Nusrat Jahan Rafi was a young woman who attended a madrassa in the rural town of Feni in Bangladesh. In late March of this year, she attended the local police station to report a crime. Nusrat alleged that the headmaster at her madrassa had called her into his office several days before and sexually assaulted her. After the assault, Nusrat told her family what had happened and decided to make a report to the police, no doubt trusting that they would treat her with some decency. The officer who took her statement did no such thing. He videotaped it on his camera phone and can be heard on the footage telling her that the assault was “not a big deal.” The headmaster was arrested, but someone within the police leaked the fact that Nusrat had made allegations against him and the footage of her statement ended up on social media. She was soon receiving threats from students at the madrassa as well as other people in the community. Influential local politicians expressed their support for the headmaster and crowds gathered in the streets of Feni demanding his release. Defiant, Nusrat insisted on going into the madrassa to sit her exams, but while there she was tricked into going up onto the roof of the building with a fellow female student. She was then set upon by a group of people who tried to persuade her to withdraw her allegations. When she refused, they doused her with kerosene and set her alight. Some of the men arrested have since told police that the attack had been planned and ordered by the headmaster from prison. Nusrat survived long enough to describe what had happened, but died in hospital on 10th April. She was 19.
It’s difficult to imagine a more tragic example of the terrible dangers that women can face in speaking out about sexual violence, nor the lengths that some people will go to in order to protect perpetrators from exposure. In Bangladesh there has been a huge response to Nusrat’s murder. Tens of thousands of people attended her funeral prayers, and there have been protests in the capital Dhaka. Bangladeshi feminists have used the case to draw attention to the high rates of sexual abuse in the country and the mistreatment of victims by police.
The news has recently started filtering through to the Western media, but thus far prominent feminists have been noticeably silent. At the time of writing, there has been no mention of Nusrat’s murder in the major third wave feminist websites Jezebel, Feministing, and Everyday Feminism. Notably, the radical feminist platform Feminist Current has reported on the case—this is the site edited by Canadian journalist Meghan Murphy, considered so reprehensible by Twitter that she has been banned. Although there have been reports on the murder in the international sections of most newspapers, Nusrat’s name has not appeared on the comment pages of any of the major Left-leaning anglophone newspapers: the New York Times, the Guardian, the Huffington Post, the Independent, or the Sydney Morning Herald.
This is partly because news outlets tend to be rather parochial. There’s a reason that following the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka most U.K. newspapers led with stories about U.K. nationals who had been killed or lost loved ones, and it’s not because journalists are indifferent to the suffering of people overseas—or, at least, no more than anyone else. Readers set the agenda, and in the age of online news, editors know precisely and to-the-minute which stories are attracting the most eyeballs. The harsh reality is that events that take place in non-Western countries are less interesting to Western readers, and so get less coverage. This applies to all stories, not just those that involve violence against women.
So to some extent the failure of Western feminists to comment on Nusrat’s murder is due to a more general lack of interest in international news. Nevetherless, it does play into a longstanding criticism of Western feminists: that they focus exclusively on issues affecting women in their own countries and ignore abuses that take place overseas. Sometimes this criticism is simply a transparent attempt to trivialise the sexism women experience in the West and this is a rhetorical ploy I have little time for. Despite the huge strides made in the last century, women continue to face sexual violence and intimate partner abuse at far higher rates than men, regardless of which part of the world they happen to live in. Western women are also disproportionately affected by other forms of mistreatment that cause terrible suffering, as are women in the non-Western world. Yes, no matter how bad one woman’s situation is, there will always be another woman worse off. But it helps no one to descend into a game of oneupmanship in the style of Monty Python’s four Yorkshiremen.
But still, there is something to the claim that Western feminists neglect the suffering of women overseas. I know that many feminists simply roll their eyes at those who make this criticism, but refusing to address the most obvious criticisms of your ideology leaves gaping holes that undermine the movement as a whole, and a reluctance to take part in debate produces campaigners who are incapable of composing a cogent response when faced with even the weakest arguments.
And this is not a weak argument. There are forces at play within feminism that lead to tragedies like Nusrat’s being overlooked, and we should think seriously about the effect this has on women in places like Bangladesh. I have written previously in Quillette about why the most severe forms of sexist abuse are often neglected in mainstream feminism. There are several factors that contribute to this phenomenon: the tendency on the part of feminist campaigners to prioritise forms of sexism that they have personally experienced; a media appetite for controversy paired with a reluctance to report on distressing cases; and also a competitive culture within feminism that encourages activists to ‘out woke’ each other in condemning increasingly mild forms of sexist behaviour, while ignoring outright horrors.
There is another factor at play in this particular case, and it pokes at a particularly sore spot for the Regressive Left. It’s impossible to ignore the fact that Nusrat’s murderers were partially motivated by a particularly conservative strain of Islam that seeks to impose brutal restrictions on women. Yes, it is common for victims of sexual violence to be punished for speaking out, whether or not they live in Muslim-majority countries. But the ferocity of the response to Nusrat’s disclosure went well beyond what we see in the West. This provokes discomfort among Western feminists who are so eager to prove that they are not racist that they are prepared to ignore all manner of abuses perpetrated against Muslim women by Muslim men.
For instance, in response to the Christchurch attacks in March, some non-Muslim New Zealand women, including Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, chose to wear a hijab to demonstrate their solidarity with the victims of the atrocity and their families. The act was clearly well intentioned, and may have provided some comfort to Muslim New Zealanders. But it was also tone deaf because, at the same time that New Zealand women were choosing to wear the hijab, Iranian feminists were desperately fighting to be free of it. Dozens of Iranian women have been arrested over the last two years for their involvement in a campaign to remove the legal requirement for women to wear headscarves in public. Some of these women have been tortured in prison. Did the New Zealand women who donned the hijab know about this brave campaign? I’m guessing not.
Some feminists in the West insist that the veil—not just the hijab, but also more restrictive coverings such as the burka—should be seen as not only benign, but actually empowering. Meanwhile, campaigners like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who draw attention to the suffering of Muslim women, are turned into pariahs. There is a shocking double standard: forms of oppression that Western women would never accept for themselves are excused when they are imposed on women in the Muslim world.
It’s not as though Western feminism is not interested in the effects of race, religion, and nationality on women’s experiences of sexism. Criticism of Christianity is par for the course, particularly when it comes to the Catholic church. And many contemporary feminists are highly agitated about racism within the movement, disowning feminists who have now become associated with racist ideas—for instance, the American suffragist Susan B. Anthony. Given this, you might think that the suffering of women of colour under theocratic regimes would consistently be given precedence in feminist campaigning.
But the sticky issue for feminists who are also part of the Regressive Left is that the perpetrators of abuse against non-white women are mostly non-white men. Standing up against these misogynists leaves one open to accusations of racism, and most Western feminists are not willing to take that risk. Even ex-Muslims like Hirsi Ali can’t escape accusations of Islamophobia. She’s courageous enough to withstand these attacks, but most people aren’t.
And God help you if it’s a case in which white women have been victimised by non-white men. Swedish journalist Paulina Neuding has written in Quillette about the dramatic rise in sex crimes in Sweden over the last decade. Swedish authorities have been unwilling to recognise this trend, in large part because the evidence suggests that immigrant men from North Africa and the Middle East are overrepresented among the perpetrators. Sweden is one of many European countries that have seen a huge rise in a particular form of sex crime in which large gangs of men surround women in order to sexually assault and sometimes rob them. This phenomenon first gained widespread attention following attacks in Cologne on New Year’s Eve 2015. The Left across Europe has been reluctant to acknowledge the scale of this phenomenon because the perpetrators are mostly young Muslim men and the victims are mostly white women. Following the incident in Cologne, Gaby Hinsliff asked in the Guardian whether the attackers might have been motivated by resentment of German women who “with their expensive smartphones” were so noticeably wealthier than the men who assaulted them. The suggestion being, presumably, that levelling the economic playing field would persuade rapists not to rape. Try to imagine a Guardian columnist explaining away white men’s sexual violence in similar terms.
Leftist commentators may think that by underplaying the abuses perpetrated by men of colour they are striking a blow against racism, but in fact they are more likely to be unwittingly acting as recruiters for the Far Right. In the U.K., the revelations about child sex abuse rings operating in cities including Rotherham, Rochdale, and Oxford have been a particular point of tension. The perpetrators of this type of abuse are disproportionately from Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds, and the victims are disproportionately white. It seems that part of the reason these crimes went unpunished for so long was because the authorities were afraid that they would be accused of racism if they drew attention to what was happening. Yes, men of all races can and do abuse. Yes, the existence of these sex abuse rings has been exploited by Far Right activists like Tommy Robinson who are noticeably silent on other forms of sexual violence. But Robinson, who is now standing as an independent in the forthcoming European Parliament elections, has profited from the fact that there is a grain of truth in his position: the Regressive Left really does ignore forms of abuse that are politically inconvenient.
The effect of this wilful blindness is that the victims of violence are abandoned. Given that most abuse takes place within racial groups, when the Left refuses to recognise the crimes of Muslim men it also refuses to recognise the victimisation of Muslim women. Think of the funding, publicity, and diplomatic pressure that could be brought to bear on the oppressors of women in the Muslim world if only there was the political will. But lending support to such an effort would be considered by many on the Left to be an act of neo-colonialism, even outright racism.
I once heard an interview with a Muslim feminist who had been imprisoned in her home country for activism during the height of the Second Wave. While in prison, she received letters from many feminists in Europe and America who assured her that she had not been forgotten. She said that when she read these letters she felt “the warm waves of Western feminism lapping at my feet.” Would she experience the same level of support now? I’m not sure. Too many Western feminists have turned away from the suffering of Muslim women, preferring to protect themselves from accusations of bigotry levelled by other Westerners. There are real costs to being monstered by the Regressive Left, but they’re nothing to the risks run by feminists in the Muslim world, where women are suffering the sort of violent subjugation that is now a thing of the past here. Nusrat Jahan Rafi paid the ultimate price for refusing to bow down to this oppression. If only the Western feminists who refuse to stand up for women like Nusrat had an ounce of her bravery.
Louise Perry is a freelance writer based in the U.K.
Feature photo by Sk Hasan Ali / Shutterstock.
Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.