Women's Bodies as Battlefields: Reflections on the Birth of Bangladesh
In her new book, historian Yasmin Saikia serves up some bitter medicine. And there's no spoonful of sugar at the end to ease the aftertaste. The dose is timely, coming amid continued and escalating global strife and struggle. In Women, War, and the Making of Bangladesh: Remembering 1971, Saikia rejects the simplistic re-telling of conflict, as war, that takes place between nations or a tale comprising a victor and the vanquished. To this end, Saikia doesn't recount war through the collective memory of a nation but through the eyes of individual victims. That the victims are women--for instance, defenseless civilians with no political agenda--is a chilling reminder to the reader that conflict has no rules and can make villains out of the brave and hide sadism under the cloak of nationalism.
To make her case, Saikia chooses the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. This is another reason to pick up the book. The birth of Bangladesh, then known as East Pakistan, and its separation from what was then West Pakistan, is often overlooked in the annals of history because the event is overshadowed by another momentous partition in that subcontinent: that of India and Pakistan in 1947, at the end of British colonial rule.
Bangladesh--the country turned 40 this year--is born from a civil war triggered by a power struggle between West Pakistan, dominated by the Punjabis, and the Bengalis in East Pakistan. This civil war grew into a battle between nations as India joined the fray against Pakistan. India eventually prevailed and Bangladesh came into being.
In Saikia's account of the war, it is not a simple good that triumphs over a simple evil; for her, it is difficult to lay glory or blame on any one door because crimes--in this book's instance, against hapless women--were committed across the board by Pakistani and Indian soldiers and Bengali fighters. The atrocities meted out signify the contagion of conflict and how battle lines inevitably extend beyond the battlefield, reaching into civilians' lives. No matter how righteous the goal of a war--be it freedom from tyranny or socio-political equality--it comes on the back of terrible injustices carried out in the guise of battle. "The multiple levels of victimization in the war are little known. Instead, triumphant narratives of 'success' and 'liberation' are written and re-written in Bangladesh and India, and they are consumed as the one and only history of the war," says Saikia in her book. The reality is that "all the groups involved in the wars were complicit in the violence."
Saikia, the Hardt-Nichachos Chair in Peace Studies at Arizona State University, puts a face to the suffering and damage, proving the most fearsome casualties are often far removed from the battlefield. The women's stories also underscore their vulnerability during war time, when they are in great danger of being objectified and used as a weapon by the enemy to strike terror in the hearts of men. After all, what better way to bring a man to his knees than to rob the dignity of his mother, wife, sister or daughter?
These women's stories aren't for the faint of heart. They reek of unimaginable inhumanity and of the darkness wrought by war that turns neighbors, acquaintances, colleagues and friends into perpetrators and accomplices. The women's forbearance, stemming from prolonged abuse and neglect, is a reminder of the irreversible human damage committed under the anonymity of battle and a society's decades-long struggle to rebuild and repair its humanity. "What is most shocking in exploring the violence is that those responsible for the killings and brutalities were often common people, who took sides with their ethnic or political groups, and were armed by the Pakistan and Indian armies to act out their wills," writes Saikia. "The multiple actors and perpetrators complicate the picture, and it is almost impossible to distinguish victims and perpetrators."
For instance, take Nur Begum, one of Saikia's subjects. Begum says her daughter was fathered by Begum's husband. Her husband, she says, was betrayed by volunteers working for the Pakistan army and then brutally killed before the birth of their child. The same Pakistan army repeatedly raped her and kept her imprisoned in a sex camp with other women who suffered similar assaults. Begum is rescued by Bengali freedom fighters at the same time Bangladesh is liberated from Pakistan. Driven by the shame and trauma of her attacks, Begum is eventually admitted into a mental facility, during which time she also suffers from a loss of memory.
Begum's daughter, born during her mother's stay at the mental facility, was turned over to an orphanage. After recovering fragments of her memory, Begum, now remarried, finds her daughter, Beauty, also married with two kids.
But the discrepancies in Begum's story of Beauty's birth hit upon a different reality: It is more likely that Beauty is a product of the rape as she was born several months after her father's death. Begum sticks to her story despite the inconsistencies, desperate to give legitimacy to her daughter's existence even as Beauty struggles to clear the uncertainty around her identity. The ambiguity cost Beauty deeply; coming face to face with her possible illegitimacy, her husband tortured and then sold her into a brothel, cutting her off from their two sons. She escaped from the brothel but shunned by society and her mother's new family, Beauty has little to look forward to.
Through these women's stories, Saikia seeks to show that conflict doesn't culminate and cease in a single event; it leaves behind a legacy of destruction that may never be fully repaired or rebuilt. Conflict is a chronic condition that ails long after its cause and retreat. In Begum's and Beauty's case, the war crimes against Begum have affected three generations, including Beauty's children who will now grow up motherless just as Beauty did.
These are compelling lessons to learn and reflect on. But their ability to teach is somewhat blunted by Saikia's repetitive narrative. In sharp contrast, the tales of the war victims are presented in a transcript-like format. The interspersing of these styles--the detailed with the fragmented--is jarring. Saikia all too frequently injects herself and her experiences into the narrative, distracting from her subject.
That said, this book is an informative read because it lays the framework for an important historical event that hasn't received its fair share of ink. It also explains these events in the context of the suffering of its victims; their apolitical testimonies a reminder that war has no winners.
Aparajita Saha-Bubna is a freelance writer. Her work has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, Dow Jones Newswires and Bloomberg News. A graduate of New York University's business and economic reporting program, she currently resides in Boston.