Violence Against Indigenous Women


The fact that the constitution of Bangladesh remains silent about the existence of ethnic minorities with distinctive identities, cultures and languages is a good indication of the marginal status of the indigenous peoples of Bangladesh. This silence or omission is also often mirrored in mainstream historical narratives or media representations of the emergence of Bangladesh as a nation-state.

For example, the Independence Day Special supplement of the New Age, an English daily, carried a lead article by the editor of the paper with the title, “The promises of liberation war and the League’s rainbow coalition” (Kabir 2009). This article, or other articles and interviews included in the supplement, however, mainly depicted the Liberation war as a movement for, by and of Bengalis. And there was no mention as to whether, or to what extent, the indigenous people formed part of the rainbow coalition. This oversight is even more interesting as the Independence Day Special edition of the same daily also brought out a special issue of its weekly magazine (Extra) hat carried a cover story featuring a Khasia female freedom fighter. Although this particular freedom fighter was not originally Bangladeshi by birth, many indigenous people indeed took active part in the Liberation war. Yet to speak of it exclusively in terms of Bengali nationalism only serves to hide from view the fact that indigenous people too have been an integral part of this country.

Against the backdrop of widespread violation of the rights of the indigenous people in Bangladesh (Naher and Tripura 1994), we find that indigenous women in particular have often borne the brunt of all the oppression and violence. For example, according to an account provided by an indigenous woman leader from the CHT, during the period from independence (December 1971) till 1994, a total of 6000 hill people, including many women, were killed through massacres and various other incidents, while a total of 2500 indigenous women were raped (Mong 2002:45). With regard to the rapes, what is significant is that most of them were reportedly committed by security personnel who also happen to be Bengali. As Mohsin (2002:39) notes, according to a report of the CHT Commission, “between 1991 and 1993 over 94 per cent of the rape cases of the Hill women were by the security personnel. Over 40 per cent of these women were under eighteen years of age.” She also makes the important observation that “the CHT peace accord has made no provision for the rehabilitation of the rape victims” (ibid).

Generally, as an increasing number of indigenous people become uprooted from their ancestral lands, they have to search for new means of livelihood, exposing indigenous women to new forms of vulnerabilities in the countryside as well as in urban areas. Different incidents of abduction and rape of indigenous women who have migrated to urban areas from places such as the greater Mymensingh-Tangail region are part of this trend. It may be noted that indigenous women also face systematic discrimination in wage, as is particularly the case in North Bengal (cf. Nasreen 2003, 2005:106-107). While a growing number of indigenous women face discrimination and violence
outside their homes in the countryside as well as in urban areas, they do not necessarily find safe havens in their own homes or communities. Instead, there too they may face an increasing trend of gender-based violence that is partly the result of the anger and frustration of their dispossessed and oppressed men folks. This latter trend, however, remain inadequately researched, understood or even acknowledged (cf. Rashid 2005:54).

Indigenous women’s experiences of violence While detailed information on intra-community and domestic violence against indigenous women is hard to come by, some non-governmental women’s organizations have started addressing and documenting such incidents. Samples of cases collected from KMKS, an NGO based in Khagrachari, indicate that indigenous women in the CHT face different forms of violence, ranging from physical abuse by husbands to rapes. In most cases, however, the victims are not allowed, nor do they have the means, to seek justice as per the law of the country. Instead, they have to remain content with arbitration by traditional or elected local leaders. In one such case, involving the rape of a 14 year old Chakma girl by a group of four Chakma men in a remote Upazila of Rangamati in 2007, the report filed for the Durbar network notes:

After the incident, the victim’s father and relatives approached the local Headman, Karbari [traditional village leader] and [Union Parishad] members to discuss the matter verbally, but since this was a case of rape and one that involved members of the same ethnic group, all concerned suggested that the matter should be arbitrated locally. After a lot of debate and discussion, the Headman settled the matter in exchange of Taka 6000 [presumably paid to the victim’s family].

A very similar incident that took place in an Upazila in Khagrachari district in the same year was reportedly settled in a similar manner by local leaders said to be affiliated with a local political party. Allegedly, the major portion of the fines imposed on the three perpetrators involved were retained by the leaders themselves, while the victim and her family only received small sums of money. At the end of the report filed in relation to this case, the following observation is made:

In the CHT, conflicts between indigenous persons, including disputes involving women, are arbitrated by members of UPDF or JSS [local political parties operating in the CHT]. Nobody is allowed to go to the courts. In particular, they are the ones who settle cases involving [violence against] women, and local people are forced to accept their verdicts.

The reported stance of the indigenous leaders, if true, may partly stem from a desire on their part to exert or retain male control over women in their communities. Moreover, their stance may also be partly explained by the fact that in the CHT, members of the law-enforcing agencies themselves have been implicated in many incidents of rape of indigenous women.

Although allegations of rapes of indigenous women by security personnel in the CHT have almost never been acknowledged or investigated officially, given similar trends observed in different parts of the world, there is little doubt that such incidents have indeed occurred. Although Bangladesh itself emerged after a nine-month long Liberation War that involved countless acts of killings and rapes by the Pakistani forces and their collaborators, it is ironic that the indigenous people of the CHT would suffer similar fates at the hands of Bangladeshi security forces soon after independence. Such developments, however, are hardly surprising and conform to historical trends observed on numerous occasions. As Amena Mohsin (2002:39; see also, Grech 1993) remarks, while discussing the alleged rapes of indigenous women by security personnel in the CHT: Rape has been used as an instrument of war. By violating a woman, not only her body is violated but the ‘other’ is also violated. The ‘purity’ and ‘authenticity’ of the nation so integral to it, is put under threat, since within the parlance of the nationalist discourse women are considered to be the biological bearers of the nation.

Significantly, rapes of indigenous women by Bengali security personnel in the early 1970s have been cited as one of the main reasons that made the birth of the Shanti Bahini, the armed wing of the Jana Sanghati Samity that waged an armed struggle for regional autonomy, inevitable (Khisha 1996). The irony is that the long armed campaign of the Shanti Bahini resulted into more heavy handed measures by successive governments, leading to, among other things, many more incidents of rapes of indigenous women by security forces.

One of the consequences of ethnic conflicts and nationalist movements is the internalization and intensification of masculine ethos, with women becoming increasingly treated as symbols of collective purity and honor. Such linkages are examined in the context of specific societies in a book edited by Moghadam (1994). Referring to Anderson’s (1983) seminal work on nationalism, she argues that although Anderson does not deal with issues of gender or sexuality, he makes a simple but profound suggestion that nationalism is best viewed not as an ideology but as akin to kinship and religion. This perspective helps explain why, in so many contemporary political movements, women
are assigned the role of bearer of cultural values, carriers of traditions, and symbols of the community. She writes:

If the nation is an extended family writ large, then women’s role is to carry out the tasks of nurturance and reproduction. If the nation is defined as a religious entity, then the appropriate models of womanhood are to be found in scripture. Nationhood has been recast in these terns in the latter part of the twentieth century, and this has distinct implications for feminism as an emancipatory project. Women become the revered objects of the collective act of redemption, and the role models for the new nationalist patriarchal family (1994:4).

Indigenous women stand up against violence

It may be noted that it was largely the end of military rule in Bangladesh in 1991—which created some space for democratic forms of protest—that made it possible for voices of protest and resistance from among the indigenous women activists to be heard widely. One excellent example of this new development was the publication of a book of poems by Kabita Chakma (1992), with the title Joli no udhim kittei, meaning, literally, “Why shall I not flare up in (protest)” and translated as “Why shall I not resist!” (Guhathakurta, 2000:85):

Why shall I not resist!
Can they do as they please—
Turn settlements into barren land
Dense forests into deserts
Mornings into evening
Fruition into barrenness
Why shall I not resist?
Can they do as they please—
Estrange us from the land of our birth
Enslave our women
Blind our vision
Put an end to creation.
Neglect and humiliation causes anger
The blood surges through my veins
Breaking barriers at every stroke,
The fury of youth pierces the sea of consciousness.
—I become my own whole self
Why shall I not resist!

Politically, the spirit of such resistance by indigenous women was embodied by an organization called Hill Women’s Federation (HWF) that came into being between 1989 –1991 (ibid:83). The alleged abduction of Kalpana Chakma, the organizing secretary of HWF, from her village by a military officer in June 1996 “spearheaded a nation-wide movement and national press coverage that was to bring the gender issue into the forefront of the [indigenous people’s] struggle” (ibid:90; see also Guhathakurta 1997, 2009). Kalpana represented a new generation of indigenous women activists who would not shy away from raising uncomfortable questions in their own communities.

Below are two examples of this trend. The first one is a translation of a poem, written in Kokborok, by a Tripura woman (Tripura 1997:35):

When I pass by this woman’s house, I hear her crying.
They are poor, and her husband is addicted to alcohol.
Her father-in-law is lame, and the mother-in-law blind.
She puts up with all hardships silently, yet she gets all the blame.
Her in-laws blame her for not being able to check his addiction.
But if she asks her husband to refrain from drinking, he gets angry.
He beats her up if he cannot get his drink even for a day.
My question to her in-laws: “What is the fault of the woman”?

The second example is also a translation, this time of a segment of an article, by a Chakma woman who also raises a ‘burning question’ regarding gender inequality in her society (Chakma 1392:1-2):

In a Chakma household dependent on jum cultivation, a woman has to simultaneously play the roles of wife, mother, co-worker and income-earner. She has to perform various functions, starting from giving birth to children and taking care of them to other domestic chores, working in jum fields alongside herhusband, weaving during her ‘leisure’, and so on. If her husband happens to be lazy and alcoholic, then her life becomes really hard. Not only does she have to earn a living, but she also has to endure abuses by her drunken husband. Considering all this, a Chakma jumia woman is really a most unfortunate creature….Such oppression of women in Chakma society has been going on for ages. It seems as though Chakma women have accepted this state of affairs as their fate. But will this go on for ages to come? This is a burning question of our times.

Kalpana Chakma was keenly aware of the multiple forms of inequalities that indigenous women had to fight against. She left behind a diary (Chakma 2001) that is full of her reflections on the condition of women in general and of indigenous women in particular. In depicting the life of an indigenous woman in the CHT, she wrote (translation as quoted in Guhathakurta 2000:91):

On the one hand [she faces] the steam roller of rape, torture, sexual harassment, humiliation and helplessness inflicted by the military and Bengalis, and on the other hand, she faces the curse of social and sexual discrimination [in her own community]

Kalpana Chakma was also keenly aware that an indigenous woman’s struggle for freedom from discrimination and violence must start from a process of self-realization about her own condition, but without necessarily at the expense of anyone else’s freedom. She wrote (translation as quoted in Guhathakurta 2000:91):
When a caged bird wants to be free, does it mean that she wants freedom for herself alone? Does it also mean one must necessarily imprison those who are already free? I think it is natural to expect the caged bird to be angry with those who imprisoned her. But if she understands that she has been imprisoned in a cage and that cage is not her rightful place, then she has every right to claim the freedom of the skies.

As we have argued, attempts to understand and address violence against indigenous women must start by taking into account their own perspectives, strategies, and subjectivities. And as indicated in the passage from Kalpana Chakma’s diary quoted above, an indigenous woman may not want freedom from violence and oppression for her alone. Put another way, her emancipation would also mean a more just society, a more equitable economy, and a stronger state that promotes and defends the rights of all citizens, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, religion or any other such factors.


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Author: Ainoon Naher & Prashanta Tripura.

Source: Between Ashes and Hopes.


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