photography, research

women warriors: Rabeya Khatun

Rabeya Khatun sits on her bed in her home in Barisal, Bangladesh. April 2011.

Apni amar meye, Rabeya Khatun says as she presses me in a tight embrace.  You are my daughter.

I had met Rabeya only an hour and a half ago. With the sun quickly darting from the sky, she gathered herself quietly in the corner of the sofa in the beginning of our time together. What are you doing here, she asks, why have you come? I want to learn from you about what happened in 1971, I say, how did the Liberation War affect your life? She holds my simple question for a moment, looking down slightly at her hands, before beginning a story she has told in full only a handful of times before.  As she speaks, memories fill her eyes and I watch as the war opens in front of her.  Her tale gains momentum, twisting from her childhood to her home life to the battlefield.  Her voice becomes shrill as she leaps up, bending over, motioning how Pakistani soldiers held her back as they killed her son.  Her eyes become electric, her stories continue without prompting, with words and memories she has not shared in years spilling out, tumbling onto our hands and notebooks folded quietly in our laps.  The diary she kept during 1971 shakes in her grasp as she sings a few lines from it, songs from the war camps.  Her voice breaks at the melody’s end, and she settles back down onto the sofa, gazing down at the pages clutched in trembling fingers.

We share tea as she leads me around the house, pointing out pictures and objects that help bring the memories back.  The time grows short and I have to catch the launch back to Dhaka, but first she takes me up to her roof to view the setting sun as it comes over the tops of the trees, spilling bright orange light onto her like-colored sharee.  It is there that she looks into my eyes, and this women, who lost her husband and son in a war to which she gave herself fully, calls me, an American girl she has only known a couple of hours, her daughter.

Rabeya, and a handful of other courageous, beautiful, and remarkably strong women have become a part of my life through an inquiry began six months ago upon my arrival in Bangladesh.  Since then, I have been exploring the post-conflict experiences and struggles of the Bangladeshi women who played frontline roles as combatants in Bangladesh’s war of independence, and who, since the creation of the nation in 1971, have had to struggle not only for justice, compensation, equal rights and recognition, but also for their dignity, honor and womanhood.

The project started as a kernel of an idea, sparked by photographs I saw in Drik Photo Agency’s 1971 archives of Bangladeshi women in beautifully draped white sharees, marching in perfect lines, rifles perched on their shoulders.  Images led to questions – What was the role of women in this war? Why isn’t their history as readily known as other narratives in the mainstream? – that have blossomed into what is now this “Women Warriors” project.  Though a largely independent endeavor, the work is now supported by The Aftermath Project, an organization founded by documentarian and storyteller, Sara Terry, which supports projects focusing on challenges faced and coping mechanisms developed by communities following conflict.

The women that I have met and the stories that I have heard through this work have been fascinating and heartbreaking.  Conversations have included women who formed the movement, meeting every week under a banyan tree at Dhaka University to protest the continued oppression of the West Pakistani political elite; those who dedicated their lives to the war, losing children and spouses, parents and siblings, all they felt closest to; women who provided unwavering care and shelter to extended family and fellow fighters, strengthening the war effort and moving it forward; those who stepped into spaces that even many men would not dare to go.

“Women Warriors” aims to highlight these stories, to find and record the histories and accounts of more women like Rabeya.  It hopes to create a broad and in-depth visual and oral documentation, one that focuses on the courageous and crucial role these women played in Bangladesh’s struggle for liberation, and the challenges they have encountered in reconstructing their own lives since. This project explores the demands of the dual-identity of fighter and caregiver, and what it means for those women who have assumed it.  It investigates the individual efforts that were required to overcome the rejection by their community, which so many had to face upon returning from war.

The conversations that I have had since moving to Bangladesh have made the purpose and urgency of this project increasingly clear.  Each woman I speak with has a beautiful and vital voice, and while some have been heard loudly and clearly in the past, far too many have not.  Like Rabeya’s, some have come pouring out having been held inside for years, decades even.  Acknowledging and documenting these histories is a crucial part of the reconciliation process, and vital if Bangladesh – and the women who fought for its independence – are to find justice and peace.  As these women share their stories, I will share them on here, along with a few images from the trips to speak with these extraordinary warriors.

commentary, photography

women warriors: intro

I have waited for you for ages, for an eternity and a day. Unseen, unheard, yet, you were always there the fighter, the warrior. Come forth in all your glory and destroy, as you had destroyed the enemy once and for all the myth that the woman is weak and helpless.

– Sharmeen Murshid

Getting back up on the blogginghorse with a little exciting news to share.  The Aftermath Project, an incredible organization founded by Sara Terry that provides support to photo documentary projects that examine issues surrounding the aftermath of conflict, recently announced its 2011 grant winners and finalists – and a project that I’ve been working on here in Bangladesh was named as one of the latter!

The idea for “Women Warriors” first began to take shape last July in Hue, Vietnam during the VII/[EXPOSURE] there.  I spent that week riding around the back of a moto to the homes of six women who fought for the North Vietnamese Army during the war with the United States, speaking to them not only about their experiences during the conflict, but how it shaped their lives after they returned home.  The work was recently published in Global Post, which had a small accompanying interview that was never published – so here it is now!

Women Warriors On Global Post

In heading to Bangladesh to research the creation of narratives of the Liberation War, I knew that I wanted to work on a photography project while here, and to have one that tied into that research would add a rather interesting twist.  So the Women Warriors: Bangladesh project emerged, and it’s grown in some interesting and unexpected ways as of yet.  It is moving much more slowly – in both good and frustrating ways – than its Vietnamese counterpart, unfurling slowly as contacts grow and shift here.

The project focuses on three specific aspects of the lives of women who served in the Liberation War – as armed combatants, spies, nurses, caretakers, organizers, and so on – and the way that the war has defined them, their families, and their communities:

  1. Personal History: Through personal portraiture and recorded testimonies of female Mukti Banini, I hope to add to the existing histories of the independence struggle and subsequent construction of Bangladesh. While such testimonies will include women’s wartime experiences, they will focus on their lives in the decades since, with their struggles to reconcile the dual roles they are expected to fill in Bangladeshi society.
  2. Physical Scars: Bangladesh’s war of liberation was fought at the doorsteps of every home in the country – the battlefields were the streets, alleys, and corners of her cities and towns. Its scars exist within the souls of the victims and on the surfaces of the nation. I will visually explore, using individual memories as guides, sites and localities where personal histories were made, where personal traumas were defined.
  3. Memory & Dreams: As photographer Shahidul Alam writes, “What of the photograph made out of nothing? What about painting with light? Is it photography? Surely if we can paint with light we can paint with dreams, create the morning mist or the afternoon glow. Is it fake? Hardly. Whatever else may be false in this tenuous existence of ours, imagination is not. All that we value, that we strive to uphold, all that gives us strength, has been made of dreams, and we must dream on. If pixels be the vehicle that realizes our dreams, be it so.” Using photography as a ‘vehicle’ for the imagination, I hope to evoke the intangible memories and dreams of this conflict, and the subsequent personal reconciliations experienced by these women. This photographic exploration will take place within the lives and communities of the women, in both past and present landscapes and sites, as well in those places they have yet to, but still hope to see. It will reveal not only what they have experienced, but also where they wish to go – the dreams they hold for both themselves and their children.

The narrative that has dominated in Bangladesh of women in the Liberation War up until the present has been one of victimhood – those who were raped en masse by the Pakistani army, those who watched their sons and husbands and brothers leave home to fight for the country’s freedom.  While official narratives fail to recognize the histories of these women, they remain deep within those who experienced them.  They face them day after day, developing ways to quietly process past experiences in an attempt to move beyond them. These women, who are raising the first generation of Bangladeshis born after 1971, have been guiding forces in shaping and forming the country and its identity. In learning the stories of these women, and understanding how their experiences in conflict have shaped them as mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives, this project endeavors to document the ways in which conflict not only affects those who experience it firsthand, but those that they nurture and raise – the next generation – and, in that way, how their experiences continue to live on in the nation.


The Idea of Home: Houston

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This work was produced during an Aftermath Project/[EXPOSURE]/Yates High School workshop in the Third Ward of Houston, Texas, run by the wonderfully insightful Sara Terry and Jeff Jacobson.  It’s still a work in progress, so any and all feedback is greatly appreciated!

The Idea of Home
Elizabeth Herman

The day before I left for Houston, my conception of home changed dramatically; my parents and I found ourselves saying goodbye to our family dog of 14 years, the one who I had said was my brother when people asked me, an only child, if I had any siblings.  The one who I remember seeing shaking, curled up in a ball at the back of his crate the night we picked him up at the airport, the same night I turned back to my parents as we were leaving the house and said, things will never be the same, will they? The one who always seemed to be perpetually smiling.

Each of us can think of a time when they felt the ground shift beneath their feet, watched as the familiar and comfortable slipped away.  Sometimes, such changes are part of personal choices made, of a need to explore and experience things new and unknown. To attempt to find one’s own space before sharing it with others.

Yet other times, it is not.  Sometimes the decision is not yours, and homes and spaces built carefully over decades fall into the hands of those oblivious to their past.  Over the past decade, residents of the Third Ward have seen changes take place beyond their front porches, but not beyond the boundaries of what they call home.


Forced change is not new to the residents of the Third Ward.  A historic black district triangulated by three major highways, its current demographic is largely the result of rising land prices in other parts of Houston.  During the early 1900s, developers began purchasing and developing land in the Fourth Ward, the original center of Houston’s Black community.  As housing prices continued to rise, Fourth Ward residents were forced to look elsewhere to make their homes. Subsequently, the 1920s saw the Third Ward surpass the Fourth Ward as the center of Houston’s Black population.

The residents, just a few generations removed from slavery, found themselves in a community plagued by underdevelopment and significantly deficient in investment in infrastructure.  And, since location determines economic and social opportunities, including schooling and employment, the fact that this largely underdeveloped, Black community remained apart from the more affluent residents and areas of town – and trapped in a cycle of poverty – is unfortunately of little surprise.

Yet, out of this forced segregation emerged a sense of ownership and community.  Marvin Neal, a lifelong resident of the Third Ward, speaks of his family thriving in the heart of the neighborhood in the early 1950s.  “This house is the first house that my Mom and Dad purchased.  They paid $13,000 for this house.” Neal’s recounted childhood stories speckled with tales of exceptional civil rights leaders, artists, and teachers with whom he shared these streets.  “There was a lot of people in this area who have done great things,” Neal says, “I feel blessed to have grown up in the Third Ward.”

This sentiment of greatness reverberates throughout the neighborhood; the legacy of Houston’s civil rights movement, born in the Third Ward, is still strongly felt.  Texas Southern University  (TSU), the third largest historically Black university in the U.S., stood as a bastion of the resistance, with the first sit-in in Houston, as well as subsequent demonstrations organized by TSU students. In addition, the South Central YMCA, the S.H.A.P.E. (Self Help for African People through Education) Center, and three leading Black-owned Houston newspapers and radio stations within the Third Ward’s limits continue to this day to struggle for equal opportunities for Houston’s Black community.

Now, yet again, as the result of a number of political and economic pressures, residents of the Third Ward are finding their lives and homes slipping from beneath their feet.  The community’s proximity to the city center makes it an appealing location for development.  Vacant lots to be bought cheaply and transformed into gleaming condo complexes pose an appealing possibility for developers.

Consequently, its demographic has begun to shift again.  An influx of new, affluent residents following the shiny, freshly developed plots has turned the Third Ward into a patchwork, with spotless properties bookended by well-loved and well lived-in family homes. Robert Bullard, author of Invisible Houston, describes the Third Ward as “a neighborhood of contrasts, ranging from dilapidated ‘shotgun’ row houses to well-manicured, tree-lined estates.”

The threats to the community’s identity, however, have not gone without a response from its current residents. As Bullard says, there is now intense “competition between incumbent residents and new ‘urban pioneers’ for the area’s limited stock of housing“ and Third Ward residents are not acquiescing anytime soon. Numerous organizations have emerged to preserve the integrity of the Third Ward through revitalizing its streets and businesses, with an increased and sustained effort to combat the degradation of the neighborhood’s integrity. Community-based organizations like Project Row Houses, which transforms deteriorating housing into spaces for creation in the form of artist studios, have cropped up across the district and signs reading “My Home Is Not For Sale” dot the neighborhood.

Behind these developments are the residents themselves, people who make their houses into homes, this neighborhood into their own.  Neal considers a day in which his home – the one he has lived in his whole life – might be taken away, bought up by ever-expanding developments.  Despite this threat, he speaks of how his sense of community and home extends beyond these changes, how that’s what keeps him pushing for his neighborhood.  “They can tear the physical structure down,” Neal says, “but what happened in this house with me growing up, a bulldozer can’t tear that down.”


I have not been home since that day after Dexter passed. I still have not felt how my home has changed, how this vital part of its spirit is now absent. I spend these days imagining it, thinking of it, anticipating what it might feel like while photographing here in the Third Ward.

While seeing how this community is changing, listening to the stories of those who may have seen their neighborhoods shift overnight, their neighbors or themselves forced from their homes in the name of development.  As we grapple with this idea – of what one of the most fundamental parts of our lives means, and what it means when it begins to change – I wonder, how does the memory of a home that once was linger, how does it shape the spaces we inhabit currently?  How can we keep those memories of the past and weave them into our lives at present?  And how is a home created and shared by an entire community?

These photographs are my conversation with these questions, as well as with others that have emerged while walking the streets of Third Ward, speaking to its residents and being welcomed into this community.  It is an ongoing search, an endless one, one that we all know well – yet hardly ever know where it will lead next.

 (Elizabeth Herman)


exploring the market

Felt like a bit of a walk the other day, so grabbed my camera and headed out to the market at the end of the street.  After photographing around the vegetable stalls for a while, dodging stares and rickshaws throughout, I decided to explore some of the twisting roads winding behind the market area.

Walking down a narrow alleyway, a flash of bright orange caught my eye.  I backtracked a few steps, and peering through an open doorway into a work site, a woman with whom I had just exchanged smiles caught me looking.  She motioned for me to follow her into the yard, filled with deteriorating bricks, an old shack, and some murky pond-like thing.  Sitting around a small fire with a number of pots carefully scattered at their feet was a group of women, alternatively cooking supper and calling out to the children darting around the plot.  My original connection proceeded to introduce me to the rest of the assembled crowd – her extended family – and once we had sat for a while amongst the relatives and bubbling pots, she led me across the street and through another narrow doorway, into a small courtyard.

We wove from window to window, swapping assalam aleikums with her various relatives within the room-sized houses.  We continued to chat back and forth until my Bangla vocabulary ran out, and then smiled at each other for a while before it started to get dark and I had to head back.

For someone who has been feeling a little anxious about getting out and moving about within this city, this was an exceptional reminder.  That the fear you feel sitting in your room, those butterflies that pop up at the thought of approaching an unknown situation with a camera in your hand – that’s just the first step.  It’s always there.  You just have to bring it outside and see where it takes you.


Women Warriors: Hue, Vietnam

Returning for a moment now to a project that I worked on last summer in Hue, Vietnam, on women who fought in the war with the United States.  In addition to the small written piece below, you’ll find portraits of the women with testimonies accompanying each image.  This is still a work in progress, and so any and all feedback is much appreciated!

Yes, she acknowledged, the women had been good soldiers.  But they had paid dearly for their war service, in ways that men had not…stress, backbreaking labor, malnutrition, contact with death and blood had eventually robbed these young girls of the very future they sought to defend when they left home in the first place.

Karen Turner, Even the Women Must Fight p 4

Thirty-six years after she last took aim with her AK-47 assault rifle, Ngo Thi Thuong’s phone rang.

General Võ Nguyên Giáp was looking for the young lady who had shot down the American bomber in June 1968.  In the nearly four decades that had past since then, she had worked many jobs and raised three children.  And until now, her tale had little recognition beyond a retelling to her kids.

Heroines and striking female figures are not new in Vietnam – they have played an integral role in Vietnamese history for millennia.  In the 1st century C.E., the Truing sisters, often called Vietnam’s earliest national patriots, rebelled against the Chinese Han Dynasty for three years.  The female legacy is no different today; in all of Vietnam’s recent conflicts, women were crucial. They fought alongside men and carried heavy loads down the Ho Chi Minh Trail until 1973.

Yet their stories remain largely unheard.  As Karen Turner notes in Even the Women Must Fight, “women warriors, so essential to Vietnam’s long history and so important in the most photographed are in history, have remained invisible.”

These are the stories of six women, all soldiers for the North Vietnamese Army in the American War, and mothers of the nation’s children.  For some, motherhood came before they fought.  For others, it was not until after they had returned home.  In all cases, their experiences fighting directly shaped their children’s lives – those children that became the next generation of Vietnamese.  Their stories provide a means of seeing how a nation torn by conflict for decades has rebuilt itself, has been nurtured back into a whole.