Women in conflict
Patriarchal state and Jumma women’s agencyby Amena Mohsin
WAR, conflict and peace are states which cannot be abruptly demarcated. War creates its own vestiges and the creation of a war economy is one of them; it helps to sustain conflicts since certain powerful vested interest groups are created by it. More than two decades of insurgency, which followed Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s assassination on August 15, 1975 and continued till the signing of the peace accord on December 2, 1997, has led to the creation of a vested interest group in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
The region has allegedly become a conduit point for small arms and drugs. Jummas (hill people) allege that Bengali security personnel along with civil officials were involved in the extraction of forest resources. The military officials however, deny the involvement of the military in such activities, but concede that a certain degree of pilferage of resources might have taken place.1
Following the accord, the security situation in the region has been further complicated due to the emergence of unidentified armed groups, which collect tolls from vehicles plying the roads; this has increased in recent years. Hill people allege that rebel groups from Myanmar have joined forces with already existing groups in Bandarban, providing them with guns in exchange for shelter. Whereas hill people formerly paid toll only to the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti, generally regarded as being justified since they were fighting for Jumma rights, now there are several groups (including PCJSS, United People’s Democratic Front) which collect toll under different pretexts; this is regarded as being unacceptable by many, in a post-accord situation.
Two decades of armed violence and continued instability in the region have turned the CHT into a violence-prone society, a safe haven for trafficking arms and drugs, particularly given the region’s close proximity to Myanmar, which has disastrous effects on younger people. Hill people argue that their children have grown up witnessing violence, which has resulted in the erosion of many of their traditional values. Erosion itself, they say, is a form of violence because society has lost its harmony and traditional balance.
Prior to the signing of the accord, violence was considered to be justified as it was expected to bring about social justice, political equity, in other words rights, for which they were fighting. But continued protracted violence in the post-accord situation, frustrates many, as they find it unacceptable.
Many PCJSS men have not been rehabilitated, this, coupled with the lack of employment opportunities, has created an acute sense of frustration. The UPDF members, too, are discontented with the accord, which they look upon as a compromise formula. The political situation in the CHT is thus quite complex and one is yet to see stability coming back to the region. The Awami League, which was in power when the accord was signed (1997), has formed a new committee for accord implementation and has started the withdrawal of temporary military camps from the region as stipulated in the accord. This has created much controversy within political and civil society circles in Bangladesh, as is only to be expected. Bengali settlers in the CHT, too, have protested against the move, since they look upon the military as their saviour. It is indeed a major failure on the part of the state, for it has failed to provide a solution to the Bengali settler’s issue who were used as human shields as part of a counterinsurgency strategy; political parties now look upon settlers as vote banks.
The hill people also allege that the opening up of the Hills for tourism, post-accord, has opened the hills to vices associated with a tourist culture: prostitution (allegedly in Rangamati, a popular tourist resort), heroine and HIV/AIDS. They accuse the state of abetting in these activities, alleging that the trafficking of arms and drugs cannot go unnoticed by the army because it is stationed there.
The gendered dimensions of the conflict are evident from the above. The circumstances leading to the insurgency and the post-accord scenario point to the dominance of factors associated with masculinity. It was most blatant in the nationalist agenda of the state, both of which are gendered categories. The conflict and its impact too have gendered dimensions. While in no way depreciating the sufferings of men, I argue that women suffer more and differently during conflict situations. They suffer due to their ‘otherness’, in both ethnic and sexual terms.
When war begins, women are left behind to protect homes and children because men either flee for fear of being taken away, or to join the war. Women are thus left to face the enemy, yet in the dominant war and security discourse men are looked upon as the ‘protector’, women as the ‘protected’. In response to those who insist that wars are fought on the battlefield, between men in uniform, and hence women (i.e. civilians) who constitute the majority do not face the brunt of war, feminists have repeatedly pointed out that in recent wars, and in particular, in insurgencies, the dichotomy between battlefields and civilian fields does not hold. Wars are no longer military wars; civilians were half the casualties in the Second World War, whereas in recent wars, the number has shot up to ninety per cent. Since men are mostly mobilised, the vast majority of civilians are overwhelmingly women and children.2
As homemakers, wives, mothers, sisters, lovers, daughters and above all, as women, they suffer in various ways. This suffering is commonly characterised as victimisation; it constructs women as objects who are bereft of any agency (free will). My research amply demonstrated the inextricable link between victimisation and agency; each instance of victimisation, of the rupture of social norms, was paralleled by strategising how to cope with adversity. Interviews and case studies from secondary sources also reveal that notions of empowerment and the public-private divide need to be placed within their specific cultural and socio-economic contexts, that they cannot be universalised because both violence and victimisation took different forms.
‘I hated my mother she used to force me to talk to the military officials who visited our house frequently. I was very young and quite beautiful. The military personnel loved to talk to me, my mother knew what their intentions were, yet she would force me to go and talk with them. The military had taken away my father; my mother hoped that if I befriended the military they would release my father.’ This is how Kabita Chakma, former President of the Hill Women’s Federation, narrated to me her childhood experience.3 But Kabita no longer blames her mother; their home, siblings, and her father who was then captive, were understandably her mother’s priority, a moment when notions of privacy and social norms had been ruptured.
Narratives such as these help us to shift our focus to the patriarchal modern state, for it is the latter which imposes these moral values upon people and then becomes its main violator. This, in turn, leads us to turn our attention to, and helps question the notion of the state as a guarantor of citizen’s rights and also, the issue of citizenship. Conflict, insurgencies, violence as stated above is the creation of state policies. The attempt to change people’s lives through state power in the name of law and national interest takes people’s lives away from them.
Resistance take varied forms. In the above instance, Kabita’s mother, a homemaker, had tried to salvage the family by appeasing the military, because they had identified their locality as a safe haven for the Shanti Bahini, had therefore ordered that all houses be dismantled. They had spent many a night in the deep forest, until much later, when they moved to another para (locality), and managed to put together a house. Her mother took a job as a schoolteacher, and continued to be the bread-earner even after her husband was released, as he suffered from insanity; memories of army atrocities haunted him. The family suffered severe economic hardship, but Kabita and her family members told me how these experiences had increased their confidence, their sufferings were for a larger cause. Kabita became a political activist, a staunch supporter of the hill people’s cause. Today she is a freelance researcher, and writer. She keeps requesting me to take her to the military officer who had tortured her father. The military officer is personally known to me and has formed a new political party. He is regarded as a security analyst by the state and is frequently seen in the electronic media. I wonder how the hill people view the state when they view him in the television screen lecturing on security especially on CHT issues. I leave it upon the reader to judge the neutrality of the state and its claim to equal citizenship rights of all its citizens.
Ilira Dewan in her writing Keno Andolone Elam (Why I Joined the Movement)4 narrates her childhood. It is one of fear, fleeing and hiding for safety. Very movingly she speaks of how the words, the ‘army is coming’ would mean that they would have to run, with whatever valuables they could carry, deep into the forest. As a child, she witnessed her father being tortured. She could only utter the words ‘death, death’, out of hatred for the military. Her uncle, too, was taken away and tortured. She witnessed their festivals being marred by the military and Bengali settlers; they would set fire to their dwellings with the active help of the military. The entire locality had fled and taken refuge in India. That the utterance of a single word, ‘army’, can, within minutes, turn a habitation into a deserted place, made Ilira realise the ruthlessness of state construction, its many exclusions and oppressions. Resistance for Ilira has involved being part of the hill people’s movement for autonomy.
Rape is used as a wartime strategy to oppress and identify the ‘other’, the enemy. In 1990, 1 in every 10 Jumma women who were living in refugee camps in India had been a victim of rape in the CHT. Over 94 per cent of the alleged cases of rape between 1991 and 1993 were by ‘security forces’. Of these over 40 per cent were under 18 years of age.5 However, violence against women has not stopped following the accord. An unpublished report by the CHT commission on the human rights situation in the CHT in 2010, based on field and newspaper reports, shows that threats to personal life and liberty ranks the highest among different categories of human rights violation in the CHT (42%). The second is violence against women and children in the CHT (20%). Land rights related violation is the third (19%). It needs to be stressed that violations against women more often than not go unreported.
During the conflict situation, one observes agency taking over victim-hood. The formation of the Hill Women’s Federation (1988) by both female and male hill students of Chittagong University provides one such instance. Its objective was to work with the Pahari Chhatra Parishad and Pahari Gono Parishad for Jumma self-determination. It took up women’s issues as one of its main causes, it declared solidarity with March 8, International Women’s Day, and began working to sensitise Jumma women about their rights, to create awareness about the Jumma movement for self-determination. In other words, it had a broad political agenda and aspired to locate itself at the local, national and international levels. The federation brought up the issue of the rape of Jumma women, since courts were not attending to these cases. In 1994, when a girl student of Class V was sexually assaulted, the federation brought out a procession for the first time in Khagrachari protesting against the assault and demanding justice; it presented a charter of demands to the district commissioner. The government was forced to form an inquiry committee, but although it never saw the light of day, it is obvious that the organisation was making its mark as a political agent of change in the CHT. While the Shanti Bahini was carrying on an armed battle from its bases in India, members of the federation were challenging the army, the core of state power in the CHT from within the region itself. The members often went into hiding or operated from outside the CHT, either from the capital Dhaka, or from Chittagong.
Apart from the federation, the PCJSS, too, had its women’s wing during the insurgency. The task of Mohila Samitis (women’s committees) was to motivate hill women at the community level. Although it has often been reported that the Shanti Bahini had a women’s armed wing, my research revealed that only a few women, that too, wives of the militants, accompanied their husbands and worked as members of the Mohila Samiti; whether a woman’s militant combat group had truly existed requires further research.
However, the point that I wish to stress is, since armed battle is only part of an ongoing movement, and people participate in different ways, one needs to investigate the manner in which a militant situation militarises people’s minds and society at large. Once this happens, even if a peace accord is signed, one needs to seriously interrogate if peace accords can bring about sustainable peace; and if peace accords carry with them the notion of equitable justice.
It has not happened in the case of the CHT. Critical questions such as Bengali settlements, the land issue (displacement and pauperisation of Jummas, settlement of Bengalis as a process of colonisation) has remained largely unaddressed and the women question has not been addressed at all. I had raised the latter issue with one of the chief architects of the accord. He replied, ‘I was drafting a peace accord not doing gender.’6 The paradox of the situation is that although the state of Bangladesh does not acknowledge that rape has been committed by its security forces, it demands an apology from the Pakistan state for the same crime committed by its military personnel upon Bengali women during the liberation war of Bangladesh in 1971.
Nationalism, nation and state indeed have its limits, as hegemonic forces they marginalise communities as well women. For women, therefore, the notion of conflict is much more complex than mere armed hostilities. It is intertwined with state and nation formation and the hegemonic notion of masculinity.
Amena Mohsin is professor of international relations at Dhaka University.
Notes and references:
1. Author’s interview with Brigadier (retd.) Shahed Anam, on 28.3.2003. The latter had served in the CHT as commanding officer.
2. Cynthia Cockburn, The Gendered Dynamics of Armed Conflict and Political Violence, in Caroline O.N. Moser & Fiona C. Clark (eds.) Victims, Perpetrators or Actors? Gender, Armed Conflict and Political Violence, Zed Books Ltd. 2001, p 21.
3. Personal interview with the author on 18.2.2010 in Dhaka.
4. Hill Women’s Federation, Paharer Ruddho Kontho: Pahari Narider Nipiron O Protirodh (The Silenced Voices: Oppression and Resistance of Hill Women), Hill Women’s Federation, 1999.
5. Meghna Guhathakurta, “Where is Kalpana Chakma? A four-year-old question with no answer”, in Kalpana Chakmar Diary, Hill Women’s Federation, 2001, p 247.
6. Author’s personal conversation with a top leader of the present regime, the Awami League, in August 2009. His name cannot be disclosed for political reasons.
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