Bangladesh 1971

This is the home stretch of an intellectual and emotional marathon. The challenge has been one of endurance – to enter into the suppressed and silenced atrocities committed during five wartime conflicts – Berlin, Rwanda, Nanking, Bosnia-Herzegovina and today, Bangladesh—and learn how and why mass sexual violence was perpetrated. Soon after starting this project, I asked myself, ‘how many horrific images and thoroughly depressing testimonials can I watch before throwing in the towel?’ Well, as expressed in the last blog, the research proved worthwhile as I learned of the striking parallels between these horrors that spanned geographical and chronological distance. What we do to each other during war is the same across the globe, and more importantly, how we push these incidents aside and avoid engaging in dialogue about the victims (female and male) of this sexual violence is identical. Based on these five case studies, the findings are clear. The need for dialogue is necessary if we are to stop this cycle of violence.

Two things have stood throughout the research process for this final blog. The first is the astounding lack of information about the mass sexual violence that resulted from the partition of Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971. It’s not unusual for the numbers of victims in these conflicts to be uncertain. In all other conflicts, the number of victims reported ranged anywhere between the quoted figure and five times more. In the case of Bangladesh, however, the outlook is even hazier. Not only have I encountered the same uncertainty with the facts (victim numbers between 200,000 and 400,000 with the Bangladeshi government reporting 7 digit figures), but the atrocities themselves are quite undocumented and it appears that, aside from the oral tradition passing down this personal and family history from generation to generation, the darker sides of this national history have been somewhat lost.  This likely has something to do with the fact that this war was fought without western intervention and therefore lack of western documentation. The first few moments of the following NBC news report from 1972 reveals just that:

The second thing that stood out was one writer’s suggestion of why women were targeted so fiercely during this conflict.

“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” (Women’s Media Center).

As this suggests, women’s bodies became the battle sites on which West Pakistan (now Pakistan) resisted East Pakistan’s (now Bangladesh) independence.

In 1947 the nation of Pakistan was split into two non-contiguous land masses with West Pakistan to the west of India and East Pakistan hugging India on the eastern side. The two provinces were separated by more than 1,500 km of Indian territory. In 1970, the Awami League, a political group in East Pakistan rallying for their autonomy, won the national election in a landslide vote. Though the victory meant that the League would control the new independent government, West Pakistan refused to recognize East Pakistan’s autonomy. Fierce rioting ensued and though there were attempts between leaders to bring peace, reconciliation between the two groups was far off.

West Pakistan began Operation Searchlight, which was a violent crackdown on East Pakistan. Brutal fighting continued for nine months. India fought on East Pakistan’s side and took in up to ten million refugees. In December of 1971, Indian military forces and Bengali freedom fighters defeated Pakistan’s soldiers.  It is estimated that up to three million Bengali people were killed during this conflict, and that the rape count of women and young girls tallies into the hundred thousands.

As in the other conflicts, sexual violence was used tactically. Many families did not accept women and young girls after they returned home from rape camps, so sexual violence was useful for breaking up families and communities. The rejection of these victims was regularly so intense that women begged their perpetrators to take them with them to Pakistan, knowing that their families would not accept them. This rejection led to countless suicides. One survivor said:

“We went with them voluntarily because when we were being pulled out from the bunkers, 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” (Women’s Media Center).

The physical attacks and offences upon Bengali men and women were horrific, but the silence that has followed magnifies their harm. The lack of information and research about this tumultuous time in Bangladesh is a reflection of the persistent silence that surrounds the issue. How can the emotional wounds and scars begin to heal without words to address them?

With If We Were Birds less than two weeks away it makes sense to dip into  Erin Shield’s beautiful well of words which she wrote specifically to dialogue about sexual violence. Her words effectively summarize the global need for action and conversation. She puts it simply,

“Speak it.”

World With A View. “1971 Rapes: Bangladesh Cannot Hide History.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 21 May 2012. Web. 27 Sept. 2013.

“Women’s MediaCenter.” Bangladesh. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Sept. 2013.

Dummett, Mark. “Bangladesh War: The Article That Changed History.” BBC News. BBC, 16 Dec. 2011. Web. 27 Sept. 2013. <>.