Locating the Woman in Nationalism: The Birangonas of Bangladesh
By Titas Mitra
To precisely define a nation has proven to be an incredibly difficult task for scholars. Benedict Anderson in his work Imagined communities famously dubbed the nation to be an imagined political community, because in all probability there will be no interactions between most of the members and yet in the minds of these men there’s this image of being bound together by some imagined common identity. However, in this imagined identity what position does the woman occupy and how? For this attempt at locating the woman in the nation we must first look at the form it has taken and the meaning it conveys to peoples in the present.
The word nation is surrounded by much ambiguity which has lent to the confusion regarding its status as a people sharing a psychological bond or belonging to a particular juridical territory. Traditionally the scholars subscribed to the former, as a popular dictionary of International Relations writes that nation is “a social group which shares a common ideology, common institutions and customs and a sense of homogeneity. In the nation, however, there is also present a strong group sense of belonging associated with a particular territory considered to be peculiarly its own” (Walker, 1994). This definition puts emphasis on a sense of homogeneity and a sense of belonging in relation to a particular territory considered its own, so while the presence of a particular territory night be necessary, the boundaries of such territory shouldn’t have to conform to the boundaries of the state. But as we’ve seen in recent times the line between nation and state has become increasingly thin.
Nora Yuval-Davis and Floya Anthias (1989) write that they locate five major ways in which they have participated in the ethnic and national processes, they are:
(a) as biological reproducers of members of ethnic collectivities;
An example of this would be the various ways in which the majority in any nation perceives the numbers of people from other community and therefore seek to limit the number of people born within such specific ethnic groups by controlling the reproductive capacity and activity of women. This they do by encouraging their own women to bear more children. A popular Palestinian saying in Israel, for example, boasts that “The Israelis beat us at the borders but we beat them in the bedrooms.”
(b) as reproducers of the boundaries of ethnic/national groups;
In cultures women face various restrictions not only for having children or not having enough children, but also how they choose to have them. Women are often actively discouraged from or even threatened against having sexual relations with men from other groups and this is mostly the case for women in dominant groups. Religious and social traditions dictate who can marry whom so that the character as well as the boundaries of the group can be maintained from one generation to the next. For example, a child born to a Muslim woman and a Copt Christian man will have no legal status.
(c) as participating centrally in the ideological reproduction of the collectivity and as transmitters of its culture;
Women have been made to occupy a crucial role in nationalistic ideology and imagery, projected as the cultural carriers of the group and its identity. Women are often required to disseminate tradition and heritage through their child-rearing methods and their behaviour overall. They must transmit ethnic symbols and way of life to other members of the group, especially children. This can be seen most often in the way people dress. For example, in India after the British colonised the land, parts of British culture seeped into the Indian upper-class upper caste man’s day to day life. While it became normal for men to wear shorts and trousers, there were major objections to a woman wearing western clothes by many men, as famously articulated by the Bengali poet (supposed to have ushered in, the modern period of Bengali poetry) Ishwarchandra Gupta who wrote in his poem “Durbikhkhya”:
“Bethune (College) has alone destroyed their womanly traits,…Perhaps they will also wear boots and smoke cigars.”
(d) as signifiers of ethnic/national differences-as a focus and symbol in ideological discourses used in the construction, reproduction and transformation of ethnic/national categories;
Most often, a woman’s role in culture has not been confined to just the transmission of ethnic symbols but more often women themselves constitute the actual symbolic figuration. As we have witnessed frequently in the Indian nationalistic discourse, the territory of India is quite “fondly” referred to as the motherland and freedom fighters as “her” brave sons.
(e) as participants in national, economic, political and military struggles;
Women have had important, extensive and varied roles in nationalist struggles, liberation wars and guerilla warfare against oppressors. However, the image of women involved in warfare and military remains only a role supportive to men who were the real heroes and a relation involving mostly just nurture, in popular nationalistic belief and memory.
Birangonas of Bangladesh
Women have been used to lend legitimacy to the political projects and aspirations of nations since time immemorial. The image of the woman as a mother is a dominant symbolic imagery through which women become visible in national project and is crucial for mobilisation processes. Explorations of the role of gender within colonialism have shown how gender constitutes a trope for race and sexuality through the feminization of the colonised (Mookherjee, 2008).
This gendered role in nationalism, reference of the homeland as the mother has made the body of the woman as the mother to be available for aestheticization for the project of nationalism in Bangladesh as in many other countries. There is a certain romantic nostalgic imagery of Mother Bengal with her prosperous lands and rivers, inhabited by a peaceful agrarian community who may harvest bountiful grain and crop, living in harmony with its pastoral surroundings offering a timelessness and an apparent classlessness to the imagery. But this image of the nation as a mother and a mother as the nation is certainly a part of middle-class Bengali aesthetics as we see how the Bengali Literary tradition, in which most readers and writers were middle-class men, has projected the image of a “Golden Bengal” where the “mother”- land provides her sons with clear freshwater in her rivers and golden grain; a fabled time of peace they must hope to go back to.
In 1947, India’s independence from British colonial rule resulted in the partition of India into two new countries for the creation of a new homeland for the Muslims of India. Using Islam as the principle of nationhood, the eastern and north-western corners of the country were established as a single nation comprising of two parts, East and West Pakistan which were divided in the middle by the vast expanse of Indian Territory. Moreover, these two regions were culturally and linguistically distinct. West Pakistan was to be the centre of political authority and hence attempted to use that authority to secure cultural dominance on the basis that the East Pakistani practice of Islam was too Bengali and therefore the Islam practiced in Bengal was a lesser and more “Hinduized version” of Islam than the kind practiced in West Pakistan (Mookherjee, 2008). The Pakistani government sought to dominate Bangladesh politically and culturally. They even tried to impose the Urdu language in order to replace the prevalent Bengali language. This kind of military and most importantly linguistic and cultural imposition of one group over another and political control was met with resistance and manifested in the nine-month long Muktijuddho in 1971. East Pakistan became independent from West Pakistan and Bangladesh was formed on 16 December 1971. The new nation of Bangladesh was faced with the staggering statistics of three million dead and two hundred thousand women raped in a span of nine months. These crimes were perpetrated both by the Pakistani army and their local Bengali collaborators. When asked what they considered to be the reason for the prevalence of rapes during Muktijuddho, the middle class and cultural elites in Bangladesh attributed it to Bengali Muslims not being considered Muslim enough as the citizenry of West Pakistan were. They were considered as “hinduised” Muslims only to be seen as ‘nominal Muslims’ by the Pakistani government and people. Rape was seen not only as a way to show the supposedly unruly and belligerent Bengalis their place in this system where West Pakistan was considered to be a superior and dominant force but also as a means to “improve the genes of the Bengali Muslims” and to populate Bangladesh with a new breed of ‘pure’ Islamic people (Mookherjee, 2008). The main motive behind the raping of Bengali women was to terrorise the Bengali men. Children of eight to grandmothers of seventy-five, all women became victims of sexual assault.
As we have seen in the aftermath of the Muktijudhdho, the state and the nation saw the need to reconcile the image of the raped woman with that of the mother. After the Bengali identity emerged victorious, the role of women still came to be framed only within the domestic paradigm. The raped women, for the continuation of this imagery, needed to be restored to their normative spheres, eulogizing the raped women as “war heroines” or Birangonas. The state policy was to get the raped women or Birangonas married, in an effort to “restore” dignity which had been “lost” due to rape. Rehabilitation centres were set up in different parts of Bangladesh conducting “marry-off” campaigns. However, this attempt failed as seen in various press reports that claimed these families did not accept the women.
There are accounts of women preferring to be sent to prisoner of war camps in India, where their rapists were, instead of facing familial rejection they had experienced. The “Birangonas” and their experience eventually disappeared from public discourse, where it was consigned to oblivion. The women came to be equated with mother and the mother equated with the nation. As Nayanika Mookherjee (2008) writes, collapsing the image of female rape with that of the ravages of nature and of mother-nation enables an aestheticization of rape and makes it easier to accept. The emphasis that has been put on the nurturing role of women in Muktijudhdho as mothers ennobles suffering.
From 1971 to 1975, whenever the government cited the history of rape in the Muktijudhdho, it referred to the number of women raped as being “200,000 mothers and sisters.” The Bangladeshi state could not save the women from stigmatisation, even by pandering to the prevalent image of the woman as the mother or the homely figure in society. Aubrey Menen writes about such a raped woman whom he had tracked down to a shelter for rape victims in Dhaka. She was doubtful about ever being able to return to her village. Her husband of one month would not take back a “ravished woman” while her father was ashamed of her. So, she left home and found herself in a shelter for people like her (Brownmiller, 1975). Perhaps if the government’s rehabilitation plan had focused more on empowering the women economically by giving them jobs (which the government had done, but a lot less extensively than marrying off the women) and loans, rather than mostly focusing on marriage and confining her to a “family” that would silence her and never truly accept her, their position could have been marginally better. However, making such a claim could be a dangerous gamble of speculation.
Connor, W., 1994. A Nation is a Nation, is a State, is an Ethnic Group, is a… In: Nationalism Hutchinson, J., Smith, A.D. (eds), New York: Oxford University Press, pp 36-37
Yuval- Davis, N., Anthias, F., Introduction In: Woman-Nation-State , New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp 6-10
Mookherjee, N., 2008. Gendered Embodiments: Mapping the Body-Politic of the Raped Woman and the Nation in Bangladesh, In: Feminist Review, no. 88, pp 36-53. Accessed July 1, 2020.
Brownmiller, S, 1975. War, Bangladesh In: Against Our Will, New York: Ballantine Books, pp 81-82
Titas Mitra is a Master’s student in the department of Political Science at Presidency University, Kolkata. Her research interests include Postcolonial Studies, Nationalism, and Gender Studies. She takes particular interest in populism and in turn the politics of Hindutva in the Indian context. She wishes to work on the burgeoning relations between religion and politics in India with a focus on West Bengal and with a secondary interest on the claims such populist politics makes on the female body and the feminine.
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