Scholar Yasmin Saikia talks about the untold stories from the 1971 Bangladesh war that led her to write Women, War and the Making of Bangladesh.
Stories of sexual violence against women during the 1971 Liberation War of Bangladesh have remained untold so far. Yasmin Saikia, Professor of History and Hardt-Nickachos Chair in Peace Studies at Arizona State University, collected over 50 testimonies of women, previously unheard, who were victimised during the war.
Her book Women, War and the Making of Bangladesh: Remembering 1971 (published by Women Unlimited, 2011) combines oral histories with archival research to show how women have suffered and survived beyond the violence of the war. She talks about this dark truth of South Asia's history. Excerpts from an interview:
What made you focus on a subject that has been neglected by history?
In 2001 I travelled to Bangladesh as part of my plan to educate myself on South Asia so that I could teach it better. Once in Dhaka, I decided to visit Dhaka University in memory of my father but instead I ended up in a place called ‘Camp Geneva' where the “stranded, stateless Biharis” live. It was here that I first encountered a horrific and troublesome story told by two middle-aged women. They were young in 1971 but witnesses to the brutal murder of their families by local freedom fighters. The son of one of these women told me, “My parents will go to their graves without anyone knowing their story. Why must we suffer for the crimes of another generation?” This stunned me and made me aware of the negative power of history on people's lives.
This, as well as several encounters, motivated me to write a history of South Asia focusing on 1971 from the perspective of peoples' experiences. Also, 1971 was the only time after the end of British colonialism when the people and governments of the Indian subcontinent — India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh — encountered each other.
How tough was it to trace women who had lived and suffered through the war?
In South Asia, although people talk about and discuss many personal matters quite easily, some topics are taboo like rape and gender violence. It is fundamentally connected with the issue of honour and shame; thus, rape stories are hidden rather than discussed in personal and public conversations. Also, archival records of history do not document gender violence that occurs during historic events.
The silence I encountered was not simply cultural; it was also epistemic. It was not just shame that restricted women from speaking about gender violence but, at the deepest level, their stories stirred up disturbing memories of the breakdown of family and community. Women of all groups — rich, poor, Bengali, Bihari, Jayantia, Chakma, Muslim, Hindu and Christian — suffered sexual violence in the war.
Did women mention rape when talking about physical violence?
The word ‘rape' rarely surfaced. Rather, both Bangla and Urdu speakers used euphemistic terms such as abduction, marriage, torture, visit, and the like to convey the forced sexual interactions. The moment of rape was always described as a state of “unconsciousness”. The loss of self and memory after rape made it impossible to reclaim knowledge of it. But it is in the silence of that horrific encounter we learn that something horrible happened to women.
When women spoke they emphasised the pain of neglect they suffer in society today. The common concern was that, during war and violence, the socially accepted status of humanity — a given condition in normal times — was undone. The violence women experienced, they told me, must be understood for its physical impact and beyond. It was an attack on their personhood, their dignity, their worth as human beings.
Even today, more than four decades after the war, the women's human status has not been acknowledged. They continue to suffer backlash when they “dare” to speak about rape in public.
Can parallels be drawn between the 1971 war and the Partition in 1947?
The shocking violence of 1947 was not total and final; it was repeated in 1971 with even greater ferocity and purpose. The gender violence during Partition was incredible, widespread and immense. It was, however, not pre-meditated. Research conducted by Urvashi Butalia, Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin make us keenly aware of this. The sudden shock of Partition threw people into a quandary as they were forced out of their homelands to new and distant places where they encountered strangers. Men acted out their frustration in violence against women of “enemy” groups.
In 1971, however, the violence against women was used as a weapon to humiliate, subjugate and destroy the ‘Other'. To understand the violence of 1971, one needs to research on previous instances of war, particularly 1948 (the first Indo-Pak war over Kashmir).
In 1948, the rape of women was intense. The number of destitute homes established for pregnant and abandoned women was revealing. Although, I would not consider two events to be alike and parallel, these two wars — the first Indo-Pak war (1948) and the Bangladesh War of Liberation (1971) — must be evaluated together to understand how rape and violence against women were used during critical moments in the subcontinent.
In the last 50 years, has the situation changed?
The situation has not changed in the last 50 years. Women in Bangladesh, Pakistan and India, who had survived gender violence, have not come out publicly to put men on trial and demand gender justice.
As one woman said, “Why should I tell you or others about what I suffered? Will it make my husband love me more or will my son respect me because of what I endured? Instead, they will ridicule me.”
Obviously, it is not shame that stops or silences them; it is the fear of reprisal from men who dominate women's lives. For a true and fundamental change in the subcontinent, as women reminded me, societies have to be transformed.