Photo: Mumit M
War as gendered
Throughout history, war has been gendered, having different implications and consequences for women and men. Gender norms are used to shape the war system and vice versa, by which men are the chosen combatants taught to equate "manhood" with toughness under fire and women are given "feminine war support roles". Gender also plays a role in ethnonationalism, where the nation and the state are often gendered female and male respectively, with "women's bodies as symbols of the nation, markers of the in-group, and national 'property' to be defended and protected by men".1
During times of war, men and women are injured and die different deaths based on the physical differences between the sexes and the different meanings culturally ascribed to male and female bodies.2 The immediate aftermath and ultimate legacy of war also plays out differently for the sexes. Women, who are considered to be carriers of culture and their bodies as symbols of the nation to be defended by men, are especially vulnerable in situations of battle, where their very identities as women come under threat. Through the common tactic of rape, women have become weapons of war, where rape has been used as a means of humiliating the enemy and breaking their spirit. It has also been employed as a tool of genetic imperialism and ethnic cleansing by impregnating women to bear the enemy's children, and been a mechanism of genocide, as in the cases of Bangladesh, Rwanda, Yugoslavia and Sudan.
During Bangladesh's independence movement against Pakistan in 1971, this strategy was adopted by the Pakistani army, as a result of which, between 200,000 and 400,000 women were raped and made sex slaves in Pakistani military camps3. (It may be mentioned that non-Bengalis in East Pakistan were also said to have been killed and raped, but that is beyond the scope of this article). While the target was said to be largely Hindu women, Bengali women, irrespective of religion, caste or class came under the attack of the West Pakistan military aided by local collaborators, who were being fought by the guerrilla forces, the Mukti Bahini. Women from the ages of seven to seventy-five were raped, gang-raped and either killed or taken away by the military and made to become sex slaves of the officers and soldiers for the duration of the war. Even as the Pakistani forces surrendered in December 1971, some reportedly claimed that they were leaving their "seed" behind in the women they had impregnated through the mass rape.4
Photo: Mumit M
Women as weapons of war
Historically, the rape of women during times of war has been seen as a " 'by-product of war', a matter of indiscipline, of soldiers revved up by war, needy, and briefly, 'out of control’ "5. Research over the last several decades, however, has explored the broader issue of sexual violence in wartime and the gendered nature of war. Women have been seen to be targeted in military conflicts, due to misogyny, combined with the fact that they are seen as carriers of culture, and their bodies "as both territory to be conquered and vehicles through which the nation/group can be reproduced".6
The use of rape in war has been broadly ascribed to three motivations: the "booty principle", where the enemy’s women also become a part of the spoils of the defeated and conquered territory; as a message of humiliation through the women to their men for failing to protect the former; and to promote "soldierly solidarity through male bonding".7 Gang rape, too, has been seen as promoting cohesion within groups of men or soldiers and it has been argued that men who would not rape individually do so as part of a display within the male group, to avoid becoming an "outcast".8
Wartime rape has been used as a form of genetic imperialism, where the forcible impregnation through martial rape "can undermine national, political, and cultural solidarity, changing the next generation's identity, confusing the loyalties of all victimized survivors" and thus can be seen as an act of genocide. Rape in sectarian conflicts such as that which took place in Bangladesh is thus also used as a tool of ethnic cleansing in which it is used to either impregnate women in order for them to bear the "enemy's" children, or to prevent them from becoming mothers in their own communities by making them socially unacceptable or physically unable to bear children. Rape has been described as an "instrument of domestication", which "breaks the spirit, humiliates, tames, produces a docile, deferential, obedient soul" possessing only that degree of control over their bodies as allowed by men. Martial rape affects not only its immediate victims but also the men connected to the victims. It splits ties between the victims and the rest of society, while helping to form bonds between the rapists. Rape has a symbolic impact, that of dominance, not only over women but also the men who failed to protect them from their aggressors. It may also be relevant to note that martial rape is a practice defined by unwritten rules, for example, that only females are 'fair game,' that age does not matter, that soldiers who rape 'enemy women' are not to be reported for it, that anonymous publicity of it may be desirable)".9
Lisa Sharlach in her study on rape as genocide in Bangladesh, Bosnia and Rwanda, attributes this to the signification of women as symbols of honour in their role as "mothers of the nation and transmitters of culture" in some communities, which then stigmatise rape victims/survivors even more for the dishonour brought upon themselves and the community. The actual rape is followed by a "second rape", in the ostracism of the women from those communities and their own families where they become pariahs.10
Feminist analysis of gender violence during war does not differentiate between it and gender violence in other contexts. Sexual violence is seen as a deliberate strategy in war and political repression by the state is connected to sexual violence in all other contexts. In the context of armed conflict, already existing attitudes and behaviours, by which violence against women is justified, are just intensified. Nothing changes in wartime except that the violence increases and is public for the community and world to see and that "the limited protections available to women and implicit toleration [during times of peace] are replaced by condoning and even an outright policy of sexual violence".11
Almost immediately after victory was gained, in the newly independent state of Bangladesh, the state awarded the women who were raped during the war with the title of "Birangona", meaning "war heroine". Rehabilitation centres were set up to provide medical aid to the women including treatment for diseases and abortion of unwanted pregnancies, and, following that, socio-economic support. Under the latter schemes, the women were provided with training which would enable them to make a living on their own. Also, a marry-off campaign was lodged which encouraged Bangladeshi men to come forward and marry the rape victims and the war babies were put up for adoption by foreigners.
Anuradha Chenoy, in her article on women in South Asian conflict zones, describes the tendency to "rehabilitate men and cover up the abuse of women" after war. She cites Amena Mohsin's concept of the gendered nation and gendered peace where power valorises masculinity.12 Indeed, while the sacrifices of male freedom fighters have been glorified in Bangladesh, little is said on women's contribution to the struggle for independence, not to mention the crimes committed against women during the nine months of war. Despite naming the women "war heroines", it is men who were honoured, while women who were violated in wartime were largely rejected by society in peacetime, even by their own families, because of the social stigma associated with rape. Children resulting from these rapes were also rejected by society.
Nayanika Mookherjee, who in her doctoral thesis has done comprehensive work on the women raped during the Liberation War of Bangladesh, sees the birangona as a "national signifier of loss and womanhood" and argues that the rehabilitation measures taken reinforced gender stereotypes of Bangladeshi women and left little space for the birangona to exercise agency. She argues that, while the history of the violence of rape is recognised, what constitutes history for the birangonas remains unaddressed.13
Indeed, though measures were taken for the rehabilitation of the rape victims, they were not encouraged to come forth with the stories of the atrocities committed against them, especially once the immediate aftermath of the war was over. In fact, over the years, less and less information became available on these crimes, with government officials claiming that the material had been lost, destroyed or was just not easily accessible. Yasmin Saikia has termed this a "politics of active national forgetting" of the violence committed against women in 1971. She writes about its representation in the media, in which it was almost absent except for news on the rehabilitation programmes, otherwise rendering the subject "unthinkable" and "unspeakable" even among the victims themselves due to the absence of support groups, counselling services, or rape crisis centres after the war.14
Women's responses to rape -- choosing to remain silent or to speak out and face the social stigma -- will depend on the cultural meanings which rape embodies. Researchers have argued that by choosing to remain silent, as in the case of Yugoslavia, women also exercise agency, for "they understand that speaking out can have unintended consequences, and may not result in either natural or formal justice".15 In the case of Bangladesh, while many of those who had the opportunity committed suicide, others chose to remain silent after having been raped in order to save face. Whether or not this was a result of agency or compulsion, however, is debatable. Saikia argues that silence was a state policy which reduced the agency of the women and made their silence an instrument for the agency of the state itself.
Trying rape as a war crime
Rape has been defined as a war crime in the Geneva Conventions of 1949, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court 1998, as well as Bangladesh's International Crimes (Tribunals) Act of 1973, amended in 2009.16 As stressed by the United Nations, "a single rape constitutes a war crime".17 Along with other war crimes, crimes against humanity and the genocide perpetrated in 1971, however, wartime rape has not been addressed in Bangladesh and has remained hidden behind curtains of silent shame.
The birangona label and the subsequent rehabilitation measures were presumably taken to honour the dishonoured women and aid them in regaining acceptance in a conservative society where a woman's worth lay in her virtue and chastity. Oral histories such as Neelima Ibrahim's Ami Birangona Bolchhi, however, suggest that this purpose seems to have been defeated, as the label only served to identify within and isolate from society the women in question. The entire discourse surrounding the birangona, seems to have been divided and contradictory, almost mythical. Despite the honour associated with the birangona label, the fact that many women did not wish to identify themselves as war heroines is a testament to the fact that the simple title did not deliver all that it had promised. The Bangladeshi war heroines, despite such honorifics, were rendered almost invisible, rejected by their families, scorned by society and not given justice by the nation. Perhaps Bangladeshi society was not ready to accept and honour a raped woman as a national heroine. Perhaps instead of singling her out as a war victim, she too could have been considered a soldier who fought with her body while others did so with their weapons, and she, too, could have been labelled a freedom fighter. For, while the title of birangona was one of heroism, there were no hero(in)es behind the title.
The ravages of wartime rape have not been effectively addressed and the discourse surrounding the birangona in post-war Bangladeshi society has been disempowering for the war heroines. Social stigma leading to a culture of silence around the issue of wartime rape forced these women to remain in the shadows, depriving them of agency and access to legal redress, social justice and personal healing. By trying the atrocities, including the sexual violence, committed in 1971 as war crimes, the nation can take the first step towards honouring the sacrifice of women and men in battle and beginning the process of reconciliation and recovery of a war-ravaged national psyche which has been awaiting justice for close to four decades.
1. Goldstein, J. S., 2001. War and Gender. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
2. Cockburn, C., 2001. The Gendered Dynamics of Armed Conflict and Political Violence. In Caroline O. N. Moser and Fiona C. Clark (eds) Victims, Perpetrators or Actors? Gender, Armed Conflict and Political Violence. London: Zed Books Ltd.
3. Debnath, A., 2009. The Bangladesh Genocide: The Plight of Women. In Samuel Totten (ed) Plight and Fate of Women During and Following Genocide. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.
4. Sharlach, L., 2000. Rape as Genocide: Bangladesh, the Former Yugoslavia, and Rwanda. New Political Science, 22 (1).
5. Copelon, R., 1998. Gender: Reconceptualizing Crimes against Women in Time of War. In Lois Ann Lorentzen and Jennifer Turpin (eds) The Women and War Reader. New York and London: New York University Press.
6. Kelly, L., 2001. Wars Against Women: Sexual Violence, Sexual Politics and the Militarised State. In Susie Jacobs, Ruth Jacobson and Jennifer Marchbank (eds) States of Conflict: Gender, Violence and Resistence. London: Zed Books.
7. Cockburn, C., 2001. The Gendered Dynamics of Armed Conflict and Political Violence. In Caroline O. N. Moser and Fiona C. Clark (eds) Victims, Perpetrators or Actors? Gender, Armed Conflict and Political Violence. London: Zed Books Ltd.
8. Goldstein, J. S., 2001. War and Gender. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
9. Card, C., 1996. Rape as a Weapon of War. Women and Violence, [Online], 11 (4).
10. Sharlach, L., 2000. Rape as Genocide: Bangladesh, the Former Yugoslavia, and Rwanda. New Political Science, 22 (1).
11. Kelly, L., 2001. Wars Against Women: Sexual Violence, Sexual Politics and the Militarised State. In Susie Jacobs, Ruth Jacobson and Jennifer Marchbank (eds) States of Conflict: Gender, Violence and Resistence. London: Zed Books.
12. Chenoy, A. M., 2004. Women in the South Asian Conflict Zones. South Asian Survey, [Online], 11 (35).
13. Mookherjee, N., 2002. 'A Lot of History': Sexual Violence, Public Memories and the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. Ph. D. London: School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.
14. Saikia, Y., 2007. Overcoming the Silent Archive in Bangladesh: Women Bearing Witness to Violence in the 1971 "Liberation" War. In Monique Skidmore and Patricia Lawrence (eds) Women and the Contested State: Religion, Violence and Agency in South and Southeast Asia. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, pp. 64-82.
15. Kelly, L., 2001. Wars Against Women: Sexual Violence, Sexual Politics and the Militarised State. In Susie Jacobs, Ruth Jacobson and Jennifer Marchbank (eds) States of Conflict: Gender, Violence and Resistance. London: Zed Books.
16. Khan, S. R., 2010. To the Victor go the Spoils: Wartime Rape on Trial. In Tureen Afroz (ed) Genocide, War Crimes & Crimes Against Humanity in Bangladesh: Trial under International Crimes (Tribunals) Act, 1973. Dhaka: Forum for Secular Bangladesh and Trial of War Criminals of 1971.
17. Broken Bodies, Broken Dreams: Violence Against Women Exposed. A United Nations OCHA/IRIN Publication, 2005.
This article was previously published in December 2010