It was a day like any other for Nusrat Jahan Rafi. The 19-year-old Bangladeshi woman walked to the madrassa (religious school) for her final exams. She was lured to the roof of the building by a classmate who told her a friend was being beaten. There she was doused with kerosene and set on fir
Eleven days earlier, Nusrat had reported the school’s headmaster for sexual harassment. She said he’d taken her to his office and inappropriately touched her. Before it could go further, she ran from the office. Her mistake was going to the police and reporting the incident. Instead of keeping the matter private, the officer filmed her with his camera. Then he leaked the video to the local media.
Sexual assault victims are shamed
Many women in Bangladesh choose to keep their sexual assaults and harassment secret, not report them. The reason is obvious. The officer can be heard on the video saying “no big deal” and “take your hands from your face.” Nusrat is obviously embarrassed, afraid and upset in the video. She wasn’t taken seriously.
Once she gave her statement, the ordeal was far from over. On March 27, the police arrested the headmaster. Protesters gathered outside the jail and demanded his release. They blamed Nusrat for the incident. Her family worried about her safety.
Nusrat would not be intimidated by the protests. Instead, on the morning of April 6, she got up, dressed, and attended school to take her finals.
“I tried to take my sister to school and tried to enter the premises, but I was stopped and wasn’t allowed to enter,” said Nusrat’s brother, Mahmudul Hasan Noman. “If I hadn’t been stopped, something like this wouldn’t have happened to my sister.”
Then Nusrat was lured to the roof where four or five people wearing burqas waited. They surrounded her, demanding she drop the case against the headmaster. When Nusrat refused, they set her on fire.
Nusrat didn’t die right away, as they’d intended. They’d tried to make her death look like a suicide. They weren’t successful.
“One of the killers was holding her head down with his hands, so kerosene wasn’t poured there and that’s why her head wasn’t burned,” said Chief of Police, Banaj Kumar Majumder.
Although burns covered 80% of her body, Nusrat survived, and recorded a statement on her brother’s cell phone while being transported to a hospital that was equipped to handle her injuries. Still defiant, she said, “The teacher touched me, I will fight this crime till my last breath.”
And she did. She was alert enough to identify some of her attackers, fellow students at the madrassa.
Then on April 10, Nusrat succumbed to her injuries. Thousands went to the streets to mourn her passing. People have taken to the social media to express their outrage at the treatment of sexual harassment and assault victims in their country. “I wanted a daughter my whole life, but now I am afraid. Giving birth to a daughter in this country means a life of fear and worry,” wrote one woman on Facebook.
Fifteen people have been arrested for involvement in her death, including two men who organized the protest to release the headmaster. The officer who filmed her and leaked the video to social media has been removed from is post.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina swore the killers would be brought to justice, and none will be “spared from legal action. She met in person with Nusrat’s family to offer her condolences.
Nusrat is not alone
Others doubt that, in a country which established laws in 2009 to supposedly allow victims of sexual assault and harassment to report them in relative safety, anything will be done to prevent more women and girl from suffering the same fate as Nusrat.
Professor Kaberi Gaven of the University of Dhaka lamented, “This incident has shaken us, but as we have seen in the past, such incidents get forgotten in time. I don’t think there will be a big change after this. We have to see if justice gets done.”
According to women’s rights group Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, there were 940 incidents of rape in Bangladesh in 2018. But researchers say the real number is likely to be much higher.
If nothing else, perhaps Nusrat Jahan Rafi’s murder will shed light on the need to protect victims of sexual assault and harassment all over the world. Bangladesh is not the only country who treats the victims as guilty.