Rape during the Bangladesh Liberation War

"Birangona" redirects here. For the British play, see Birangona: Women of War.

During the 1971 Bangladesh war for independence, members of the Pakistani military and supporting Bihari and Bengali Razaker militias from Jamaat e Islami raped between two and four hundred thousand Bangladeshi women in a systematic campaign of genocidal rape.[1][2][3][4] During the war, a fatwa in Pakistan declared that the Bengali 'freedom fighters' were Hindus and that their women could be taken as the 'booty of war'.[5] Imams and Muslim religious leaders publicly declared that the Bengali women were 'gonimoter maal' (war booty) and thus they openly supported the rape of Bengali women by the Pakistani Army.[6] The activists and leaders of Islamic parties were also involved in the rapes and abduction of women. Scholars have suggested that rape was used to terrorise both the Bengali-speaking Muslim majority and the Hindu minority of Bangladesh. The rapes caused thousands of pregnancies, births of war babies, abortions, incidents of infanticide and suicide, and, in addition, led to ostracisation of the victims. Recognised as one of the major occurrences of war crimes anywhere,[7] the atrocities ended after surrender of the Pakistani military and supporting Razaker militias .[8][9] Initially India claimed its support for the Mukti Bahini and later intervention was on humanitarian grounds, but after the UN rejected this argument, India claimed intervention was needed to protect its own security,[10][11] and it is now widely seen as a humanitarian move.[12] Despite the Pakistani government's attempts to censor news during the conflict, reports of atrocities filtered out, attracting international media and public attention, and drawing widespread outrage and criticism.

During the war Bengali nationalists also committed mass rape of ethnic Bihari Muslim women, since the Bihari Muslim community supported Pakistan.[13][14]

In 2009, almost 40 years after the events of 1971, a report published by the War Crimes Fact Finding Committee of Bangladesh accused 1,597 people of war crimes, including rape. Since 2010 the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) has indicted, tried and sentenced several people to life imprisonment or death for their actions during the conflict.

The stories of the rape victims have been told in movies and literature, and depicted in art.


Female students of Dacca university marching on Language Movement Day, 21 February 1953.

Following the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan the East and West wings were not only separated geographically, but also culturally. The authorities of the West viewed the Bengali Muslims in the East as "too Bengali" and their application of Islam as "inferior and impure", and this made them unreliable. To this extent the West began a strategy to forcibly assimilate the Bengalis culturally.[15] The Bengali-speaking people of East Pakistan were chiefly Muslim, but their numbers were interspersed with a significant Hindu minority. Very few spoke Urdu, which in 1948 had been declared the national language of Pakistan.[16] To express their opposition, activists in East Pakistan founded the Bengali language movement in February 1952. Earlier, in 1949, other activists had founded the Awami League as an alternative to the ruling Muslim League in West Pakistan.[17] In the next decade and half, Bengalis became gradually disenchanted with the balance of power in Pakistan, which was under military rule during much of this time; eventually some began to call for secession.[18][19] By the late 1960s, a perception had emerged that the people of East Pakistan were second-class citizens. It did not help that General A. A. K. Niazi, head of Pakistani Forces in East Pakistan, called East Pakistan a "low-lying land of low, lying people".[20]

There had been opposition to military rule in West Pakistan as well. Eventually the military relented, and in December 1970 the first ever elections were held. To the surprise of many, East Pakistan's Awami League, headed by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, won a clear majority. The West Pakistani establishment was displeased with the results.[21] In Dacca following the election a general said "Don't worry, we will not allow these black bastards to rule over us".[22][23] Soon President Yahya Khan banned the Awami League and declared martial law in East Pakistan.[24][25]

With the goal of putting down Bengali nationalism, the Pakistan Army launched Operation Searchlight on 25 March 1971.[26] According to Eric Heinze the Pakistani forces targeted both Hindus and Bengali-speaking Muslims.[27] In the ensuing 1971 Bangladesh genocide, the army caused the deaths of up to 3 million people, created up to 10 million refugees who fled to India, and displaced a further 30 million within East Pakistan.[28]

Rounaq Jahan alleges elements of racism in the Pakistan army, who he says considered the Bengalis "racially inferior—a non-martial and physically weak race", and has accused the army of using organised rape as a weapon of war.[29][30] According to the political scientist R J Rummel, the Pakistani army looked upon the Bengalis as "subhuman" and that the Hindus were "as Jews to the Nazis, scum and vermin that best be exterminated".[31] This racism was then expressed in that the Bengalis, being inferior, must have their gene pool "fixed" through forcible impregnation.[32] Belén Martín Lucas has described the rapes as "ethnically motivated".[33]

Pakistani Army actions

The attacks were led by General Tikka Khan, who was the architect of Operation Searchlight and was given the name the "butcher of Bengal" by the Bengalis for his actions. Khan said—when reminded on 27 March 1971 that he was in charge of a majority province—"I will reduce this majority to a minority".[34][35] Bina D'Costa believes an anecdote used by Khan is significant, in that it provides proof of the mass rapes being a deliberate strategy. In Jessore, while speaking with a group of journalists Khan was reported to have said, "Pehle inko Mussalman karo" (First, make them Muslim). D'Costa argues that this shows that in the highest echelons of the armed forces the Bengalis were perceived as being disloyal Muslims and unpatriotic Pakistanis.[36]

The perpetrators conducted nighttime raids, assaulting women in their villages,[37] often in front of their families, as part of the terror campaign.[38] Victims aged 8 to 75 were also kidnapped and held in special camps where they were repeatedly assaulted. Many of those held in the camps were murdered or committed suicide,[39][40] with some taking their own lives by using their hair to hang themselves, the soldiers responded to these suicides by cutting the women's hair off.[36] Time magazine reported on 563 girls who had been kidnapped and held by the military; all of them were between three and five months pregnant when the military began to release them.[41] Some women were forcibly used as prostitutes.[42] While the Pakistani government estimated the number of rapes in the hundreds,[43] other estimates range between 200,000[44] and 400,000.[45] The Pakistani government had tried to censor reports coming out of the region, but media reports on the atrocities did reach the public worldwide, and gave rise to widespread international public support for the liberation movement.[46]

In what has been described by Jenneke Arens as a deliberate attempt to destroy an ethnic group, many of those assaulted were raped, murdered and then bayoneted in the genitalia.[47] Adam Jones, a political scientist, has said that one of the reasons for the mass rapes was to undermine Bengali society through the "dishonoring" of Bengali women and that some women were raped until they died or were killed following repeated attacks.[48] The Pakistani army also raped Bengali males. The men, when passing through a checkpoint, would be ordered to prove they were circumcised, and this is where the rapes usually happened.[49] The International Commission of Jurists concluded that the atrocities carried out by the Pakistan armed forces "were part of a deliberate policy by a disciplined force".[50] The writer Mulk Raj Anand said of the Pakistani army actions, "The rapes were so systematic and pervasive that they had to be conscious Army policy, "planned by the West Pakistanis in a deliberate effort to create a new race" or to dilute Bengali nationalism".[51] Amita Malik, reporting from Bangladesh following the Pakistan armed forces surrender, wrote that one West Pakistani soldier said: "We are going. But we are leaving our Seed behind".[52]

Not all Pakistani military personnel supported the violence: General Sahabzada Yaqub Khan, who advised the president against military action,[53] and Major Ikram Sehgal both resigned in protest, as did Air Marshal Asghar Khan. Ghaus Bakhsh Bizenjo, a Balochi politician, and Khan Abdul Wali Khan, leader of the National Awami Party, protested over the actions of the armed forces. Those imprisoned for their dissenting views on the violence included Sabihuddin Ghausi and I. A. Rahman, who were both journalists, the Sindhi leader G. M. Syed, the poet Ahmad Salim, Anwar Pirzado, who was a member of the air force, Professor M. R. Hassan, Tahera Mazhar and Imtiaz Ahmed.[54] Malik Ghulam Jilani, who was also arrested, had openly opposed the armed action in the East; a letter he had written to Yahya Khan was widely publicised. Altaf Hussain Gauhar, the editor of the Dawn newspaper, was also imprisoned.[55] In 2013 Jilani and Faiz Ahmad Faiz, a poet, were honoured by the Bangladeshi government for their actions.[56]


According to Peter Tomsen, a political scientist, Pakistan's secret service the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, in conjunction with the political party Jamaat-e-Islami, formed militias such as Al-Badr ("the moon") and the Al-Shams ("the sun") to conduct operations against the nationalist movement.[57][58] These militias targeted non-combatants and committed rapes as well as other crimes.[59] Local collaborators known as Razakars also took part in the atrocities. The term has since become a pejorative akin to the western term "Judas".[60]

Members of the Muslim League, such as Nizam-e-Islam, Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamiat Ulema Pakistan, who had lost the election, collaborated with the military and acted as an intelligence organisation for them.[61] Members of Jamaat-e-Islami and some of its leaders collaborated with the Pakistani forces in rapes and targeted killings.[62] The atrocities by Al-Badr and the Al-Shams garnered worldwide attention from news agencies; accounts of massacres and rapes were widely reported.[58]

International reaction

The Blood telegram, sent on 6 April 1971

There is an academic consensus that the events of the nine-month conflict were a genocide.[63][64] The atrocities in East Pakistan were the first instances of war rape to attract international media attention,[65] and Sally J. Scholz has written that this was the first genocide to capture the interest of the mass media.[66] The women's human rights organisation Bangladesh Mahila Parishat took part in the war by publicising the atrocities being carried out by the Pakistani army.[67]

Owing to the scale of the atrocities, US embassy staff had sent telegrams indicating that a genocide was occurring. One, which became known as the Blood telegram, was sent by Archer Blood, the US Consul General in Dhaka, and was signed by him as well as US officials from USAID and USIS who at the time were serving in Dhaka. In it, the signatories denounced American "complicity in Genocide".[68][69] In an interview in 1972, Indira Gandhi, the Indian prime minister, justified the use of military intervention, saying, "Shall we sit and watch their women get raped?"[70] The events were discussed extensively in the British House of Commons. John Stonehouse proposed a motion supported by a further 200 members of parliament condemning the atrocities being carried out by the Pakistani armed forces.[71] Although this motion was presented twice before parliament, the government did not find time to debate it.[72]

Before the end of the war the international community had begun to provide aid in large quantities to the refugees living in India. Although humanitarian aid was given, there was little support for the war crimes trials which Bangladesh proposed at the end of the war.[73] Critics of the United Nations have used the atrocities of 1971 to argue that military intervention was the only thing to stop the mass murder.[74] Writing to The New York Times, a group of women said in response to women being shunned by family and husbands, "It is unthinkable that innocent wives whose lives were virtually destroyed by war are now being totally destroyed by their own husbands". International aid was also forthcoming owing to the issue of war rape.[75]

According to Susan Brownmiller, mass rape during wartime is not a new phenomenon. She argues that what was unique to the Bangladesh Liberation War was that the international community, for the first time, recognised that systematic rape could be used as a weapon to terrorise the people.[76]


The Liberation War Museum in Dhaka conserves artefacts and records of violence, death, and rape in 1971.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, one pressing problem was the very high number of unwanted pregnancies of rape victims. Estimates of the number of pregnancies resulting in births range from 25,000[65] to the Bangladeshi government's figure of 70,000,[77] while one publication by the Centre for Reproductive Law and Policy gave a total of 250,000.[78] A government-mandated victim relief programme was set up with the support of the World Health Organization and International Planned Parenthood Federation, among whose goals it was to organise abortion facilities to help rape victims terminate unwanted pregnancies. A doctor at a rehabilitation centre in Dhaka reported 170,000 abortions of pregnancies caused by the rapes, and the births of 30,000 war babies during the first three months of 1972.[79] Dr. Geoffrey Davis, an Australian doctor and abortion specialist who worked for the programme, estimated that there had been about 5,000 cases of self-induced abortions.[80] He also said that during his work he heard of numerous infanticides and suicides by victims. His estimate of the total number of rape victims was 400,000, twice as high as the official estimate of 200,000 cited by the Bangladeshi government.[81] Most of the victims also contracted sexual infections.[82] Many suffered from feelings of intense shame and humiliation, and a number were ostracised by their families and communities or committed suicide.[67]

The feminist writer Cynthia Enloe has written that some pregnancies were intended by the soldiers and perhaps their officers as well.[78] A report from the International Commission of Jurists said, "Whatever the precise numbers, the teams of American and British surgeons carrying out abortions and the widespread government efforts to persuade people to accept these girls into the community, testify to the scale on which raping occurred".[83] The commission also said that Pakistani officers not only allowed their men to rape, but enslaved women themselves.[84]

Following the conflict the rape victims were seen as a symbol of "social pollution" and shame. Few were able to return to families or old homes because of this.[85] Sheikh Mujibur Rahman called the victims birangona ("heroine"), but this served as a reminder that these women were now deemed socially unacceptable as they were "dishonored",[lower-alpha 1][86] and the term became associated with barangona ("prostitute").[87] The official strategy of marrying the women off and encouraging them to be seen as war heroines failed as few men came forward, and those who did expected the state to provide a large dowry.[88] Those women who did marry were usually mistreated, and the majority of men, once having received a dowry, abandoned their wives.[89]

On 18 February 1972 the state formed the Bangladesh Women's Rehabilitation Board, which was tasked with helping the victims of rape and to help with the adoption programme.[90] Several international agencies took part in the adoption programme, such as Mother Teresa's Sisters of Charity. The majority of the war babies were adopted in the Netherlands and Canada as the state wished to remove the reminders of Pakistan from the newly formed nation.[91] However, not all women wanted their child taken, and some were forcibly removed and sent for adoption, a practice which was encouraged by Rahman, who said, "I do not want those polluted blood in this country".[92] While many women were glad for the abortion programme, as they did not have to bear a child conceived of rape, others had to go full term, filled with hatred towards the child they carried. Others, who had their children adopted out so as to return to "mainstream life", would not look at their newborn as it was taken from them.[93] In the 1990s many of these children returned to Bangladesh to search for their birth mothers.[94] In 2008, D'Costa attempted to find those who had been adopted, however very few responded, one who did said "I hated being a kid, and I am angry at Bangladesh for not taking care of me when I needed it most. I don’t have any roots and that makes me cry. So that is why I am trying to learn more about where I was born."[36]

Forty years after the war, two sisters who had been raped were interviewed by Deutsche Welle. Aleya stated she had been taken by the Pakistani army when she was thirteen, and was gang raped repeatedly for seven months. She states she was tortured and was five months pregnant when she returned to her home. Her sister, Laily, says she was pregnant when she was taken by the armed forces, and lost the child. Later she fought alongside the Mukti Bahini. Both say that the state has failed the birangona, and that all they received was "humiliation, insults, hatred, and ostracism."[95]

Pakistani government reaction

After the conflict, the Pakistani government decided on a policy of silence regarding the rapes.[44] They set up the Hamoodur Rahman Commission, a judicial commission to prepare an account of the circumstances surrounding the atrocities of the 1971 war and Pakistan's surrender. The commission was highly critical of the army.[96] The chiefs of staff of the army and the Pakistan Air Force were removed from their positions for attempting to interfere with the commission.[97] The Commission based its reports on interviews with politicians, officers and senior commanders. The final reports were submitted in July 1972, but all were subsequently destroyed except for one held by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the Pakistani president. The findings were never made public.[98]

In 1974 the commission was reopened and issued a supplementary report, which remained classified for 25 years until published by the magazine India Today.[99] The report said that 26,000 people were killed, rapes numbered in the hundreds, and that the Mukti Bahini rebels engaged in widespread rape and other human rights abuses.[43] Sumit Ganguly, a political scientist, believes that the Pakistani establishment has yet to come to terms with the atrocities carried out, saying that, in a visit to Bangladesh in 2002, Pervez Musharraf expressed regret for the atrocities rather than accepting responsibility.[100]

War Crimes prosecutions

Bangladeshis in Manchester, in the United Kingdom, expressing solidarity with the 2013 Shahbagh Protest, which is demanding more rigorous punishment for those convicted of war crimes in 1971.

In 2008, after a 17-year investigation, the War Crimes Fact Finding Committee released documentation identifying 1,597 people who had taken part in the atrocities. The list included members of the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, a political group founded in 1978.[101] In 2010 the government of Bangladesh set up the ICT to investigate the atrocities of that era. While Human Rights Watch has been supportive of the tribunal,[102] it has also been critical of reported harassment of lawyers representing the accused. Brad Adams, director of the Asia branch of Human Rights Watch, has said that those accused must be given the full protection of the law to avoid the risk of the trials not being taken seriously,[102] and Irene Khan, a human rights activist, has expressed doubt about whether the mass rapes and killings of women will be addressed.[103] Khan has said of her government's reaction:

A conservative Muslim society has preferred to throw a veil of negligence and denial on the issue, allowed those who committed or colluded with gender violence to thrive, and left the women victims to struggle in anonymity and shame and without much state or community support.[103]

The deputy leader of Jamaat-e-Islami, Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, the first person to face charges related to the conflict, was indicted by the ICT on twenty counts of war crimes, which included murder, rape and arson. He denied all charges.[104] On 28 February 2013, Sayeedi was found guilty of genocide, rape and religious persecution, and was sentenced to death by hanging.[105] Four other members of Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, including Motiur Rahman Nizami, have also been indicted for war crimes.[104] Abul Kalam Azad, a member of the Razakars, was the first person to be sentenced for crimes during the war. He was found guilty of murder and rape in absentia, and was sentenced to death.[106][107] Muhammad Kamaruzzaman, senior assistant secretary general of Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, faced seven charges of war crimes, including planning and advising on the rape of women in the village of Shohaghpur on 25 July 1971.[108] The ICT sentenced him to death by hanging on 9 May 2013.[109] In July 2013 Ghulam Azam was given a ninety-year sentence for rape and mass murder during the conflict.[110] Abdul Quader Molla, A member of the Rajakar militia during the war was charged with abetting the Pakistani army and actively participating in the 1971 Bangladesh atrocities: rape (including the rape of minors) and mass murder of Bangladeshis in the Mirpur area of Dhaka during the Bangladesh Liberation War.[111] After the government had amended the war crimes law to allow a sentence to be appealed based on leniency of punishment, prosecutors appealed to the Supreme Court of Bangladesh and asked for it to upgrade Molla's sentence from life in prison to death.[112] On 17 September 2013, the Supreme Court accepted the appeal and sentenced Molla to death.[113] Finally he was hanged in Dhaka Central Jail on 12 December 2013 at 22:01.[114][115]

In literature and media

A photograph taken during the conflict of a woman who had been assaulted featured in an exhibition in London. Titled Shamed Woman, but also called Brave Woman, the image was taken by a Bangladeshi photographer, Naib Uddin Ahmed. The image is considered by John Tulloch to be as "classical a pose as any Madonna and Child".[116] One of the more emotive photographs at the exhibition, the woman has her hands clenched, her face completely covered by her hair. Tulloch describes the image as having the "Capability to reveal or suggest what is unsayable"[117]

Orunodoyer Ognishakhi (Pledge to a New Dawn), the first film about the war, was screened in 1972 on the first Bangladeshi Independence Day celebration.[118] It draws on the experiences of an actor called Altaf. While trying to reach safe haven in Calcutta, he encounters women who have been raped. The images of these birangona, stripped and vacant-eyed from the trauma, are used as testimony to the assault. Other victims Altaf meets are shown committing suicide or having lost their minds.[119]

In 1995 Gita Sahgal produced the documentary War Crimes File, which was screened on Channel 4.[120] In 2011 the film Meherjaan was shown at the Guwahati International Film Festival. It explores the war from two perspectives: that of a woman who loved a Pakistani soldier and that of a person born from rape.[121]

In 1996 the book Ami Birangana Bolchi (The Voices of War Heroines) written by Nilima Ibrahim was released. It is a collection of eyewitness testimony from seven rape victims, which she documented while working in rehabilitation centres.[122] The narratives of the survivors in this work, is heavily critical of pre war Bangladeshi society`s failure to support the victims of rape.[123]

Published in 2012, the book Rising from the Ashes: Women's Narratives of 1971 includes oral testimonies of women affected by the Liberation War. As well as an account from Taramon Bibi, who fought and was awarded the Bir Protik (Symbol of Valour) for her actions, there are nine interviews with women who were raped. The book's publication in English at the time of the fortieth anniversary of the war was noted in the New York Times as an "important oral history".[103]

The 2014 movie Children of War tries to capture this horror on celluloid. The film By Mrityunjay Devvrat starring Farooq Sheikh, Victor Banerjee, Raima Sen, among others is meant to "send shivers down the viewers' spine. We want to make it so repulsive that no one even entertains the thought of pardoning rapists, let alone commit the crime. The shoot took its toll on all of us." [124]


  1. "Rape can be especially effective as a tactic of genocide when used against females of communities that cast shame upon the rape victim rather than the rapist. In such communities, the rape forever damages the social standing of the survivor. Bengali girls and women who endured the genocidal rape had to cope not only with their physical injuries and trauma, but with a society hostile to violated women. The blame for loss of honour falls not upon the rapist, but upon the raped.".[52]


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  124. 1971 rapes


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