Forty years on, Bangladesh is still in the shadows of war

A focus on unity and closure is desperately needed.

 

The blood-red circle on a vast vivid green flag flutters in the skyline, with the honking taxis and busses below. Throngs of people join in the carnival atmosphere - pride and  patriotism can be seen on their faces. Traditional folk music about freedom can be heard from the local community centre, and fairy lights decorate buildings. Rickety rickshaws race past through the narrow and uneven side streets, while little boys with the green and red bandanas draped over their foreheads and little girls wearing scarlet  and emerald shalwar khameez run past.

The peanut seller reads a newspaper and tosses the nuts under the glowing kerosene lamp, while a group of men huddle over their chai in street corners, while speeches of  freedom fighters of days gone by blurt out of speakers, into the Dhaka smog. Political slogans – Joi Bangla! – wreaths of flowers and the faces of the Prime Minister Sheikh  Hasina, leader of the Awami League Party, and the "father of the nation" Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, dominate every street lamp and corner. It is Victory Day in Bangladesh.

But despite the bunting and the banners marking the 41st anniversary of national independence and the defeat of the occupying Pakistani forces in 1971, it also commemorates how Bangladesh has suffered a history of so much human tragedy, natural disaster and political chaos. Yet perhaps the greatest injustice is that people are denied the truth of what really happened during the war. In the months since the death sentence verdict was given to Jamaat-e-Islami politician Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, over 100 people have died during clashes between protesters and the police. Attacks on journalists and bloggers, political abductions and open firing on civilians have sparked fears of instability in Bangladesh. But why is such a youthful population still in chains of the memories and grudges of the older generation?  

I wonder what brings thousands of young and educated Bangladeshis – the Shahbag movement – to the streets of Dhaka to call for the hanging of elderly men, for events that happened before they were alive? While travelling in Bangladesh, I met student Ali Uddin* who explained how he couldn’t look to the future or do anything, as everything depends on the political situation: “It’s so frustrating, the biggest problem for students is that lessons and exams can be suspended or delayed at any moment due to strikes, that can happen at any time.”

As someone of Bangladeshi heritage, I have realised that not many people care about this tiny nation, or know Bangladesh’s history and what happened after decolonisation, which is so central to understanding the current political tumult.

After the 1947 partition of India, newly formed Pakistan, with west and east wings, experienced difficulties. Within five years the Bangladeshi Language Movement was established, but the central government based in West Pakistan refused to recognise Bengali as an official language. When the Pakistani forces under Yahya Khan declared martial law, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, founder of the nationalist Awami League (AL), was arrested in the early morning on 26 March 1971 of Operation Searchlight. With no one to lead East Pakistan’s fight for independence, Ziaur Rahman, an army Major who would go on to establish the Bangladeshi National Party (BNP), declared himself the head of the provisional revolutionary government of Bangladesh.

That evening, he made a radio broadcast from Kalurghat in Chittagong,  “I, Major Ziaur Rahman, at the direction of Bangobondhu Mujibur Rahman, hereby declare that Independent People's Republic of Bangladesh has been established.”  Yet this very act has since been the source of so much political turmoil of Bangladesh.

Both Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Ziaur Rahman were later assassinated by their opponents, and even four decades later, the Bangladeshi political arena is still dominated by their shadows – Awami League being led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s daughter and current prime minister Sheikh Hasina, while the BNP is led by her bitter foe, Ziaur Rahman’s widowed wife Khaleda Zia. These political divisions have fractured and left deep fault lines in Bangladesh, and academic Dr. Shaheen Amany* told me that ‘for the country to progress, the government needs to put the national interest first, then political interest, and then self-interest.’ 

The great injustice is that there is no way of knowing how many people died. Estimates are between 300,000 to 3mn dead and 200,000 women raped by Pakistani troops, and these figures are frequently used in political discourse and have shaped the dominant historical narrative. This matters and it is astonishing that there isn’t enough adequate academic source analysis, especially when the 3mn figure is so contested. There’s a continuous rewriting of history, and a change of government leads to the change in the list of freedom fighters – all 5 lists have been condemned for partisanship and for including the names of frauds. It’s an issue as those on the list receive special patronage including monthly food, rations and special educational provisions to their children are given, and according to the ministry of liberation war affairs budget, an allowance will be provided for 1,57,838 freedom fighters.

Furthermore, old wounds have been slashed open, hampering any attempts for closure. In 1973, after the birth of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujib declared a general amnesty for the Pakistani army officials, and despite being main perpetrators, were returned to Pakistan and 26,000 detainees under the Collaborators Order were released. However, Hasina, leading Awami League, in 2008 resurrected this issue which had been resolved by her father, and made a manifesto pledge to hold accused “war criminal and collaborators” on trial. It was an election winner.

A domestic International Crimes Tribunal was set up; bearing little sign of international standards, and this issue has been the cause of the recent protests and bloodshed. Those on trial are from the opposition – most are longstanding members of the Jammat-e-Islami party, who in 1971 were a small party who didn’t want a split from Pakistan, civilians holding no seats or positions of state authority, or military power in the army. So blaming the defendants of war crimes, genocide and rape considering their diminutive status is highly problematic.

I recently heard Toby Cadman, international criminal barrister representing the Jammat-e- Islami defendants, speak at the LSE about the serious irregularities in the Bangladesh war trial, and failures to abide by the minimum standards of due process. Crucially, as there is no jury and as the death penalty can be implemented, there should be extra caution. Not a single judge has heard all the evidence in the case of Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, in total three different judges have presided over the case, with the first two resigning. “Skypegate” revealed emails and 17 hours of extrajudicial discussions about the workings of the tribunal between the presiding judge Mr Nizamul Huq and a third party. The cases of abducted defence witness es is especially concerning, and in the Professor Ghulam Azam case, an arbitrary limit was placed on the number of defence witnesses dropping from 16, to 12 and then to a single witness. With a lack of resources and international assistance, the trial has been shambolic. One young woman in the audience put it to Cadman that these issues are just “legalities”: the will of the people should be heard. This concerned me. No, these irregularities are not just technical legal issues: justice can not be done without adequate evidence and impartial judgement.   

The war trials will not help solve anything, and are being rushed through before elections in Bangladesh are later this year. If anything, it is hampering stability and the economic progress that has been made. Efforts for unity have been hacked to pieces. I sometimes think about South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and how restorative justice for victims was at its heart: it wasn’t about political point-scoring. The TRC wasn’t perfect, but huge strides were made to bring about closure in post-apartheid South Africa. This is a highly emotive subject and is discussed in binary terms, but Bangladesh would do well to focus on unity and closure – revenge gets you nowhere, and two injustices won't make anything right. Progress cannot be made if there is no will to break from the haunting memory of the past, and this drive should come from the youth.

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of sources.

Bangladesh fans wave flags during a cricket match. Photograph: Getty Images
A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.