Bangladesh seems to be a nation of strange contradictions. A country where women constitute around half of its workforce and where two women have continuously ruled over its democratic governments also has one of the highest rates of violence against women. Add to that the centuries-old patriarchal society that has created formidable barriers for women to move forward. It is not just physical restrictions - and there are innumerable - that they must contend with - but psychological brainwashing that pulls women back from speaking their minds and demanding what is rightfully their own. Society, family, practiced religious norms - everything seems to constrict women's freedoms, expecting them to be conforming robots with specific, 'useful' functions. Yet against such impossible odds women of this country have shown again and again their superhuman ability to survive and to play crucial roles in every national movement this country has known. It reveals the inherent urge of women to fight against injustice and oppression of their people, no matter what the consequences.
In February 1952 women, most of them schoolgirls, were the first ones to defy the Section 144 curfew and continue with their movement for their mother tongue. On February 29, Momtaz Begum, a headmistress of a girl's school in Narayanganj, organised one of the largest women's demonstrations in the country to protest the shootings of February 21. She was arrested and taken to jail although the police found it hard to take her away as hundreds of people of her area obstructed them by creating road blocks by cutting trees. She was later labelled 'communist' and jailed for over a year. When she came out of prison she had lost her job and her family - her husband had divorced her and refused to let her see her daughter. She died in her thirties, alone and in hardship, but she had given her countrymen a glimpse of what courage and patriotism could accomplish. She had also shown like many others during this tempestuous period and at other momentous times in history before her, that women had a fire within them, one that is ignited spontaneously and requires no preparation, only the natural instinct to protect, preserve and uphold what is right and true.
Nobody displayed this fiery spirit more than the young woman who earned the appellation of ‘Agni Kanya’ (daughter of fire) for her blazing speeches against the unjust policies of the state. Matia Chowdhury (now Agricultural Minister), then a university student and member of the Bangladesh Chhatra Union (Bangladesh Students’ Union), took part in all the movements leading up to the Liberation War, regularly defying state prohibitions. Even in later years she was always at the forefront of anti-establishment protests, the most significant being the mass upsurge against military dictator Ershad that ironically was the only time that brought archrivals Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina together.
Thus it was the unbridled courage of a few women that helped to create the wave of resistance against injustice among other women, a contagious determination that defied societal disapproval and conventional thinking. Prithilata Waddedar became a legend when she joined Surya Sen and headed an operation that blew up a club that had a sign saying 'Dogs and Indians not allowed', later killing herself by swallowing cyanide when she was caught by the British police. There was Begum Rokeya who proved that even Muslim women had the right to knowledge, think for themselves and play an equal role in nation building. Begum Sufia Kamal showed a similar quiet resistance to a fascist government that based its rule on intimidation and exploitation of a particular race. Jahanara Imam carried on her movement to punish war criminals to seek closure for herself and others like her who had lost loved ones in the Liberation War. These women, became larger than life figures for women especially, inspiring them to follow in their footsteps.
Women's inherent urge to fight for their own people was put to the test in 1971 when the need to save one's motherland became an all encompassing determination, more compelling than protecting one's very life. They took up arms training, fought along their fellow male freedom fighters, often getting maimed for life or killed. Those who could not engage in actual combat, took on other roles: they cared for the wounded, fed them and hid their arms or passed on messages for them, risking their lives.
Karuna Begum was only 19 when she decided to leave her little boy with her in-laws to finish the task that her husband had set to do. She had watched with horror Pakistani soldiers shooting her husband, Shahidul Hasan and three other Muktijoddhas and then throwing their bodies into the river. The brutal murders made Karuna want to join the war immediately and she joined a freedom fighters camp in Nolchira although she disguised herself as a man by cutting her hair short and wearing men's clothes.
After a gruelling training course, Karuna took part in several guerrilla operations in many parts of Barisal. She collected intelligence, learnt how to crawl towards the target, throw a grenade and swiftly move to safety. It was during a particularly risky operation during which she would have to use both her sten gun and two grenades that Karuna was hit and badly wounded. It was when she was injured that her fellow freedom fighters learnt that she was a woman. Despite efforts by her comrades, the injury cost her a leg and later she developed cancer but she continued to fight for her life till her death in 2009.
There were many other women freedom fighters who had to endure worse fates. Halima, Fatema, Rokeya and so many others were captured while in combat and had to suffer what thousands of their sisters suffered - torture and sexual abuse. Many of those who survived were ostracised by their family, by society and left to rot - for fighting for their country: How many names of women freedom fighters do we know? How many have been recognised for their incredible courage, sacrifice and love for their motherland?
Only two women freedom fighters have been given the title of ‘Bir Protik’ for gallantry in the Liberation War - Dr Captain (Rtd) Sitara Begum and Taramon Bibi. Taramon Bibi fought alongside her fellow male freedom fighters in her village home in Kurigram. Initially she had come to the camp to do some cooking and cleaning. But soon her mentor Muhib Habildar saw that this young woman was strong and fearless enough to fight with arms. Taramon took part in several operations under the leadership of Sector Commander Abu Taher, Bir Uttam, never once thinking about the huge risk she was taking. In an interview with the Star she said: "We were fighting to free our country, the last thing on my mind was worrying about my own safety."
For 15-year-old Geeta Kar joining the Mukti Bahini was the most natural thing to do. After her father's brutal death at the hands of the Pak Army, Geeta took guerilla training at a camp along with 200 other women. She wanted to avenge her father's death and free her country from the racist occupiers. Although hell-bent on becoming a fighter, Geeta had to settle for the next best thing -to heal the wounded. Geeta and her fellow trainees were told to assist at a 480-bed hospital in Agartala known as the Bangladesh Hospital. It was where countless women spent endless hours, caring for injured freedom fighters and helping them to get back on their feet so they could go back to war.
‘Narir Kotha’ – a documentary by Tareq and Catherine Masud – reveals an incident in which adivasi women and men, along with Bangalees attacked the Pak Army in a courageous fight in Rangpur. Armed with bows and arrows the adivasis attacked the soldiers in Rangpur cantonment. So it was not just Bangalees who fought for liberation but men and women of other ethnicities as well.
In another moving film 'Tahader Juddho' (Their War) by Afsan Chowdhury, the experiences of poor, uneducated women in 1971 have been documented. Through a series of interviews women describe how they risked their lives and those of their families to secretly deliver food, clothes, blankets etc to the Muktijoddhas, hiding them in their homes from razakars and the Pak army, smuggling arms from one place to the other. But as the film points out, such heroic acts and unconditional patriotism have not been recognised or mentioned in history books. In the film Chowdhury asks the question: “Weren't these women as much Muktijoddhas as the men who fought the Pakistani army with guns?”
After the war ended, women – many of whom who had lost their men – husbands, sons, fathers – had to keep on fighting for the survival of their families and households. “And it's standing on these households that society itself survived in 1971,” says Chowdhury.
Forty-two years later women have risen again to protest injustice. A sweeping look at Shahbag's Projonmo Chottor shows the scores of young women – most of them university or school students, chanting slogans with their men, demanding justice for the martyrs of the Liberation War. It is their way of showing that the powerful love that their predecessors shared – for their country, national identity and for their own right to be equal citizens – will be carried forward and women will continue to be at the forefront of movements for justice, rising to the occasion, with determination and fearlessness, against all odds.
'Karuna Begum: An Extraordinary Freedom Fighter’ by Lt Col Sajjad; The Daily Star Independence Special 2012; the Star magazine; Wikipedia.