Ravished women of 1971: For whom the bell tolls
“Where the lotus gets dried,
Where the Vishalkhshi had been mute and silent over the days,
Where the bangles of Shankhamala, Chandramala and Manikmala…
All the fairy tale princesses used to ring and resonate,
Oh…will they ever ring and resonate again?'
--Rupashi Bangla by Jivananda Das
Torn sarees and broken glass bangles, long and black tresses of traditional Bengali maidens cut and scattered over, under garments of women, abandoned war bunkers by the Pakistani soldiers. Freedom fighter Alilur Rahman broke into tears to me on a hot and humid day of April 2009 when narrating his memoirs of rescuing 18 raped Bengali women from bunkers after they won over their direct war of Bhaitepara with Pakistani troops at broader Khulna region on 18th December 1971.
Or is it the tale of ravished Bhagirathi whose humiliated body was tied up with the wheels of an army vehicle and dragged over miles after miles till she breathed her last? How many of us know about Rahela Begum who was raped in 1971 before her husband just to get divorced soon as a “bad/raped woman?” She got married for the second time in 1976. Her second husband died seven years ago. Her educated son is yet to get a job as child of “Birangona (raped women of 1971).” Her name is yet to be enrolled in the list of freedom fighters. On 5th February of 2013 Rahela Begum came to our city after she had been invited by the Gono Jagoran Mancha, Shahbagh movement. A courageous Rahela Begum narrated her story of plight for the nation before a several number of TV channels resulting in her stigmatisation again in her community by the social elite and this time her daughter Champa was divorced by her husband along with three children for being the daughter of a “Birangona.” Rahela now lives in a slum besides a bus stand at Sirajgonj which the government is going to acquire and she has received the eviction notice like other slum dwellers.
It is now widely acknowledged that during the 1971 Liberation War of Bangladesh, Pakistani military and supporting militias (Rajakars, Al Badr or Al Shams) raped two and four hundred thousand women in the then East Pakistan in a systematic campaign of genocidal rape. The rapes caused thousands of pregnancies, births of war babies, abortions, incidents of infanticide, suicide and led to ostracisation of the victims. In 2009, almost 40 years after the events of 1971, a report published by the War Crimes Fact Finding Committee of Bangladesh accused 1,597 people of war crimes, including rape. Since 2010 the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) has indicted, tried and sentenced several people to life imprisonment or death for their actions during the conflict.
Table 1: Monthly Distribution of Rape of Bengali Women in 1971
Counting the countless rape tolls:
With the goal of reducing the spirit of Bengali nationalism, the Pakistan Army launched Operation Searchlight on 25 March 1971. Dr. Geoffrey Davis, a physician who came in post-Independence Bangladesh to work with rape victims, estimated that the commonly cited figure of 200,000 was probably "very conservative." Davis estimated that around 5,000 rape victims had performed self-induced abortions.
Diary of Dr. Geoffrey Davis styled as “The changing face of genocide” narrates his experience of working with raped women of Liberation war. Basically he came with the assignment of termination of pregnancies of our war survivor women and his diary contains the data of his working experience in Bangladesh from March of September of 1972.
Excerpts of Davis's diary underscores that the Pakistani troop deployed in the then East Pakistan of 1971 were clearly instructed by their high command to impregnate as much as Bengali women they can, either married or maiden. So that the dignity of Bengali nationhood falls into pieces! Apart from the Pak invader army, the local collaborators also played an evil role in mass rape of and forcing Bengali women into prostitution and sexual slavery during the nine months of war.
The post-Independence Bangladesh government formed “The National Board of Bangladesh Women's Rehabilitation Programmes” in 1972 and the “Termination of Pregnancy (TOP)” programme commenced by February 1972 and only then the horrifying aspect of mass rape was revealed. The government statistics calculated the rape toll to be two hundred thousand. The calculation was made this way: two girls or young women had been missing from each Thana every day. Total number of Thanas was 480 and the invader army's tenure of stay was 270 days. Thus the round figure (480X270X2) stood at 268,200. The government deducted 68,200 women on the bona-fide belief that they may be missing on miscellaneous grounds rather than rape. But real toll was obviously much higher as many families declined to admit the rape of their women for the fear of social stigma.
Victim's statement of a 16-year old girl in the refugee camp of Petrapole, India narrates how the collaborators attacked on the fleeing Hindu families, snatched their daughters and sold them out to the Pak soldiers. The well-off Hindu families, however, used to “free” their daughters out from the Rajakars by paying heavy ransom. Girls from poor families had the last address in brothels (21st June 1971, Time).
According to the political scientist R J Rummel, the Pakistani army looked upon the Bengalis as "subhuman" and that the Hindus were "as Jews to the Nazis, scum and vermin that best be exterminated." This racism was then expressed in that the Bengalis, being inferior, must have their gene pool "fixed" through forcible impregnation. Belén Martín Lucas has described the rapes as "ethnically motivated."
Discourse of “Birangona” and “Barangona:”
Following the conflict the rape victims were seen as a symbol of "social pollution" and shame. Few were able to return to families or old homes because of this. Bangabondhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman called the victims birangona ("heroine"), but this reminded common people that these women were now socially untouchables as they were "dishonoured", and the term became associated with barangona ("prostitute"). The official strategy of marrying the women off failed.
On this Victory Day Bangladesh attains 42 years of its independence and sovereignty. The nation is witnessing a crucial epoch of history. May we become able to pay our debts to the blood of millions of warriors and honour of thousands and hundreds of women.
The writer is a Development Activist.