The politics of victimhood in Bangladesh

Women and minorities continue to be used as political pawns in a nation that is struggling with its bloody past.

Rally in front of Bangladesh parliament building
"The fact that the government and media in Bangladesh have refused to allow the stories of so many women, civilians and minorities to be heard is deeply worrying," says author [EPA]

Earlier this week, Bangladesh marked its national day. It ought to have been a day for joy, marking the maturing of a nation which is now just over four decades old. But 40 years on from the bloody war of 1971, which led to the independence of the nation, its events still dominate the national narrative and continue to polarise its population. 

The past victims of the war are still far from justice and the number of those who are victims of injustice as a result of the ongoing conflict is also rapidly growing.  

What is most challenging in resolving today’s tensions is how all of these victims – women and minorities in particular – are being manipulated to serve political narratives, and thereby losing the opportunity for true justice to be served from crimes past and injustices present.   

No right thinking individual can do anything but support the pursuit of justice on behalf of the victims. It is no surprise then that the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) – convened to try alleged war criminals – has generated such emotion on both sides: those who believe these are the perpetrators and those who believe they are being targeted because they are opposition.  

Following the life sentence of Jamaat-e-Islami’s Abdul Kader Molla on January 5, protesters filled Shahbag crossing in Dhaka, calling for death sentences of the 11 opposition members on trial at the ICT.

On February 28, the ICT delivered an execution verdict for JI leader Delwar Hossain Sayeedi. As of March 8, Odhikar – a human rights organisation based in Bangladesh – has reported at least 143 dead and thousands injured. According to other sources, these numbers have reached 165 and 3,828 respectively.

A majority of the casualties, over 90 percent, include civilians. Unfortunately in times of crisis, especially in times of war, women and children suffer the most, despite their significant lack of involvement in the initiation of conflict. Bangladesh’s women, children and minorities have been losers, in the independence war of 1971, but, more recently, now.  

Shahbag is not Tahrir 

Shahbag has captured the international imagination, as it has been painted as the successor of Tahrir Square. But it is not entirely clear if the comparison stands. 

 Inside Story – Bangladesh: R
ighting historical wrongs

Tahrir protests were a popular movement against government tyranny. Here the protests are in line with government policy. They are calling for blood, the blood of opposition figures being put on trial and sentenced as part of the controversial International War Crimes Tribunal.

There has been much discussion regarding the significant presence of women in the Shahbag protests. Greater numbers of female voices in the public sphere is generally a good thing.

In the case of Shahbag, the presence of women was to be expected as some have argued, given the fact that many women were raped during the 1971 war.

In fact, the government, the general media and Shahbag protesters put the number of rapes committed by the Pakistani army and their local collaborators during the war somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000, but is countered by some academics that the numbers are not supported by evidence.

The available evidence, according to Sarmila Bose, supports the reports of the occurrence of rape – a terrible enough occurrence – but can make no definitive claims about the number of victims or the perpetrators. 

The perpetrators cannot be surmised, as per the available evidence, to be exclusively members of the Pakistan army or their “collaborators”. In fact, many women were victims of Bengali mobs of militant nationalists. 

Exaggerations arguably trivialise the victims’ suffering by implying that their actual suffering is not noteworthy on its own. Many writers, including Nayanika Mukherjee and Naeem Mohaiemen, disagree vehemently with Bose’s methodology and conclusions and argue that her work is biased in favour of the Pakistani army. 

What some of these writers have allowed however, like Afsan Chowdhury and Yasmin Saikia, is that the discussion on these rape victims needs to cross political and national boundaries.            

In an article on 1971, Saikia mentions that she could find no information on women in the archives and libraries in Bangladesh. She did hear about these women in the media though – as a nameless group of 200,000-plus women. Otherwise they were “tellingly absent even though [they] were used by politicians to mobilise anger against Pakistani enemies decades later”.

Saikia argues that this silence of women and their stories, especially when it does not support the political rhetoric of the ruling government is dangerous. Women are completely erased in the political narrative and their cases have not been investigated or verified. They have merely been forced into silence by men and institutions and victimised, as they were prior in a war fought and controlled by men.  

Given the unification of protesters around the trial of the alleged war criminals, an indignant focus on the rape cases is clear. However, issues with verification and failure to produce evidence for many reported cases is troubling, as it echoes the international criticisms and scandal surrounding the ICT by the Shahbag protesters. 

Yesterday’s female victims, today’s political pawns

When women’s stories and the truth of their suffering are neglected, we need to ask: are the victims of 1971 being used as a political means?

By not examining the occurrences of rape in the war of 1971 seriously, the government and the protesters transform multitudes of women into mere bodies and abuse the memory of the victims as a political tool.  

Unfortunately, more recent abuses of women’s rights have been selectively ignored, though they focus strongly on the figures circulated by the government and the media of the rape victims of 1971. Reports of rape in Chittagong, Savar and Dhaka have been overlooked in the zeal to focus exclusively on the rape cases of 1971

And the sense that women are being used as political pawns is more intense when we look at the  arrests of women of the opposition and female students and the raid on their meeting venue, as well as the subsequent arrests of female protesters from the Women’s Rights Organisation at the Dhaka Press Club.           

On December 17, the office of the women’s student branch of JI was raided and 20 members, including Abdul Kader Molla’s wife Sanwara Jahan, were arrested. They were forced to remove their headscarves in a public setting, several hours before they were presented to the court.

Among those arrested were: an elderly woman, a pregnant woman and students from some of the country’s top institutions. They were denied bail and were imprisoned despite the lack of charges brought against them.  

Just weeks later, 15 members of the Women’s Rights Organisation Bangladesh were arrested for their demand to release those women and for simply complaining about their mistreatment at the hands of the police. 

Last week, 16 more members of the female student wing of JI were arrested. Most of them were grade 9 students, who had just completed their Junior School exams. These were girls in their early to mid-teens accused of planning “to sabotage”. The house of one of these students, who had invited others to celebrate their Junior School Certification and commendable results, was subjected to a police raid. It was a clear case of invasion of their lives and rights being ignored. Reparative justice for the past cannot begin when justice today is flouted.  

Aside from large numbers of civilian casualties and the continued victimisation of women, there is also very serious recent spike in the prosecution of religious minorities in the country. Reports of attacks have reached 1,000 minority houses and 50 temples. Amnesty International has shown concern over this recent wave of attacks on the minority Hindu community. 

The fact that the rape victims of 1971 have been silenced and appear to be used as pawns in a fierce political crackdown against opposition voices offers neither confidence in the current process nor in the hope for reconciliation and healing for the past.

It is important to allow all victims – civilians, women, children and minorities – to be heard. The fact that the government and media in Bangladesh have refused to allow the stories of so many women, civilians and minorities to be heard is deeply worrying.

The fact that the only cases of the abuse of minorities that reach mainstream news are those in which the opposition is implicated is extremely disturbing.  

This recurring pattern is indicative of something much larger – of the troubling reality of Bangladeshi politics: only some victims matter. And when only some victims are served justice, the process of putting right the past can never be fully realised.  

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is a writer and commentator on Muslim women’s issues, and has been named as one of the UK’s 100 most influential Muslim women. She is the author of Love In A Headscarf and writes a blog here.

Follow her on Twitter: @LoveinHeadscarf