When Nusrat Jahan Rafi returned to school on April 6, they were waiting.
Eleven days earlier, the 18-year-old Bangladeshi woman had shaken up all of the social, political, and religious conventions in her hometown of Feni, a conservative, tiny village about 100 miles southeast of the country’s capital, Dhaka. According to Nusrat, the headmaster of her Islamic school had inappropriately touched her repeatedly in his office. Instead of sealing away the incident as a personal secret, Nusrat went to the police and made an official complaint.
The allegation had since gone public, sparking protests and threats — not at the older man accused of taking advantage of a young woman under his care, but at Nusrat.
So as final exams started, Nusrat was accompanied to the school by her brother for two days straight, a one-man protection detail, the Daily Star reported. But on the third day, April 6, he was blocked at the entrance.
“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, told the BBC. “If I hadn’t been stopped, something like this wouldn’t have happened to my sister.”
What happened next would not only jolt Nusrat’s own community but also spur outrage across Bangladesh and beyond. A fellow student tricked Nusrat into going up on the roof, where four or five students dressed in burqas waited, the Guardian reported. The group demanded she retract her accusation.
When she refused, Nusrat was held down while kerosene was poured over her and a match was lit. Burns covered 80 percent of her body, the BBC reported. Nusrat died from her injuries four days after the attack, on April 10.
The gruesome act of violence against an accuser has shoved the entire country into a debate over sexual misconduct, an emotional dialogue that has involved street protests and promises from Bangladesh’s political leaders.
“I am lost for words to condemn this,” Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina told reporters last Friday, according to BDNews24.com. “[The culprits] won’t be spared. We won’t let them off the hook . . . I think they must face exemplary punishment so that such incidents do not happen again.”
According to the BBC, Nusrat would later tell authorities that on March 27, her school’s headmaster — Maulana Siraj Ud Doula — called her into his office, then repeatedly touched her.
"Then he said he liked me. I was surprised to hear that. I told him, ‘What are you saying? You are like my father, you are my teacher. I felt really bad,'” Nusrat said in a video clip taken by police, according to the Dhaka Tribune.
That official statement, however, would become a major issue in the case. According to the BBC, Nusrat’s comments were recorded by an officer, and on the clip, the officer told the woman her complaint was “no big deal."
Despite the officer’s dismissal of her allegations, the headmaster was arrested the same day. But the video of Nusrat’s interview with police was illegally leaked to the local media. The allegation and arrest divided the school and community, according to the Guardian. Some clamored for the headmaster to be punished. Some demanded his release.
Male students from the school and local politicians held a street protest in support of the accused educator. Nusrat’s family fielded phone calls from students demanding she halt the case. “'Otherwise,' the caller threatened, ‘there will be a murder,’ ” Nusrat’s brother told the Daily Star.
After Nusrat was set ablaze on the roof, the young woman managed to rush from the building while the fire consumed her. She was taken to a hospital, but the injuries were so severe that she was transferred to Dhaka for medical attention.
“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,” Police Bureau of Investigation Chief Banaj Kumar Majumder told the BBC.
According to the BBC, authorities have arrested 15 people. Two men have allegedly confessed to planning the attack at the behest of the jailed headmaster, Ud Doula, the Daily Star reported.
On Tuesday, the National Human Rights Commission of Bangladesh published the results of a wider inquiry into how authorities handled the complaint. At a news conference, the commission’s chairman, Kazi Reazul Haque, revealed that Ud Doula had also been accused of sexual misconduct with the students in the past.
“If the administration from the district level to madrassa acted responsibly, then the incident would never have taken place,” Haque said, according to the Guardian.
Investigators continue to piece together what happened as street protests and viral outrage builds calling for justice for Nusrat. “What was her fault?” Nusrat’s mother asked reporters after her daughter’s death. “She just wanted justice and filed the case so that the principal cannot commit such a crime again.”
Nusrat herself remained adamant about her allegations even as more than half her body was burned. Before her death on April 10, while traveling in an ambulance, she recorded a message on her brother’s cellphone, according to the BBC.
“The teacher touched me,” she said. “I will fight this crime 'till my last breath.”
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