When the Myanmar military brutally cracked down on Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine rape, sexual assault and abuse against Rohingya women was common. Deeplina Banerjee (Amity School of Law, Raipur) explains how when women’s bodies are hyper-sexualised to the point that their ethnicity are intertwined, gendered violence becomes about the honour of the community and the nation.

Photo: A Rohingya women in a refugee camp in Bangladesh | Credit: UN women, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Ethnic conflict has been a pervasive reality in many post-colonial states across South Asia. In August 2017, when the Myanmar military brutally cracked down on Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine, more than 600,000 fled the violence, violence in the words of the UN that amounted to “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. Gender Based Violence (GBV), more specifically sexual violence, is a growing cause of concern in global politics, and a fact of life for many Rohingya women who fled to Bangladesh during this time.

It is widely acknowledged by scholars that rape is used as a weapon of war during civil unrest and ethnic conflicts. However, it is important when analysing this period of violence to understand the point of intersectionality between genocidal violence and ethnic cleansing. If we do this we can develop more informed ideas regarding how regressive nationalism is used alongside violence to annihilate certain ethnic minority groups.

The blueprint of this case of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya in 2017 was designed categorically to instil fear and terror in the minds of the people. The army and the security forces carried out strategic gender-based violence including different variations and forms of sexual violence on women along with burning down houses and murdering civilians.

Strategic use of violence                                            

The pattern of violence, apart from being very systematic, was also very strategic: men were killed, arbitrarily arrested or deported, whereas women were raped and tortured to death; military troops worked to completely isolate women from men in August 2017. One possible explanation for this is to trigger a sense of insecurity mixed with terror in the minds of the men about their wives, sisters and daughters. The military employed these tactics on such a large scale because female bodies are used as weapons of offence and as weapons of violence. The systematic and organised rape and sexual violence on women bear testimony to the strategic use of female bodies during the ongoing genocide in the Rakhine state of Myanmar. The survivors’ narratives, points to a common thread as to how the similar pattern of beating, torturing and raping, and at times murdering women and young girls, was used by the military to make them appear as a frightful force.

The Body as an anatomical replica of the nation and the community

It is during these times of spectacular unrest that the Body is constructed as the anatomical replica of the nation and the community, whose honour rests on the pudendum. The communal construction of the Body as a site for GBV has been naturalised by the continual cultural objectification of women. The Body is a cultural construct that determines its performatory features. It is this deep-rooted cultural construction that leads to the Body being sexually objectified. Society and culture trains its members to think in a way that normalises women to be objectified sexually, physically for their gender roles, for how they are constructed and for what they become.

Cultural objectification, which is systematically reinforced by gender-prototypes, lies at the heart of sexual assault, rape and more broadly GBV. It should not be narrowed down to a stereotype of archetypal sexual violence; it should also be viewed as an extreme form of socio-cultural violence taking cultural objectification as the base for the onslaught of such brutalities. In these circumstances, a woman is only made visible only through her Body parts. This helps to reiterate the argument that objectification strips the Body of its uniqueness and individuality.

Rohingya Womanhood

Womanhood is a product of ‘masculine culture’, hence it becomes much more convenient to rape a Rohingya woman because her womanhood is dictated by her identity as an ethnic minority. The female Body is constructed on sexually explicit grounds that make it appear as a priceless object of possession that should retain its puritan nature. The feminine features contrary to the masculine counterparts bear more sexual connotations and language. The ideas of beauty and femininity are what ‘masculine culture’ dictates it to be, to make it a fit for enjoyment through the male gaze or for a man’s touch. This touch becomes more violent and is naturalized in a conflict-setting where it becomes rather imperative to abuse, assault and violates the Body, as it holds the honour of the community at the centre of its being. A violated pudendum reflects the community’s tarnished honour. Hence it is easier to attack and violate women of a community to inject a sense of shame and devastation into the system.

It is curious to note how the ‘ownership’ of the body is granted certain fluidity by the culture and the community’s norms to fit its greater purpose. The community places the honour in women who in turn are expected to preserve and uphold it, failing which the Body is thus pushed to be at the behest of the women who are subjected to shame and guilt for not being able to preserve the sanctity. The Body which was previously denied of any personal autonomy and was perhaps invisible in the social system is now disowned and the women are allowed to hold ownership of their bodies. In the aftermath of the violence, the Body ceases to be at the altar of the community and becomes the constant reminder of shame, hysteria and paranoia to the woman facing such assault.

The community in Rakhine imposes its honour on women who became naturalised and conditioned carriers. Therefore if honour is violated through a forceful penetration and assault it becomes essential to view the Body as a weapon used two-fold to terrorise a community and to strip the woman of her dignity of life. By considering the Body as a means of orchestrating violence, that is used against women it becomes clear that women are raped and violated in a conflict setting because their bodies are hyper-sexualised to the point that their ethnicities get complicatedly intertwined. It is these ‘ethnic-sexed’ bodies that are used to violate the community on one hand and to torture the woman on the other.

Victims of sexual violence are treated in two ways: either with social stigmas which in most cases are more prevalent, or with sympathy that applies a coat of pity as if the women had a choice or were allowed to make one. The women who face such abuse are forced to live in a conjured paradox: on one hand they are stigmatized, shamed for the violated genitals and tarnished honour, and on the other hand they are forced to take up non-traditional roles to meet the family needs. The concept of ‘survivor and victim’ remains thoroughly ambiguous in these social realities. Women are victimised as collateral damage in men’s war and yet they survive with serious mental health issues and live with the memories of a violent past. The women need to be viewed as survivors and deserve adequate support so that they can move towards re-building their lives. The shock waves that comes with sexual violence needs to be dealt by professional medical personnel and there needs to be a more humane and sensitive effort towards reintegrating them as individual members of the community and not as the carrier of an invisible cloak of honour.

Rohingya women who have fled Myanmar needs to be reassured that they are not responsible for the loss of their ‘honour’. The very concept of ‘honour’ needs to be divorced from the idea of the female body to view it as an agent and not as a commodity. Women can only be seen as survivors, if the community in which they exist collectively takes responsibility for acknowledging that women are used as collateral damage in conflictand that any‘honour’ is not destroyed inside a violated body, but in the violation of the dignity of the life of women.

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the South Asia @ LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting.

Deeplina Banerjee is an Assistant Professor in the Amity School of Law in Amity University Chattisgarh, Raipur, India. She holds an MPhil degree in International Relations and her work primarily focuses in Body, Sexuality and Violence. She also holds keen interest in Peace and Security Studies, Human Security and Gender and Sexuality Studies

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