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Rape, Masculinities, and the 'Spectral Wound' of Nationhood

Women may well have stayed bound by the terms of the broken patriarchal bargain had the crises of the 1970s not dramatized its failures so powerfully.

The spectre of large numbers of poor women who had been displaced, widowed or abandoned, raped, or made destitute as a result of cyclone, war, or famine highlighted the need for a new social contract in which women had alternatives to reliance on male relations. This created the space for public action to promote livelihoods and protect against the risks inherent in the lifecycle. It also eased the proscription of women's mobility and paid work, even if the stigma of physical labour and male resistance to women in public space has not disappeared. For better or worse, it implied a transfer of last-resort responsibility for protection of women from family and community men to the state.

Mass wartime rapes both dealt a blow to the presumption of women's sexual purity and set a precedent in state intervention into the private domains of women's bodies and reproductive capacities. An accepted estimate is that between 200,000 and 400,000 women were raped during the war of independence in 1971, from which 25,000 forced pregnancies resulted (D'Costa 2014a).[1] Most were by Pakistani soldiers, but other men also took the opportunity to rape during the upheaval (D'Costa 2014b; Saikia 2011; also Mohaiemen 2011; Mookherjee 2015). Unknown numbers of women and children, possibly in their thousands, were kept in rape camps during the conflict, but most were attacked at home, some in front of their families and communities. Some were later killed, but there are reasons to believe that the Pakistani army internally justified its campaign of rape—an unusually excessive episode of mass sexual violence during war—with the ethnic-cleansing or genocidal intent of 'improving'/Islamicizing the bloodline of Bengalis. The total stigma of rape in a sociocultural system centred on women's sexual purity meant women tried to conceal the crimes they had endured, or face rejection by families unable to cope with the shame. Some hanged themselves with their own hair (D'Costa 2014a).

The effects of this deep psychic trauma have often been seen as a 'spectral wound' (Mookherjee 2015) to the national body rather than harm to the women themselves: 'Women's experiences of sexual violence during the war were, until very recently, largely depicted in the language of loss or harm to the nation, and an assault on the community's izzat (honour)' (D'Costa and Hossain 2010, 332).

The campaign of war rapes signalled that women's bodies were 'territories to be occupied, marked or claimed for masculine rule' (D'Costa 2014b, 469), and were accordingly emasculating for Bengali men (also Mookherjee 2008). The ambivalent public discourse of the war rapes stems from the wounds they inflicted on Bengali masculinities. The Mujib government attempted to rehabilitate the survivors by declaring them birangona[2] or war-heroines, encouraging society to see their 'sacrifice' as equaling those of men on the battlefield. They were honoured and shamed, silenced but graphically displayed, euphemized and 'aestheticized'. Rape victims were depicted as despoiled beauties, with 'loose hair, threaded [groomed] brows and large eyes' (Mookherjee 2011, S79). The ambivalence extended to the governmental domain: the rapes were enumerated and the numbers used politically, yet records were destroyed so that verification was impossible. Sheikh Mujib's reported statements that rape pregnancies should be aborted or adopted abroad to keep out their 'polluted blood' contrasted with (what was on the face of it, and in intention) a progressive effort to valorize rape survivors to integrate them into the nation, going against prevalent social norms to do so (D'Costa 2014a).

These 'aestheticizing' tendencies depicted women's rapes as the rape of the nation, so that the recovery and rehabilitation of raped womanhood became equated with national reconstruction. With the nation as the raped mother, the state was transformed from jackbooted authoritarian to benevolent patriarch; the public discourse of the war rapes was operationalized in nation- and state-building agendas around the protection of women as bearers of future citizens:

The imagery of the mother as the innocent victim, caring, nurturing, compassionate, desexualized, of whose pure womb sons are born to further the cause of the nation, provides a powerful underpinning for the state to see itself as a caring parent, concerned for the fate and future of its citizens. It is this concern that makes it necessary for the state to rehabilitate and 'normalize' the raped women— to recover the mothers of its future citizens. (Mookherjee 2008, 49)

Imagining the nation as a mother figure further provides a powerful underpinning for the state to see itself as a patriarch, responsible for its citizens. The state in this sense is essentially masculine, but also welcomes tenderness and emotion.

(D'Costa 2014b, 463)

The mass wartime rapes were one-off crises[3] from which gender relations could, in principle, have recovered, and there are signs that the immediate post-war period was a time when old patriarchal controls were, or were trying to, reassert themselves. In Our War, a documentary about women's experiences of 1971 by historian Afsan Chowdhury, one woman commented that the war should have changed men's attitudes towards women because they saw what women were capable of; instead they got worse—behaviour she would protest till she dies, she said (Chowdhury 2001). If men wanted to try to reestablish their old rights in that moment, then they had women's hard- won new awareness to contend with.

  • [1] The war rapes have been analysed in detail by Bina D'Costa (2011;2014b;2010), NayanikaMookherjee (2015;2008;2012), and Yasmin Saikia (2011), and I rely on their work for the facts andfor understanding these events in their context. On the points about the genocidal intent of therape, see D'Costa and Hossain (2010). Gerlach (2010) disputes that 'genocide' was intended, butthen he disputes the concept of genocide entirely. He does, however, note that the sexual violencein the Bangladesh war of independence was unusually extreme. See also Sharlach (2000).
  • [2] As well as widows, women freedom fighters, and those who sacrificed and risked their livesby staying behind and supporting or caring for the fighters and the wounded (D'Costa andHossain 2010).
  • [3] Although rape by the Bangladeshi military of indigenous women as part of the settlement ofthe Hill Tracts and other adivasi community territories continues this theme and tradition of sexualviolence as military conquest/genocide of 'the other' (see D'Costa and Hossain 2010).
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