It’s almost a cliché to say that war dehumanizes those who participate in it – the organizers of violence, those who commit violent acts, and the victims of violence. In her new book, Women, War, and the Making of Bangladesh: Remembering 1971 (Duke University Press, 2011), historian Yasmin Saikia seeks to explore humanity lost, and humanity reclaimed, by women and men who experienced the war that resulted in Bangladesh’s independence.
At the center of her story are women whose bodies became the battleground, as they were subjected to a wave of rapes perpetrated by enemy armies, local militias, and even civilians. Their stories were omitted from national histories of the conflict and they risked ostracism from their communities – unless they remained silent. And so they remained silent. But even thirty years later, the memories burned, and by finally telling their stories, they showed Saikia – and they show us – a different way to think about the war. Rather than competing Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi versions of the 1971 war, we see an utterly human story of ordinary people living with war and its aftermath.
Other experiences come to light too: Women who sought to participate in the war but were shoved aside by men. Women in the helping professions who tried to assist the victims. And men who committed acts of violence, and who now struggle to come to terms with their consciences.
The Hardt-Nichachos Chair in Peace Studies at Arizona State University, Saikia lets ordinary people speak for themselves – and in so doing, she humanizes a story that’s usually told as a struggle of nations. Together, she and her interview partners make us think anew about the possibilities for remorse, recovery, and forgiveness.