The Bangladesh War of 1971—in which up to 3 million people were killed, and hundreds of thousands of women raped—seemingly has its roots in strange cartography. As University of Chicago professor Rochona Majumdar puts it, the 1947 Partition between India and Pakistan was geographically “very weird,” with the nation of Pakistan split into two noncontiguous land masses. Mapped to the west of India was West Pakistan, the largest ethnic group of which comprised Punjabis (mostly in the western part of the now divided Punjab, the eastern part of which lay in India), but also Pakhtuni-, Balochi-, and Sindhi-speaking peoples, who largely spoke and/or understood Urdu, a language rooted in India’s United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh). The eastern “wing” of the country, East Pakistan—later Bangladesh—was on the other side of India, largely Bengali-speaking with ties to India’s Bengal. As the BBC points out, the provinces were separated by “more than 1,500 km of Indian territory,” or 932 miles. From the beginning, the state was carved into separate sociolinguistic regions.
Adding to the strain was the fact that the Pakistani army was drawn largely from the Punjabis and Pukhtoons of West Pakistan. Although statistically there were more Bengali than Urdu speakers in the nation, Bengali speakers from the East were poorly represented. This became especially divisive during early periods of military rule.
Just two years after the creation of Pakistan, a group called the Awami League was formed in an effort to petition for East Pakistan’s autonomy. At the end of 1970, the League won in a landslide election in East Pakistan—the first election in Pakistan’s history in which voters could directly choose members of the National Assembly. Though the victory meant the League would control the government, the government in West Pakistan refused to acknowledge the results. Rioting ensued.
In 1971, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (called Mujib), leader of the Awami League, declared independence and renamed East Pakistan “Bangladesh.” Talks between leaders failed to bring reconciliation; on March 23, 1971, East Pakistan, at the direction of Mujib, celebrated “Resistance Day” instead of the national “Republic Day.” Mujib was later arrested and moved to West Pakistan. Soon after, Pakistan began Operation Searchlight, its violent crackdown on Bangladesh. The fighting lasted nine months. India, which took in up to 10 million refugees from East Pakistan/Bangladesh, aided the rebels in their fight against Pakistan.
In December of 1971, Bangladeshi “freedom fighters,” with the help of Indian military forces, defeated Pakistan’s soldiers.
Human Rights Watch estimated that Pakistani forces killed up to 3 million people, though the Pakistani government sets that number much lower, at about 26,000. Hundreds of thousands of women and young girls were raped, though estimates on sexualized violence vary greatly as well. However, as Yasmin Saikia, chair of Peace Studies at Arizona State University's Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict and author of several books about the Indian subcontinent, explains, the 1971 war must be viewed in the context of longer-term conflict in the region. Present-day India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, she says, all committed profound acts of violence between the late 1940s and early 1970s.
How Sexualized Violence Is Used as a Weapon of War
To break up families and communities: Many families did not accept women and young girls after they returned home from rape camps and other sites of abuse. Children of rape were rarely accepted, either. As a result of being rejected, many women committed suicide. As Bangladesh’s Daily Star reports, others “fled to Pakistan with their Pakistani captors rather than face what awaited them in Bangladeshi society.” It’s likely that the military had this effect in mind when systematically attacking women and girls. (See also “Witness.”)
To wield power: Food rations were withheld from women and young girls in rape camps until they acquiesced each day to repeated sexual assault.
To humiliate: Rape survivors, though called “war heroines” by the government, were stigmatized and made to feel ashamed of their ordeals. One survivor says she and others stayed with the soldiers who’d hurt them because of how palpable the rejection was by Bangladeshi men. Many women, shunned by their communities, fled to other towns or committed suicide. Again, this was likely no surprise to the military officials who encouraged soldiers to rape. Women and nation were viewed as related concepts, rendering women during nationalist fights prime targets of attack, says Rochona Majumda.
Patterns of Violence
- Rape camps: Thousands of Bengali women were abducted and held by force in barracks, where they were raped night after night for months. According to Susan Brownmiller, author of a groundbreaking 1975 book on rape, captive women and young girls were raped by anywhere from two to 80 men a night. Browmiller writes that Khadiga, a 13-year-old survivor interviewed in an abortion clinic by a female photojournalist, was at first “gagged to keep from screaming during attacks.” But as months passed and “the captives’ spirit was broken, the soldiers devised a simple quid pro quo. They withheld the daily ration of food until the girls had submitted to the full quota.” One survivor Arizona State University professor Yasmin Saikia interviewed stated that when her fellow captives died due to continuous torture, she and the other women were forced to dig graves and bury their peers. Brownmiller relays the words of an Indian reporter who writes that pornographic movies were shown to soldiers “in an obvious attempt to work the men up.”
- Brownmiller reports that women of all ages were sexually assaulted, from young girls to 75-year-old grandmothers.
- Mass rape followed by mass murder: According to interviews with survivors, 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.” Women were often left in mass graves.
- Gender-based mutilation: Women’s bodies found in mass graves often had their breasts cut off.
In the span of just nine months, the Bangladeshi government estimates, 200,000 women and girls were raped. Even more staggering numbers have been suggested elsewhere. A 1973 article in the New York Times Magazine quotes the chair of the National Board of Bangladesh Women’s Rehabilitation Program—the organization formed to help survivors: “Dr. [Geoffrey] Davis of the International Planned Parenthood Federation who traveled all over Bangladesh,” the chair reports, “estimates that at least 400,000 women were ravished by the Pakistanis.”
A 2009 Human Rights Watch report states that rape occurred on a “large but undetermined scale (figures of 200,000 to 400,000 victims are often mentioned in the literature, though some scholars claim that these figures are seriously inflated).” Controversial scholarship from Indian scholar Sarmila Bose, who published a journal article that appeared to downplay rape as well as a book about the 1971 war, sparked a backlash from other scholars on Bangladesh.
As always, the incidence of sexualized violence is not easy to calculate. In Bangladesh, however, where stigma and social exclusion for rape survivors was quite brutal following the war, numbers may be especially difficult to determine.
Cultural Gender Attitudes
University of Chicago historian Rochona Majumdar explains that in the Indian subcontinent, there is a deeply held concept of the nation as mother, and women as mothers of the nation. This notion became even stronger during periods of nationalism. Majumdar believes that this is a mindset that especially leads to violence against women—their wombs, breasts, and other symbols of maternity. As recently as 2002, she says, during a riot in the Indian state of Gujarat, “pregnant women’s wombs were pulled out.”
Although women participated somewhat heavily during moments of nationalism in the region’s history, they are still encumbered by gender roles, says Majumdar. “They come out of the house, they are out on the street, but they’re out on the street as wives and sisters and mothers.”
Although women were being educated in large numbers, she adds, marriage and motherhood were still considered the most important goals for women.
Saleha Begum, interviewed for a September 2011 story in Women’s eNews, was part of a group of women that was repeatedly gang raped, and later shot. She described being rescued from a pile of dead bodies by a Bangladeshi “freedom fighter,” only to then endure abuse as a rape survivor:
Begum said her captors—Pakistani Army soldiers known as the “Khans”—had bound the women to green banana trees, and “burned our faces and bodies with cigarettes. My body was swollen, I could barely move," she said. Between being raped, she was given some bread or a few fried vegetables, she said.
Another survivor tells of how the rejection from her community was so strong that she and other captives preferred to stay with their rapists after being rescued, rather than face being shamed:
"We went with them voluntarily because when we were being pulled out from the bunkers by the Indian soldiers, some of us half-clad, 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."
- According to Brownmiller, who cites a 1972 New York Times article called "Killing of Babies Feared in Bengal," some 25,000 women became pregnant due to rape. Most of them wanted nothing to do with the birth or aftermath. As Michelle Goldberg puts it in her book, The Means of Reproduction, “Their revulsion at their pregnancies was compounded by the certainty that if they gave birth both they and their children would be ostracized. Mother Teresa opened her convent’s doors to those who wanted to put their babies up for adoption, but few were interested. Instead, many resorted to crude self-administered abortions, suicide, or infanticide.”
- Doctors from Planned Parenthood found that almost every rape victim tested had a venereal disease, according to the same 1972 New York Times article.
- Many young survivors who were not married were considered “unmarriageable” once raped during the war. In an attempt to ameliorate this, Bangladesh’s prime minister encouraged young men to marry the women, deeming them war heroines. The Times article reports that although roughly 10,000 men, including some who had fought against Pakistan, came forward, many of them made “fantastic” demands for dowries and other compensation.
- Regardless of interest by men, survivors refused to come forward as rape victims for fear of stigma and discrimination. Some survivors told alternative stories in order to find husbands—claiming, for instance, to be “war widows,” rather than rape victims. If and when their husbands realized what had actually happened to them, the women were sometimes beaten and kicked out. “There were many feminist voices in the early '70s in early Bangladesh that actually found this idea revolting: that they would have to be rehabilitated into society as a ‘wife,’” says Rochona Majumdar. She explains that the government encouraging marriage for rape victims was not new, but mimicked efforts by India and Pakistan following Partition in 1947.
- The Bangladesh war, however, was instrumental in bringing rape in conflict into the spotlight. As 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.” She cites as reasons for the public’s taking an interest the “desperate need” of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s government for sympathy and financial aid, a budding feminist consciousness about rape, and a growing acceptance of abortion.
A tribunal to prosecute crimes during 1971 has finally been assembled and begun prosecuting its first perpetrator 40 years after the war. According to a war crimes expert interviewed by Women’s eNews, it holds the “power to prosecute perpetrators within Bangladesh, but not the Pakistani soldiers. Pakistan can try the military officials”—which may be unlikely. Stephen Rapp, U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues, at first expressed disappointment in the tribunal after it failed to incorporate many of his suggestions for more effective and just proceedings. He said: "First, it is important that the judges, at the first opportunity, define what 'crimes against humanity' means. The term 'crimes against humanity' has been defined in the statutes and cases of international courts. … It has not been defined in Bangladesh.”
In May 2013, Rapp said he thought “progress has been achieved” in the war crimes trial, while still voicing concern over the death penalty. “I think there is progress. … My hope and expectation are that the cases will be decided on the facts, not on polls, politics, or not on demonstrations.”
Arizona State University's Yasmin Saikia agrees with other experts who believe that violence occurred too frequently on all sides for the current tribunal to be legitimate. Saikia says that the 1971 war was only one in a continuum of conflicts the area experienced over a short span of time. Saikia views present-day India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh as all part of a larger, long-term problem of sexualized violence in the region. While the 1971 rapes were committed mostly by Pakistani armed forces against civilians, sexualized violence was committed on all sides in 1948 during fighting over Kashmir. Saikia also points out that the international community turned down the prospect of a tribunal following the 1971 war due to the ambiguity of which side would be tried and which side considered "attacked."
NGOs including Human Rights Watch have highlighted the tribunal's seemingly amateurish nature. The Economist reports that many Western diplomats “think the government has taken to using the courts to pursue rivals and enemies”—another reason the trials are not being taken very seriously. While “facilitating rape” has been included in the charges, many view the proceedings as too little, too late.
On February 22, 2014, European Parliament member Jacek Włosowicz wrote an article in which he said that the attempt by the Bangladeshi government to create a tribunal “could set a valuable international precedent.”
(Michele Lent Hirsch/published on February 8, 2012)
EDITOR'S NOTE: The text has been updated and corrected to reflect that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman declared Bangladesh’s independence and that Bangladeshi freedom fighters defeated the Pakistani army with the help of Indian forces.