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Speaker recalls atrocities against women during Bangladesh war

The female victims of the 1971 Bangladesh War are finally having their voices heard.

Yasmin Saikia, an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, discussed her research on the topic during a lecture in the University Union on Oct. 14. Saikia’s talk was the kickoff event of Binghamton University as the new editorial home of the Journal of Women’s History.

“(Saikia’s) work embodies the very best practices of women’s history,” said Jean Quataert, professor of history who will serve as co-editor of the journal.

The results of Saikia’s research, They Were Human, Too: Women from Bangladesh Remember the War of 1971, is due out in 2010 from Duke University Press. Saikia spent three years interviewing women who were the victims of sexual violence during the wars between East Pakistan and West Pakistan, and West Pakistan and India in 1971.

“I’ve explored an inner story of the war that is not in circulation in the public sphere and is largely hidden,” she said. “The forgotten, hidden memories belong to the women of Bangladesh who were terrorized, sexualized and since silenced.

“What I know now is because of these individuals who shared a history that had never been revealed, partly because nobody showed any interest. Nobody ever asked them what they experienced in this historic moment.”

Saikia’s oral history includes 200 interviews with women who experienced violence and 50 testimonies from rape survivors who showed “rare courage and expressed immense trust.”

Thousands of women were tortured, raped and killed. Women were targeted in the wars by all sides of the conflicts: Many were dragged from their homes and taken to sex camps, where they were raped repeatedly and forced to bury the dead.

“Women were de-humanized during the war,” Saikia said.

Survivors weren’t helped after the war, either, as the Bangladesh government mandated an abortion program and would not acknowledge the atrocities or the victims.

“In the last 30 years, nobody has ever asked how she is doing and what does she want from her life,” Saikia said of one survivor she spoke with.

Saikia talked with doctors, journalists and social activists who related stories of finding the bodies of women in town halls, graveyards and other places after the surrender of the West Pakistan army in December 1971.

She also was able to meet with perpetrators who admitted their actions of years ago. Their stories will make up a second volume in the series, Saikia said.

“Without a scholarly discourse of the oppression that Bangladeshi women experienced in the war —  alongside the stories of other oppressed women who are not white and Western — we will continue to promote a two-tiered world for women, excluding some from human knowledge while continuing with a hypothetical rhetoric to address women’s experiences,” she said.

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Last Updated: 10/14/08