BANGLADESH

in

Against Our Will:
Men, Women and Rape

Susan Brownmiller
 



 
 
Courtesy: Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape
New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1975, pp. 78-86

[To learn more about the author and the book, just click on the respective image.]
 

  

Indira Gandhi's Indian Army had successfully routed the West Pakistanis and had abruptly concluded the war in Bangladesh when small stories hinting at the mass rape of Bengali women began to appear in American newspapers. The first account I read, from the Los Angeles Times syndicated service, appeared in the New York Post a few days before Christmas, 1971. It reported that the Bangladesh government of Sheik Mujibur Rahman, in recognition of the particular suffering of Bengali women at the hands of Pakistani soldiers, had proclaimed all raped women "heroines" of the war for independence. Farther on in the story came this ominous sentence: "In traditional Bengali village society, where women lead cloistered lives, rape victims often are ostracized."

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Two days after Christmas a more explicit story, by war correspondent Joseph Fried, appeared in the New York Daily News, datelined Jessore. Fried described the reappearance of young Bengali women on the city streets after an absence of nine months. Some had been packed off to live with relatives in the countryside and others had gone into hiding. "The precautions," he wrote, "proved wise, if not always effective." 

A stream of victims and eyewitnesses tell how truckloads of Pakistani soldiers and their hireling razakars swooped down on villages in the night, rounding up women by force. Some were raped on the spot. Others were carried off to military compounds. Some women were still there when Indian troops battled their way into Pakistani strongholds. Weeping survivors of villages razed because they were suspected of siding with the Mukti Bahini freedom fighters told of how wives were raped before the eyes of their bound husbands, who were then put to death. Just how much of it was the work of Pakistani "regulars" is not clear. Pakistani officers maintain that their men were too disciplined "for that sort of thing."

Fearing I had missed the story in other papers, I put in a call to a friend on the foreign desk of The New York Times. "Rape of Bengali women?" He laughed. "I don't think so. It doesn't sound like a Times story." A friend at Newsweek was similarly skeptical. Both said they'd keep a lookout for whatever copy passed their way. I got the distinct impression that both men, good journalists, thought I was barking up an odd tree.*

In the middle of January the story gained sudden credence. An Asian relief secretary for the World Council of Churches called a press conference in Geneva to discuss his two-week mission to Bangladesh. The Reverend Kentaro Buma reported that more than 200,000 Bengali women had been raped by Pakistani soldiers during the nine-month conflict, a figure that had been supplied to him by Bangladesh authorities in Dacca. Thousands of the raped women had become pregnant, he said. And by tradition, no Moslem husband would take back a wife who had been touched by

______________ * (NBC's Liz Trotta was one of the few American reporters to investigate the Bangladesh rape story at this time. She filed a TV report for the weekend news.)

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another man, even if she had been subdued by force. "The new authorities of Bangladesh are trying their best to break that tradition," Buma informed the newsmen. "They tell the husbands the women were victims and must be considered national heroines. Some men have taken their spouses back home, but these are very, very few.

A story that most reporters couldn't find in Bangladesh was carried by AP and UPI under a Geneva dateline. Boiled down to four paragraphs, it even made The New York Times.

Organized response from humanitarian and feminist groups was immediate in London, New York, Los Angeles, Stockholm and elsewhere. "It is unthinkable that innocent wives whose lives were virtually destroyed by war are now being totally destroyed by their own husbands," a group of eleven women wrote to The New York Times that January. "This...vividly demonstrates the blindness of men to injustices they practice against their own women even while struggling for liberation." Galvanized for the first time in history over the issue of rape in war, international aid for Bengali victims was coordinated by alert officials in the London office of the International Planned Parenthood Federation. The Bangladesh government, at first, was most cooperative. In the months to come, the extent of the aggravated plight of the women of Bangladesh during the war for independence would be slowly revealed.

Bengal was a state of 75 million people, officially East Pakistan, when the Bangladesh government declared its independence in March of 1971 with the support of India. Troops from West Pakistan were flown to the East to put down the rebellion. During the nine-month terror, terminated by the two-week armed intervention of India, a possible three million persons lost their lives, ten million fled across the border to India, and 200,000, 300,000 or possibly 400,000 women ( three sets of statistics have been variously quoted) were raped. Eighty percent of the raped women were Moslems, reflecting the population of Bangladesh, but Hindu and Christian women were not exempt. As Moslems, most Bengali women were used to living in purdah, strict, veiled isolation that includes separate, secluded shelter arrangements apart from men, even in their own homes. The Pakistanis were also Moslem, but there the similarity stopped. Despite a shared religious heritage, Punjabi Pakistanis are taller, lighter-skinned and "rawboned" compared to dark, small-boned Bengalis. This racial difference would

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provide added anguish to those Bengali women who found themselves pregnant after their physical ordeal.

Hit-and-run rape of large numbers of Bengali women was brutally simple in terms of logistics as the Pakistani regulars swept through and occupied the tiny, populous land, an area little larger than the state of New York. (Bangladesh is the most overcrowded country in the world.) The Mukti Bahini "freedom fighters" were hardly an effective counterforce. According to victims, Moslem Biharis who collaborated with the Pakistani Army-the hireling razakars-were most enthusiastic rapists. In the general breakdown of law and order, Mukti Bahini themselves committed rape, a situation reminiscent of World War II when Greek and Italian peasant women became victims of whatever soldiers happened to pass through their village.

Aubrey Menen, sent on a reporting assignment to Bangladesh, reconstructed the modus operandi of one hit-and-run rape. With more than a touch of romance the Indian Catholic novelist chose as his archetypal subject a seventeen-year-old Hindu bride of one month whom he called "the belle of the village." Since she was, after all, a ravished woman, Menen employed his artistic license to paint a sensual picture of her "classical buttocks": "...they were shaped, that is, as the great Sanskrit poet Kalidasa had prescribed, like two halves of a perfect melon."

Menen got his information from the victim's father. Pakistani soldiers had come to the little village by truck one day in October. Politely and thoroughly they searched the houses-"for pamphlets," they said. Little talk was exchanged since the soldiers spoke a language no one in the village could understand. The bride of one month gave a soldier a drink of coconut juice, "in peace."

At ten o'clock that night the truckload of soldiers returned, waking the family by kicking down the door of their corrugated iron house. There were six soldiers in all, and the father said that none of them was drunk. I will let Menen tell it:

            Two went into the room that had been built for the bridal couple. The others stayed behind with the family, one of them covering them with his gun. They heard a barked order, and the bridegroom's voice protesting. Then there was silence until the bride screamed. Then there was silence again, except for some muffled cries that soon subsided.

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In a few minutes one of the soldiers came out, his uniform in disarray. He grinned to his companions. Another soldier took his place in the extra room. And so on, until all the six had raped the belle of the village. Then all six left, hurriedly. The father found his daughter lying on the string cot unconscious and bleeding. Her husband was crouched on the floor, kneeling over his vomit.

After interviewing the father, Menen tracked down the young woman herself in a shelter for rape victims in Dacca. She was, he reported, "truly beautiful," but he found her mouth "strange." It vas hard and tense. The young woman doubted that she would ever return to her tiny village. Her husband of one month had refused to see her and her father, she said, was "ashamed." The villagers, too, "did not want me." The conversation, Menen wrote, proceeded with embarrassing pauses, but it was not without high tension.

I took my leave. I was at the door when she called me back.

'Huzoor," a title of honor.

“Yes?"

‘You will see that those men are punished," she said.

'Punished. Punished. Punished." 

Menen's report on the belle of the village was artfully drawn, but it did dramatize the plight of thousands of raped and rejected Bengali women. Other observers with a less romantic eye provided more realistic case studies. Rape in Bangladesh had hardly been restricted to beauty. Girls of eight and grandmothers of seventy-five had been sexually assaulted during the nine-month repression. Pakistani soldiers had not only violated Bengali women on the spot; they abducted tens of hundreds and held them by force in their military barracks for nightly use. The women were kept naked to prevent their escape. In some of the camps, pornographic movies were shown to the soldiers, "in an obvious attempt to work the men up," one Indian writer reported.

Khadiga, thirteen years old, was interviewed by a photojournalist in Dacca. She was walking to school with four other girls when they were kidnapped by a gang of Pakistani soldiers. All five were put in a military brothel in Mohammedpur and held captive

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for six months until the end of the war. Khadiga was regularly abused by two men a day; others, she said, had to service seven to ten men daily. (Some accounts have mentioned as many as eighty assaults in a single night, a bodily abuse that is beyond my ability to fully comprehend, even as I write these words.) At first, Khadiga said, the soldiers tied a gag around her mouth to keep her from screaming. As the months wore on 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 quota.

Kamala Begum, a wealthy widow, lived in a Dacca suburb. When the fighting started she sent her two daughters into countryside to hide. She felt she could afford to stay behind, secure in her belief that she was "too old" to attract attention. She was assaulted by three men, two Pakistanis and one razakar, in her home.

Khadiga and Kamala Begum were interviewed by Berengere d'Aragon, a woman photographer, in a Dacca abortion clinic.

Rape, abduction and forcible prostitution during the nine month war proved to be only the first round of humiliation for the Bengali women. Prime Minister Mujibur Rahman's declaration that victims of rape were national heroines was the opening shot of an ill-starred campaign to reintegrate them into society- by smoothing the way for a return to their reluctant husbands or by finding bridegrooms for the unmarried ones from among his Mukti Bahini freedom fighters. Imaginative in concept for a country which female chastity and purdah isolation are cardinal principles, the "marry them off" campaign never got off the ground. Few prospective bridegrooms stepped forward, and those who did made it plain that they expected the government, as father figure, to present them with handsome dowries.

"The demands of the men have ranged from the latest model of Japanese car, painted red, to the publication of unpublished poems," a government official bitterly complained. Another stumbling block, perhaps unexpected by the Bangladeshis, was the attitude of the raped women. "Many won't be able to tolerate the presence of a man for some time," the same official admitted.

But more pressing concerns than marriage had to be faced. Doctors sent to Bangladesh by International Planned Parenthood

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discovered that gynecological infection was rampant. "Almost every rape victim tested had a venereal disease," an Australian physician told The New York Times.

The most serious crisis was pregnancy. Accurate statistics on the number of raped women who found themselves with child were difficult to determine but 25,000 is the generally accepted figure. Less speculative was the attitude of the raped, pregnant women. Few cared to bear their babies. Those close to birth expressed little interest in the fate of the child. In addition to an understandable horror of rearing a child of forcible rape, it was freely acknowledged in Bangladesh that the bastard children with their fair Punjabi features would never be accepted into Bengali culture-and neither would their mothers.

Families with money were able to send their daughters to expert abortionists in Calcutta, but shame and self-loathing and lack of alternatives led to fearsome, irrational solutions in the rural villages. Dr. Geoffrey Davis of the London-based International Abortion Research and Training Center who worked for months in the remote countryside of Bangladesh reported that he had heard of "countless" incidents of suicide and infanticide during his travels. Rat poison and drowning were the available means. Davis also estimated that five thousand women had managed to abort themselves by various indigenous methods, with attendant medical complications.

A Catholic convent in Calcutta, Mother Theresa's, opened its doors in Dacca to women who were willing to offer their babies for overseas adoption, but despite the publicity accorded to Mother Theresa, few rape victims actually came to her shelter. Those who learned of the option chose to have an abortion. Planned Parenthood, in cooperation with the newly created Bangladesh Central Organization for Women's Rehabilitation, set up clinics in Dacca and seventeen outlying areas to cope with the unwanted pregnancies. In its first month of operation the Dacca clinic alone reported doing more than one hundred terminations.

The Bangladesh Central Organization for Women's Rehabilitation, created by Bengali women themselves, proved to be an heroic moving force. In a country with few women professionals, those who had the skills stepped forward to help their victimized sisters. One, a doctor, Helena Pasha, who admitted that prior to the war she had thoroughly disapproved of abortion, gave freely of her

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time and services with little monetary compensation. Women social workers like Tahera Shafiq took over the organizational work and gave aid and comfort that the traumatized rape victims could not accept from men. Tahera Shafiq was adamant on one point. Rape or forcible prostitution were false, inadequate words to describe what the Bengali women had gone through. She preferred in conversation to use the word "torture."

Rehabilitation meant more than comfort, tenderness and abortion. The women's organization sought to train the homeless, rejected women in working skills. Handicrafts, shorthand and typing were the obvious choices-small steps until one remembers that most of the women had never been outside their rural villages before. The hoped-for long-range goal of "rehabilitation" still remained marriage. "An earning woman has better prospects of marriage than others," one social worker said dryly. But for many of the tortured women, aid and succor arrived too late, or not at all. "Alas, we have reports of some who have landed in brothels," a male government official acknowledged. "It is a terrible tragedy."

As the full dimensions of the horror became known, those who looked for rational, military explanations returned again and again to the puzzle of why the mass rapes had taken place. "And a campaign of terror includes rape?" Aubrey Menen prodded a Bengali politician. He got a reflective answer. "What do soldiers talk about in barracks? Women and sex," the politician mused. "Put a gun in their hands and tell them to go out and frighten the wits out of a population and what will be the first thing that leaps to their mind?" Fearing the magnitude of his own answer, the politician concluded, "Remember, some of our Bengali women are very beautiful." Mulk Raj Anand, an Indian novelist, was convinced of conspiracy. The rapes were so systematic and pervasive that they had to be conscious Army policy, "planned by the West Pakistanis in a deliberate effort to create a new race" or to dilute Bengali nationalism, Anand passionately told reporters.

Theory and conjecture abounded, all of it based on the erroneous assumption that the massive rape of Bangladesh had been a crime without precedent in modern history.

But the mass rape of Bangladesh had not been unique. The number of rapes per capita during the nine-month occupation of Bangladesh had been no greater than the incidence of rape during one month of occupation in the city of Nanking in 1937, no greater

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than the per capita incidence of rape in Belgium and France as the German Army marched unchecked during the first three months of World War I, no greater than the violation of women in every village in Soviet Russia in World War II. A "campaign of terror" and a charge of "conscious Army policy" had been offered up in explanation by seekers of rational answers in those wars as well, and later forgotten.

The story of Bangladesh was unique in one respect. For the first time in history the rape of women in war, and the complex aftermath of mass assault, received serious international attention. The desperate need of Sheik Mujibur Rahman's government for international sympathy and financial aid was part of the reason; a new feminist consciousness that encompassed rape as a political issue and a growing, practical acceptance of abortion as a solution to unwanted pregnancy were contributing factors of critical importance. And so an obscure war in an obscure corner of the globe, to Western eyes, provided the setting for an examination of the "unspeakable" crime. For once, the particular terror of unarmed women facing armed men had full hearing.


Dr. Farooq's
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Bangladesh 1971 Genocide Liberation Bangladesh 1971 Genocide Liberation Hindu Genocide East Pakistan
Bangladesh 1971 Genocide Liberation Bangladesh 1971 Genocide Liberation Hindu Genocide East Pakistan
Bangladesh 1971 Genocide Liberation Bangladesh 1971 Genocide Liberation Hindu Genocide East Pakistan
Bangladesh 1971 Genocide Liberation Bangladesh 1971 Genocide Liberation Hindu Genocide East Pakistan
Bangladesh 1971 Genocide Liberation Bangladesh 1971 Genocide Liberation Hindu Genocide East Pakistan
Bangladesh 1971 Genocide Liberation Bangladesh 1971 Genocide Liberation Hindu Genocide East Pakistan