Linguistic liberation: Rape as a crime against the body


We frequently encounter a phrase that resonates deeply with us, one we often see on banners and in newspapers: 'Independence gained at the cost of the honour of two hundred thousand mothers and sisters.'

Fire and language, ancient and profound. Fire transformed early humans' lives, making food safe and fuelling brain growth. Language, our unique gift, fuels culture and cooperation, transmitting knowledge across time, shaping our evolution into complex beings. Homo sapiens, from humble beginnings to remarkable sophistication.

Our transformation spans from consuming raw meat to savouring juicy steaks, from dwelling in trees to erecting towering skyscrapers, and from distant wilderness to adorned in elegant attire. The catalysts for our astounding progress have been none other than fire and language, two essential tools that have shaped our existence and enabled our remarkable achievements.

Consider our language, our words – are they truly a source of safety for us? It seems I omitted to highlight the distinction we've crafted between men and women during our transition from Homo sapiens to human beings. The human experience now encompasses two distinct streams: men and women. In this journey, we've transcended our animal origins and embraced the identities of male and female, setting us apart from mere animals.

In ancient societies or beginning of the human civilization, rape was often seen as a crime against property, rather than a crime against the person. This is because women were considered to be the property of their fathers or husbands. As a result, the punishment for rape was often limited to compensation being paid to the victim's family. And now, as we have evolved, we see it as a crime against 'modesty'. A crime that was once viewed as the destruction of property is now recognized as an infringement upon one's dignity – what a significant evolution!

What have we done to make us human from the men and women? We have patriarchy in our society, we have feminism to counter the oppression, we have divided the entire world where we evolved by fire and language as human beings. And we have used the language itself to make one part of human make weaker and obedient towards another half.

It's time for us to revisit our notions of dignity and honour. We, the people of Bangladesh, sacrificed our 'honour' for the sake of freedom. We have achieved independence and become a sovereign nation. However, in 2021, in this era of independence and freedom, a report submitted to the High Court by the IGP's office reveals a staggering truth: a total of 26,695 rape cases were filed across the country in the last five years. These numbers are as follows: 4,331 cases in 2016, 4,683 in 2017, 4,695 in 2018, 6,766 in 2019, and 6,220 lodged until October 2020 (source: The Daily Star, March 3, 2021). If we perform a basic arithmetic calculation, the total number of filed cases amounts to 261,811. This figure surpasses the sacrifices made for our freedom. It's important to note that these numbers are not entirely accurate, as they are projections. Moreover, many victims choose not to report their cases, primarily due to concerns related to their so-called dignity and honour. Quoting some statements from Al Jazeera’s covered story: "I'm alive but not living': Survivors of Bangladesh's rape crisis" where the victim’s statement was:

“My husband won’t sleep with me, my in-laws won’t eat with me, my parents won’t have me around, and nobody in the community will acknowledge me”

“There never is any justice for people like us, why would there be? What are we even worth?”

“At the core of it, it shows me I am not seen as human”

“Now they’re restricting me from going out but they are my real abusers. Not safe to go outside but not safe to stay inside, either. How is this fair for me?”

Susan Brownmiller's book 'Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape' devotes a significant amount of attention to Bangladesh, and specifically to the mass rapes of Bangladeshi women and girls that occurred during the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. Brownmiller argues that the mass rapes in Bangladesh were not simply "collateral damage" of war, but rather a deliberate strategy by the Pakistani military to terrorize and demoralize the Bangladeshi people. She writes:

"The rape of Bangladeshi women was a calculated act of terror; a weapon of war used to intimidate and subdue a population. It was also a form of genocide, designed to destroy the Bangladeshi people."

Brownmiller goes on to argue that the mass rapes in Bangladesh were not an isolated event, but rather part of a larger pattern of violence against women in war zones. She writes:

"Rape is a weapon of male domination that has been used throughout history to terrorize and subdue women. It is a particularly effective weapon in war zones, where women are already vulnerable and where the rule of law has broken down."

Then there's Nilima Ibrahim's 'Ami Birangona Bolchi' and its English tra­nslation, "I Am a War Heroine: Seven True Stories of Rape and Survival". I quote from the book:

"I felt like I had been broken."

"I couldn't sleep. I couldn't eat. I couldn't think."

"I felt like I was dying."

"I was so ashamed. I felt like I was worthless."

"I didn't tell anyone what had happened to me. I was too afraid."

"I thought I was the only one."

"I didn't know how to go on."

Can you identify a single word that is not connected with pain and assault against those brave women? Yet, they felt ashamed, powerless and afraid. And we do not even recognize them as freedom fighters. We call them 'our honour which was snatched away from us'. Even after over 50 years of our victory, we see our approach towards the war rape focused only in the pride. And we also remembered them in a very precise way. We recognized 68 rape victims of the war and awarded them with Ekushey Padak. We did not recognize them as our freedom fighters. Those are man thing, not for women. We recognize them as “Birangana” or war heroines which dehumanized the women war victims. Muktijoddha symbolizes courage and heroism in battle, earning respect. 'Birangana,' however, evokes images of women victimized by rape, often met with sympathy.

If a person was assaulted by some goons with a knife or wounded by a bullet, the person would feel the same emotions they felt. But in rape cases, as they are a different species of human beings, though they were assaulted and it was a crime against their body, we affiliated it with their pride and honour!

We must change our language to accurately address rape for what it is—a crime against a human being, not an affront to women's pride, honour, or modesty. In this crime, if anyone loses dignity, it's the rapist, not the victim. Shifting our linguistic approach won't necessarily reduce the number of victims, but it can initiate a chain where victims feel empowered to come forward and seek justice. Language transcends mere communication; it serves as a potent catalyst for change. Through the deliberate reevaluation and reshaping of our language to confront issues of gender, women's empowerment, and equity, we take a pivotal stride toward fashioning a society where every voice finds resonance, where dignity thrives, and where every individual is accorded the respect and fairness they rightfully deserve. It is high time we harness the transformative might of language to construct a more inclusive and equitable world.

From fire, we sparked our civilization, and with language, we've constructed our world. Let's ignite the flame of truth within us, embracing our shared humanity, striving for equality and justice. By employing accurate language, we can address this crime as it deserves, and together, forge a more just and compassionate society.

* Md. Mohiuddin Abir is a Grants, Compliance, and Strategic Development Professional

He can be reached out through email- [email protected] or via