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    Volume 9 Issue 13| March 26, 2010|

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The Invisible Heroines

Kajalie Shehreen Islam

Last week, a local television channel aired a drama called 'Amirjaan Bibir Sangbardhana'. It was about a freedom fighter and Birangona or 'war heroine', Amirjaan, who begs in order to survive. One day, while asking for alms, she was discovered by a journalist who, after corroborating her story, published it in the local newspaper. The story was widely acclaimed and the journalist even organised a programme in the city to honour Amirjaan. Many people attended, and renowned people presented Amirjaan with a crest and garlands of flowers. She was even invited to tell some of her story -- of joining the war, of being violated by the Pakistan army, of her life after the war where she was scorned and literally spat upon, where she was unable to marry or have a family of her own, of her life of begging on the streets in order to survive. It was obvious that it made some of the audience members uncomfortable. After the programme, as Amirjaan was going back to her village, she saw a procession of local villagers with placards and flower garlands chanting slogans hailing her. They were passing her by, and when she got caught up in the crowd and fell and was trampled upon, the procession just moved ahead, without anyone helping her up. They did not know who she was. The drama ended with Amirjaan Bibi picking herself up and moving on.


Throughout history, war has been gendered, having different implications and consequences for women and men, from the nature of injuries and deaths on and off the battlefield, to the aftermath of the war differing based on their sex. Rape, for example, has commonly been used as a weapon of war, where women, who are considered to be carriers of culture and their bodies as symbols of the nation to be defended by men, are especially vulnerable. Rape has been used as a means of humiliating the enemy and breaking their spirit. It has also been employed as a tool of genetic imperialism and ethnic cleansing by impregnating women to bear the enemy's children, and has been a mechanism of genocide, as in the cases of Bangladesh, Rwanda, Yugoslavia and, more recently, Sudan.

In the nine months of Bangladesh's war of independence, between 200,000 and 430,000 women are said to have been raped by members of the Pakistan army as well as local collaborators. Women from the ages of seven to 75 were raped, gang-raped and either killed, or taken away by the military and made to become sex slaves of the officers and soldiers for the duration of the war. Even as the Pakistani forces surrendered in December 1971, some reportedly claimed that they were leaving their 'seed' behind in the women they had impregnated through the mass rape.

Almost immediately after victory was gained, on December 22, 1971, to be precise, the government of the newly independent state of Bangladesh awarded the women who had been raped during the war with the title of 'Birangona', meaning 'war heroine'. Rehabilitation centres were set up to provide medical aid to the women including treatment for diseases and abortion of unwanted pregnancies, and, following that, socio-economic support. Under the latter schemes, the women were provided with training, which would enable them to make a living on their own. In addition, a marry-off campaign was lodged which encouraged Bangladeshi men to come forward and marry the rape victims. Measures were also taken to send abroad many of the war babies -- those born as a result of wartime rape -- for adoption by foreign families.

These measures, and the Birangona label overall, were presumably taken to honour the dishonoured women and aid them in regaining acceptance in a rather conservative society where a woman's worth lay in her virtue and chastity. However, this purpose seems to have been somewhat defeated, as the label only served to identify within and isolate from society the women in question. Many women did not even associate themselves with the title for fear of being stigmatised; those who did, while earning the sympathy of some members of society, had to suffer the disdain of most others. Many of the women were not accepted even by their own families, which included parents in the case of unmarried women and husbands and in-laws in the case of married women. Nilima Ibrahim in her book Ami Birangona Bolchhi writes about how some people even distorted the word 'birangona' and pronounced it as 'barangona', meaning prostitute in Bangla. The women were not given state honour or social respect and for the most part, could not live with their heads held high.

Women actively participated in the Liberation War. Photo: Rashid Talukder/drik/majority World

Ibrahim relates the story of a birangona, Tara, who talks about the unbearable cruelty she suffered at the hands of the Pakistani army. After the war, Tara, while claiming that the birangona title gave her strength, had to migrate abroad as she could not start life anew in the homeland for which she had so bravely endured the sacrifice of her honour. Birangona Maina relates how, on returning home after the war, her mother told her that she should have died and never come back. Birangona Shefa tells the story of how she had to serve a different man or men every night in the Pakistani army camps, about being left naked without food or water, being moved from camp to camp every few weeks. She also points out that the local collaborator who had handed her over to the Pakistani military now claims to be a freedom fighter and is serving as a judge. Another birangona is unable to get a job as a schoolteacher after the war because she is seen as a 'bad' woman. Birangona Meherjan, not wanting to go back to her family and burden them with the social stigma, ended up marrying the Pakistani soldier who had raped and impregnated her. Ibrahim narrates the stories of several such birangona who, upon being rescued and freed after the war, would not reveal their father's names or who they were or where they had come from. Others who did contact their families were not taken back by them and were instead left at the rehabilitation centres to fend for themselves. Despite the glory apparent in the title of the birangona, society was hesitant in accepting, let alone glorifying, the woman behind the label.

Whether the state truly believed that simply this honorific title would assuage the problems of the rape survivors or whether it wanted to silence the problem by administering to the wounds of war with an artificial salve remains a question. The title itself, indeed the entire discourse surrounding the birangona, seems divided and contradictory. Despite its heroic claim, the women were seen as victims more than anything else, and this attitude was apparent even in their portrayal in the media following the war. The label 'birangona' itself was rarely used, with the women most often being referred to as 'oppressed', 'disgraced' and 'dishonoured'. The Bangla word most often used, lanchhita, carries connotations ranging from being disgraced, harassed, insulted, and persecuted to stained, tarnished, spotted and soiled. Rather than building the image of a 'heroine', they refer to people who have been shamed. Other words such as biddhosto meaning ruined or destroyed, bibhranto, meaning confused or bewildered, and phrases such as 'women who have lost their all' also portray a shattered image of one who is supposed to be a heroine.

The whole idea of women having 'lost their all' as a result of having been raped, reinforces a prevalent social norm -- that a woman's 'all' lies in her virginity in the case of unmarried women, in her chastity in the case of married women, and in a woman's sexual exclusivity in general. The age-old relation between hysteria and the womb (called hystera in Greek) can be extended here, where a woman's sexuality determines her well-being and where something like rape establishes the death of her soul and her social self. While rape is a heinous sexual crime, presenting it as the end-all for a woman leaves her with little in life after the violation. Magnifying its significance to this extent, it may be argued, also contributes to its popularity as a weapon in times of war, where it has the power to have a woman ostracised by family and community and leaves any society, and especially conservative ones, split apart.

Despite the honour associated with the birangona label, the fact that many women did not wish to identify themselves as war heroines, resulting in the fact that we know very few of them, is testament to the fact that the simple title did not deliver all that it had promised. While rape is not an act to be glorified and while its victims are just that -- victims -- the courage and endurance with which they survived are worth honouring and celebrating. But perhaps Bangladeshi society was not ready to accept and honour a raped woman as a national heroine. Perhaps instead of singling her out and taking into consideration the fact that, while others fought the war with their weapons, the birangona fought it with her body, the survivors of wartime rape, too, could have been labelled 'freedom fighters'.

To this day, many people are unaware of the experiences of the war heroines of 1971. Some see this as a result of a 'politics of active national forgetting' on the part of a male-controlled state which could not deal with the survivors of rape during the war. This silence continued for almost two decades after 1971, and the issue only came up again in the 1990s with the setting up of the Gano Adalot or People's Court, a symbolic trial of leading collaborator Ghulam Azam in which some of the war-affected gave their testimony about their experiences during the war. But this was a largely ineffective move which rather impacted negatively on the lives of the women who came forward with their stories, for now they could be clearly identified as rape victims and were openly scorned in society, especially in their local villages. Now the crime was not the rape itself but the women's disclosure of it. By telling their stories, the women not only brought dishonour upon their families and villages, but also formed the scope to implicate local collaborators in the crimes. According to Nayanika Mookherjee, who has done her doctoral thesis on the sexual violence of 1971, the victim's socio-economic status, feminine codes of honour and sexuality, and the phenomenon of 'public secrecy' were all factors which contributed to what Bina D'Costa, who works on human rights and security issues in South Asia, calls a 'negotiated survival' on the part of the women in order to avoid further persecution.

A significant reason behind the failure to try the war criminals of Bangladesh's independence movement -- despite rape being internationally recognised as a war crime -- is the fact that the women who were violated have not been able to come forward to identify their perpetrators and demand their punishment. It may even be argued that this created a culture of impunity in the nation in the long run, which, according to some, has spilled over to the rape of women from indigenous communities in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Freeing the birangona of the shame and stigma associated with her experiences of rape could have contributed to her psychological healing, her social standing and her cause for justice.


The story of Amirjaan is a common one. For many like her, life stopped with the war. For others, it somehow went on. For all of them, the wounds are beyond cure, and society has done little to help the healing. While glorifying the grand label of 'war heroine', society has either insulted outright, or else neglected, or, at the least, ignored the women within the label who sacrificed themselves in the war for its independence. Ensuring justice, respect and dignity for the birangona is the only way to honour their sacrifice.



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