Against Our Will : Men, Women and Rape



Indira Gandhi’s Indian Army had successfully routed the West
Pakistanis and had abruptly concluded the war in Bangladesh when
small stories hinting at mass rape of Bengali women began to appear
in American newspapers. The first account I read, from the Los
Angeles Times syndicated service, appeared in the New York Post a
few days before Christmas, 1971. It reported that the Bangladesh
Government of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, in recognition of the
sufferings of Bengali women at the hands of Pakistani soldiers, had
proclaimed all raped women “heroines” of the war of independence.
Farther on in the story came this ominous sentence: “In the
traditional Bengali village society, where women lead cloistered lives, rape 
victims often are ostracised.”

Two days after Christmas a more explicit story, by war correspondent
Joseph Fried, appeared in the New York Daily News, datelines
Jessore. Fried described the reappearance of young Bengali women on
the city streets after an absence of nine months. Some had been
packed off to live with relatives in the countryside and others had
gone into hiding. “The precautions,” he wrote, “proved wise, if not
always effective.”

A stream of victims and eyewitnesses tell how truckloads of
Pakistani soldiers and their hireling razakars swooped down on villages in 
the night, rounding up women by force. Some were raped on the spot. Others 
were carried off to military compounds. Some women were still their when 
Indian troops battled their way into Pakistani
strongholds. Weeping survivors of villages razed because they were
suspected of siding with the Mukti Bahini freedom fighters told how
wives were raped before their eyes of their bound husbands, who were
then put to death. Just how much of it was the work of Pakistani
“regulars” is not clear. Pakistani officers maintain that their men
were too disciplined “for that sort of thing”.

Fearing I had missed the story in other papers, I put in a call to a
friend on the foreign desk of The New York Times. “Rape of Bengali
Women?” He laughed. “I don’t think so. It doesn’t sound like a Times
story.” A friend at Newsweek was similarly sceptical. Both said
they’d keep a lookout for whatever copy passed their way. I got the
distinct impression that both men, good journalists, thought I was
barking up an odd tree. [NBC’s Liz Trotta was one of the few
American reporters to investigate the Bangladesh rape story at this
time. She filed a TV report for the weekend news.]

In the middle of January the story gained sudden credence. An Asian
relief secretary for the World Council of Churches called a press
conference in Geneva to discuss his two-week mission to Bangladesh.
The Reverend Kentaro Buma reported that more that 200,000 Bengali
women had been raped by Pakistani soldiers during the nine-month
conflict, a figure that had been supplied to him by the Bangladesh
authorities in Dacca. Thousands of the raped women had become
pregnant, he said. And 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. “The new authorities of Bangladesh are trying
their best to break that tradition,” Buma informed the newsmen.
“They tell the husbands the women were victims and must be
considered national heroines. Some men have taken their spouses back
home , but these are very, very few.”

A story that most reporters couldn’t find in Bangladesh was carried
by AP and UPI under a Geneva dateline. Boiled down to four
paragraphs, it even made The New York Times.

Organised response from humanitarian and feminist groups was
immediate in London, New York, Los Angeles, Stockholm and elsewhere.
“It is unthinkable that innocent wives whose lives were virtually
destroyed by war are now being totally destroyed by their own
husbands,” a group of eleven women wrote to The New Work Times that
January. “This.vividly demonstrates the blindness of men to
injustices they practise against their own women even while
struggling for liberation.” Galvanised for the first time in history
over the issue of rape in war, international aid for Bengali victims
was co-ordinated by alert officials in the London Office of the
International Planned Parenthood Federation. The Bangladesh
Government, at first, was most co-operative. In the months to come,
the extent of the aggravated plight of the women of Bangladesh
during the war of independence would be slowly revealed.

Bengal was a state of 75 millions people, officially East Pakistan,
when the Bangladesh Government declared its independence in March of
1971 with the support of India. Troops from West Pakistan were flown
to the East to put down the rebellion. During the nine-month terror,
terminated by the two week armed intervention of India, a possible
three million people lost their lives, ten millions fled across the
border to India and 200,000, 300,000 or possible 400,000 women
(three sets of statistics have been variously quoted) were raped.
Eighty percent of the raped women were Moslems, reflecting the
population of Bangladesh, but Hindu and Christian women were not
exempt. As
Moslems, most Bengali women were used to living in purdah, strict,
veiled isolations that includes separate, secluded shelter
arrangements apart from men, even in their own homes. The Pakistanis
were also Moslems, but there the similarity stopped. Despite a
shared religious heritage, Punjabi Pakistanis are taller,
lighter-skinned and “raw-boned” compared to dark, small-boned
Bengalis. This racial difference would provide added anguish to
those Bengali women who found themselves pregnant after their
physical ordeal.

Hit-and-run rape of large numbers of Bengali women was brutally
simple in terms of logistics as the Pakistani regulars swept through
and occupied the tiny, populous land, an area little larger than the
State of New York. (Bangladesh is the most overcrowded country in
the world.) The Mukti Bahini “freedom fighters” were hardly an
effective counter force. According to victims, Moslem Biharis who
collaborated with the Pakistani Army – the hireling razakars – were
the most enthusiastic rapists. In the general breakdown of law and
order, Mukti Bahini themselves committed rape, a situation
reminiscent of World War II when Greek and Italian peasant women
became victims of whatever soldiers happened to pass through their

Aubrey Menen, sent on a reporting assignment to Bangladesh,
reconstructed the modus operandi of one hit-and-run rape. With more
than a touch of romance the Indian Catholic novelist chose his
archetypal subject a seventeen-year-old Hindu bride of one month
whom he called “the belle of the village.” Since she was, after all,
a ravished woman, Menen employed his artistic license to paint a
sensual picture of her “classical buttocks” :
“.they were shaped, that is, as the great Sanskrit poet Kalidasaha
prescribed, like two halves of a perfect melon.”

Menen got his information from the victim’s father. Pakistani
soldiers had come to the little village by truck on day in October.
Politely and thoroughly they searched the houses – “for pamphlets,”
they said. Little talk was exchanged since the soldiers spoke a
language no one in the little village could understand. The bride of
one month gave a soldier a drink of coconut juice, “in peace”.

At ten o’clock that night the truckload of soldiers returned, waking
the family by kicking down the door of their corrugated iron house.
There were six soldiers in all, and the father said that none of
them was drunk. I will let Menen tell it:

Two went into the room that had been built for the bridal couple.
The others stayed behind with the family, one of them covering them
with his gun. They heard a barked order, and the bridegroom’s voice
protesting. Then there was silence until the bride screamed. Then
there was silence again, except for some muffled cries that soon

In a few minutes one of the soldiers’ came out, his uniform in
disarray. He grinned to his companions. Another soldier took his
place in the extra room. And so on, until all the six had raped the
belle of the village. Then all six left, hurriedly. The father found
his daughter lying o the string cot unconscious and bleeding. Her
husband was crouched on the floor, kneeling over his vomit.

After interviewing the father, Menen tracked down the young woman
herself in a shelter for rape victims in Dacca. She was, he
reported, “truly beautiful” , but he found her mouth “strange.” It
was hard and tense. The woman doubted that she would ever return to
her tiny village. Her husband of one month had refused to see her
and her father, she said, was “ashamed.” The villagers, too, “did
not want me.” The conversation, Menen wrote, proceeded with
embarrassing pauses, but it was not without high tension.

I took my leave. I was at the door when she called me back.
“Huzoor,” a title of honour.
“You will see that those men are punished,” she said.
“Punished. Punished. Punished.”

Menen’s report on the belle of the village was artfully drawn, but
it did dramatise the plight of thousands of raped and rejected
Bengali women. Other observers with a less romantic eye provided
more realistic case studies. Rape in Bangladesh had hardly been
restricted to beauty. Girls of eight and grandmothers of
seventy-five had been sexually assaulted during the nine-month
repression. Pakistani soldiers had not only violated Bengali women
on the spot; they abducted tens of hundreds and held them by force
in their military barracks for nightly use. The women were kept
naked to prevent their escape. In some camps, pornographic movies
were shown to the soldiers, “in an obvious attempt to work the men up,” on 
Indian writer reported.

Khadiga, thirteen years old, was interviewed by a photojournalist in
Dacca. She was walking to school with four other girls when they
were kidnapped by a gang of Pakistani soldiers. All five were put in
a military brothel in Mohammedpur and held captive for six months
until the end of the war. Khadiga was regularly abused by two men a
day; others, she said, had to service seven to ten men daily. (Some
accounts have mentioned as many as eighty assaults in a single
night, a bodily abuse that is beyond my ability to fully comprehend,
even as I write these words.) At first, Khadiga said, the soldiers
tied a gag around her mouth to keep her from screaming. As months
wore on and the captive’s spirit was broken, the soldiers devised a
simple quid pro quo. They withheld the daily ration of food until
the girls had submitted to the full quota.

Kamala Begum, a wealthy widow, lived in a Dacca suburb. When the
fighting started she sent her two daughters into the countryside to
hide. She felt she could afford to stay behind, secure in her belief
that she was “too old” to attract attention. She was assaulted by
three men, two Pakistanis and one razakar, in her home.

Khadiga and Kamala Begum were interviewed by Bérengère d’Aragon, a
woman photographer, in a Dacca abortion Clinic.

Rape, abduction and forcible prostitution during the nine-month war
proved to be only the first round of humiliation for the Bengali
women. Prime Minister Mujibur Rahman’s declaration that victims of
rape were national heroines was the opening shot of an ill-starred
campaign to reintegrate them into society – by smoothing the way for
a return to their reluctant husbands or by finding bridegrooms for
the unmarried ones among his Mukti Bahini freedom fighters.
Imaginative in concept for a country in which female chastity and
purdah isolation are cardinal principles, the “marry them off”
campaign never got off the ground. Few prospective bridegrooms
stepped forward, and those who did made it plain that they expected
the government, as father figure, to present them with handsome

“The demands of the men have ranged from the latest model of
Japanese car, painted red, to the publication of unpublished poems,”
a government official bitterly complained. Another stumbling block,
perhaps unexpected by the Bangladeshi, was the attitude of the raped
women. “Many won’t be able to tolerate the presence of a man for
some time,” the same official admitted.

But more pressing concerns than marriage has to be faced. Doctors
sent to Bangladesh by International Planned Parenthood discovered
that gynaecological infection was rampant. “Almost every rape victim
tested had a venereal disease,” an Australian physician told The New
York Times.

The most serious crisis was pregnancy. Accurate statistics on the
number of raped women who found themselves with a child were
difficult to determine but 25,000 is the generally accepted figure.
Less speculative was the attitude of the raped, pregnant women. Few
cared to bear the babies. Those close to birth expresses little
interest in the fate of the child. In addition to the understandable
horror of rearing a child forcible rape, it was freely acknowledged
in Bangladesh that the bastard children with their fair Punjabi
features would never be accepted into Bengali culture – and neither
would their mothers.

Families with money were able to send their daughters to expert
abortionists in Calcutta, but shame and self-loathing and lack of
alternatives led to fearsome, irrational solutions in the rural
villages. Dr. Geoffrey Davis of the London-based International
Abortion Research and Training Centre who worked for months in the
remote countryside of Bangladesh reported that he had heard of
“countless” incidents of suicide and infanticide during his
travels. Rat poison and drowning were the available means. Davis
also estimated that five thousand women had managed to abort themselves by 
various indigenous methods, with attendant medical complications.

A Catholic convent in Calcutta, Mother Theresa, opened its doors in
Dacca to women who were willing to offer their babies for overseas
adoption, but despite the publicity accorded to Mother Theresa, few
rape victims actually came to their shelter. Those who learned of
the option chose to have an abortion. Planned Parenthood, in
co-operation with the newly created Bangladesh Central Organisation
for Women’s Rehabilitation, set up clinics in Dacca and seventeen
outlying areas to cope with the unwanted pregnancies. In its first
month of operation the Dacca clinic alone reported doing more than
one hundred terminations.

The Bangladesh Central Organisation for Women’s Rehabilitation,
created by Bengali women themselves, proved to be a heroic moving
force. In a country with few women professionals, those who had the
skills stepped forward to help their victimised sisters. One, a
doctor, Helena Pasha, who admitted that prior to the war she had
thoroughly disapproved of abortion, gave freely of her time and
services with little monetary compensation. Women social workers
like Tahera Shafiq took over the organisational work and gave aid
and comfort that the traumatised rape victims could not accept from
men. Tahera Shafiq was adamant on one point. Rape or forcible
prostitution were false, inadequate words to describe what the
Bengali women had gone through. She preferred in conversation to use
the word “torture.”

Rehabilitation meant more than comfort, tenderness and abortion. The
women’s organisation sought to train the homeless, rejected women in
working skills. Handicrafts, shorthand and typing were the obvious
choices – small steps until one remembers that most of the women had
never been outside their rural villages before. The hoped-for
long-range goal of “rehabilitation” still remained marriage. “An
earning women has better prospects of marriage than others,” one
social worker said dryly. But for many of the tortured women, aid
and succour arrived too late, or not at all. “Alas, we have reports
of some who have landed in brothels,” a male government official
acknowledged. “It is a terrible tragedy.”

As the full dimensions of the horror became known, those who looked
for rational, military explanations returned again and again to the
puzzle of why mass rapes had taken place. “And a campaign of terror
includes rape?” Aubrey Menen prodded a Bengali politician. He got a
reflective answer. “What do soldiers talk about in barracks? Women
and sex,” the politician mused. “Put a gun in their hands and tell
them to go out and frighten the wits out of the population and what
will be the first thing that leaps to their mind?” Fearing the
magnitude of his own answer, the politician concluded, “Remember,
some of our Bengali women are very beautiful.” Mulk Raj Anand, an
Indian novelist, was convinced of conspiracy. The rapes were so
systematic and pervasive that they had to be conscious army policy,
“planned by the West Pakistanis in a deliberate effort to create a new race” 
or to dilute Bengali nationalism, Anand passionately told reporters.

Theory and conjecture abounded, all of it based on the erroneous
assumption that the massive rape of Bangladesh had been a crime
without precedent in modern history.

But the mass rape of Bangladesh had not been unique. The number of
rapes per capita during the nine-month occupation of Bangladesh had
been no greater than the incidence of rape during the occupation in
the city of Nanking in 1937. No greater than the per capita
incidence of rape in Belgium and France as the German Army marched
unchecked during the first three months of World War I, No greater
than the violation of women in every village in Soviet Russia in
World War II. A “campaign of terror” and a charge of “conscious Army
policy” had been offered up in explanation by seekers of rational
answers in those wars as well, and later forgotten.

The story of Bangladesh was unique in one respect. For the first
time in history the rape of women in war, and the complex aftermath
of mass assault, received serious international attention. The
desperate need of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s government for
international sympathy and financial aid was part of the reason; a
new feminist consciousness that encompassed rape as a political
issue and a growing, practical acceptance of abortion as a solution
to unwanted pregnancy were contributing factors of critical
importance. And so an obscure war in an obscure corner of the globe,
to Western eyes, provided the setting for an examination of the
“unspeakable” crime. For once, the particular terror of unarmed
women facing armed men had a full hearing.


© Susan Brownmiller, 1975. Reprinted by permission.

About Ehsan Abdullah

An aware citizen..
This entry was posted in BIRONGONAS - War Heroines, IDENTITY & PATRIOTISM, ISLAMIC EXTREMISM, LAW & ORDER, LIBERATION - 1971 BIRTH OF A NATION, Martyrs & Sacrifices, RAZAKARS - Genocide & War Crime Trial - Anti Liberation Forces, RESPONSIBLE CITIZEN & DUTY, SECULARISM. Bookmark the permalink.

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