commentary, research

the legacy of women in the liberation war, 40 years on

Tarfia Faizullah, a fellow Fulbrighter and beautiful poet who was based in Bangladesh for the past year, is working on a long-term project on women who were raped during the Liberation War.  Out of her project has emerged a series of poems, which she has so wonderfully agreed to share here today.

Following the end of Bangladesh’s Liberation War on 16 December 1971, forty years ago today, all women who were raped were given the honorific term birangona by the first president of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.  The term, which is often translated to war heroine, was meant to pay respect to the women for their sacrifices during wartime.  Yet it soon became a mark of shame, with many of the women rejected by their families and ostracized by their communities upon their learning of the assault; rape was, and largely still is, seen as an enormous source of shame in Bangladesh for the assaulted woman.

In working on “A Woman’s War,” I actively chose not to speak to women who had been raped, with the idea that the vast majority of the coverage of women’s role in the 1971 war has centered on women as victims.  Instead I wanted to highlight ways in which women had participated, but were often only attributed to men – to collect stories of women who had fought, spied, smuggled weapons, trained, and so on – stories that would challenge the notion held by some that women were only passive and unwilling participants in the fight for independence.

Yet in late August, I had the opportunity to speak to nine women who had been raped during the war and who were currently living in and around Sirajganj, in western Bangladesh.  These women are part of a larger group of rape victims who have remained close since the end of the war, supporting each other in ways that their families and the government now refuse to. They have been outspoken against the social stigma associated with rape in Bangladesh, and maintain that they should be called mukti juddha, or freedom fighters, as those who fought in the liberation struggle are, rather than birangona.

They all receive support from Sirajganj Uttaran Mohila Sangstha (SUMS), an organization founded and run by Safina Lohani. During the Liberation War, Safina provided food, shelter, and medical aid for mukti juddha who were receiving training in preparation for battle.  Following the end of the war, she established SUMS and began seeking out and providing care to those women who had been sexually abused during 1971.  SUMS received government backing until 1975 and the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, at which point the new government cut off all financial support and forced the organization to disband and the women under SUMS’ care to scatter.  Over the course of the next year, Lohani and her husband personally sought out the women previously under their care, brought them back together,  and reestablished SUMS independently.  Since then she has been maintaining and running SUMS unaided, with only the support of private donations.

What became clear in speaking with these women is that the line between mukti juddha and birangona is often much more blurred than mainstream narratives will allow.  That many women were captured and raped precisely because they were fighting for their country, spying within West Pakistani army camps, collecting information to relay back to fellow Bangladeshi guerrilla fighters.  Yet they are not remembered as fighters.  They are remembered as victims. In the words of Asiya, one of the women at SUMS:

We hear lots of bad comments; when I cross road people call me wife of the Pakistani military. They tell us that they will not bury us after we die. Why do we bear this sorrow? How can we go to the government?

During the Liberation War, there was a bridge in front of my house, and all of the freedom fighters’ weapons were in our house.  On the day that the freedom fighters blew up that bridge, I was with them. I passed all the weapons with my own hands from our house. The freedom fighters who are still alive told the government that I was a mukti juddha, but people not call me mukti juddha they call me birangona. What can I do? Where can I speak? Razakars [traitors to Bangladeshi guerrilla fighters] now have freedom fighters’ certificates; they stay in houses and buildings now, and we stay under the banana leaf.  I cooked rice for the freedom fighters, I hid all the time, brought them their weapons. Now, I am not a mukti juddha, but they [razakars] are? Twenty days after the war started I went to the Pakistani military’s hospital, gathered information – where the Pakistani army’s weapons were, where they were planning to go – all that information I gave to the freedom fighters.

Now I don’t want tell any more. I talk about my experience time and time again, but nobody has done anything.  The government has not given us freedom fighters’ certificates, but razakars have those certificates. I have proof that I was a fighter. But now, I have nothing to show for it.  It would be better if we were dead.  Take me in front of the government, I will tell them to kill us by shooting us. It would be much better than how we live now. 

§

What follows is a series of Tarfia’s poems inspired from conversations with a number of women who were raped during the war, including the group of SUMS women from Sirajganj, coupled with a few of the images that I made while working with the SUMS women.  Tarfia’s work needs no introduction, other than to say – give yourself time with these poems.  They tell the stories of these women in a way that allows you to reach past words like rape and victim and trauma in order to begin to feel their experiences with them, and her.

I’m so honored and humbled to be able to bring my photographs together with Tarfia’s words.  Collectively, we hope to be able to tell a piece of this story in a new light, a story forty years removed, yet one that is still so present in the lives of these women, their families, and their country.

Interview with a Birangona, by Tarfia Faizullah

In 1972, the Bangladeshi state adopted a policy to accord a new visibility to the 200,000 women raped during the War of Independence by lionizing them as birangonas (war heroines), though they were frequently ostracized by their families and social circles.

1. What were you doing when they came for you?

Gleaming water sweeps over
Mother’s feet. Bayonets. Teeth.

My green and yellow Eid sari
flaps damply between two palm

trees. Grandfather calls to me:
mishti maya. Girl of sweetness.

Aashi, I call back. I finish braiding
my hair, tie it tight. I twine a red string

around my thigh. That evening,
a blade sliced through string, through

skin, red on red on red. Kutta, the man
in khaki says. It is only later I realize

it is me he is calling dog. Dog. Dog.

(originally published in Ploughshares)

2. Where did the Pakistani military take you, and were there others there?

Past the apothecary shop, shut
down, burned flat. My heart

seized, I told it to hush. They saw
its shape and weight and wanted

it too. Past the red mosque
where I first learned to touch

my forehead low, to utter
the wet words blown from

my mouth again & again. Past
the school draped with banners

imploring Free Our Language,
a rope steady around my throat

as they pushed me toward the dark
room, the silence clotted thick

with a rotten smell, dense like pear
blossoms, long strands of jute

braided fast around our wrists.
Yes, there were others.

(originally published in Mid-American Review)

Interviewer’s Note

ii.

I walk past white high-rises
split with mold. Past a child
wading through drowned
rice fields, one pink blossom
tucked behind her ear. Past
myself rippling a storefront
window. Victim: (noun), one
that is tricked or duped. Past
a woman crouched low
on a jute mat selling bangles.
One that is injured, destroyed
under any of various conditions.
Was it on a jute mat that
she gave birth to the baby
half-his or his or his? Victim:
a living being sacrificed. Past smoke
helixing from an untended fire.
Past another clothesline heavy
with saris: for hours they
will lift into the wind, hollow
of any bruised or broken body.

(originally published in Mid-American Review)

3. Were there other girls there? Did you get along with them?

Between us: a dark metal
bucket, our hands touching.

We pulled water together
from the muddy river we

used to sit beside before
we belonged to the smoke-

watered world missing brothers &
husbands & fathers. I ask for

Allah’s forgiveness: I didn’t know
I would cherish the vermilion

streak she drew into the seam of her
parted hair. I didn’t know my body’s

worth until they came for it. I held
her as she shook at night: pondwater

scored by storm. She held me
as I shook at dawn. Don’t you know

they made us watch her head fall
from the rusted blade of the old

jute machine? That they made us
made us made us made us made us?

(originally published in Mid-American Review)

4. Would you consider yourself a survivor or victim?

Each week I pull hard
the water from the well,

bathe in my sari, wring
it out, beat it against

the flattest rocks—are you
Muslim or Bengali, they

asked again & again.
Both, I said, both—then

rocks were broken along
my spine, my hair a black

fist in their hands, pulled
down into the river again

and again. Each day, each
night: river, rock, fist—

the river wanders this way,
breaks that way, that is

always the river’s play. 

(originally published in Mid-American Review)

Interviewer’s Note

iii.

I listen to the percussion

of monsoon season’s wet

wail, write in my notebook

badgirl, goodgirl,

littlebeauty—in Bangla

there are words

for every kind of woman

but a raped one

(originally published in Mid-American Review)

5. Who was in charge at this camp? What were your days like?

All I knew was underground: bodies piled on bodies,
low moans, sweat, rot seeking out scratches on our thighs,

the makeshift tattoos he carved on our backs to mark us.
Over milk tea and butter biscuits, the commander asks

what it feels like to have dirty blood running through our
veins. There were days we wooed him, betrayed each other

for his attention—now he turns me over on burlap.
Outside, bundles of jute skim the wide river. I turn

my face away. Kutta, he says. You smell. Tell me anything
you know about the body, and I will tell you how

it must turn against itself. Now I’ve seen a savage 
girl naked, he says. How my body became an eddy,

a blackblue swirl. Don’t cry, he says. How when the time
came for his choosing, we all gave in for tea, a mango,

overripe.  Another chance to hear the river’s gray lull.

(originally published in Ploughshares)

Interviewer’s Note

iv.

Today there is no drinking

water today there is no

light today there is only

kerosene the hmm hmm hum

of a generator pulsing deep

into the exhausted darkness

I write the word shame

It is possible to live without

memory Nietszche said but

is it possible to live with it?

(originally published in Mid-American Review)

6. After the war was over, what did you do? Did you go back home?

I stood in the dark

doorway. Twilight. My grandfather’s

handprint raw across my face. Byadob,

he called me: trouble-

maker. How could you let them 

touch you? he asked, the pomade just

coaxed into his thin hair

a familiar shadow of scent

between us even as he turned

away. Leave. Don’t come

back, he said. I walked past his

turned-away back. Past fresh-plucked

lychees brimming

yellow baskets. Past Mother

on the doorstep sifting through rice flour,

refusing or told not

to look up, though the new

president had wrapped me in our new

flag: a red sun rising

across a green field. You

saved our country, he had said. I said

nothing. The dark rope

of Mother’s shaking arm was what

I last saw before I walked away.

No. No. Not since.

(originally published in Mid-American Review)

Interviewer’s Note

v.

If burnt, she said, I’ll turn to ash,
and I wondered if she meant, Who 
will touch me as though they never 
did? She said, When I remember, 
my being shatters, and I thought of dusk
candling into small flames in dark
canteens across the city, flagrant
across faces of beggars, their gaunt,
atrophied arms they set swinging
to garner the little pity the rippling
glimpses of our faces offer through
each tinted, glossy window. You 
tell me, she said, am I not also your mother?
And I thought of the shapla lily ensnared
in the film of filth laminating the pond—
her teeth, rotten with betel, blood-red.

(originally published in Mid-American Review)

7. Many of the birangona had children by Pakistani soldiers. Did you have a child as well?

Besides, I did not have the right
hands to hold her close. The blood

spilled from within me out onto
the bamboo mat, a red shroud.

Besides, she could not feed at my
breast: unwilling hollow of flesh

veined like our country’s many
rivers. My country, yours—was it

hers? She grew whole inside me
like a lychee, my belly a hard shell

broken open by her soft, wailing
flesh. Besides, I did not want his

or his or his child inside me,
outside me, beside me. Never

will she know that I cupped her
head and began to press hard, but

stopped. That I laid her between
cotton and dirt floor, placed the tip

of my finger over her beating heart.

(originally published in Mid-American Review)

Interviewer’s Note

vi.

But wasn’t it the neat narrative
I wanted? The outline of the rape
victim in a sari standing against
the many-winged darkening sky,
shadow flurrying across shadow?
They tossed me into that river 
but the river wouldn’t kill me,
she said yesterday—I want
that darkness she stood against
to be yards of violet velvet my mother
once cut me a dress from. Rewind. Play.
Rewind. They tossed—me—river—me
I wanted the splayed heart of another’s
hand inside mine. I want to know
if cruelty exists, or if it is only love’s threadbare
desperation—river—me—river—me—me—

(originally published in Mid-American Review) 

8. Do you have siblings? Where were they?

On a thin lavender evening
like this one, we sisters sat

and waited until we were only
the listening for them to come.

We became these four walls:
corrugated, twilit. On a thin

lavender evening like this one,
we were each other’s world

entire: both the woodrose as well
as its tangled stem. When they came

for us on a thin lavender evening
like this one, we tried to pull each

other’s saris out of their rifle-black
hands. We tried to scream through

fingers ripe with our own rivers. On
a thin lavender evening like this one,

she was not yet the ripped bandage
the night turned into the crimson

moon under which I did not know
I would stumble gasping, alone.

We had held each other’s hands
but did not promise not to let go.

(originally published in Mid-American Review)

If you’re interested in donating to or learning more about the women of SUMS, please contact me.

About the poet

Tarfia Faizullah was born in Brooklyn, NY on June 21, 1980 but grew up in Midland, TX. A Plan II Honors student, she received a B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin and an M.F.A in creative writing from Virginia Commonwealth University.

Her poems have appeared in Mid-American Review, Connotation Press, New Ohio Review, Copper Nickel, diode, Passages North, The Cincinnati Review, The Missouri Review, Massachusetts Review, The Nepotist, Ninth Letter, Crab Orchard Review, Notre Dame Review, Bellingham Review, Nimrod International Literary Journal, The Southern Review, Ploughshares, Cimarron Review, Memorious, Makeout Creek, Harpur Palate, Green Mountains Review, Adirondack Review, and Poetry Daily. Her prose has appeared in Nashville Review and diode.

A Kundiman fellow and a two-time Ruth Lilly finalist, she is the recipient of a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize, a Fulbright Fellowship, a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Margaret Bridgman Scholarship, a Ploughshares Cohen Award, an Academy of American Poets’ Catherine Joan Byrne Prize, an AWP Intro Journals Award, and a Pushcart Prize nomination. A former associate editor of blackbird: a journal of literature and the arts, she lives in Richmond, VA where she teaches creative writing and edits the journal trans-portal.

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