The numbers are in dispute, but the story they tell has remained the same for four decades: 200,000 women (or 300,000, or 400,000, depending on the source) raped during the 1971 war in which East Pakistan broke with West Pakistan to become Bangladesh.
The American feminist Susan Brownmiller, quoting all three sets of statistics in her 1975 book “Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape,” compared the rapes of Bangladesh with the rapes of Chinese women by Japanese soldiers at Nanjing in 1937-38.
Accepting even the lowest set of figures for Bangladesh forces a horrifying comparison — the 1992-95 Bosnian war saw one-tenth the number of rapes as did the Bangladesh war. The rapes of Bosnian women forced the world to recognize rape as “an instrument of terror,” as a crime against humanity. But so far no one has been held to account for the sexual violence against Bangladeshi women in 1971.
As the 40th anniversary of the 1971 war approaches, the Bangladeshi government has set up an International Crimes Tribunal to investigate the atrocities of that era. But human rights advocates and lawyers fear that the mass rapes and killings of women will not be adequately addressed. They hope to ensure they are.
“There has been a denial by certain political groups of the history of the war, and a failure to account for the crimes of sexual violence against women,” said Sara Hossain, a human rights lawyer based in Dhaka.
For years, the experiences of women — the independence fighters, the victims of rape, the widows — during the war received little attention, their stories seldom told, the violence they experienced rarely acknowledged.
“As a young teenager in 1971, I had heard a lot about female university students, young village girls and women being raped and held captive, effectively forced into sexual slavery, in the military cantonment. But after the war, very soon, one heard nothing more,” said Irene Khan, former secretary general of Amnesty International.
“Yes, we talk often of the hundreds of thousands of women who were raped, forced into sexual slavery, sexually attacked, but rarely are there any names or faces or individual stories,” said Ms. Khan, who was born in Dhaka, now the capital of Bangladesh, and studied in England and the United States. “A conservative Muslim society has preferred to throw a veil of negligence and denial on the issue, allowed those who committed or colluded with gender violence to thrive, and left the women victims to struggle in anonymity and shame and without much state or community support.”
In Dhaka, Meghna Guhathakurta, executive director of the nongovernmental group Research Initiatives, Bangladesh, insists that the plight of these women must not be ignored. “The issue of women's roles in the war of liberation has been foregrounded from time to time by women's groups. It cannot be evaded any more.”
Later this year, the first English-language translation of an important oral history, “Women's 1971,” will be published. This gathers the testimonies of women who were not just victims, but fighters like Taramon Bibi, one of only two women decorated for their combat service during the war, or who, like Ferdousi Priyobhashini, now a sculptor, used their experiences in the war as a springboard for self-transformation. Of the 19 women whose stories appear in this collection, 15 are Muslims, 2 are Hindus and 2 are Buddhists.
Ms. Guhathakurta writes in her introduction to the book: “Out of the 19 interviewees, 9 were rape victims. The rest spoke of their trials and tribulations after members of their families were killed.”
The trauma of those who survived rape and other violence has been insufficiently addressed in Bangladesh, she says. “We feel it is necessary for officials, civil society and the international community to revisit the issue of sexual violence and war crimes.”
Some believe that breaking the decades of denial is crucial.
“The major challenge,” said Mofidul Hoque, trustee and member secretary of the Liberation War Museum in Dhaka, “is how to read the silence. I am confident we will hear lot of new voices, witness the breaking of the silence.”One of the major events planned for the 40th anniversary next year is a documentary film festival focusing on the 1971 war and human rights, with a special section on women. Another project focuses on research into the lives of the children born after 1971 to the “birangonas,” or “blameless ones,” as they were called by the new Bangladeshi government in 1972, in a not entirely successful attempt to persuade families to accept back the women who had suffered sexual violence.
And this war yields haunting stories. A young filmmaker, Ananda, documents the continuing trauma of the village of Shohagpur in his film “The Village of Widows,” which will also be screened next year. In July 1971, Pakistani soldiers descended on this quiet hamlet, which was suspected of supporting the Mukti Bahini, the independence fighters. They rounded up all the men and killed them. Four decades later, as Mr. Ananda records, Shohagpur has no old men. The women live alongside the graves of their dead.
Is justice, after so many decades, possible? Is it even being demanded? The International Crimes Tribunal in Bangladesh has begun issuing indictments.
However, said Ms. Hossain, the lawyer: “It is not clear if crimes of violence against women will be addressed or form the basis of prosecutions. There are no women among the tribunal members, or prosecutors. But we hope that the investigators will highlight this issue — and that the government will ensure a safe and secure environment for women to testify before them.”
Ms. Khan, whose career as a human rights advocate has taken her to Bosnia, Sierra Leone and other theaters of war, is more skeptical.
“It was only after Bosnia that the Rome Statute,” the treaty that set up the International Criminal Court, “made rape a war crime. Forty years ago, gender violence as a weapon of war was poorly understood, not just in Bangladesh but worldwide,” she said.
“Bangladesh is only now grappling with war crimes — and with great difficulty, given the way the issue is mired in the politics of religious fundamentalist parties,” she said. “The gender dimension of the atrocities is not fully acknowledged, nor is the huge contribution that women made to the liberation struggle as fighters and supporters. Bangladesh remains a conservative, patriarchic society where women's role continues to be undervalued — past or present.”