The women in our Liberation War | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, December 16, 2016 / LAST MODIFIED: 10:42 AM, December 20, 2016

The women in our Liberation War

Tales of Endurance and Courage

One of the greatest shortcomings in the perception of our fight for Independence is our consistent failure to recognise the role of women in our Liberation War. In fact, the role of women is largely ignored, denied and misconstrued in our mainstream history. This is because of our general tendency to think of war only in terms of physical fighting and exchange of gunshots. But our Liberation War or any war for that matter, which has involved the entire population of the country, has been a struggle through which a united nation has asserted its aspiration for freedom. Such wars are not fought only in the battlefields, neither are they fought only with guns. War heroes include those women who have supported the valiant freedom fighters with food, shelter, funds; who have nursed the wounded and hid weapons risking their own lives. They also include those who have willingly given their sons to war, who have lost their loved ones and even worse, been subjected to sexual abuse and still survived to tell their stories.

Bir Protik Taramon Bibi fought against Pakistanis in the Liberation War in her village home in Shankar Madhabpur Kurigram. She was in Sector 11 under the leadership of Sector commander Abu Taher, Bir Uttam. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's Government honoured her with the Bir Protik title in 1973, for her courageous role in resisting the Pakistan occupation force with weapons. After independence, there was no trace of her whereabouts. In 1995, a researcher found out where she lived and consequently the women's organisations brought her to Dhaka. Her story of bravery was soon published. Taramon Bibi was honoured with the prestigious Bir Protik title 24 years after the war in 1995. Prime Minister Khaleda Zia handed Taramon Bibi the award in a simple ceremony on December 19, 1995.

It was Taramon's Godfather, Muhib Habildar, who motivated her to become a freedom fighter. He was a soldier who was on duty in a camp close to her village. Taramon was about 13 or 14 when she joined the camp. At first, she was brought to the camp mainly to do the cooking and cleaning, but later when Muhib saw that she was a very strong and brave young lady he taught her how to use arms like the rifle and stein gun.

Taramon recalls the first time she attacked the enemy with arms. She was having lunch at the camp. Suddenly, the muktijoddhas came to know that a gunboat carrying the Pak army was heading towards where they were located. Taramon got prepared for combat with her comrades, and together, they succeeded in getting rid of the enemy. After that, Taramon had to fight with arms on many occasions. In fact, she has encountered the Pakistanis so many times, that she lost count of the number. She said, she obeyed instructions from her mentor and Godfather, Muhib. The muktijoddhas praised her for being a good marksman. In those days, she never thought about the risks involved in what she was doing. "We were fighting to free our country," she says, "the last thing on my mind was worrying about my own safety." She was totally committed to the cause of her motherland just like so many others at the time. Taramon and her camp mates sought refuge in bunkers when the enemy changed their tactic and started an air-bombing onslaught. The Pak army raided the camp a few times and hurled bombs killing several people. But fortunately, Taranmon escaped death. When the war was over Taramon came to Dhaka with her Godfather. Muhib Habildar always used to inspire her. He would say that they fought against great odds, to gain independence. All the hardship and sacrifice were for the cause of the motherland.

However, Taramon has a complaint. The country has given recognition to many freedom fighters and also provided a certain amount of financial assistance to them. But she never received any kind of monetary benefit from any of the governments till date. She feels that she was ignored because she is a woman and people don't take women freedom fighters seriously. Taramon lives with her farmer husband and two children in Kaliakoir, Comilla.

***

Dr. Captain (Rtd.) Sitara Begum is the only other woman besides Taramon Bibi to get the 'Bir Protik' award for gallantry in the Liberation War. Bir Protik Sitara Begum was born in Kolkata in 1945. She is number three among three sisters and two brothers. Her father Md. Israil Mian had a law practice in Kishoreganj where Sitara spent her childhood. After completing her Matriculation, Sitara finished her intermediate from Holy Cross College and then studied medicine at Dhaka Medical College hospital. When she received her medical degree, she joined as a lieutenant in the army's medical corps in 1970. In the turbulent days of 1970, Sitara was posted in the Comilla Cantonment. At the time, her brother, valiant freedom fighter Major ATM Haidar was transferred to Comilla from Pakistan. He joined the 3rd Commando battalion in Comilla. Both Haidar and his sister Sitara went to Kishoreganj to spend Eid holidays in February 1971. The non-cooperation programme had started throughout the country by then. Sitara's vacation was not over yet. Haidar warned Sitara not to go back to the Cantonment. Thus, she returned home to Kishoreganj. Haidar sent some members of the Muktibahini as well his parents and Sitara to Meghalaya, India. It took the group almost two weeks to reach Meghalaya from Kishoreganj. There was a makeshift hospital known as The Bangladesh Hospital, with almost 400 beds. Captain Dr. Sitara was the Commanding Officer of the hospital under Sector 2. Among those who worked there were some final year students of the medical college. Some doctors from UK also offered their services to the hospital. Sitara had to go to Agartala regularly to get medicines.

The hospital had an Operation Theatre, the floor of which was covered by plastic. The hospital not only catered to Bangali patients and wounded freedom fighters, members of the Indian army also sought medical aid at that medical centre. Sitara and her colleagues got to know about Bangladesh's independence on December 16 through the radio. She returned to Dhaka a few weeks later. But after her brother Major Haidar was killed in a conspiracy in 1975, Dr. Sitara left Bangladesh her family and settled in America.

***

Geeta Kar was only 15 during the War of Independence, yet she vividly recalls what happened during those significant nine months. Her father was killed on May 5, 1971 by the Pak army. Shocked by the incident, Geeta left her home in Rajbari leaving behind her mother and younger siblings and headed for India. They walked for nine days before they reached India. Geeta was determined to fight to free her motherland from the ruthless grip of the Pakistanis. When she was contemplating on joining the freedom movement, she learnt about how Bangali people who have crossed the border and arrived in our neighbouring country were getting organised to ward off the Pakistanis. Geeta soon enlisted her name in the Mukti Bahini. She joined the camp on July 2, 1971 and underwent training on guerilla warfare and first aid. There were more than 200 women in the training group. Most of them had lost their family members and were resolute to take revenge. The food they used to get at the training camp was paltry but that didn't bother the camp inmates. Geeta reminisces that the main driving force was the desire to win the battle against the Pak army at any cost. 

After the training was over, it was time to go to the actual battleground to utilise the skills. But only 15 young women including Geeta gave their consent to join the war. A guide was sent with the group of novice, but he could not communicate with them in Bangla or English.

To make things worse, the guide disappeared without a word one fine day abandoning the courageous young people who were ready to face the enemy. But the determined group proceeded without their guide. They went without proper meals for almost ten days and survived on banana and water. Then, somehow, they managed to reach the Sylhet border. At first it was difficult to convince the Indians of their true intentions. Finally, a man named Makhon Shom from the refugee camp assured them all possible help. He arranged for food and lit fire to keep them warm. Thanks to Makhon Shom's kindness, Geeta and her fellow mates were able to reach Agartala. However, when they arrived there, the women were not sent to the war zone as they expected.

Instead, they were told to assist the 480-bed hospital in Agartala known as the Bangladesh Hospital. The group of young women put their heart and soul into their job as medical attendants. Geeta remembers meeting numerous freedom fighters at the hospital, and most of them were brought to the hospital with serious injuries. She and her friends consoled themselves in the knowledge that helping out at the hospital was almost as good as fighting in the war. After all, both the tasks had the same goal. Geeta returned to Bangladesh with the wounded muktijoddhas and her friends at the hospital five weeks after Victory Day on the last week of January. They returned to Dhaka after spending a week in Comilla. Most of her co-workers had immediately returned to their homes when they reached Dhaka. But Geeta didn't know where to go since her father was dead.

***

Hena Das (who passed away in 2009), former President of the Bangladesh Mohila Porishad, was the Head Mistress of Narayanganj High School in 1971. Hena was an ardent member of the Communist Party, Bangladesh Teachers' Committee and Bangladesh Mohila Porishad right from the start. Hena was in Kolkata during the war. On her way to Kolkata, she delivered speeches in favour of Bangalis' fight for freedom at the women's meetings there. Her main work was with the refugee teachers. A Bangladesh Teachers' Committee was formed comprising teachers from all levels in Kolkata. Fifty camp schools were set up with foreign assistance and Hena was in charge of running the schools. She used to explain to the children the reasons behind the Muktijuddho and also motivated the teachers. Hena participated in collecting clothes and other necessary items for the children in the refugee camps. Since the headquarters of the Communist Party was located in Kolkata, she was very much part of the party's activities. Hena was constantly on the move until May 1, 1971, at different places in Narayanganj, in the fear that she might get caught. At one point, she took shelter in the science building with her sick husband and five-year-old daughter. There were some people who risked their lives to keep in touch with her in those uncertain days. One of her well-wishers was her teacher Nurul Amin, who was later brutally killed by the Pak army. Hena was aggrieved by her teacher's death. But as Hena recalls, she had to deal with the loss of many people who were close to her in 1971, such as the death of her student Momtaz and the murder of the parents of another student.

***

The Liberation War has been an attractive subject for filmmakers and a good number of documentary films have resulted from this interest. Being the most powerful medium to hold people's attention, films have played a significant role depicting the oral history of the Muktijuddho. But most of these films have focused mainly on the freedom fighters, genocide and the agony of people being driven out of their homeland. The incredible role of women during the war and after has not been given its due recognition. During the war not only were women systematically sexually abused, but they also had to face the grief and shock of losing their loved ones, their homes. With remarkable resilience and strength, women fought the war in so many different ways. Two films—one by Tareq and Catherine Masud called Narir Kotha and the other by journalist Afsan Chowdhury called Tahader Juddho—together encompass the untold stories of women in the Liberation struggle, one that continues even today.

Narir Kotha, a joint production of Audio Vision (Tareq and Catherine's production company) with Ain o Salish Kendra, a human rights organisation, focuses on women who suffered immensely during the war. Victims of rape were among the most traumatised. They not only had to endure the horror of sexual abuse but also the pain of being humiliated and ostracised by society as well as their own families. In the film, survivors of abuse by the Pak army talk frankly about their ordeal and how they are still having to deal with the stigma of being 'tainted' in the eyes of society. The 25-minute film also includes interviews of women who survived massacres and lived to tell their stories. It is clear that the film does not intend to make people sorry for these women. Rather, it is to demonstrate the incredible strength and will to survive that needs to be recognised and respected.

The underlying theme of Narir Kotha is “the trauma and triumph of women in '71”. It begins with footage of women engaged in various activities of the Liberation War—serving in hospitals, distributing clothes to victims. The theme song says,

“No one talks about the role of women.

Everyone sings the praises of men.

Didn't women folk contribute to the cause of Independence?”

The camera then focuses on renowned sculptor Ferdousi Priyabhashini who survived sexual abuse at the hands of the Pak Army and their collaborators in '71. As one of the first women to publicly speak of her ordeal she is movingly honest and comes out as a person who has gone though the worst nightmare but has managed to survive by channelling her pain into something creative. In the interview, she says that after independence of Bangladesh, she was faced with another ordeal as her society refused to accept her. “I became the target of terrible insult and humiliation… At one point I realised I don't need any human being in my life.”

It was the very isolation that led Priyabhashini to take refuge in sculpture. Using objects normally unappreciated and unwanted (like roots and tree trunks)—much like her own plight—she created sculptures. “As I became engrossed in my own work, I withdrew from friends and society,” says Priyabhashini.

In the next story, the film narrates through the women survivors how 18 women of Kodalia village in Faridpur were massacred by the Pak Army in May 1971.

***

Rabeya, now a middle-aged woman, recounts how the village people hid in a ditch in the jungle when they saw the Pak Army approaching. About 30 women were in the ditch. Along with them were their children. Among them was Chanu who was about 10 or 12 years old. “The Army surrounded us and the 10-12 year-old boys like me... and took us away from our parents,” says Chanu who had to witness the murder of his mother, aunts and cousins on that terrible day. The army caught the women and made them sit in front of a madrasa. They then started firing on their hapless victims. Sufia, now an old woman, was present along with her daughter Hamida who was seven months pregnant at the time. “They set the machine guns and then brought water from the pond,” recalls Sufia. “They said to us 'Do you Bangalis want to drink some water?'... I told myself I wouldn't drink water from the kafir's hand.”

Rabeya describes how right after this the Army started firing: “...women fell like birds. Babies died in their mothers' laps.” A few who were grazed by the bullets survived. Hamida, Sufia's pregnant daughter, however, didn't. “She asked her father for some water. After drinking the water, she died,” says Sufia, tears overflowing her eyes. Sufia still bears the scar of a bullet in her stomach which had hit her during the massacre. One of her daughters had later pulled it out.

Chanu's mother too was among the casualties. “My mother was hit by six bullets, she had fallen over on her stomach.” Among those still alive were Chanu's aunts, cousins and other relatives. They were still alive and begging for water. Little Chanu ran to his house only to find it burning. So he took a few coconut shells and filled them up with water from the pond. “Some of the women died while I was giving them water.” The impact of seeing so many of his relatives dying in front of his eyes was too much for Chanu and he lost consciousness.

“I don't think they were Muslims. How could Muslims kill others this way?” asks Rabeya relating how women alone in their houses were raped by the soldiers. After this incident, says Rabeya, the men of the village joined the resistance.

***

Smritirekha Biswas's story is next in the film. Smritirekha was only 12 in 1971 when the Pak Army burnt down her village forcing her and her family to join the 

millions of refugees in an excruciating 13-day journey to the border. Her family included her pregnant mother, her 80-year-old grandmother and younger brother and sister. For thirteen days, Smritirekha carried her little brother Babu.

“The country got freedom,” says Smritirekha, “but we never got back what we lost. So how can I say we benefited from independence?...We still couldn't rebuild our house... The kind of communal harmony we had is no longer there.” The film then focuses on Adivasi women—a group that played a very active role in the '71 struggle, women who have never been recognised for their courage. In a remote village in Rangpur, the filmmakers find a few Adivasi women toiling in the paddy fields. It is characteristic of this community for women to slog all day in the fields while their husbands fritter away their wives' earnings in alcohol and gambling. Mazlibala, an Adivasi woman, was a young woman who had been sexually abused by war collaborators.

She had just been married. One day some collaborators started following her. Mazlibala hid in a small bush. “They shouted at me, 'Don't move!',” says Mazlibala. “I was trembling with fear, I couldn't run anymore. When I came home my father asked why I was crying. My father went to chase the collaborators with bow and arrow.”

The next day her father sent her to her husband's house thinking she would be safe. But again she was attacked. Her husband's grandfather hid her under the bed and her sister-in-law under a mound of hay. “At that point I asked myself, 'Oh God! Is there no one in this world for me?” says Mazlibala, who is obviously still traumatised by the experience. “What did I do to deserve this?”

Although she does not explicitly say that she was raped, it is obvious from her emotional response that she was sexually abused. Later, when Mazlibala took refuge at her relative's house they asked why she was crying all the time and whether the collaborators had dishonoured her. “Is physical dishonour all that matters?” demands Mazlibala, her face washed with new tears. “Haven't I lost my honour anyway?”

“Even to this day people ask me, 'Is it true something happened to you back then?' But how can I talk about that? What's the point of talking? If I speak of it, it will only bring shame and dishonour to me.”

At this point another incident is referred to—that of how Adivasi men and women along with a few Bangalees attacked the Pak Army in a courageous fight against the enemy. In April 1971, a large number of Santals—men and women—surrounded the Rangpur Cantonment. Armed with bows and arrows the Adivasis attacked the soldiers. Their hatred of the Cantonment was deep-rooted. Like Mazlibala, many other women had been sexually assaulted by the Pak soldiers and their collaborators. The proximity of the Cantonment to remote areas where many such Adivasi lived helped to perpetuate these sex crimes.

“The men could not tolerate the Army's torture of their daughters,” says Nataniel Lakra, an Adivasi man in the film. “Men, women, old and young we all jumped into the fight...with whatever weapons we could gather, even sticks.” According to Lakra, many of the Adivasi women fought with bows and arrows and killed some of the soldiers.

For women like Mazlibala, the fight goes on. “We participated in the Liberation struggle...now we're struggling with our soil. Still our sorrow doesn't leave us...The struggle will never end.”

There were many other women who actually took part in defending their land or their families when the Pak Army attacked. The film turns to Choto Paitkandi village where men and women together defended their village with bamboo spears and shields. A mute woman tries to describe how the army came and set fire to the village. She lost her speech after her husband was killed while fighting the Pak Army.

A village woman informs that the soldiers killed the men and raped the women. Another woman describes how her mother-in-law joined the fight with bricks and stones and was shot dead by the army. “So many women died,” she says. “Women tied grenades to their bodies and threw themselves on the road.”

The whole village swooped on the soldiers and started beating them. The soldiers then jumped into a lake. But the village folk jumped in and killed them.

“It's not only men who fought in the war, women did too. My mother-in-law died in that fight, nobody talks about that.”

The film ends with the same song that reverberates throughout:

“Nine months of grief and pain.

Does the father have the only claim of parentage?

Have we forgotten the sacrifice of millions of mothers and sisters?”

Dramatic, without any contrivance, the stories in the film touch the heart. While one shares the grief of these women who have lost so much at the prime of their life, one cannot but feel inspired by their courage and capacity to survive.

Produced and directed by Afsan Chowdhury, the film Tahader Juddho (Their War) brilliantly captures the role women played in 1971.

Tahader Juddho contains a series of interviews where poor illiterate village women, the subject of the film, describe their experiences of 1971. We learn from these women who, at tremendous risk to themselves and their families, surreptitiously delivered food to Muktijodhas, saved them from watchful razakers by hiding them in their own house, provided them with clothes and blankets, or smuggled arms from one place to another. But these heroic acts and zealous patriotism of these poor women have not been recorded in the history. Neither are they considered worth mentioning. With our patriarchal mindset we are more comfortable to think of women only as hapless war victims who at best can appeal to our sympathy but cannot command our respect.

***

Rokeya Begum was expecting a child when the war broke out. Her husband used to bring his fellow freedom fighters home who Rokeya used to feed. This brought the wrath of the razakars upon Rokeya. Following their threat, Rokeya decided to take food to the nearby island where the freedom fighters had camped in. To make sure that she was not being followed by anyone Rokeya used to get out at night and reach the island on a boat steering all by herself. She also used to keep their weapons in the well of her house. Sometimes, the Muktijodhas spent nights in her house and on those nights Rokeya kept vigil very often passing the whole night sleepless. “People said a lot of things, that I am a bad woman, I go out alone at night and chat with the muktis and feed them. But fortunately, my husband always stood beside me,” says Rokeya.

Farida Akhter of UBINIG, the feminist outfit who has worked to organise women freedom fighter has strong views on the nature of gender discrimination and war roles. She says of what women did in the war and how it contrasts with male warrior perceptions. Citing an example, she said of a woman who had a little child, but taking food to the Muktijodhas occupied her attention more than looking after her baby. One day, when she returned home after feeding the fighters she found her child lying dead. A Pak army soldier who stood on the baby with his boots on had killed the child. But she is not recognised for her role.

Shohagpur Kakurkandi in Sherpur district. On one monsoon day, in a matter of just two hours almost all the men were killed by the Pakistani army and their collaborators. It is called the “widow's village” now.

Kohinoor Begum had to flee from one place to another with her newborn baby and a girl. One of her brothers went to the war while the other was so severely beaten up by the razakars that he couldn't go to work. Besides her two children, Kohinoor also had three young sisters. Kohinoor had to look after her all of them, which she did. She married off all of her three sisters, raised her children and looked after her old bed-ridden mother who later became mentally imbalanced due to shock.

As the film progresses and we hear more and more stories of these valiant women who put everything at stake to win freedom for the country, we cannot help comparing the lives of these forgotten women with those of male freedom fighters, who have been recognised by the state and by their own communities as real heroes, as Bir Srestho, Bir Bikram, etc. As the film ends the question Chowdhury asks implicitly throughout the whole film also haunts us: Weren't these women as much Muktijodha as the men who fought the Pakistani army with guns?

But the most important role the women played besides taking active participation in the war and helping the Muktijodhas in various ways was as sustainers of families and households. “And it's on standing on these households that society itself survived in 1971,” says Afsan Chowdhury. For these women, it was a war of existence, a fierce struggle to survive which did not end with the war. These remarkably courageous women have waged a tough struggle to keep the family going on, raised their children and passed on the spirit of fighting to them. Whether they find room in the pages of history or not, it is an undeniable truth that it was their sacrifice and strength that helped us to win our freedom. For these poor, ordinary village women who had to fight simultaneous enemies on a personal, social and national level, the fight goes on.

This article was previously published in The Star Magazine in 2002.

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