What Was the Fate of Women During the Bangladesh Liberation War

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Surrender of Pakistani Army, Dhaka, December 16, 1971. Signing is Lieutenant General Niazi.

March 1971 marked the beginning of the Bangladesh Liberation War. By December of the same year, more than 25,000 women had been forcibly impregnated through a common tool of war; rape. These women, whose number represents only 10 percent of the reported rape victims, were given the name Birangonas——war heroines.[1]The men who fought for a liberated Bangladesh were also considered war heroes. With visible scars of battle, they returned to the remains of their villages and were welcomed with sympathy and gratitude. Birangonas were not so fortunate. These victimized women, who had survived torture and continuous rape at the hands of enemy officers and soldiers, were rejected by their families and shunned by society due to unyielding cultural norms. They became imprisoned in both their own minds and newly created nation. Bangladeshi war heroines endured scorn and stigmatization in their homes due to a rigid and patriarchal culture. The origin of the plight of the birangonas, however, was brought on by religious hatred and a perverted notion of purification, which was sanctioned and carried out by the military government of West Pakistan.

Establishing Pakistan

The division of Pakistan.

The land known as Bangladesh was liberated twice; once in 1971 as a sovereign nation and earlier in 1947 as part of Pakistan. By relinquishing colonial control over India, Britain helped give birth to the independent state of Pakistan. As with any new nation, problems had to be surmounted. The crux of the problem that resulted from the division of India and the subsequent establishment of Pakistan was the distribution and migration of the multi-ethnic and bi-religious populace of the region. West Pakistan, the exclusively Muslim and governing region of the nation, was separated from its eastern section by more than one thousand miles of Indian land. East Pakistan, inhabited primarily by Bengalis, had a large Hindu population which was viewed as inferior by the West Pakistani elite who governed the nation. Pakistan’s first military dictator, General Ayub Khan, described Hindus as having, “‘all the inhibitions of downtrodden races.’”[2]

Prior to the dictatorship of Ayub Khan, the new nation was governed by West Pakistani elites, both military and civilian. The Bengalis had no governmental representation and very little presence in the military, though it was their production of jute that generated the largest portion of international revenue for Pakistan. Through the early 1950s, Bengalis grew increasingly embittered by what they deemed to be the exploitation of their labor by Pakistan’s central government. The insult cut even deeper in 1952 when the central Pakistan government declared Urdu, the primary language of only 7 percent of the population, to be the official national language. The Bengalis, who comprised an overwhelming 54 percent of Pakistan’s population, protested the government's decree through what became known as the Language Movement. Seemingly out of place in this non-violent protest were women, who had been encouraged by secular Bengalis to become active in their native culture. As a result, the governing Islamists in West Pakistan viewed these women as “bearers of Hindu culture.”[3]Increasingly throughout the 1950s the Pakistani government became keenly aware of the growing Bengali nationalism. In an attempt to quell the accelerated movements in the East, a new Constitution was implemented in 1956 that gave national recognition to Bengali as an official language. This meager gesture did little to appease the swelling tide of Bengali nationalism. Student activism, which began with the Language Movement, had spread to the rural peasantry and the West Pakistan elites soon found themselves facing a cultural revolution in the east.

The Bengali Cultural Revolution

A protest by the Language Movement.

The cultural and social liberation that Bengalis were experiencing gradually evolved into a call for autonomy by the economically exploited and politically disenfranchised population of East Pakistan. The Awami League (AL), founded in 1949, was instrumental not only in the Language Movement and Bengali nationalism, but it was also the catalyst in the drive for Bengali autonomy. By promoting social liberalism and advocating for the cultural inclusion of women, the AL became the greatest threat to West Pakistan’s national dominance.

In 1969, Sheik Mujib, leader of the AL, presented the Six Point Program. Economically, the plan called for the power of taxation and a fiscal policy for East Pakistan along with separate foreign exchange accounts. These demands, coupled with the mandate that East Pakistan have authority to maintain military and paramilitary forces, were rejected by then-dictator Ayub Khan. Awami League supporters reacted to this apparent dismissal of their political relevance by pressuring the Ayub regime into collapse. General Yahya Khan took control of Pakistan in March 1969 on the promise of restoring civilian authority and calling for “the first full and free vote in Pakistan’s history.”[4]Mujib and the AL escalated in importance and garnered enough national recognition to campaign effectively for the 1970 national election. The prominence of the AL coincided with another profound event at the end of 1970 which forever changed the history of East Pakistan.

Operation Searchlight

In November 1970, a cyclone of tremendous magnitude made landfall in Bangladesh, leaving the rural population in need of governmental relief. The sluggish and limited response from West Pakistan only exacerbated the bitterness growing in the minds of Bengalis. They responded in the following month’s election by overwhelmingly voting AL candidates into national offices and the majority of congressional seats. The Muslim elite in the west was unwilling to relinquish power which left President Yahya Khan with the conundrum of having to simultaneously satisfy Bengali liberals in the East and Muslim elites in the West. His solution satisfied neither. He called for a parliamentary meeting in March 1971 with the hope of reaching a compromise on what was to be done with the government. West Pakistani elites refused to participate in a compromise with Bengalis, who they viewed as “devious, deceitful, villainous people.”[5]That being the case, Yahya postponed the session and stalled Mujib and the AL in order to provide time for the Pakistani Army to prepare for an attack on East Bengal.

"Operation Searchlight" was the code name given to the attack that began on March 25, 1971. Lieutenant General Tikka Khan, who had been installed as military governor of East Pakistan, ordered the attacks that began by disarming the police and paramilitary units in the capital city, Dhaka. Once the armed opposition was neutralized, Bengali males were summarily rounded up and executed so as to provide no further threat from able-bodied young men. Civilians were taken from their homes as tanks rolled down the streets of Dhaka toward the university. After being expelled from Dhaka with his fellow newsmen, the London Daily Telegraph journalist, Simon Dring filed a report from Bangkok three days after Operation Searchlight ended. His eyewitness accounts tell of Pakistani troops “firing incendiary rounds into the buildings,” and in the “Hindi area of the old town, the soldiers reportedly made the people come out of their houses and shot them in groups.”[6]Bengali Hindus were the primary targets of the Pakistani army as the Islamist elites demanded what they considered a pure Pakistan. In order to erase Bengali and Hindu influences from Pakistan, the troops were ordered to eliminate artists and intellectuals; they murdered them. They were also ordered to utilize women to degrade the “burgeoning Bangladeshi national identity,” and “boost the morale of soldiers;” they raped them.[7]


Rape as a Tool of Genocide

To make Bengalis “‘true Muslims,’” was the order given by General Yahya Khan.[8]As a result of early inculcation and a multitude of propaganda, Pakistani Muslims hated Hindus. Although no official documentation exists, perpetrator accounts verify that the orders given by the Yahya regime and General Tikka Khan included forced impregnation on Bengali women. These women——presumed Hindus——were taken to “rape camps” where they were kept for months at a time in order to be serially raped with the goal of impregnating the women with Muslim fetuses. Joseph Fried of the New York Daily News reported from Dhaka that, “‘a stream of victims and eyewitnesses,’” relayed to him that, “‘truckloads of Pakistani soldiers…swooped down on villages in the night, rounding up women by force. Some were raped on the spot. Others were carried to military compounds.’”[9]No Bengali women were spared.

Women and girls aged 14-30 were the primary targets of rapists; however, all age groups were sexually abused as a form of terror and a tool of genocide. In both Hindu and Muslim societies, a “woman symbolizes ethnic purity,” and “family honor is…linked with female chastity.”[10]Following this cultural norm, a woman was tortured and serial raped for months at a time and survived, not to be seen as a victim, rather she was a source of shame upon her family. In Bangladesh society, women were seen as “private property,” thus the rape of a man’s wife was viewed as an insult to him as “his property has been usurped by another.”[11]Therefore, by employing rape as a tool of degradation in a society where the chastity of a woman is a reflection on the family, the destruction of an entire community ensues; this is genocide.

The intent of the perpetrators was to destroy in whole or in part an entire group. Further, in a military and patriarchal society, “collective sexual violence…exemplifies an ethic of male exceptionalism,” whereby women are possessions belonging to one group or another. In sum, a reciprocal violation occurs during military rape in that there is a “simultaneous elevation of ‘our’ women in opposition to the degradation of ‘theirs.’”[12]Following this line of reasoning to its logical end, the women of Bangladesh were used as tools in a war for liberation; a liberation they would never realize.

Pakistani soldiers were given orders to rape Bengali women in order to create a “pure Pakistan.” They also learned by example. Lieutenant General A.A.K Niazi, who was in command of military operations in Bangladesh during the genocide, was also a practicing rapist. A War Crimes report from Bangladesh quoted a Pakistani official as saying, “‘The troops used to say that when the commander [Lt. Gen. Niazi] was himself a raper [sic], how could they be stopped.’”[13]Even upon West Pakistan’s surrender on December 16, 1971, the rapist soldiers showed no remorse for their actions. Journalist Amita Malik witnessed the surrender of Pakistani troops to the Indian Army in Calcutta. She wrote that upon surrender a West Pakistani soldier boasted, “‘We are going. But we are leaving our Seed behind.’”[14]In reality, what they left behind was irreparable damage to the war heroines of Bangladesh and a thirst for revenge among Bengali men.

Aftermath in Bangladesh

Biharis in East Pakistan were non-Hindu Bengalis who sympathized with and aided the West Pakistan Army during the Liberation War of Bangladesh. India joined the cause on the side of Bangladesh late in the war and with its military might quickly force Pakistan’s surrender. With the troops to whom they remained loyal tucked away in POW camps in India, the Biharis were left in alone to face the wrath of the Bengalis. Bihari women faced the same fate as the birangonas.

Doctor Geoffrey Davis arrived in Bangladesh in March 1972. He was a recent medical school graduate from Sydney, Australia and volunteered to assist International Planned Parenthood in Bangladesh to save, “‘what have survived of the children born during the time the West Pak army had Bengali women incarcerated in their commissariats.’”[15]Davis worked in a Dhaka clinic were his primary concern was to save the lives of the undernourished and very ill women who had survived months of torture and rape. As it turned out, his primary function was performing abortions; “‘about hundred a day.’” He recalled that all but a few of the women he saw opted either for adoption or abortion; some performed as late as 40 weeks. As the doctor stated, the women were suffering from such extreme cases of malnutrition that, “‘a term fetus of 40 weeks was about the same size as 18 weeks anywhere else.’”[16]

He worked to save the lives of victimized women who then received limited counseling and were sent back to their families. He was aware that the status of women in Bangladesh was minimal and if they had been “‘defiled, they had no status at all. They might as well have been dead. And men killed them.’” While Davis was working to save the lives of Bengali rape victims, he was aware of the continued rapes that were being committed by Awami League Bengalis against Bihari women. He knew that these women were “‘segregated…in concentration camps,’” and could “‘hear the screams all night.’”[17]


Doctor Geoffrey Davis not only saved women’s lives in Dhaka, but he also interviewed some of the perpetrators while they sat in prison. He was able to extract from them that they were in fact under orders from General Tikka Khan to “‘impregnate as many Bengali women as they could…so there would be a whole generation of children in East Pakistan that would be born with the blood from the West.’”[18]This, in itself, was ethnic cleansing through the horrific practice of rape. The intent of the Pakistani government was to wholly destroy the Hindu religion and East Pakistan’s ethnic group. In order for this perverted ideology to come to fruition, another group was destroyed; women. Birangonas, inclusive of Bihari women, truly were heroines of war. They survived what no male was ever forced to confront. They became prisoners in their own bodies while nationalistic chants of “Joy Bengala,” rose up in the streets. These women physically survived the unthinkable, yet returned home to closed doors and shamed families.

While interviewing soldiers in the Comilla prisons, Dr. Davis spoke frequently to Pakistani officers. They had no remorse. These men were unable to grasp the notion that they had done something wrong. When Davis spoke of the international outcry after the rape camps had been discovered, the officers asked, “‘Why are they getting so excited about it? It was a war! You rape the women!’”[19]For the rapist, the rape has an ending. In a society where women are seen as property and being the victim of sexual violence is stigmatized, there is no end for the victim. When a family’s honor is lost, the blame falls “not upon the rapist, but upon the raped.”[20]War heroines remain prisoners even in the silence of their shame.


  1. Bina D’Costa, Nation-building, Gender and War Crimes in South Asia (New York: Routledge, 2011), 77. These figures are considered low by those who were in Bangladesh at the time of liberation. Some have suggested the number is upwards of 400,000 rape victims. Due to the cultural stigmatism, it is proposed that numerous victims did not come forward at the time and have yet to do so since.
  2. Rounaq Jahan, “Genocide in Bangladesh,” in Centuries of Genocide: Essays and Eyewitness Accounts, 4th ed., ed. Samuel Totten and William S. Parsons (New York: Routledge, 2013), 251.
  3. D’Costa, 88.
  4. Sidney Schanberg, “Pakistan Divided,” Foreign Affairs 50, no. 1(October 1971):128
  5. Lawrence Ziring, Bangladesh: From Mujib to Ershad, An Interpretive Study (Karachi, Pakistan: Oxford University Press, 1992), 70.
  6. Simon Dring, “Dacca Eyewitness: Bloodbath, Inferno,” The Washington Post, Times Herald (1959-1973), March 30, 1971, http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/docview/148145683.
  7. Jalal Alamgir and Bina D’Costa, “The 1971 Genocide: War Crimes and Political Crimes,” Economic and Political Weekly, March 26, 2011.
  8. D’Costa, Nation-building, Gender and War Crimes, 119.
  9. D’Costa, Nation-building, Gender and War Crimes, 121.
  10. Lisa Sharlach, “Rape as Genocide: Bangladesh, the Former Yugoslavia, and Rwanda,” New Political Science 22, no. 1 (2000): 95.
  11. Nayanika Mookherjee, “‘Remembering to Forget’: Public Secrecy and Memory of Sexual Violence in the Bangladesh War of 1971,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 12 (2006): 439, http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9655.2006.00299.x
  12. Roland Littlewood, “Military Rape,” Anthropology Today 13, no. 2 (April 1997): 9
  13. D’Costa, Nation-building, Gender and War Crimes, 79.
  14. Sharlach, “Rape as Genocide,” 95.
  15. D’Costa, Nationbuilding, Gender and War Crimes, 195.
  16. D’Costa, Nationbuilding, Gender and War Crimes, 200.
  17. D’Costa, Nationbuilding, Gender and War Crimes, 196.
  18. D’Costa, Nationbuilding, Gender and War Crimes, 197.
  19. D’Costa, Nationbuilding, Gender and War Crimes, 200.
  20. Sharlach, “Rape as Genocide,” 95.
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