Are we forgetting the gendercide of the Bangladesh liberation war?

Sanghamitra Bora:

“The army tied our hands, burned our faces and bodies with cigarettes. There were thousands of women like me. They gang raped us many times a day. My body was swollen, I could barely move. They still did not leave us alone. They never fed us rice, just gave us dry bread once a day and sometimes a few vegetables. We tried to escape but always failed. When the girls were of little use they killed them”.
Testimony of Aleya begum, who was kidnapped at the age of 13, ganged raped for 13 months rejected by her family at the end of the war.

The Bangladesh liberation war was one of the bloodiest wars on the history of human kind, about 30 million people lost their lives. Women have been the worst sufferers in any kind of conflict or warfare, and however this war seemed to be no different. Rape was deployed as the primary weapon of war and within six months 200,000 and 430,000 women were raped systemically by the Pakistani soldiers as well as the locals. It is pertinent for one to note that the dominant narratives on understanding the 1971 liberation war is largely centered on the nationalist discourses, emergence and assertion of India’s position in the region, victory and loss of the great powers involved.Whereas the gendercide launchednot only bythe Pakistani soldiers and the local Bengali collaborators but also the state continue to remainas the marginal narratives of understanding the war.

The Pre- independence gendercide.

In the nine months of Bangladesh’s war of independence, particularly Bengali Muslim women were targeted but Christian and Hindu women were also not exempted. Women aged 7 to 75 years old were abducted, sexually abused and assaulted, repeatedly gang-raped and also held captive by the Pakistani soldiers as sex slaves of the war. Many were murdered after “sufficing” the need of the Pakistani soldiers others committed suicide, and some were set free with an “impure Bengali identity”in the pretext to maintain a Pakistani identity.

The Post- independence gendercide.

Soon after the civil war ended, the father of the nation Sheikh MujiburRehman, makes a laudable attempt to incorporate these women back into the society. In order to acknowledge their sacrifices for nation building,in 1972 these war victims were termed as “birangona” which also meant brave or war heroines.  Rahman, knew that in an Islamic society like that of Bangladesh, it would be daunting for these women to acquire the same status and position in the society. Thus, pinning a heroic status to the rape victims, was commendable and reflected an amount of good intentions of the leader. But soon, all the efforts to reintegrate these women in the society tremendously failed. They were ultimately labelled as “the fallen women” or “prostitutes”. Due to the social stigma attached to it, they were isolated, shunned from the society and were refused to be accepted by their own family.The state was perhaps a lurking threat which further marginalized these already ostracized women. The gendered nationalism, or perceiving the nation as “women” was built on the grounds of nation building in Bangladesh. In order to uphold the nations honor, the birangonas were strategically silenced. The government’s tactful strategy to rehabilitate, was to make abortions legal and more than 1,70,000 impregnated women’s bodies were violated, as they had to go through forced abortion.

The state also initiated giving up the war babies for adoption, more than 30,000 babies were born. Nilima Ibrahim, a prominent social worker, in her book ‘Ami BirangonaBolchi’ she mentions that when questioned about the status of the war babies, the Prime Minister Sheikh MujiburRehman said “Please send away the children who do not have their father’s identity. They should be raised as human beings with honor. Besides, I do not want to keep those polluted blood in this country.”Another “commendable” attempt was to initiate“marry them off” campaign, which encouraged the unmarried Birangonas to be accepted in the society. This program was launched to reintegrate the birangonas into the society, as their families were reluctant to take them back. In the post-independence Bangladesh, the state perpetrated gendercide has not only further repressed these women but also silenced them forever.

We often forget that during the 1971 liberation war, it only projected Birangonas with no agency, but also there were women who fought alongside men in the war front, have seemed to grasp no attention at all. Women should not just be seen as mere victims who lack agency but also as actors. Women have been prominent actors in people’s war, peacemaking and post conflict reconstruction. Many official documents makes no mention of the experiences of these women or the gendercide in Bangladesh. As of 2015, 41 Birangonas were recognized officially by the state and another 26 war heroines were added in 2016, to the freedom fighters list. These women would be entitled to the same benefits as that of the freedom fighters. The liberation war, was one of the worst atrocities committed against the women, after the Bosnian crisis. Yet, this has gained very little attention of the world.

Sanghamitra Bora, is a post graduate in International Relations, from South Asian University, New Delhi. She is presently working at the Ministry of Women and Child Development, Government of India. Her interest areas include issues relating to women, peace and security.

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