The wounds were still ripe when millions of Bangladeshis protested at Shahbagh square demanding death sentence for those accused of war crimes in Bangladesh war of 1971. What was exhilarating about the Shabagh square protests was to see women turn out in large numbers to voice their dissatisfaction in a country which largely relegated their experiences as rape survivors to the margins. Not only have women continued to play a huge role in the civil society but also have perhaps paid the biggest price in the nation building process of Bangladesh.
Bangladesh struggle for independence cannot be viewed in isolation from the geographical division that resulted from India’s Partition into West and East Pakistan and the subsquent wars that were fought over disputed areas. The nine months of military repression conducted by Pakistan was preceded by a separatist movement in East Pakistan which later culminated into full fledged freedom struggle. Later, India stepped in to assist Bangladesh gain independence from Pakistan.
Atrocities were committed on a large scale by all warring sides, while Pakistan never really brought the perpetrators to books, India and Bangladesh chose to remain silent as well after their victory. Around 2,00,000 to 4,00,000 lakh people were killed by the Pakistan forces,though its Government has set the number as low as 26,000. Hundreds and thousands of women were raped and tortured. Given the socio-cultural fabric prevalent in Bangladesh, the real number of women who were raped will never be known.
It was only after the Bosnia war that rape was recognised as a war crime. Earlier armies considered rapes as the legitimate spoils of war. During the 1971 Bangladesh war there prevailed a poor understanding over rape being used as a strategic weapon in war. In a war like situation the idea of mother and the nation become almost synonymous and rather inseparable. The traditional notion which tends to merge the idea of honour with that of a woman further explains how rape is used as a strategic weapon to wipe off the ethnic make up of the community. Women who witnessed the horror of 1971 cited how the Pakistani soldiers said that “they will make them breed Punjabi sons”. It denotes the underlying violence that is directed towards “dishonouring” and “emasculating” the nation.
Susan Brownmiller who is an author of a groundbreaking book “Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape” on rape survivors has mentioned that captive women and young girls were raped anywhere by two to eighty men every night. Khadiga, a 13 year old survivor when interviewed in an abortion clinic by a female photojournalist said that at first they were gagged to keep from screaming during attacks. Women were starved in the rape camps unless they did not relent and offered sexual services to the military officials. As time passed, “The captives spirit was broken , the soldiers devised a simple quid pro quo. They withheld the daily ration of food until the girls had submitted to the full quota”.
The situation was so fragile and all pervasive that even family members, relatives and neighbours commited violence against women. Many women commited or were forced to commit suicide by their families to preserve their honour. Some women instead had preferred to stick with their rapists for fear of rejection at the hands of their own countrymen. Begum, one of the rape survivors, said that her captors—Pakistani Army soldiers known as the “Khans”—had bound the women to green banana trees, and “burned our faces and bodies with cigarettes. My body was swollen, I could barely move,” she said. Between being raped, she was given some bread or a few fried vegetables, she said.”We went with them voluntarily because when we were being pulled out from the bunkers by the Indian soldiers, some of us half-clad, others half-dead, the hatred and deceit I saw in the eyes of our countrymen standing by, I could not raise my eyes a second time. They were throwing various dirty words at us … I did not imagine that we would be subjected to so much hatred from our countrymen.”
In an attempt to integrate them into the society, survivors of rape camps were labeled as “Biranganas” or “Brave women” by the Bangladesh Government, the ground realities however were quite different.Abortion services were rendered free by the Bangladesh government in order to revive their hard earned nationalism and get rid of the “Pakistani bastards”. International adoption schemes were introduced, and there still exists no proper record of those children. Mother Teressa had offered to keep those children in her orphanage, however many women did not come forward for fear of shame and rejection.An example of which is clearly reflected in the following statement by Nilima Ibrahim ‘No apa. Please send away the children who do not have their father’s identity. They should be raised as human beings with honour. Besides, I do not want to keep that polluted blood in this country”.
This term “Biranagana” however later became synonymous with Borangana, which means a fallen woman. This not only further contributed to the ostracisation of the women but also of their children. A girl named Eka, in her teenage, wrote a song in response to the discrimination she has faced because of her mother’s past, “I am the child of a Birangona, I wander around, for a glimpse of you, O father of nation. No one sees my pain, after all I am just a child of a Birangona,”
The State also responded by encouraging men to marry women and restore their lost honour. Yet for many men it was just an opportunity to extract more money for dowry. Some women sort refuge in a pack of lies and told of themselves as widows and not rape survivors lest it might have hampered their chances of leading a normal life again.
Laily Begum who was kidnappped by the Pakistan army but later fought with them and escaped says that her efforts still remain unrecognised. “We lost everything, our reputation, children, husbands, homes, we did not want them to get away with it. There was hatred in our hearts, we were determined to kill the Khans and save the country. We fought with the Himayat Bahini. But nobody remembers us. Where is our name in history? Which list? Nobody wants to thank us. Instead we got humiliation, insults, hatred, and ostracism.”
The trauma of those who had survived in the war has not been sufficiently addressed. Feminists across Bangladesh have little hopes from the International Crimes Tribunal set up in 2010 to adequately address the issue of sexual violence suffered by so many women. The dominant patriarchal and conservative framework has put a veil of ignorance over this issue. Women should be allowed a secure and free environment to testify.
As Bina D. Costa in her book , “National buidling, Gender and War Crimes in South Asia” has also very rightly cited that the movement around the issue of Korean Comfort women has persisted and pressurised Japan to make an official apology in sharp contrast to Bangladesh women’s movement which has failed to consolidate its voice and support over the issue of rape survivors while restricting their effots to “charity and justice for individual women”.
Saeha Begum, one of the rape survivors has cited that she see no point in telling anyone because no one did anything to compensate for what she had lost. “Bangladesh became a free nation and I became a fallen woman”, she said. There are many like her who still await justice.
Pratibha Singh is a researcher & writer on issues pertaining to women in conflict zones at the Institute for Transnational Studies and a graduate student at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy.
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Saha Bubana Aparajita, “Women’s Bodies as Battlefields: Reflections on the Birth of Bangladesh” , War Scapes Review, December 2011
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Smith Spark Laura, “How did Rape become a Weapon of War” , BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/4078677.stm
Hossain Anushay, “The Female Factor: Bangladesh Protests Break Boundaries”, Forbes, February 2013
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This article was first published in September 2014 by the Institute for Transnational Studies under http://www.transnationalstudies.org/Article/77 and is republished here with permission of the author.
Picture Credit: Zoriah