Women’s Suffering during the Bangladesh Genocide of 1971
By Shreya Saha
Atrocities on women have been a dominant feature of mass violence through the ages. According to scholars, the widespread sexual violence during the genocide and other instances of mass violence is not a random phenomenon, rather a planned and coordinated one. It is actually intended to terrorize the enemy into submission by subjecting them to an extreme form of humiliation by violating the honour of their women folk. Such crimes are sanctioned in the name of nationalism (Saikia 2004).
The Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazi Germany in the previous century bears burning evidence of this trend. The 1971 genocide in erstwhile East Pakistan (present day Bangladesh) is not an exception in this regard, but rather helps to unravel different aspects of the feminine experience encountered during and in the aftermath of the genocide. Delving deep into the multiple facets of feminine experiences of 1971, raises some vital questions, like – was rape the only form of torture that the Bengali women suffered during the war? If not, what were the other forms of torture (both physical and mental) to which they were subjected during and after the war? How did the Bengalis respond and retaliate to such forms of violence? Moreover, what happened to those women who contributed to the liberation struggle alongside their male counterparts? How much did the patriotic songs and poems of the time reflect the feminine experiences? The following sections of this essay will attempt to address these issues in greater details.
Different Feminine Experiences
According to Dr. Mazharul Islam, the genocide in erstwhile East Pakistan in 1971 was the most violent and destructive in nature with wide spread manifestation in the post holocaust era. During the nine months duration of the war the Pak army indiscriminately killed millions of men, women and children, destroyed numerous villages, towns and cities (Chowdhuri 2003).
To make an in-depth assessment of the genocide, it is essential to probe deeper into the reasons that prompted the genocide and the liberation war. Since the formation of Pakistan in 1947, widespread disparities existed between the Eastern and Western wings in terms of sharing economic, administrative and cultural resources. In fact, the people of East Pakistan were treated as the second-class citizens. This resulted in the accumulation of grievances that occasionally found expression through launching of various agitations. The result of 1970 general election and the subsequent political turmoil gave the final blow to the dream of United Pakistan. Moreover, the failure of the Pakistan government to adequately respond to the immense suffering of its citizens of the Eastern wing due to the destruction caused by the cyclone of 1970, fueled people’s grievances. Even after winning the majority seats in the 1970’s election of Pakistan, power was not handed over to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman of the Awami League and the government was constantly postponing the session of the national assembly. In response Mujib called upon people to launch a movement for national liberation through non-cooperation strategies. The rulers of West Pakistan responded by unleashing a reign of terror in East Pakistan in the name of ‘Operation Search Light’ on the night of 25th March 1971. This involved setting fire to the students’ hostels, killing various intellectuals and atrocities on the civilian population (Mookherjee 2015). Thus, the struggle for liberating East Pakistan began, that continued for nine months and finally resulted in the birth of a new country – Bangladesh. During this nine-month long period, Pak army along with their local collaborators, the Razakars, Al Badr, Al Shams, Shanti Bahini etc. carried out intense forms of violence on the Bengali population in order to put an end to any attempt directed towards the secession of the country (Mookherjee 2015). Naturally the victimization of women constituted a major aspect of their aggression. However, in course of this period women’s role was not limited to that of passive victims. In this context Yasmin Saikia portrayed the Bangladeshi women in their multiple roles and experiences as victims, collaborators, supporters, caregivers, soldiers, bystanders and survivors who encountered the war from their different vantage points.
Their stories on the one hand highlighted the terrifying power of violence that swept through the country during 1971 and on the other hand emphasized their attempt to resist the de-humanization of their gender against all odds (Saikia 2011).
War time rape is not a new phenomenon in the history of human civilization, but rape and the accompanying torture committed on women acquired new dimensions during the 1971 genocide. In his book entitled Rifle, Roti, Aurat, Anwar Pasha mentioned that General Tikka Khan had issued a blanket order to set fire to the houses of Bengalis, kill them, rape their women; and turn East Pakistan into a nation of slaves and concubines, as the people had no value but their land did (Mookherjee 2015).
Pak army’s torture knew no bounds. Women of all classes, castes, religions and age groups fell victim to their barbaric pleasure. According to Dr. Muhammad Hannan, in Dhaka, students of schools, colleges and universities were regularly taken to the military camps. Whenever a military truck or jeep loaded with women reached the Police line it created a lot of excitement among the Punjabi, Bihari and West Pakistani police and military personnel. They were forcefully dragged out of the vehicles, stripped off clothes and raped immediately. Rape was accompanied by extreme forms of torture that included tearing of body parts with bayonet. After subjecting small girls to brutal rape their body was tore into pieces even with bare hands. This torture was done in such a manner that it generated intense horror among the other surviving women (Chowdhuri 2003). Many women were meant for public witnessing of the assault that gave them intense sense of shame with which they are still surviving. As a result of the torture, they often became pregnant and had to undergo abortion even at a tender age (Saikia 2011). Several of them committed suicide. For instance, among the several hundred naked women rescued from the Comilla cantonment, more than hundred hanged themselves with their sarees (Mookherjee 2015). Several women were tortured in their own locality. However, no one came to their rescue including their family members, who fled from the crime scene leaving them behind (Saikia 2011).
In the autobiographical account of Jahanara Imam, it is known from the testimony of a doctor working at a hospital in Rajshahi, a considerable proportion of patients who used to come to the hospital during 1971 were the rape victims. Many aged ladies sent the younger female members of their family to safe destinations, but themselves did not escape their houses from the assumption that they would not be harmed by the Pak army. But, unfortunately, even they were not spared. Women were raped even while offering Namaz or reading the Qu’ran (Imam 1986).
It was not only the petty soldiers who committed rapes, but many high-ranking army officials were also actively engaged in committing such heinous crime. The local Razakars used to supply women to the military camps and in lieu of this service were often heavily rewarded (Mookherjee 2015). However, there were certain nuances to this trend. The testimonies of women like Firdousi, provides a new direction to the conventional narrative of Bengali women being raped by the Pakistani forces. Interestingly some of the Pakistani army officials were sympathetic towards the condition of these ladies and even made efforts to save their life and honour. As a result, some of them like Firdousi developed relations with those officials. Meanwhile, taking advantage of the chaotic situation many neighbours and acquaintances raped women. For instance, after subjecting an adolescent girl to sexual violence the perpetrators set fire to their houses. Despite being sexually injured she was able to save her brother. Even at her helpless situation her neighbour instead of coming to her rescue, mocked at her. This incident adversely affected her life forever and she lived without identity as a mere servant in her brother’s family (Saikia 2011).
According to Saikia the terror of sexual violence transformed women into mere objects that became a site of fear. This produced extreme anxiety in the families. Hence women were hidden, dispersed and exiled from their homes. Parents warned their daughters to stay out of sight of men and forced them to move from house to house, flee their homes and villages and seek shelter in strange places where they had to stay for several days without food and water. Married women were also compelled to leave their homes and hide in paddy fields, bamboo groves and ditches even in morgues and graveyards. Although some claimed that these precautionary measures had saved them from the enemy while others considered the ordeal as unpleasant and cruel (Saikia 2011).
After considering the inhuman condition that the women had to undergo during the nine-month period, it is essential to enquire about what happened to them in the post war Bangladesh. According to the government, approximately 200,000 women were raped. Post-war, they were bestowed with the title of Birangona (war heroines). The government launched various rehabilitation programs and set up asylums for women, organized marriages and helped them to enter the labour market through guaranteed employment against social ostracization. It was actually the women’s demand that compelled the government to reserve 10% of vacancies for affected women in all government, semi-government autonomous and semi-autonomous organizations. In the view of social workers, the prime objective of the rehabilitation program was to address the logistic challenge of accommodating large number of rape victims into the new nation (Mookherjee 2015).
Among the measures adopted to rehabilitate the victims, abortion seemed the most controversial. It was introduced as a quick measure to cleanse the odious Pakistani presence from the midst of Bangladeshi society. By extension the program was intended for creating a new Bangladesh. Although it was claimed on the part of the state that these measures were adopted to enable women to regain their lost honour, they were completely deprived of any agency in the decisions that governed their lives. According to social activist Ayesha Khan, through this extensive program of abortion the state actually attempted to gain a firm control over sexuality and reproductive behaviour of the Birangonas in the name of preserving national honour. Not all women were willing to undergo abortion but were compelled to do so in the absence of any other suitable alternatives. Nayanika Mookherjee (2015) notes the widespread use of abortive techniques in Bangladesh in the early 1970s perhaps served as a precursor for the international legislation on abortion in circumstances of forced pregnancy in the 1990s.
Moving beyond the conventional portrayal of rape victim as an abnormal, horrific and dehumanized fellow abandoned by her kin, the decision of the Bangladesh government to acknowledge the sacrifice of those victims is definitely an unprecedented step on their part. However, according to many scholars, by doing so, the new state of Bangladesh tried to claim its own victimhood of the West Pakistani state aggression (Mookherjee 2015). Moreover, no significant effort was made to record their testimonies because it was believed that the silence and anonymity was better for the future of these women in a conservative society. It was considered a matter of shame to publicly announce the fact of being raped. Hence silence on the part of the victim was considered appropriate and also guaranteed the authenticity of their victimhood. It was considered that only the women belonging to the lower strata of the society could publicly talk about such shameful matters, because they were devoid of any kind of honour and had several sexual partners. For them, rape was nothing abnormal (Mookherjee 2015).
In fact, many women who gave their testimony years after the incident, had to encounter scornful remarks from their neighbours, relatives etc. and were socially isolated. Although some of these women successfully returned to their normal life, but many families refused to accept the rape victims and even went to the extent of severing all kinds of link with them. However, some opportunistic persons married them in order to get government jobs while others did it out of sympathy. Even if they were accepted, they came to acquire a degraded status in their own families. In many cases children were not sympathetic towards what happened to their mothers. Even many families with rape victims found it difficult to marry off their other daughters (Mookherjee 2015).
Besides the rape victims, survival became even more difficult for the war babies. Being war babies, they were refused by the society, even by their families including the mother. Hence many of them grew up as orphans. They found it difficult to survive in the social milieu that designated them as pariah. From the testimony of an unfortunate lady who has mothered a war baby it is known that her attempt to hide the public exposure that she suffered Nur Begam conjured up a story of marriage, pregnancy to legitimize the presence of both the mother and the daughter in the society. This was not only done to preserve their honour but also to enable her daughter to lead a dignified life (Saikia 2011).
Thus, conferring the status of Birangona on the rape victims ironically instead of honouring them stigmatized their presence to a great extent. One strand of opinion held that, the raped women were actually sexually promiscuous and even took up jobs like film actors, singers and airline stewardesses etc. Many of these rape victims were not only labelled as prostitutes but were also considered to be the traitors for having sexual relation with the enemy-Pakistani army and their collaborators. Among the many testimonies Mookherjee recorded, she introduces the reader with a woman named Rukhshana who being a member of the family of a freedom fighter offered herself to be repeatedly raped by Pakistani forces in order to save the other women of her family and the neighbourhood. However, unfortunately instead of being appreciated for her sacrifice, she was labeled as a collaborator of the enemy (Mookherjee 2015). According to Nilima Ibrahim, the intense form of social ostracization compelled many of these women to migrate to Pakistan with the soldiers who had raped them even while knowing that they would have to take up the profession of prostitution for the sake of their survival. In this context, Sufia Kamal pointed out that the acceptance of rape victims among the Muslim family was much higher as compared to their Hindu counterparts. Consequently, many Hindu women migrated to India to lead a life of absolute anonymity (Mookherjee 2015).
Many women even forged the Birangona identity in order to get government benefits, while the actual victims often found it difficult to get their names in the gazette and hence suffered to a great extent (Saikia 2011).
Moving beyond the narratives of the suffering of the Bengali woman, there is also another side of the story. Recent scholarships suggest that in their attempt to retaliate the atrocity committed by the Pakistan army and their local collaborators, the Bengali supporters of the liberation indiscriminately killed members of Non-Bengali Bihari communities and raped their women during and after the war. Like their Bengali counterparts the Bihari women suffered to a considerable extent. Following the end of the war, the Bihari community of Khulna suffered a massive loss of life and property. Those who survived were evicted out of their houses and forced to live in the refugee camps that later came to be known as the ‘Bihari’ Colony. Many Bihari women were raped and most of them killed. Their children were killed in front of their mothers. The pregnant ladies were not spared from the purview of retaliatory violence. Many were slaughtered like chickens. For instance, in many cases they tore open women’s stomach to pull out the unborn baby and kill the fetus. The testimony of one Bihari lady reveals the extent of their suffering. After the disappearance of her husband on being summoned by their Bengali neighbours she along with her four children and other members of the community were put in a jail by the local authorities for the sake of their safety from the wave of retaliatory violence. During this confinement she had to undergo immense suffering due to the lack of financial resources. She even could not arrange for the burial of her two babies who died out of prolonged hunger (Mookherjee 2015). Thus, it can be asserted that suffering of Bihari women was no different from their Bengali counterparts.
Apart from narrating their tales of victimhood, the immense contribution of numerous women during the liberation war and its aftermath has largely gone unnoticed. According to them what they did was small gesture of love and care done to their family, friends, acquaintances and others not amounting to heroic achievements. Suhasini Devi, an eminent social worker of Sylhet, helped many rape victims during the war. Of them many were pregnant. She not only gave shelter to these helpless victims but also delivered many babies, only sometimes with the assistance of midwife. This was done in absolute secrecy. Another social activist Jharna Chowdhury associated with Gandhi ashram in Noakhali during 1971 was involved in the social welfare of the destitute women and children. Apart from arranging their food and shelter she also treated many people in the villages with the meager medical knowledge that she possessed (Saikia 2011).
Many women joined the war efforts in order to serve their nation. Being a part of patriarchal society that considered war and military prowess as a male preoccupation, women found their role significantly reduced to that of working in the infirmaries and clinics as nurses, care givers and first-aid workers to take care of the wounded soldiers. Only a few of them got the chance to fight from the front. Those ladies like Laila were inspired by the romance of war and dreamt to act as the front-line fighter in order to establish their identity as full citizens in the newly created Bangladesh. Being a medical student following the disintegration of her family in the war time chaos, Laila cherished the dream of becoming a muktijouddha and made earnest efforts in that direction. After encountering many hurdles, she finally came to India where she was stationed in the Gobra camp in Kolkata along with other women. In the camp, they were trained to participate in the war. They used to join protest rallies against international and national policies that were not in favour of Bangladesh and also delivered public speeches to make people aware of what was happening in East Pakistan. They were also attached with organizations like Ramkrishna Mission and others who worked for the welfare of the refugees. Despite being trained in using arms and ammunition, Mumtaz Begam was not given the privilege to fight as a soldier in the war. Instead of taking up the service of nursing and training other girls, she herself setup a camp along with nine other girls in Bogura. Unfortunately, despite several attempts she could not fight from the front (Saikia 2011).
In addition, women active in the cultural sphere played a vital role in inspiring millions through their performance to fight for the liberation of their motherland. Among the radio artists, female vocalists such as Swapna Roy, Kalyani Ghosh, Namita Ghosh, Lucky Ahmed and theatre artists such as Madhuri Chattopadhyay, Sumita Devi are worth mentioning (Chowdhuri 2003).
Portrayal of the Feminine: Patriotic Songs of 1971
The patriotic songs and poems composed and popularized during 1971 played a vital role in instilling nationalistic farvour in the hearts of millions. In most of these compositions the country is conceptualized as an ordinary Bengali lady who is either portrayed as a source of incredible beauty or as a grieving but proud mother due to the achievements of her heroic sons. In the songs like “amar sonar bangla ami tomay bhalo basi”(o! my golden Bengal I love you), “o amar bangle maa” (o my mother Bengal), “eki aparup rupe maa tomay herigo palli janani” (I am spellbound by your beauty inherent in the villages), “janma amar dhonya holo maa go” (o mother I am proud to be born in your soil), etc., the territorial and natural beauty of the country is being mapped on the feminine body and her attire. Moreover, songs like “maa go bhabna keno” (o mother, why are you worried), “bhabo na go maa tomar chhele ra hariye giyeche pothe” (think not your sons have strayed from their path), “Bangla ma’r durnibaar amra torun dol”, (the Bengali mother’s gang of envincibley our young children), etc.
What is interesting to note is that a nation that celebrates motherhood to a great extent, subjected her female folk to extreme forms of social stigmatization. Moreover, as compared to the widespread celebration of the brave sons, nothing is mentioned regarding the contribution made by the daughters of the Bengal towards the liberation of the country. Only in few instances reference is provided to the extreme forms of shame suffered by the mothers and sisters of the country. This is evident from the song “joy bangla banglar joy” (hail Bengal, victory to Bengal) (Roy 1997).
Narrating the different facets of feminine experiences in the genocide and the liberation war of Bangladesh brings us to the conclusion that victimizing the women of the enemy community (the Bengali women in case of the Pakistan army and their local collaborators and the Bihari women in case of the Bengali liberation forces) was considered a legitimate form of exhibiting violence in the patriarchal society of South Asia. This society did not hesitate to victimize the women of their own community who had been assaulted by the enemy and even went to the extent of designating them as prostitutes, collaborators of the enemy and traitors. This according to many scholars constitutes an excuse on their part to shield their failure in protecting those women from the aggression of the enemy. Moreover, the refusal to recognize the immense contribution of the women to the liberation of the country in their different capacities and the reluctance to let them fight from the front reveals another side of the story of women’s victimhood. Thus, placing the narratives of these victims alongside their counterparts (women victims of other genocides) across the world reiterate the appeal to the conscience of the international community to initiate measures that would reduce the suffering of these women.
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Shreya Saha is currently pursuing her doctoral research on “Women’s Interaction with Crime in Colonial Bengal in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries” at the Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata (affiliated to the University of Calcutta) supported by a Junior Research Fellowship, awarded to her by the University Grants Commission of India. She earned a BA (Honours) and MA in History from Presidency University, Kolkata. Her scholarly interests include Crime and Criminality in Colonial and Post-Colonial Bengal, Liberation War of Bangladesh 1971, Micro-Minorities of Colonial Bengal.
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