If you were to believe most narratives in historical documentation of the Bangladeshi Liberation War, you’d buy into a very simple story about the role of women. Women were victims of sexual abuse, considered as war casualties to some, and even blamed for being tortured and abused.
The “victim” role that women were assigned at the end of the war focused solely on the sexual violence that took place. Estimates range from 200,000-400,000 women raped during the nine month war; to put that in context, this estimate today remains one of the highest rates of rape per capita during a conflict.
The terror of torture and abuse was followed by social exclusion from a conservative, Muslim society, aptly summed up here:
The actual rape is followed by a “second rape”: the ostracism of the women from those communities and their own families, where they become pariahs. — Liz Kelly, Wars Against Women
The violence had devastating results. Women committed suicide afterwards to avoid the “shame” — both for them and their families — of returning to their villages. Babies born as a result of rape were killed, and those women who did return were expelled from their communities.
But was all of this — the exclusion of women from society afterwards, the inherent shame that came with being one of the hundreds of thousands abused during the war, the collective amnesia of both the traumatic events, and the other, vitally important roles that women played — really inevitable? Of course, appropriately dealing with sexual violence at such a scale, especially in such a heavily Muslim society, is a mammoth task, but the rehabilitation methods imposed and enforced by men only further perpetuated the unhappy situation.
Initially, intentions were good. Almost immediately after the war ended, founding leader of Bangladesh Sheikh Mujibur Rahman called for women to be known as ‘birangona,’ or ‘war heroines,’ and recognized for their role, along with the ‘Mukhti Bahini,’ the ‘freedom fighters.’ Although he intended that all women who were involved in the war, in any capacity at all, be referred to with this term, it soon became a synonym for women who had been subjected to sexual violence.
‘Birangona’ linguistically lies very close to the Bengali term for prostitute, ‘barangona’. Women were reluctant to claim this title and become a ‘war heroine’. The well-intentioned title increased the stigma surrounding their role.
Because women were reluctant to talk about the violence they had suffered, very few convictions were made. The perpetrators were not identified for fear that the woman doing the identifying would be wrongfully stigmatized. This social stigma has maintained a culture of silence around the issue of wartime rape, denying women “agency and access to legal justice, social justice, and personal healing.” Attempts were made in the 1990s to address this, but the stigma around women who came forward held fast — “by that point the main crime had become not the rape itself but the women’s disclosure of it.”
The other rehabilitation programs proposed by the government were also problematic. They limited women to the role of “wife,” or required them to take up gender-specific tasks or jobs within society. Programs included an unfathomable ‘marry-off’ campaign, whereby male freedom fighters were encouraged to marry the war heroines. The women’s agency was forgotten and the consideration that they would want to be anything but a wife was ignored. The message to men was that they could swoop in and save the poor women from their terrible, unmarried state.
The results of the campaign were equally shocking. Reportedly around 10,000 men came forward, but many were expecting extra dowries to be offered by the government, as the women they were “being offered” didn’t meet their prejudiced and unrealistic expectations of what a wife should be — ie. virgins. Reportedly, men who did marry war heroines were shocked at their wives’ reluctance to be physically close. It is almost bewildering to hear how little these men recognized the trauma caused by prolonged sexual violence.
In January the following year, a group of eleven women wrote to the New York Times:
It is unthinkable that innocent wives whose lives were virtually destroyed by war are now being totally destroyed by their own husbands… This vividly demonstrates the blindness of men to injustices they practice against their own women even while struggling for liberation — Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will
(The chapter linked above contains much more detail about the types of sexual violence that were carried out, as well as detailed quotes from government officials about the campaigns and government response.)
The issue garnered significant international support, and some of the foreign aid that came in was used to fund abortion clinics and adoption centers. Some clinics carried out late-term abortions. A large international adoption scheme was set up for babies who were born from rape, thus establishing a culture of erasure and enforced cultural amnesia, a culture that attempted to remove reminders of ‘difficult’ issues.
Women were told they could receive training in various specific professions. For those with education, becoming a nurse, a steno-typist or a telephone operator was an option. For those without formal education, instruction was offered in sewing, handicrafts, cooking and home help. Again, the gender-specific nature of the roles offered restricted women to their existing oppressed roles.
Hindsight is 20/20. It’s not hard to imagine better post-war decisions. An educational campaign to both sexes, setting better expectations for rehabilitation following such violence. More widespread counseling for those who did go through sexual abuse and torture, and the support — both physical, and psychological — that they needed. Addressing the social stigma around sexual violence by working with community leaders in villages to ensure women were respected and treated with compassion and understanding upon their return. Giving freedom fighters of both sexes the same title to claim, rather than differentiating them from the outset. Promoting the diverse roles that women had played. Women fought, organized, became citizen journalists, distributed newspapers, and transmitted information. But they were reduced to the role of victim. Even today, in Bangladeshi memorials, women remain mired in the same, tired narrative.
There were some positive occurrences after the war. As Susan Brownmiller writes,
For the first time in history the rape of women in war, and the complex aftermath of mass assault, received serious international attention. — Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will
Additionally, within the country women’s rights groups were set up, some of which are still going strong today, like the Bangladeshi Mahila Parishad (Women’s Council of Bangladesh), which is today supported by Norwegian foreign aid. Since wartime, women’s groups have flourished in Bangladesh. Numerous initiatives are focused on the roles of women, the most famous of which is the Grameen Bank, whose shareholders (i.e. the people to whom it lends) are 97 percent women. Admittedly, the microcredit initiative has not been without controversy.
1971 :: Women Fighters of Bangladesh Liberation Force pic.twitter.com/OZTc4yUVev
— indianhistorypics (@IndiaHistorypic) December 15, 2014
Most recently, women have expanded beyond their ‘victim’ assignment. For example, the powerful Women Warriors photo series highlights other roles that women played during the war. In 2011, Bina D’Costa wrote a broad and thorough analysis of the conflict, focusing on gender roles and war crimes: Nationbuilding, Gender and War Crimes in South Asia. This book goes into much more detailed analysis of how women were treated.
Although there has been progress, the stigma surrounding women’s roles during the Liberation War within wider society, remains taboo. Both sides of my family come from Bangladesh, but the issues described above have rarely, if ever, been mentioned. With sexual violence during conflict coming to a fore on the international stage however, perhaps these women will finally get the justice and respect that they deserve.
Zara Rahman is British-Bangladeshi who has lived in the UK, France, Spain, Bangladesh and now, in Berlin, Germany. Read more of her writing on her website zararah.net. She works at non-profit Open Knowledge Foundation.