The history of rape in 1971 has remained an extremely painful and a distant subject in our lives and the narratives have never been explored in all its dimensions. We mention rape when discussing about 1971 as part of the political component, an example of Pakistani barbarity, but we are socially or personally unable to accept rape victims into our own lives. It exists in our collective political construction talked about from the safety of anonymity, but as social individuals, we deny its presence due to the threats of stigma and anxiety generated by our cultural construction.
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Sexual activity during war has several dimensions and rape is one of them, its most violent face. It’s important to put some context to understand sexuality in war situations better. For example, during World War II, most armies provided sexual service for the soldiers either through supply of war prisoners as in Korea and China as ‘comfort women’ or large scale prostitution as in India. Sexual services were easier to access in the West — prostitution, wives of others, single women who were lonely as many men had gone to war, etc. were all outlets for the soldiers looking for sex. It was essentially consensual in nature. Sex is part of war as in normal life.
In 1971, Pakistani soldiers obviously needed women and in a few cases young boys — but their presence in Bangladesh was too brutal for normal sexual client servicing; in fact most sex workers had run away while the number of clients dramatically increased by many times as the number of soldiers were at least 100,000. So these soldiers turned to the civilian population to provide sexual satisfaction. Since very few Bengali women were willing to have sex with them, commercially or otherwise, unwillingness became a key part of this equation. So forced sex through coercion was very common which if not rape in a narrow sense physically but is otherwise so. It’s not as well discussed as rape but probably occurred more than rape. As a soldier says on his way to a liberated Dhaka, “All these women had been rescued from the shelters and the bunkers. They were being led away. Where would they go now?”
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This was brutal but essentially recreational sex. As Gen. Niazi of Pakistan said, “are the soldiers supposed to go to Lahore to find women?” So they found it in the local areas. No one knows how many women experienced forced sex but they were many.
Was Niazi’s own Bengali sex partner a willing one or forced? Her husband, a wealthy professional was picked up and never seen again despite ransom payment. She provided regular sexual companionship to him. There were probably others. The lady in question escaped to Pakistan in December — what else could she do — and her last orders were to make sure Niazi had a properly cooked chicken dinner.
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Rape in 1971 had a much darker side as it was also an ideological act of the Pakistan state. We don’t know how many soldiers actually went to do this as part of faith but it certainly made them feel better to rape kafir women than Muslim women. Since Pakistan sold the war to the soldiers as a holy war this argument was obviously useful and of course all rape victims no matter what their religious identity were conveniently kafir in Pakistani eyes. That is all Bengalis were considered — kafir.
As the Pakistani major from Jhelum wrote on being told that his friend was sexually ravaging Bengali women. “We must tame the Bengali tigress and change the next generation.” Change to better Muslims, Pakistanis?
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Dr. Geoffrey Davies, an Australian doctor who performed abortions in Bangladesh says that the team was aborting over hundred a day. He remains till date the foremost source of unbiased information on the situation being a foreigner and a certified medical doctor working under the UN banner. Dr. Bina D’Costa whose thesis is on raped women interviewed him. He says of his task, “I was trying to save of what have survived of the children born during the time that the West Pakistani army had Bengali women incarcerated in their commissariats. The West Pakistani officials didn’t get why there was so much fuss about that. I interviewed a lot of them. They were in a prison in Comilla. And they were saying, ‘What are they going on about? What were we supposed to have done? It was a war!” Dr. Davies also adds, “They had orders of a kind or instruction from Tikka Khan to the effect that a good Muslim will fight anybody except his father. So what they had to do was to impregnate as many Bengali women as they could. That was the theory behind it.”
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Rape is always a weapon of intimidation. This is common in every war and in today’s Serbia, Congo, etc. this has been proved to be brutally true. In a war, the enemy is always attacked sexually to weaken them. In case of Bangladesh, it was an ethnic war and so most sexual incidents were forced and are statutory rape. A young woman who is forced to marry a Pakistani officer when a gun is pointed at her brother is not really conducting a consensual act.
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Sexuality and war make companions of terrible consequences.
Salma was 16 and arrested from a field in Jessore when she ran out of bullets fighting the Pakistan army. She was taken to Jessore jail where she spent all her days till December experiencing every form of torture including rape. When she was released in mid-December, she ran out from the jail and began to run towards her father who had come to take her home. As they embraced, her father whispered in her ears, “If you have been raped, don’t tell anyone.”
But her village never forgave her and she ultimately had to leave her village out of constant social persecution. When she was being registered as a freedom fighter in the late ‘90s, the visiting politician invited her for sex. At an event, she was introduced as a rape victim despite her protests that she be presented as a freedom fighter.
Rape has both social and political dimensions and none are happy for women.
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During 1971, when two women were raped in a village, they were so stigmatised by the local people that they both committed suicide. A young girl, noticeably beautiful, according to eye witness was raped by a Bengali political leader; she hanged herself. After the war, Dr. Davies mentions that the cases of suicide of raped women was what brought attention to the issue and made the international agencies to send him, a specialist in late pregnancy abortion. War destroys women in many ways including after the war is over through social ‘stigma and shame’.
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State ideology, military necessity, religious impulses along with sexual need of soldiers in a land where women were not keen to sleep with them made rape inevitable by the Pakistan army. But few other armies would invoke duty towards God and the state in order to perform rape, but it happened in 1971. Subsequently, the social system of Bangladesh made life horrific for the victims.
Bangladeshis must never stop condemning themselves for the way they treated victims of forced sexuality and rape. They also must never forget that the 1971 war’s most horrific victims were those women who were made to suffer in the name of Pakistan.
Afsan Chowdhury was part of the Muktijuddher Dolilpatra Project led by Hasan Hafizur Rahman from 1978 to 1986 which produced 15 volumes of documents on the history of 1971. For the BBC, he produced eight radio series and several chat shows on the issue on 1971. He has produced a video documentary on women and 1971 titled “Tahader Juddhyo”. Afsan has edited and co-authored a four-volume history of 1971, “Bangladesh 1971”.
He has worked in several parts of the world as a development and Human Rights specialist for the UN and other agencies. Afsan was the Oak Fellow on International Human Rights of the Colby College in the USA in 2008.