Hushed Whispers from A Culture of Silence: Bangladesh, Rape, and “Foreignness”

Is Rape A “Foreign” Reality?

Bangladesh's rural areas

In December 2012, the horrific gang rape and eventual death of Delhi college student Jyoti Singh Pandey, caused the entire world to focus on India’s “Rape Culture.” Anyone and everyone who followed this incredible women’s tragic story and eventual demise was moved into action: we protested in any and every way we deemed possible, whether through actively attending public rallies, through social media, through increasing awareness on the serious issue of rape, and indeed, as some friends did, through engaging with the troubled Indian capital’s legislators.

The day Pandey passed away, I happened to be in Kolkata visiting with some friends and family. Upon voicing my desire to attend a peaceful rally protesting the violation of women to well-meaning Bangladeshi friend, I was told, quite vehemently, “Don’t do it. You don’t know what can happen. Besides, these kinds of things can only happen in India.”

I was troubled to hear this rather irrational insinuation that rape is a “foreign problem,” that can be situated to a particular location, especially when that location provides some interesting answers to our persoanl reality. Hearing this from a Bangladeshi who has lived through the 1971 War of Independence from West Pakistan was particularly irksome. Hence, I did some research which led to some chilling understandings of rape.

Rape and Reputation Management: Why A Legacy of Silence Prevails

There is an intense culture of silence which endures and prevails in Bangladesh regarding the country’s bloody independence. Case in point: I had to go to the United States in order to learn about some of the violent atrocities that has occurred in South Asia. In particular, rape is generally treated as a “foreign” problem, and this deplorable theme is cognizant of the culture of silence that has prevailed since the Partition of 1947, which split up India into two parts, and situated Bangladesh as part of the eastern end of Pakistan, separated from the western counterpart by approximately 3000 miles of “hostile” Indian territory (and yet it was the Indians who came to Bangladesh’s rescue upon finding out about the gross atrocities which took place in the gory months of 1971).

Several academics agree that Bangladesh was the site of 200,000-400,000 rapes in 1971, in what was a concerted EFFORT to use rape as a weapon of war for the first time, by conservative estimates.

Proud Bangladeshis will tell you that these rapes were committed only by the Pakistani army. This is untrue- I have spoken to at least six Indian women who were systematically raped by Bangladeshi Muktibahini (or freedom fighters).

This leads me to ask, what exactly is going on here with this blaming the “foreign”? Is the entire entity of foreignness the only precursor in our imagination that rape can occur? By situating rape as a “foreign” problem, this gross violation of human rights becomes one that is alien to one’s personal conditions. The metanarrative that emerges is closely linked to one’s ethnicity, which these days, are easily understood as blind nationalism, patriotism at the cost of humanity, if you will.

Khushwant Singh’s, prominent Indian journalist, wrote a fascinating and harrowing detail about how this blaming of the “other” began, in a  “Train to Pakistan.” The story, one of star-crossed lovers, explores how history is (re)written in national contexts, to provide comfortable answers. Of course, Singh is discussing the events of 1947 in his novel, and particularly the events that took place in Punjab, but the truth remains that in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh- three nations derived from one background, rape is treated as something foreign:

“Muslims said the Hindus had planned and started the killing. According to the Hindus, the Muslims were to blame. The fact is, both sides killed. Both shot and stabbed and speared and clubbed. Both tortured. Both raped.”

If we human rights advocates must be serious, we have to distance patriotism and national sentiments from the imagined communities that influence us: a legacy of violence seems to erupt every single time there is a war in the Indian subcontinent, and indeed, the world at large. Moreover, this legacy of violence is exemplary of a disturbing reality: that some human lives are considered dispensable.

The fact that the biggest genocide in the 20th Century of Muslims, was committed by other Muslims themselves, is only slightly overshadowed by the events of 1947, events which receive more international attention. During Partition several million Muslims and Hindus were uprooted, and advised to move by subcontinental political leaders, based on their religious affiliations.

How is this relevant to understanding 1971? Well, think about it. Bangladesh is the result of the belief that religion cannot be an ultimate unifying factor. In 1947, Bangladesh became East Pakistan. Pakistan is the first state, however, to fail after WWII: the first democratically formed state which was sub-divided. Truly, the amount of atrocities that hence commenced was incredibly disturbing, and these were somehow connected to asserting the ego of a retreating army.

Bangladesh was the site of deadly violations, when an estimated 3.5 million perished. To this day, massive graves have been found, but remain un-excavated (this is another story altogether, which I will come back to at a later point in time).

When asked whether the number of women raped by the Pakistani army, some 200-400,000 alleged women, is accurate, Dr. Geoffrey Davis, brought over by International Planned Parenthood as part of the relief effort in the early months after 1971, to perform emergency abortions, states:

…Probably the numbers are very conservative compared with what they did. The descriptions of how they captured towns were very interesting. They’d keep the infantry back and put artillery ahead and they would shell the hospitals and schools. And that caused absolute chaos in the town. And then the infantry would go in and begin to segregate the women. Apart from little children, all those were sexually matured would be segregated..And then the women would be put in the compound under guard and made available to the troopsSome of the stories they told were appalling. Being raped again and again and again. A lot of them died in those [rape] camps. There was an air of disbelief about the whole thing. Nobody could credit that it really happened! But the evidence clearly showed that it did happen.

So how did we get from this gross violation of women’s rights as human beings to insinuating that rape is a foreign problem?

What Happens When You Romanticize Rape and Foreignness? 

Here’s another chilling reality: I’ve always had to resort to my training in foreign institutions to learn about what has happened in Bangladesh, in Bengal, and indeed in the subcontinent. This means I found out about the 1976 census that ensured the British Divide and Rule policy, only after going to college and researching the topic for a college paper.

I’m very cognizant of the fact that I’m one of the “privileged” few who have, at my own behest, taken the time to learn about Bangladesh’s bloody history, a history which is widely under-reported, and suppressed, particularly because of the nationalist impunity practices that endure whilst war crimes of 1971 are being prosecuted. Take the country’s education sector: the rewriting of National Curriculum textbooks in 1984  has erased the involvement of prominent current politicians from the country’s bloody history, further aiding the stereotype that rape was induced only by “foreigners.” During the Zia/BNP and Jamaat alliance, which occurred after President Zia pardoned known war criminals, violators were allowed to return to Bangladesh to resume their “rightful” place in politics.

Indeed, it is this very silence which leaves the foreign media to question whether the events of 1971 really did occur. This silence is perpetuated by none other than Bangladeshis themselves, as the denial of war crimes remain rampant and the recent War Crimes Tribunal has been shrouded by secrecy. It’s easy to blame anyone who denies these crimes, but the truth remains that the perpetuation of denial is so large scale that it has become eminent to sustaining the self image- the ego- if you will, of the country’s elitist politicians.

The culture of impunity in South Asia is relative- justice is reserved for those who are able to afford the high costs of bribes for the justice sector to do their job. And indeed, this romanticizing of the woman’s body, by distinguishing male and female mukti bahini, or freedom fighters, is a pretty serious one with serious psychological implications which immediately marginalize women

When Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s founding figure, came into power,

English: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman

English: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

he tried to legitimize the plight of women rape victims, calling them female warriors through the title “birangona.” If you’ve been following carefully, you will have noted that the word for all freedom fighters is “muktijuddhas.”

The word birangona is a special term for a unique form of these muktijuddhas, and is specific to women, namely those women who were rounded up in “rape camps,” and repeatedly violated. Indeed, the term is closely associated with rape, unwanted pregnancy, abortion, and giving birth to war-babies.

During this weekend, I happened to be at an art exhibit of a prominent woman artist, and right before entering, I was first introduced to this distinction about the plight of the artist in question, as a survivor of rape during Bangladesh’s War of Independence. For me, it was a revelation of how, as soon as a woman comes out and begins to discuss being raped, her entire identity is situated as a victim.

This term tells people in Bangladesh what happened to those women war victims, and while the term is supposed to be one of empowerment, in all actuality, many women victims were ousted out of their families and not allowed to regain their rightful place in societies. “Birangona,” I would argue, is a marginalizing term for the sacrifice that these women paid, and by engendering the sacrifice paid by Bangladeshi women, the memory of war becomes less sophisticated. Birangona, for me, permanently reduces the struggles of those who paid the highest price for Bangladesh’s birth as a nation.

Rape is definitive, and the sensitive ones of us are aware of the intensely self-debilitating traumas every woman, man, and child who has been raped has to endure. In the first decade of the 21st century, other than the burgeoning “narcotics” and the mystifying “others” categories, violence against women doesn’t even have competition for the most prevalent of crimes- let alone reported crimes- pressing Bangladesh, based on official statistics released from the Bangladeshi Police and found on their website.

Crime Statistics in Bangladesh. Source: Bangladeshi Police website
Crime Statistics in Bangladesh. Source: Bangladeshi Police website

Is Rape Your Problem?

When we romanticize the manner in which we view women who have been raped, we run the risk of not claiming justice for this serious crime. The One Billion Rising Project tells us that 1 in every 3 women are sexually violated. Indeed, as an avid globe trotter, I’ve found this to be true amongst friends who have confessed to being the victims of some seriously heinous crimes, including and not limited to being raped on vacation in Malta, or being repeatedly violated from the ages of 4 to 9 years by one woman’s father. Other stories are equally chilling, and each time, there is a trend which seems to emerge: in most cases the rape victim personally knows their rapist.

I know too many women who have been raped. It’s shameful, really. I say too many because NO one should have to suffer: I have gone to school and university with them, shared meals with them and heard their stories, watched them get married and get jobs and have children, worked with them and for the cause of gender justice, and continue to watch many of these strong survivors feel harrowed and wounded, DAILY, by their awful memories of their experiences.

“They” are just normal people trying to lead “normal” lives. I have seen this in Europe, in North America, the Middle East, and South Asia.

The gist of it is this: Rape is not only your problem, but it is also your reality. Under no circumstance is rape an issue that is limited to a person’s religion, caste, class, sexuality, gender, color, or social status. And in NO way is it limited to a nation, any nation. Violence has become endemic to every human’s progress as civilized beings, and thinking along the lines of “those uncivilized Indians” is just messed up. All of us need to address this issue. It’s not a problem of “those” people.

Those people are YOU, ME, and EVERYONE we know. And rape is EVERYONE’S problem. We need to take a stance, and stop saying it’s something foreign, that can only happen in one place or another, but not in our own backyards. Let’s start being honest with ourselves, and realize that rapists exist in every society, so that we can take some serious measures on how to protect our children from this heinous crime.


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