny of our culture and needs to be placed in that context for its significance to be understood.

The picture captures a moment of genuine intimacy -- affection that is respectful, mutual, and consenting. It is clear from the couple's body language that there is no force, coercion, or any hint of violence. They are leaning towards each other, indicating mutual desire and consensual intimacy, not male aggression and female submission. The young man's arms are resting on his knees, not enveloping or possessing the object of his desire. That the young woman's consent was given freely is clear from her right arm resting comfortably on his knee. The photographer was equally respectful: the picture was taken with their knowledge and consent, and published with their permission.

In other words, this is a picture that could be used to educate young Bangladeshis about how relationships between men and women should be -- respectful, consensual, and mutual. This is precisely the antidote we need to the misogyny that plagues our culture. It is a teachable moment.

The photographer, Jibon Ahmed, in addition to being beaten and fired from his job, has expressed concern for his own safety following the furor caused by the photo. It is ironic, but also deeply symbolic, that the photographer's name is Jibon, which means "life" in Bengali, from Sanskrit jivana, "life, existence; quickening, animating; restoring to life."

It is life and love that are threatened in Bangladesh. It is up to us to choose the direction in which we want to lead our country.

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