From Himal Southasian:
The year 1971 was a landmark in Southasian history for many reasons. It included the birth of Bangladesh but also the war fought by Pakistan and India. It was perhaps the only such conflict involving the three most populous Southasian countries, clashing for the first time since the end of colonial rule. High-level politics and the tumultuous times spawned a number of books on war, international relations and human rights. However, an uncanny silence has remained about one aspect of the war – the sexual crimes committed by the Pakistan Army and its collaborators, the Razakar militia, against Bangladeshi women. It is only now, 40 years on, that some of that silence is being broken.
Bina D’Costa’s new Nationbuilding, Gender and War Crimes in South Asia takes on the mammoth task of placing violence against women during the war in a larger political context. While what D’Costa calls the ‘original cartographic trauma’ of the Subcontinent has been well researched, gendered nation-building narratives have been given little consideration. Yet D’Costa proposes that any theorisation of nation-building in post-Partition India and Pakistan, or post-Liberation Bangladesh, is incomplete without a gendered analysis. Recognising that women have largely been silenced by state historiography, feminist scholars and activists in Southasia – Veena Das, Kamla Bhasin, Ritu Menon, Urvashi Butalia – have attempted to explore this sordid aspect of war. That rape has been used as a weapon of war has been well documented. One of the more famous examples is American feminist Susan Brownmiller’s investigation of rapes committed during the two World Wars, in Vietnam and then in Bangladesh, which emerged as the 1975 classic Against Our Will: Men, women and rape. The idea of defiling the enemy population by raping its women and impregnating them, often while their helpless and ‘feminised’ menfolk watch, is based on notions of honour, purity and emasculating the opposition. These notions of defilement also led to the sacrificial killing, sometimes by their own families, of women who had either been raped or even simply exposed to the potential of sexual violence.