The Birangona – Bangladesh’s War Heroine of 1971
“In the name of victory and the power of the gun, the war provides MEN with a tacit license to rape”(Susan Brownmiller – Against Our Will).
According to a US-based Women’s Media Centre called ‘Women Under Siege’ – which investigates how rape and sexual violence is used in wars – 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.”
During the 1971 Bangladesh War of Independence, the Punjabi army of West Pakistan ravished up to 400,000 East Pakistani or Bengali females (both women and girls), all within the space of nine months. As if the mass rape and torture of innocent women and girls by the Punjabi army wasn’t enough, this was also followed after the war by a second rape by the Bengali people themselves.
As Liz Kelly said in Wars Against Women, “The actual rape is followed by a ‘second rape’: the ostracism of the women from those communities and their families, where they become pariahs.”
In that war, the rape of Bangladeshi women has been recorded as being a crime without precedent in modern history, and as Susan Brownmiller – author of Against Our Will – stated, “the rapes were so systematic and pervasive… planned by the West Pakistanis in a ‘deliberate effort to create a new race or to dilute Bengali nationalism’.”
Rape was only recognised as a war crime after the 1995 war in Bosnia, and even though this crime is punishable by imprisonment or death, rape still remains a common act of war, regardless.
According to a report by Amnesty International, “Women’s bodies have become part of the terrain of conflict,” with the report also going on to say that, “rape and sexual abuse are not just a by-product of war but it has become a deliberate military strategy.”
While Amnesty cites these abuses as occurring in conflicts such as Syria, Iraq, the Congo, Somalia, and Myanmar, the use of rape as a weapon of war goes much further back in history. In the past, it was seen as an opportunistic abuse of women by soldiers who were passing by – also known as the ‘hit and run rapes’ – but it is now regarded as a planned strategy in modern-day conflict.
This means that rape is now an orchestrated military weapon to be used in modern-day ethnic cleansing conflicts – just as it was used in Bosnia, and as it is now being used in Myanmar and Syria – to allow attackers to spread fear and gain control.
What better way for a man to show off his superior strength and to test his manhood than to use his basic weapon of force against a woman or a girl, raping or gang-raping her? As Susan Brownmiller wrote, “His forcible entry into her body, despite her physical protestation and struggle, became the vehicle of his victorious conquest.”
If one group wants to control another then the best form of attack is rape, as this can lead to the impregnation of the women in the community and is therefore seen as destroying the enemy. In Bosnia, systematic rape was used so that women would give birth to Serbian babies, with the same thing happening in Bangladesh’s War of Independence; women and girls were raped, with the West Pakistani army explaining, “so they can have a Punjabi baby.”
From the brutal rapes of women in Bosnia between 1992-1995, to the estimated 400,000 women who were raped in Bangladesh’s War of Independence in 1971, the same military strategy was applied. During the past century of wars,there have probably been too many rapes to even begin calculating.
“Birangona” – Bangladesh’s War Heroine of 1971
According to Women Under Siege, Bengali girls from the age of 8, all the way up to grandmothers aged 75 years old, were abducted and held naked in military rape camps, being subjected to mass rapes. It is also reported that men were shown pornographic videos in the camps beforehand, as Brownmiller cites from a reliable Indian writer, “in an obvious attempt to work the men up.”
This mass rape of women and girls was then followed by mass murder, with the bodies later being found in mass graves with their breasts cut off. Muslim men, who would regard their mother’s bosom as sacred and who believe that their heaven lies under her feet and therefore worship her forever, didn’t have these same beliefs with regard to other Muslim mothers or grandmothers, not even little girls!
Numbers of eye witness accounts tell of the horrific stories of truckloads of Punjabi soldiers terrorising whole villages – along with their hired collaborators, or the razakars – in the night, raping countless women and girls. Some of these rapes were conducted on the spot in front of their parents, husbands, and family members – forcing their family to watch while they gang-raped mostly innocent young girls, before killing them. Other victims were rounded up and taken to military rape camps that had been set up in various locations by the Punjabi army, aided by their collaborators or the razakars – eager rapists as well, many of whom are still living freely in Bangladesh.
There were many stories like this, told at the international aided abortion clinic in Dhaka (spelt Dacca at the time). One such story was of a young girl whose parents, her two sisters, and her brother were killed right in front of her before she was gang-raped by 12 soldiers. She was only 13 years of age at the time!
Another 13-year-old girl was walking home from school when Pakistani soldiers kidnapped her along with four other girls. They were all taken to a military rape camp in Dhaka’s Mohammadpur and were held there until the end of the war, which occurred six months later. In order to restrain her from screaming from the pain of the ordeal she was gagged, and she was raped by two men a day (with others being raped by up to 10 men daily). Other witness accounts state that there were up to 80 assaults per night, a bodily abuse too painful to even think about on innocent young girls.
These women and girls were gang-raped, tortured, impregnated, mutilated, and murdered. In fact, Bangladesh’s 1971 genocide on women and girls is said to be one of the highest rates of rape per capita during any conflict.
After the war, in 1972 the Bangladesh Observer reported that 400,000 – 430,000 women were said to have been raped by the Pakistani or the ‘Punjabi’ army, of whom 200,000 were said to have been impregnated. It further reported that up to 170,000 had aborted those pregnancies – through desperate indigenous methods and through the international charity organisation that had been set up in Dhaka after the war. However, up to 30,000 women and girls committed suicide because of what had happened to them.
The torture and abuse inflicted on these innocent women and girls by the West Pakistani ‘Punjabi’ army was followed by further abuse from the conservative Muslim society of the newly established Bangladesh.
While the brutality exacted by the West Pakistan’s ‘Punjabi’ army had resulted in nine months of hell, the response to the torture, rape, and impregnation of the victims from the Bengali people (especially the men – the fathers, the brothers, and the husbands) themselves after the war were horrific.
The Reverend Kentaro Buma (Asian relief secretary for the World Council of Churches), who went on a two-week mission to the country after it was reported that thousands of raped women and girls had become pregnant, said that, “By tradition, no Moslem husband would take back a wife who had been touched by another man, even if she had been subdued by force.”
Father of the nation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, gave the title ‘Birangona’ or ‘War Heroine’ to honour the 200,000 women who were raped by the West Pakistani army after the war (which ended on 16th December 1971). The title, however, was used to further abuse the victims, as ‘Birangona’ is linguistically same as the word ‘Barangona’, which means ‘prostitute’. The women, therefore, were reluctant to use this well-intentioned title as it just increased the existing abuse and stigma.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman did his best to convince the husbands and other men that these women should be regarded as war heroines or Birangonas. He even started a ‘marrying off campaign’ for the unmarried Birangonas in the hope that men would sympathise with these victims, coming forward so they could be integrated back into society, while urging the current husbands of the victims to take their spouses back.
However, this well-intentioned campaign by the father of the nation did not go well; only about 10,000 men came forward for the unfortunate unmarried rape victims, and only purely on the basis of GREED – they demanded a handsome dowry from the government in order to marry the women, who in their eyes had been irrevocably defiled. These dowry demands included the latest Japanese cars, painted red.
Only a few of the current husbands came forward (eventually) to take their spouses back, while others felt their women had been completely defiled and therefore had no status anymore. In fact, they thought it would be better if they’d killed themselves rather than continue living, their feelings were that strong.
Dr. Geoffrey Davis from the London-based International Abortion Research and Training Centre, who spent time working in the Bangladesh countryside, reported that he was aware of “‘countless’ suicide and infanticide”. He also reported that rat poison and drowning were the obvious available means. Davis further reported that, “The mothers of the raped victims were treated in the worst possible way by their husbands, family members and the community.”
As Brownmiller notes from a group of women who had written in to The New York Times, “It is unthinkable that innocent wives’ whole lives who were virtually destroyed by the war are now being totally destroyed by their own husbands.”
Brownmiller also goes on to say, “This… vividly demonstrates the blindness of men to injustices they practice against their own women even while struggling for liberation.”
Rape victims suffered the worst torture from both sides, especially from the Bengali people themselves.
Included in the harrowing stories is the tale of Saleha Begum, who recalls that after being raped, she was shot and left to die in a pile of dead bodies. She told a reporter that, “She remembers raising her quivering hands to the cobalt of the sky to thank death for coming,” but she was eventually rescued by a freedom fighter. When she returned home five months pregnant, local people called her names such as ‘Khanki’ (which means ‘slut’ in Bengali). As a result of her rape she gave birth to a boy, but the baby died just four days later. Saleha was forced to leave her mother in order to move to Dhaka so she could escape the humiliation she suffered at the hands of the local people.
In order to get by she worked as a maid in Dhaka, eventually finding someone while working there whom she ended up marrying. However, she knew she had to lie to her potential new husband by saying she was a war widow, otherwise – if he knew the truth – he would not marry her.
After about 15 years, when her husband did find out that she was a rape victim, he beat her and tried to throw her out, only to be stopped by their teenage daughter.
Saleha’s story is just one of thousands – women cast out and shunned by society for being victims of rape and torture, and being abused simply for having survived a terrible crime that had been carried out against them. Although many of these women are still alive, they say there is no point in coming forward with their stories as they fear mockery and rejection. Bangladesh has become a free nation, but many of these women (like Saleha) feel that they have become ‘fallen women’, with no other identity to speak of.
Bangladesh finally set up a War Crimes Tribunal in 2011, 40 years after its independence, stating that there had been few death sentences for the collaborators (or the ‘razakars’) living in Bangladesh.
However, the international community are condemning its process, calling it a political vendetta started by the Hasina Government, the current prime minister of Bangladesh, and the daughter of the father of the nation – Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
Nevertheless, it is very unlikely to fulfil the long-awaited justice that the women who suffered the worst atrocities during Bangladesh’s War of Independence need. For one thing, the Bangladesh War Crimes Tribunal cannot bring any case against the West Pakistani perpetrators (or their Bengali collaborators) who fled and who have since become citizens of other countries such as the UK and America.
In the world arena, Bangladesh’s war heroines have received little or no attention at all, despite the genocide and all the atrocities highlighted and debated even at the time of the event. It is still being questioned why the super powers like the US and UK did not intervene.
Only India’s Indira Gandhi came to their aid, helping the rebels and sending in her troops to help the East Pakistanis. When a BBC reporter suggested that India should stay quiet and not contribute to the war, her answer was: “Quieten means we support the genocide… When Hitler was on the rampage, why didn’t you say let’s keep quiet and let’s have peace and let the Jews die? This would never have happened if the world community had woken up to that fact when we first drew their attention.”
The Bangladeshi genocide against innocent women and girls is too important to simply be swept under the carpet. Every year on the 16th December, Bangladesh celebrates the independence with a blind eye and a denial of the women and girls who had been raped.
The Bangladeshi people who ostracised these victims should hang themselves high in shame, for these Birangonas paid the highest price for the Bengali people to celebrate their so-called freedom every year. They have a duty to remember and recognise these women as heroines.
By Aklima Bibi
Photos: credit: google search