Why is the mass sexualized violence of Bangladesh’s Liberation War being ignored?

*This post of mine is also published on Women in the World/New York Times.*

One of my earliest memories about Bangladesh’s 1971 War of Independence is a story my mother told me about the bodies Pakistani soldiers would dump across the capital, Dhaka. She said you would go to search the mass graves in certain parts of the city for the dead bodies of loved ones and male family members who had “disappeared” after being picked up by Pakistani soldiers. “Despite the endless killings and torture, there was a feeling in the air that you could do anything,” my mother still says. “Everyone knew independence was only a matter of time.”

But the stories that captivated my imagination were about how Bangladeshi women took up arms and fought alongside the men. While the role of women as fighters and supporters of the war are shared and celebrated, the stories of almost 400,000 Bangladeshi women and girls who were raped and tortured at the hands of the Pakistani army in rape camps, and the war babies they gave birth to, remain largely unknown to the world. Growing up, those were the voices that were missing from the narratives told to the post-war generation.

“In the 1971 genocide by Pakistan, Bangladeshi women played a huge role,” said Dr. Nusrat Rabbee, a survivor of the war whose father, Dr. Fazle Rabbee, was a martyred intellectual of the war. She translated stories from the Bengali book, Ami Birangona Bolchi (The War Heroine Speaks) by Dr. Nilima Ibrahim, and learned that “Women served as soldiers but were also abducted, tortured and raped in concentration camps by the Pakistani army who set up rape camps in all towns and villages they went to. It was part of a systematic plan to disempower and destroy the vertebrae of Bengali society — similar to the targeted killings of Bengali intellectuals. Many of the hundreds of thousands of girls and women were killed or later rejected by their families; their children borne out of the rape were forcibly taken and adopted by foreign nationals. Most of these women eventually died of neglect and without recognition.”


Dr. Rabbee went on to state that despite academics’ acknowledgment that rape was used as an official war strategy during Bangladesh’s Liberation War in 1971, Bangladesh and the international community have yet to adequately acknowledge, confront and prosecute rape and gender violence as weapons of war and genocide in the country.

“There is an erasure of the 1971 history of genocide committed by Pakistan in Bangladesh in the world holocaust archives,” Dr. Rabbee said. “It is important to record that this is one of the world’s earliest and most heinous genocides, where perhaps the largest number of women were targeted by systematic rape, torture and subsequent execution.”

According to the Women Under Siege Project, run by the Women’s Media Center, a US-based organization founded by Gloria Steinem, which investigates how rape and sexualized violence are used as tools of war and genocide, women and girls from as young as 8 years old to 75-year-old grandmothers were abducted and held in Pakistani military barracks where they were subjected to mass rape, often followed by mass murder. Women Under Siege also cites interviews with survivors who describe how young girls were “strapped to green banana trees and repeatedly gang-raped. A few weeks later, they were strapped to the same trees and hacked to death.”


When Bangladesh won her Independence, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Father of the Nation, gave the rape survivors the title of “Birangonas,” which translates to war heroine in Bengali, in an attempt to respectfully reintegrate the women into society. Sadly, the gesture largely failed. After being assaulted, mutilated and impregnated by Pakistani soldiers, rape survivors in post-liberation Bangladesh were shunned by society, and the word Birangona became synonymous with dishonored and violated women — spoils of the 1971 war

After the war in Bosnia, the world recognized rape as a war crime. Although Bangladesh finally set up war crimes tribunals in 2011, 40 years after independence, 5 years into its controversial existence, its verdicts and process are condemned by the international community. It is unlikely the tribunal will be the platform to finally deliver justice to these women, many of them still alive today.

Nevertheless in 2015, 41 Birangonas were finally officially recognized by the state and given the status of Freedom Fighter by the Bangladesh government, which affords the women the same benefits as all Freedom Fighters, such as a monthly stipend, medical services and reserved quotas for their children and grandchildren in public recruitment and enrollment in educational institutions.


But on the world’s stage, the stories of Bangladesh’s Birangonas have been given too little attention. Despite the genocide and atrocities being publicized and debated even at the time, today experts are still examining why superpowers like the U.S. did not intervene in the Bangladeshi genocide. The world still has difficulty placing Bangladesh’s atrocities at the same level or stature as Rwanda’s, Bosnia’s or even the Armenian Genocide. Why?

It is shocking that despite the mounting testimonies and evidence that is recorded, we do not place the 1971 war in Bangladesh amongst the world’s most horrific genocides. More specifically, why is much of the world, outside of academia and policy circles, largely unaware that sexualized violence on a mass scale was used as a weapon of war as East Pakistan seceded from West Pakistan?

On the eve of Bangladesh’s 45th birthday on March 26th, the country’s Birangonas should be recognized all over the world. We must find honor in their experience, and be just as proud of our Birangonas as we are of all of our Freedom Fighters. They all paid for their country’s freedom with their lives.

Bangladeshi feminists, especially, have an obligation to save Bangladesh’s Liberation War from historical amnesia, especially while these women are still alive. After all, as the saying goes, when a Birangona dies, her story dies with her. How can Bangladesh’s vibrant women’s rights movement move forward if we do not recognize and remember the unspeakable sacrifice and contributions women made to the birth of our country?

*This post of mine is also published on Women in the World/New York Times.*




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