What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy. Mohandas K. Gandhi

Gandhi perhaps could have added the `rapedí within the list of war victims. But then [with all due respect to Gandhi] isnít the ommission quite typical and natural of this gendered society! The modern state indeed is a very gendered one, with gendered notions of security, sacrifices and also sufferings. In the process of `nationí construction the patriarchal values gain salience and are adopted as national values and ethos. A process of deliberate forgetting seemed to be underway to erase or if I may say so undermine the contributions of women in the construction of a state. One does not have to go too far to substantiate the above. The Bangladesh case is a testament to the above.


The 1971 liberation war of Bangladesh is regarded as one of the bloodiest wars in the history of humankind. The Bangladesh government alleges that thirty lakh people were killed by the Pakistan army; while the New York Times (20.8.71) and the Washington Post (23.8.71) estimated that between two lakh to three lakh Bengalis were killed after March 25. The subsequent history of the liberation war has glorified the sacrifices made by its people for the attainment of independence. This glorification, however, has a distinct gender bias.

The accounts of the war while accounting for the deaths do not have a list of the women who had died or were killed during the nine month long war with Pakistan. In the category of Shaheeds the names of only two women, that too belonging to the intellectual group have been included.

Rape has been used as a conscious strategy of war. It is used systematically to destroy or damage the enemy, for women as child-bearers are considered important for the biological continuation of a nation. By raping a woman the enemy not only hurts the woman personally, but also the society at large for the honour of women is identified as the honour of the society at large; especially of the menfolk who are supposed to be the `protectorsí of women. There is therefore an attempt to erase this from the history of the `nationí as it is associated with shame, stigma and failure. The gendered nation indeed is not ready to have these markers in its march towards glory!

Susan Brownmiller, who came to Bangladesh after the war, has pointed out that about 200,000 Bengali women had been raped by the Pakistani soldiers in 1971. Yet the 14 volumes of officially documented history of the war of independence carries only a few testimonies of rape. The government had set up a rehabilitation centre in each district for the affected women. The centres however did not keep any records of the affected women. The idea at that time was to rehabilitate these women in the society as quickly as possible. Therefore at present no proper record of the rape victims is available, nor were they ever properly compensated. According to Maleka Khan, who was in charge of a rehabilitation centre in Dhaka, a doctor at the centre had told her that during the first three months of 1972, 1,70,000 rape victims were aborted, and more than 30,000 war babies were born. This list however is not an exhaustive one and excludes the most marginalised women. Most of the war babies were given up for adoption despite protests and pleadings from their mothers. In this context Neelima Ibrahim points out in her two volumes of Ami Birangona Bolchi, that she had called upon Shiekh Mujib to decide about the fate of these children, his response was: Send the children, who have no identity of their father abroad. Let the children of human beings grow up like proper humans. Besides I do not want to keep that polluted blood in this country.

The attitude of the Father of nation epitomised the gendered attitude of the state and society. It reified the privileged position of men in society and more importantly over women. Where was the voice of the women who had lost and suffered most during those nine months. Who gave the state the right to snatch away the child from her. The state never made any attempt or created any space for these women to rehabilitate themselves psychologically. Values of society meant values of men, where in order to grow up like proper human beings one needed the identity of ones father; why do we then glorify the mother figure in our nationalist construction; are we then talking of a mother sanctified and legitimised by a male? I leave it upon the readers discretion the answers to these questions.

Susan Brownmiller further pointed out that the Bengali men were totally unprepared to accept these women; even some of them were rejected by their own family members. In an attempt to elevate them and make them acceptable to the society, they were given the title of Birangona (war heroines) by the Father of nation. Such coinage, however was resented by the women activists at that time. It was resented because the title did not offer them anything, in other words there was nothing beyond the title. More over the expectation that the title Birangona would make them acceptable to the society did not really work out. Instead the women became marked. Such exaltations therefore held no meaning for the affected women.

Neelima Ibrahim has detailed in her two volumes of Ami Birangona Bolchi, the frustrations and agonies of the Birangonas at the state and the society. In the seven cases narrated in the two volumes the Birangonas express their dismay at the stateís role in silencing them. They point out that the sacrifices of the freedom fighters (mostly men) have been properly recognised and acknowledged by the state. Roads have been named after them. Martyrdoms have been built. They and their children still continue to enjoy many state benefits, and they are honoured in many state functions. But the Birangonas are no where. There is no memorial or road to remind the people of their sacrifices. They cannot even come out and state with pride that they are the Birangonas. The Bangladesh state as well as the society even after 28 years has not prepared itself to accept them. A Birangona has aptly summarised the contradictions and hypocrisy of our state and society by posing the following question: Why is it so? Is it only because we are women that we are unholy; whereas the Razakars and Al-Badars (Bengali collaborators of the Pakistan army), despite their sins have been accepted and today constitute the elites of the society.

I would argue here that by bestowing the title of Birangona upon the rape victims, the state had assumed the role of a patriarch. It only strengthened the idea of patriarchy inherent within the modern state.


Since 1971 a whole generation has grown up without knowing the true history of the liberation war. Since then Ď71 has been constructed and deconstructed. In this process many histories and voices have been silenced. It is time to speak out and make spaces for the silenced voices. The objective, however, must be to create an ungendered and humane society so that humanity does not have to pay such a heavy price again.

More importantly, it is time to reorganise the state, politics and society by inculcating values that preach harmony, equality and collectivity. The objective must not be to create a society that is prepared to accept the rape victims but a society where rape cannot be used as an instrument of oppression and stigmatisation. Women must have the right over their bodies and minds, and must be able to live as individuals, not properties of men. It is time to deconstruct the myths of nation and nationalist constructions and build a society for human beings.