1971 war broke out in Bangladesh, or East Pakistan as it was known then. The Partition of India 1947 had created the Dominion of Pakistan, a new sovereign state which territory was primarily justified by its shared religion – Islam. The new country consisted of West Pakistan (current Pakistan) and East Pakistan (current Bangladesh), separated by more than 1,500 kilometres of Indian territory. Although East Pakistan held the majority of the population, it was politically, culturally, linguistically, and economically exploited by West Pakistan. When Awami League, an East Pakistani political party in favour of increased autonomy of the region, in 1970 won a majority in parliament, it was denied its constitutional right to rule the country. Tensions grew quickly and on March 26, 1971, West Pakistan initiated Operation Searchlight in order to quell the resistance. The war for the liberation of Bangladesh had begun. On 16 December, Pakistan surrendered to Bangladeshi and Indian forces and Bangladesh was born.
The war produced many victims who are remembered and celebrated in Bangladesh today as heroes and martyrs which fought for the liberation of Bangladesh. Music, films, theatre, literature, and countless statues stand as a testimony to the people who lost their lives in the pursuit for a free and sovereign Bangladesh. Some victims were, however, largely ostracized by the country after its liberation, despite the efforts of Sheik Mujibur Rahman, who was at the forefront of the liberation movement and became prime minister after the country reached independence. He called them Birangonas, Bengali for “brave women”, or better translated as ‘war heroines’, as an attempt to honour them and reintegrate into society. They were the roughly 200,000 women, many of whom in different ways participated in the war, who had been raped and tortured by the Pakistani army and its Bengali collaborators (known as “Razakars”) during the war.
The segment contains some explicit details about the types of sexual violence that were carried out.
The soldiers often came at night. Victims aged 8 to 75 were systematically sexually abused and gang-raped – sometimes in front of their families – and either killed or brought to special camps where they were repeatedly raped and assaulted. Others were kidnapped from Dhaka University and kept as sex-slaves inside the Dhaka Cantonment. According to Susan Brownmiller, author of a seminal 1975 book on rape, a woman or a girl could be raped by up to 8o men per day. Many were murdered, others committed suicide. A birangona tells of the atrocities they were subjected to:
‘They 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.’
On October 1971, Time magazine reported on 563 girls being released by the Pakistani military. All of them had been kidnapped and were between three and five months pregnant by the time of their release. An estimated 25,000 to 70,000 pregnancies resulted from the rapes committed during the war. The International Commission of Jurists concluded that the rape and torture committed by Pakistani forces ‘were part of a deliberate policy by a disciplined force.’
Portrait of a birangona. Photo: Nabil Uddin Ahmen/Rex
Adam Jones, political scientist and expert on genocidal rape, has said that one of the reasons for the mass rapes committed by the Pakistani army during the war was to undermine and weaken the Bengali society by dishonouring its women. Many have emphasised that the rapes were ethnically motivated, and Amita Malik, reporting from Bangladesh after Pakistan’s surrender, wrote that one West Pakistani soldier said as he departed: ‘We are going. But we are leaving our Seed behind.’
The label birangona had failed in honouring these women, and it instead became synonymous with violated women and served as a mark of shame for any woman who had been identified as a birangona. Many became shunned by the country they had fought to free. A survivor tells of how the rejection from her community was so severe that she, and others, felt forced to stay with their rapists after having been rescued:
‘We went with them voluntarily because when we were being pulled out from the bunkers by the Indian soldiers, some of us half-[naked], others half-dead, the hatred and deceit I saw in the eyes of our countrymen standing by, I could not raise my eyes a second time. They were throwing various dirty words at us … I did not imagine that we would be subjected to so much hatred from our countrymen.’
Others committed suicide or were killed by their families and many more either stayed silent about their experiences or felt they had to leave their town or even the country. As Lisa Sharlach states:
‘Rape can be especially effective as a tactic of genocide when used against females of communities that cast shame upon the rape victim rather than the rapist. In such communities, the rape forever damages the social standing of the survivor. Bengali girls and women who endured the genocidal rape had to cope not only with their physical injuries and trauma, but with a society hostile to violated women. The blame for loss of honor falls not upon the rapist, but upon the raped.’
Rape in war is not a new phenomenon. However, the Bangladesh Liberation War was unique in the sense that it showed the international community for the first time how systematic rape could be used as a weapon. This weapon would later be used during the Bosnian War and the Rwandan Genocide. The latter was the first time that mass rape during wartime was defined as an act of genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal in Rwanda. Sharlach explains the rationale for this decision:
‘It is also rape unto death, rape as massacre, rape to kill and to make the victims wish they were dead. It is rape as an instrument of forced exile, rape to make you leave your home and never want to go back. It is rape to be seen and heard and watched and told to others: rape as spectacle. It is rape to drive a wedge through a community, to shatter a society, to destroy a people. It is rape as genocide.’
The Bangladesh Liberation War ended on 16 December, 1971, but some of the wounds remain wide-open. In recent years Bangladesh has made attempts to bring honour and justice to the birangonas. In 2015, some received freedom fighter status, making them entitled to all benefits associated with the title, and state facilities were made available to all birangonas and their children. The International Crimes Tribunal has tried and sentenced several individuals complicit in killings and rapes during the war. When pronouncing a judgment in a war crime case in December 2014, the tribunal stated the need to ‘recognise, honour, compensate and rehabilitate the birangonas who had sacrificed their supreme self-worth for the cause of the country’s independence.’ But for a large majority of birangonas – those who were killed, committed suicide, left the country, or had to live with the scars they did not dare to show – it is too little, too late.