Liberating the Women of 1971
After the War of Liberation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman pleaded with his countrymen to "give due honor and dignity to the women oppressed by the Pakistani army"1 -- by which he meant the hundreds of thousands of women who had been raped. Unfortunately, his pleas went largely unheeded, and countless women were driven from their homes and marginalised by society. Nevertheless, the unprecedented, nationwide programme that women leaders and Sheikh Mujib's government organised to aid war-affected women did effectively assist thousands of women and created new public space for women to work and live independently.
Budrunnessa Ahmad, who became Bangladesh's first Minister of Education, spent much of the war working in the refugee camps around Calcutta, attempting to assist the devastated Bangladeshi women who were arriving -- many had been raped and hideously wounded; a significant number were pregnant. Inside Bangladesh, leaders of the East Pakistan Girl Guides Association had even been inside the Dhaka cantonment, where the Pakistani army was holding women, but were helpless to aid them. However, immediately after the end of the War of Liberation, Ahmad and poet Sufia Kamal, quickly mobilised a group of women to rescue the survivors.- 2
Maleka Khan, then Secretary of the Girl Guide Association, made her first trip into the cantonment, to the MP Hostel in Nakhalpara, on December 20 or 21 and brought out several women who had been held there. In the following days, she made repeated trips and recalls that neither she, nor the totally distraught, half-dressed women, whose hair had been chopped short, were able to speak a word as she gently wrapped them in blankets, loaded them into the jeep and took them to a safe house.- 3
The Central Organization for Women's Rehabilitation (Kendrio Mohila Punorbashon Songstha) was then formally inaugurated on January 7, 1972. Sufia Kamal was the chairperson; Taslima Abed, a member of parliament, was the treasurer. Shahera Ahmed from the Social Welfare Ministry was the secretary; Hajera Khatun was the matron of the home for rescued women.- 4
The group met with the Minister for Home Affairs, and Relief and Rehabilitation, A.H.M. Kamaruzzaman, who offered extensive financial support and the use of two houses, Eskaton Road 20, which was used as the training centre and school, and Eskaton 88, which served as the home. The rescue operation -- a race against time, before the women committed suicide or were trafficked to brothels in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan or the Middle East -- continued for months as people from all quarters brought news of women needing assistance; branch offices were opened in all the districts with the assistance of local women political leaders; many women came forward to offer comfort and support. 5
When word got out that a group of women in the cantonment had decided to leave the country with their Pakistani captors, Nilima Ibrahim, professor of Bangla at Dhaka University, along with fellow Dhaka University professor Naushaba Sharafi and Sharifa Khatun from the Education Ministry, went to investigate; Ibrahim's and Sharafi's daughters served as drivers. The group made repeated forays into the cantonment and did manage to persuade some 50 or 60 women to come out; 30 or 40 women, however, refused to face what awaited them in Bangladesh. As one explained to Ibrahim: in a distant country, "whether I work as a prostitute or sweep roads, people will not recognize me, my husband or child will not ridicule me."- 6
Bangladeshi Government offers unparalleled aid to war-affected women
As the scope of the problem became ever more apparent and relief funds poured in from the largest UN-led relief operation ever organised up to then, the new government of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, urged on by Ministers Budrunnessa Ahmad and Nurjahan Murshed,- 7 set up a government structure to address not only the plight of raped women, but also that of the numerous women left destitute without family support -- in a society where independent women were practically unknown.
The Bangladesh Women's Rehabilitation Board (subsequently to become the Women's Rehabilitation and Welfare Foundation) was formed on February 18, 1972 as a semi-autonomous organisation affiliated with the Ministry of Social Welfare. The 13-member governing board was headed by Justice K.M. Sobhan, a sitting Supreme Court judge, and consisted of prominent women political leaders and war widows.- 8 Syed Jahangeer Haider was transferred from the Ministry of Health as the Administrative Director and Sheikh Mujib recruited Mushfequa Mahmud, a war widow with extensive social work experience, to serve as the Director of Finance.- 9 The Central Organization for Women's Rehabilitation placed its district structure at the disposal of the Women's Rehabilitation Board, but maintained the two houses in Eskaton Road as a separate organisation.
The most immediate concern of the Women's Rehabilitation Board was to assist the many women who were pregnant or suffering from venereal diseases or injuries as a result of their treatment at the hands of the Pakistani army or other men. The country's abortion law was waived from January to October for women who had been raped during the war.- 10 Although most women sought abortions or treatment at local clinics throughout the country, the board also set up a special clinic in Dhanmondi for a team of international physicians sponsored by the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), who arrived within days.
The IPPF team worked in Dhaka, but also flew by helicopter to some of the districts to treat patients and train local doctors.- 11 Although the team included late-term abortion specialists, the board actively discouraged the practice. Ruby Ghuznavi, a volunteer with the Women's Rehabilitation Board, spent weeks talking to women in advanced stages of pregnancy and their families, explaining the risks of a late-term abortion and encouraging the women to go to term and then give up the baby for adoption instead -- most women never even considered keeping the child, because their families were so adamantly opposed.- 12 Mother Teresa, who had visited some of the rape camps in December 1971, also made an appeal urging women not to have an abortion, but to come to the home that her order, the Missionaries of Charity, set up in Islampur Road in late January 1972.- 13
The Bangladesh Abandoned Children (Special Provision) Order of 1972 for the first time made legalised adoption of children who were "deserted or unclaimed or born out of wedlock" possible, both inside Bangladesh and internationally, irrespective of religion. Mother Teresa's organisation arranged the 300 or so adoptions which the Women's Rehabilitation Board handled, mostly to families in Canada, but also to other countries. No Bangladeshi families stepped up to adopt the children, although in a few cases arrangements were made to quietly care for children. The law was repealed in 1982, when allegations of child trafficking emerged.- 14
A social revolution
In a November 1972 report on the Women's Rehabilitation Board, entitled "Women's Rehabilitation Towards Emancipation", Jahangeer Haider made it very clear that nothing short of a social revolution would allow the hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshi women who had been raped and/or left without male protection or property -- and their children -- to survive in the coming years. In his words, these women had to "work and earn".- 15 The Women's Rehabilitation Board therefore opened the Women's Career Training Institute -- the first professional vocational training institution for women in Bangladesh -- in Bailey Road under the direction of Taherunnessa Abdullah, who had previously been the coordinator of women's training at the Bangladesh Academy for Rural Development in Comilla.
The Women's Career Training Institute has three components: a six-month secretarial course taught eligible women typing, shorthand, office management, and filing, as well as the English language and public presentation skills they needed to obtain work as secretaries. All the women who successfully completed the course were placed in businesses, embassies, airlines, the ICDDR'B cholera hospital, etc., as interns and most continued to work successfully in this field where previously only a very few Anglo-Indian women had worked. One graduate went on to work for Biman in London.
The second component taught women to use Singer hand-operated sewing machines, take measurements and make patterns. Graduates were given their own machine and left the programme with start-up capital. Some opened their own businesses; some found work in tailoring shops. The third component involved training in the area of jute and cane works; many of these women also started their own shops.- 16
The Women's Rehabilitation Board set up a residential poultry farm in Savar, run by war-affected women, and also housed women and offered training programmes in handicrafts and tailoring at its Mohammadhur Proceeding House -- a structure that it replicated in all the districts. In addition, the Central Organization for Women's Rehabilitation in Eskaton Road, with Maleka Khan as its Executive Director as of February 1973, offered training programmes that included handicrafts, sewing machine operation and cooking.- 17
At the same time, other groups worked to create marketing outlets for the products of the many women who were skilled in traditional Bangladesh handicrafts and now needed to sell their work to support their families. CORR-The Jute Works was created in 1973 by CARITAS/Bangladesh to market jute products (and is today one of Bangladesh's largest exporters of handicrafts). Karika -- the Bangladesh Handicrafts Cooperative Federation -- was set up by Hameeda Hossain, Ruby Ghuznavi and Perveen Ahmad.
"Tumi hobe ambassador"(You will be an ambassador)
Thousands upon thousands of women suddenly needed work. The training institutes knocked on doors all over the country; political and civil society leaders used every connection they had to find jobs. Hundreds of war-affected women found work with the Women's Rehabilitation Foundation itself (and were subsequently taken over by the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs when it incorporated the organisation). Minister of Education Budrunnessa Ahmad placed qualified women as teachers in schools across the country.- 18
Sheikh Mujib himself met with numerous women looking for work and on one notable occasion, he agreed to a particularly audacious request by Mahmuda Haque Choudhury, a war widow with a Master's degree in political science, who asked to be posted to the Foreign Office. As Sheikh Mujib pointed out to Choudhury, there were no women in the Foreign Office; however, upon reflecting that things in Bangladesh did not have to continue the way they had been in Pakistan, he issued an order transferring her to the Foreign Office and also signed another order specifying that 10% of all civil service jobs were to be filled by women. "You will be an ambassador," he told her. And in fact, she did eventually rise through the ranks to become the ambassador to Bhutan in 1996.- 19
Although many women found work in 1972 and 1973, a large number with limited qualifications and skills were impossible to place. Sheikh Mujib thus issued an appeal for young men to come forward to marry "distressed" young women and Justice Sobhan announced that he was setting up a marriage bureau to negotiate with any young men willing to marry the "dishonoured" women.- 20 The Central Organization for Women's Rehabilitation arranged the wedding of around 10 women and Begum Fazilatunnesa Mujib, who worked tirelessly for distressed women after the war and asked them to consider her their mother, outfitted them with the household goods they needed.- 21
However, as Susan Brownmiller famously reported in her book, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, the "marry them off campaign" was doomed from the beginning. The few bridegrooms who did step forward made outrageous demands, from the latest model of Japanese car, painted red, to the publication of unpublished poems. Some took the money and then disappeared.- 22
The negative publicity from Brownmiller's book was perhaps one of the reasons that the rehabilitation programme was never recognised for its considerable achievements. The other reason, of course, was the political maelstrom that swept over Bangladesh in 1975. After the assassination of Sheikh Mujib, the rehabilitation programme was effectively closed, the records were seized and all the Dhaka and district centres were turned over to the Women's Directorate.
Little trace remains of the rehabilitation programme except in Sirajganj, where a small non-governmental organisation, the Sirajganj Uttaran Mohila Sangstha (SUMS), continues to support and advocate for women who were raped during the War of Liberation. In 1972, Shafina Lohani, the newly appointed secretary general of the Women's Rehabilitation Center in Sirajganj, and others scoured the outlying villages and forests in search of women in distress. They found some 50 or 60 and brought them to the centre for care. Thirty-six of the women remained in residence there until 1975, when the new government literally turned them out onto the street.
Lohani herself faced political harassment, but afterwards went in search of the women, who had again scattered. She was able to locate 30 of them and then founded SUMS in 1978, which she continues to head up today. Twenty-one of the original group are still alive today in Sirajganj and are increasingly making courageous public appearances to remind their fellow country men and women, as Sheikh Mujib told them personally during a visit to Sirajganj in 1973, that the nation owes them, and many other women like them, a debt of honour and respect.- 23
1 Bangladesh Observer, February 28, 1972, p. 1.
2 Nasreen Ahmad, interview by the author, August 12, 2010; Germaine Greer, "Raped Women in Refugee Camps," Sunday Times, April 9, 1972; Maleka Khan, interview by Kurratul Ain Tahmina, November 27, 1997, ASK Historical Project, Bangla version published in ASK Bulletin, December 2009, translated by Jackie Kabir, 2010.
3 Maleka Khan, interviews by the author, August 16, 2009 and November 3, 2009.
4 Sultana Kamal, interview by the author, June 10, 2010; Bangladesh Observer, January 18, 1972, p. 7. Maleka Khan, November 3, 2009 and November 27, 1997.
5 Bangladesh Observer, January 18, 1972, p. 7; Bangladesh Observer, February 11, 1972, p. 7; Maleka Khan, June 10, 2010; Nilima Ibrahim, interview by Suraiya Begum, January 9-10, 1997, ASK Historical Project, Bangla version published in ASK Bulletin, September 2009, translated by Jackie Kabir and Dr. Susmita Hossain Natasha, 2010; Dr. M.A. Hasan, interview by the author, January 20, 2011.
6 Naushaba Sharafi, interview by the author, June 13, 2010; Riti Ibrahim, interview by the author, August 4, 2010; Nilima Ibrahim, Ami Birgangana Balchi, Part I, Dhaka: Jagriti Prashani,1994, p. 42, translated and cited in Santi Rozario, "'Disasters' and Bangladeshi Women," in Gender and Catastrophe, edited by Ronit Lentin, London: Zed Books, 1998, p. 265.
7 Hameeda Hossain, "The Struggle Within," The Daily Star, February 5, 2006.
8 The board members were: Justice K.M. Sobhan, Budrunnessa Ahmad, Nurjahan Murshed, Sajeda Chowdhury, Momtaz Begum, Rafia Akhtar Dolly, Nilima Ibrahim, Sufia Kamal, Jahanara Rabbi, Lily Chowdhury, Basanti Guhathakurta, Mushfequa Mahmud and Abdul Awal (executive director), Bangaldesh Observer, "High Powered Body to Rehabilitate Women Victims," February 24, 1972, p.1.
9 Zeba Mahmud, interview by the author, August 4, 2010.
10 Nayanika Mookherjee, "Available motherhood: Legal technologies, 'state of exception' and the dekinning of 'war babies' in Bangladesh." Special Issue, The state and children's fate: reproduction in traumatic times. Childhood: a journal of global child research 14), August 2007, p. 349.
11 Bangladesh Observer, March 4, 1972, p. 8.
12 Ruby Ghuznavi, interview by the author, November 3, 2009; Maleka Khan, August 16, 2009.
13 Bangladesh Observer, January 26, 1972, p. 2 and February 9, 1972, p. 9.
14 Jahangeer Haider, interview by the author, November 10, 2009; Shahnaz Huda, A Child of One's Own, Bangladesh Shishu Adhikar Forum, 2008, p. 77; Bina D'Costa, "Bangladesh's Erased Past;" One World South Asia, 30 December 2008, http://southasia.oneworld.net/opinioncomment/bangladeshs-erased-past (accessed 5 February 2011).
15 S. Jahangeer Haider, "Women's Rehabilitation Towards Emancipation: Practice, Prospects and Problems for Family Planning," in Proceedings of the Seminar of Family Planning, November 21-25, 1972, Bangladesh Government Press, p. 536.
16 Taherunnessa Abdullah, interview by the author, June 19, 2010.
17 Shirin Haider, interview by the author, August 4, 2010; Shafina Lohani, interview by the author, January 16, 2011; Maleka Khan, November 3, 2008 and June 13, 2010.
18 Nasreen Ahmad, August 12, 2010.
19 Nasreen Ahmad, August 12, 2010; Mahmuda Haque Choudhury, interview by the author, January 19, 2011.
20 Bangladesh Observer, February 28, 1972, p. 6 and March 4, 1972, p. 8.
21 Nilima Ibrahim, January 9-10, 1997; Maleka Khan, June 13, 2010; Bangladesh Observer, February 28, 1972, p. 1.
22 Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1975, p . 82; Nilima Ibrahim, January 9-10, 1997.
23 Shafina Lohani, January 16, 2011.
Dr. Marianne Scholte is a freelance journalist who writes on issues of social and economic development.
This article, previously published in March 2011, is part of a larger project on the history of women in Bangladesh, largely based on the recollections of those involved. The author would therefore be very grateful for any corrections or additions. Please contact her at: womeninbangladesh @mscholte.de.