FROM: Richard L. Benkin, A Quiet Case of Ethnic Cleansing: the Murder of Bangladesh’s Hindus (Akshaya Prakashan: New Delhi, 2012)
CHAPTER EIGHT: WOMEN: DOUBLY VICTIMIZED; DOUBLY STRONG (excerpts)
In February 2008, I visited over a dozen and a half refugee camps along the volatile India-Bangladesh border; and often in the proximity of Maoist and Islamist camps. Some were tolerated as semi-legal, most not even that. Speaking out against their conditions can be a life and death decision for these refugees who lack any legal status and the protections that come with it. This means that when the West Bengal government sent out its thugs to threaten people with serious reprisals, should they reveal its secrets to me, the refugees knew that the consequences would be real and significant. Thus, in an example cited earlier, consider what it would take for someone to defy that threat. In that village near the Nepal border, the threat was having the desired effect. With the local Commissar staring at anyone who stood up to talk, the refugees spoke freely about atrocities that occurred some years back in Bangladesh but would become mute when I asked about cross-border attacks by Bangladeshi radicals today. It took one brave woman to break that wall of silence.
She stood up, looked the communist official in the eye, and said, “I’m not afraid of anybody,” and proceeded to describe the frequent violence the refugees still face in West Bengal. How many people are so afraid of being thought politically incorrect that they do not even have the courage to call out someone who makes an offensive, anti-Hindu, or racially insensitive remark in casual conversation or social interaction? How many people let it pass thereby extending their tacit approval to it? How many people stand in silence for fear of what? Discomfort? Being thought impolite? Now think about what this woman risked by standing up for justice in defiance of a repressive government with one of its representatives right there.
In another camp, a group of young girls were especially adamant about their pride in being Bengali and their determination to help others regain the same. One of them told me how she wanted to be a schoolteacher and teach young Bengalis their history and culture so they will demand the same rights others have. The common thread linking these two incidents is that the people who had the courage and determination to take a stand publicly—and to make a difference for their people—were women. These women spoke out in potentially dangerous situations while their male counterparts remained silent. In some of the camps I visited men were my major informants; in others, women were the ones who testified to Islamist violence. That tended to intrigue me as our image of rural Hindu societies is one in which women occupy a decidedly lower status than men. The above vignettes contrast sharply with the stereotypical image of South Asian women. They are not passive. They are strong and brave enough to take action—seemingly more so than their male counterparts in the camp. Yet, South Asia is losing a tremendous resource in them. And their bravery also stands in contrast to the special atrocities they face every day in both Bangladesh and their ersatz havens in India.
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In the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Hindus in Bangladesh, Hindu women have always been specific targets for violence, including rape…. As noted by the Hindu American Foundation in its 2010 report:
Violence against women is a common weapon used to intimidate and harass minority communities across the world. It has similarly been used in Bangladesh
as a means to attack Hindus....The systematic kidnapping, rape, and murder of minority women, particularly young Hindu girls, continued in 2009....Rapes and
kidnappings of Hindu girls are often accompanied by forced conversions to Islam.
Its report the following year noted no substantive change….“In Bangladesh,” [wrote Jenny Lundstrom of Global Human Rights Defence], “gang rape has become a major tool of political terror, forcing minorities to flee and has proven more effective than murder. The victims have all been women belonging to either of the ethnic/religious minorities. Neither little girls nor pregnant women and the elderly are spared.”
Lundstrom’s insight that rape is more effective than murder is central to understanding that these attacks on Hindu women are in essence tools of political terror. They are not about sex;
they are about asserting religious privilege and dominance. The female victims are not the rapists’ targets: their male family members and religious community are. The pattern has
been cited numerous times throughout this book and has special significance within the context of rape and female (especially Hindu female) rightlessness. Government complicity in this process is the critical glue that holds it together and without it, the process breaks down entirely.
One of the most important functions for the head of any household is the ability to protect its other (physically and socially weaker) members. In traditional (and even less traditional) societies where the heads of households are overwhelmingly male, there is a sexual component to that function. (Take note that “sexual” does not refer to the physical act of lovemaking but to gender roles or acts of violence that assume the guise of that same act. The same holds true for the use of the term throughout this discussion.)
If a man’s spouse, mother, daughter, or some other female family member can be taken at will and raped, it is a statement that the man cannot protect “his women.” If it happens again and again, the statement grows stronger and more powerful in its effect. And if there is a clearly discernable pattern that the victims are from one ethnic or religious community (i.e., Hindu) and the victimizers from another (i.e., Muslim), it takes on a more intense dimension. Sociologists in fact have long noted that the more discernable social dimensions that parties to any conflict share in contrast with those individuals on the other side, the more severe the conflict. Thus, the rape of Hindu women by Muslim men seemingly at will is a statement to Hindu men that they lack a basic ability that define what a man is. In a civil society, the government has an obligation to protect those citizens who are not able to protect themselves and their families; hence, the criminal law and law enforcement apparatus. As we have seen, however, the Bangladeshi government has refused to live up to that obligation with regard to Hindus. It does not matter which political party is in power, nor does it matter whether the government representative is local or national…. Incidents such as the one involving Koli Goswami, reported in Chapter 3, show clearly how this works. When Koli was taken from her bed and kept from her loved ones, it was a statement that she was not in control of her life or movements; her abductors were. When the police summarily dismissed the incident as a lover’s quarrel, they refused to consider than anyone other than the male perpetrators had anything material to say. More generally, the use of rape and abduction against women as mere devices in the pursuit of larger goals places women in the role of objects without laws or parameters that would protect their individual rights.
Why Hindus in particular? Because no group of Muslim women or the female (Muslim) Prime Ministers have objected to their sisters’ objectification or even today do anything to change it.
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In March 2009, a group of NGOs addressed a UN panel that was to investigate violence against women and girls in Bangladesh. “Often harrowing in their depictions, the panelists detailed abuses of Hindu and Buddhist women and girls in today’s Bangladesh solely on account of their
religions. Pressure to convert to Islam, the use of rape as a tool for humiliation and the Vested Property Act that dispossesses Hindus of their properties were among many issues discussed,” according to the Hindu American Foundation, which participated in the panel. Former HAF Public Policy Director, Ishani Chowdhury, described Bangladesh as “a land spiraling to a path of
intolerance for non-Islamic faiths, lack of respect and justice towards its female population and the inability to coexist in an ever shrinking global village.” She went on to cite several examples of young girls gang raped or kidnapped because of their non-Muslim faith. Her examples were taken from 306 specific incidents documented by the HAF.
In the two years since this damning evidence was presented, the UN has taken no action.
Despite that, feminist groups, who should be the most vocal opponents of this inaction over this victimization of women in Bangladesh, have offered neither help nor shared outrage. Major human rights groups have been silent as well; and governments around the world have taken no action. Perhaps they remain wedded to the forlorn hope that the election of the Awami League government would bring needed change for the mass of Bangladesh’s Hindus living outside of the major cities like Dhaka and Chittagong; a hope proven empty time and again with that government’s tenure about half over with no action on the matter. These outsiders can help, and should if they still wish to claim the mantle of justice. Their support can give hope to young women like those mentioned in this chapter; can tell them that they are not alone; can let them know that the hell in which they live is the exception to what is right, not the rule.
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Islamists and Communists actually did Hindus a favor because they have overturned a social order that bred a Bengali Hindu population known for passivity, especially in Muslim dominated Bangladesh and the lands surrounding it. Women in that order held to an especially submissive role, from which they only rarely were allowed to depart and then only within the bosom of their families. But the radicals turned that order on its head, emasculating the men and leaving many
women with no effective protector. Hence the sort of incidents noted above in which women and not men spoke out in dangerous situations to get some degree of help from the world outside of their rural societies.
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Now from Nepal, not very far from some of those villages in Northern Bengal, comes another remarkable story about South Asia women speaking out. In 2008, Nepalese Communists took over the government after a parliamentary election propelled them to power. Not too long before, these same Maoists were carrying out a brutal insurgency that had caused over 15,000 deaths in the impoverished Himalayan country. Through an arrangement with Pakistani intelligence, Maoist rebels provided safe havens for Al Qaeda troops on the run from coalition forces in Afghanistan. In exchange, the Pakistanis secured them a place in Nepal’s emerging coalition. With their transformation from a radical insurgency to a political party both recent and tactical, Nepal’s new communist rulers have been systematically destroying both opposition and individual rights in that country
Journalist Niraj Aryal writes in Telegraph Nepal, “It was in the district of Dailekh-Nepal, women folks took to the topsy-turvy Ghodeto and Godeto (Horse and Foot trails) protesting against the Maoists’ atrocities.” He made sure to add, “No male counterparts as of then had the courage to protest against the Maoists.” Aryal also notes that in the bloody days before the communists got their rebel feet in the constitutional door, it was women in the Nepalese countryside who worked
as “underground party cadres or even carried weapons in the Peoples’ Liberation Army fighting against the age-old discrimination and bravely resisting the State led highhandedness. His point was not that women favor a particular political faction but that they have had the strength and courage to take dangerous stands. There was danger from the monarchy then, and there is extreme danger now that the Maoists have taken power. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, “Maoist atrocities” are coming in from all over the country. In some cases, it appears Nepal’s new rulers are exacting a brutal revenge on those who previously opposed them, especially in the countryside. Yet, these women stood against that tide.
Niraj Aryal, “Women on Top,” Telegraph Nepal, May 30, 2008.
Richard L. Benkin, “South Asia’s Irrepressible Women,” Weekly Blitz, June 25, 2008
Jenny Lundstrom, With Intent to Destroy? Rape as Genocide under International Criminal Law: The Case of Bangladesh. (Global Human Rights Defence: The Hague, 2007).
“HAF Joins Prominent Bangladesh Human Rights Groups at United Nations Panel: Highlight Abuse Against Minority Women in Bangladesh,” Hindu American Foundation, March 6, 2009.
“Hindus in South Asia and the Diaspora: A Survey of Human Rights 2009,” Hindu American Foundation, March 21, 2010.