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Birangona : The forgotten women of the Bangladesh Liberation War

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the birth of Bangladesh, my home country. I thought it is just fitting that I write something about the founding of my country, and what it means to me. Even though I am now living half-a-world away from home, Bangladesh is in my veins, and my story is never complete without a telling of hers. The history of the Bangladesh Liberation War and the events leading up to it, has been told many a time. Almost every rendition of the history is unique, at times convoluted and altered; as if the pages of history were a mere tool for the manipulation of the present. And then there are those tales, those lives that “history” has forgotten.

The female muktijoddha (freedom fighter)

40 years ago, Bangladesh emerged victorious from a gruesome war for independence from Pakistan (Muktijuddho). After nine months of intense guerilla warfare, the freedom fighters were victorious, only at the expense of three million innocent civilians. The war did not discriminate between man, woman, Hindu, Muslim, children or adult – the war was equally brutal to all in Bangladesh. Yet there are many whose suffering has been forgotten by history.

A woman’s war is unique – she has to fight not only on the battlefield, but also at her home, as the anchor of a family during the hardship of war. They were guerilla fighters, mothers, nurses, wives, informants, daughters, spies and so much more. Their suffering was as manifold as their roles: death, physical debilitation, mass rape and associated pregnancies, psychological trauma and the obliteration of their homes. After the war, they were the ones expected to reconstruct families, while dealing with the scars of war.

Birangona [Bengali] – brave woman. That’s the title given to the 200,000 women who were raped during the war by the Pakistani army. Many of them were disowned by their family; others migrated to India to give birth, while many committed suicide or where murdered by the Pakistani forces. Those who survived bore the scars of the horrendous ordeal, both physical and psychological. They were outcast by society, and the word Birangona became synonymous with dishonored and violated woman. They were casualties of war, who bore the seeds of evil in them, reminding us of resentful times. For their struggles and their role in the war, we Bangladeshis don’t even afford them a page in the history books. Their suffering, both during and after the war remains unrecorded and unrecognized.

“The army tied our hands, burned our faces and bodies with cigarettes. There were thousands of women like me. They gang raped us many times a day. My body was swollen, I could barely move. They still did not leave us alone. They never fed us rice, just gave us dry bread once a day and sometimes a few vegetables. We tried to escape but always failed. When the girls were of little use they killed them.”

-Aleya Begum, who was kidnapped at the age of 13, gang raped for seven months and rejected by her family after the end of the war.

Ferdousi Priyovasini – sculpture, birangona, freedom fighter

In a conservative culture, where society views female sexuality as sacred, there was no dignity granted to the abused women. The government did nothing for their rehabilitation and there were almost no groups working to support them. Although most got abortions (performed in secret clinics by untrained people), they were still ostracized by their communities. People pressured them to either leave, or pick up prostitution since they were already “scarred”. As a result of this exclusion and emotional torture, many Birangonas migrated to India, while others chose to take their own lives.

Forty years after the fact, we have come a long way as a nation. We have a functioning democracy and laws protecting the rights of all human beings. Throughout the years few Birangonas have stepped up to tell us their story. We still choose not to discuss them. They still don’t have the support and recognition of the country they helped liberate.

Women have been at the center of the struggle of Bangladeshi Freedom. Without their sacrifices, I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this. The passing of forty years might have scabbed the wounds, but unless we as a nation reassess our history and tell the story of the Birangonas, we shall never be free.

NBC coverage of the war against women in Bangladesh
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