research

women warriors: muktir gan

The orange light bounces off the harmonium cover as it falls to the ground next to the instrument.  Dalia pulls up a stool next to Shaheen, who now sits cross legged in front of the harmonium on the ground.  They exchange a few words in Bangla, interspersing laughs with lyrics and remembrances, recalling song titles with memories from days of 1971 along the Indian border.

These two women, Dalia Nausheen and Shaheen Samad, both were part of the singing troupe who traveled around to Freedom Fighter and refugee camps in India, singing songs of freedom, or muktir gaan, for the women and men training for the war, providing medical and logistical support, and sheltering themselves and their families.

I recently spoke to them both about their experiences serving in the musical troupe, and at the end of the conversation they offered to sing a few songs that they carried with them during those nine months of war.  Above, you find a short clip of one of the songs, Janater Sangram Cholbe Cholbe, by Sikander Abu Zafar.  They were as articulate as their voices are stunning – as soon as I have some of the transcript transcribed, I’ll be sure to share some of the conversation here.  For now, a little portrait of Dalia from before the song session.

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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.

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the last village

The Last Village – Images by Elizabeth Herman

This piece was written and photos taken during the [EXPOSURE]/Aftermath Project Workshop in Ajmer, India, August 2009. Co-led by Sara Terry and Asim Rafiqui.


The Last Village
by Elizabeth Herman

The drought had begun the transformation of the village of Kankarda, sucking its lands of their productivity and people of their livelihoods.  Yet it was the railway project cutting through the center of the community that sealed its fate.  The notice came in 2004, an edict not a request, with rate fixed and an order for a signature on the dotted line: a railway is to be built through your property, please relinquish control to the government.  Options nonexistent, in 2007 families handed over multi-generational farmlands in exchange for a lump sum that wouldn’t even cover the cost of a lawyer to dispute the situation.  Progress came knocking down the door, splitting the lands and the culture of the village with the path of a train.

Kankarda has always been defined by its physical elements; the people have lived off the land for centuries, set off from city life by a winding road that weaves its way through hills and pastures on the outskirts of Ajmer, Rajasthan.  When the rains slowed nearly two decades ago, residents hoped it would pass.  They held out hope for years and years, only to have the door to their rural heritage slammed firmly closed by the oncoming railway.  And now this new, artificial physical element stands poised to redefine the way of life in the village, accelerating the generational divide that has been developing since the start of the drought.

Babu Singh, an eloquent yet soft-spoken twenty-eight year old social worker, has grown up as the influcence of modernity within Kankarda has.  He is a sort of bridge between the past and the present; his ancestors were the patriarchs of Kankarda and he feels deeply connected to the spirit of the community and ways of the old, yet he is at the forefront of progress as one of the village’s two university graduates.

In his youth, life centered on community; the physical proximity of families working together on farms, of residents sharing their lands and their days provided a cohesion and sense of belonging to an often-backbreaking existence.  But the drought, which began in Babu’s tenth year, meant little hope for future generations of farmers. Even though they held out hope that the children would one day return to the lands their grandparents cultivated, parents began to see sending kids to school, rather than keeping them home to work the fields, as the more worthwhile investment. This dual mentality was reflected in Babu’s childhood who, like that of most of his peers, split his time between the fields and school, learning both skills in order to keep his options open.

But then the railway line arrived, and with it the stark realization that Kankarda would no longer be responsible for its destiny or the future of its new generation. It was the first indicator of new India emerging around them, an India impatient for an industrial and capitalist modernity, daring its citizens to either catch up or get out of its way.  Families were forced to sell off productive lands and lost the ability to graze their cattle, which impelled Kankarda residents to seek work and education outside the village limits.  Now, Babu laments, “the village – what used to be a village, with all its connections and interconnections and social networks – is finished.”  After pausing and collecting his thoughts, he continues, “The whole closeness and culture of the farming community, of people who farm the land, of the bond – that’s pretty much done.  The family unit has been torn apart with people having to go to different places to work.”

These new livelihoods have redefined the interests of the youth; the ways of the old, of the land, do not concern them anymore. Instead city life beckons, alluring in its novelty and opportunity to define one’s own space.  While the youth spend a majority of their waking hours in the city, the connections of the village are still strong enough, or the benefits of bunking with their parents alluring enough to keep youth living in the village.  As such, city culture has begun to span the 5 kilometer commute between Ajmer and Kankarda, outfitting the youth in jeans and polos and a new sense of entitlement that leaves elders disheartened and exasperated.

Thus Kankarda finds itself at the intersection of the old and the new, with currents clashing within the confines of the town. This once tight-knit community is maintaining a precarious coexistence, with modernity gradually squeezing into the narrow pathways of the farming village.  One can see the transformation daily – in the cellphones that dot a nighttime prayer session, the motorbikes that skid past goats heading to pasture.  The contrast of the male elders’ turbans to the youth’s carefully oiled and slicked-back hair.

Expectations vary, Babu explains.  “The older generation expects reverence, expects honor from the young generation, but the younger generation is arrogant, confident, they have no time for these old people.  They are now focused on getting ahead and not on these old, traditional things.  So it’s come to the point where if the older generation shared their wisdom with the younger generation, they just dismiss it.  There is no respect, there is no value for wisdom of the old in the new generation of the modern era.”

Assuredly, there are positive aspects to such expansion.  In a mere ten years, the village has gone from three hours of electricity daily to access twenty-four-seven.  Waterlines are soon to be expanded from the city system.  Land values are rising as the city expands outward, crossing into the village limits.

Yet these material gains run the risk of overwhelming Kankarda’s ideas of home.  Those of a place where children have the freedom to roam from home to home, playing in the streets and fields with their distant cousins.  A community that welcomes a complete stranger into their world as an honored guest for two weeks, no questions asked.  A place where evening skies are met with the smell of fresh chipatis cooking over small fires in open courtyards, where mugs of chai zigzag their way through narrow streets during intimate gatherings.  In another ten years time will locks on fences have become as prevalent as the televisions that already peek out from behind wood paneled doors in virtually every residence?

Few understand how best to respond to these changes. While opinion for the railway has not been entirely negative thus far, as individuals who were forced to sell already unproductive lands were fairly happy to trade them in for a cash payment, such a sightline may not be far enough; little thought has been given to what will happen when the lump sum runs out.  Few have saved any part of their payment, with many spending on transient, material objects like food and motorbikes that hold little value over time.

But change they must. The railway line is only the tip of the wider tectonic shifts taking place in India’s economic, political, and cultural landscape; these shifts, as the nation lurches into a globalized capitalist modernity, will shake the very social and cultural foundations that have defined her society, history and heritage for centuries. And it is in places like Kankarda where these tremors are most being felt. How the residents of India’s small towns, which represent 71% of her population, survive these decades of change may well determine the success or failure of India’s march towards modernity, and what is left behind along the way.

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education for all?

Education for All? – Images by Elizabeth Herman

This piece was written and photos taken during the [EXPOSURE]/VII Photo Workshop in Siem Reap, Cambodia, June 2008. Co-led by Gary Knight and Mort Rosenblum.

“Education for All”
by Elizabeth Herman

The seven o’clock bell clangs and feet, springing to life, scamper towards the voice booming from the loudspeaker.  Its commands, singsong in cadence, bounce off white washed schoolroom walls.  Students fall into lines stretching the length of the building, rows of dark blue bottoms and light blue – collared shirts.  A passerby smiles: these kids found a way to go to school despite the poverty that surrounds them.

But as quickly as students scurry from the classroom, that thought evaporates.  The truth is that most kids their age at work now, either with parents at home, at a job they have likely had for years, or in the rice paddies.  Secondary school is an accomplishment only 31 percent of Cambodian children achieve as opposed to 90 percent who go to primary school.  Only 5 percent will reach the third level, and fewer still will graduate.

Some might say Cambodian children are lucky to have any schools at all 30 years after the Khmer Rouge.  Among their first actions on seizing power was to close all schools and start a systematic execution of teachers.  Only 5,000 out of 20,000 teachers survived.

After the Khmer Rouge’s rule, attempts to rebuild education moved slowly.  More civil strife left the country with sub-par schools and low enrollment rates.    Literacy rates were 85 percent for children and 75.6 percent for adults respectively compared to 98.0 percent and 93.4 percent elsewhere in Southeast Asia.  For adult woman, the rate is 66.7 percent compared to 90.6 percent for the region.

Cambodian education once brought pride.  After independence in 1953, King Sihanouk developed infrastructure with astounding vigor.  He built hundreds of schools in an attempt to create a national identity.

One man who has followed the fall and attempted rise is To Kim Sean, director of Education of Youth and Sport in Siem Reap.  Growing up in a peasant family, Mr. To said he would “go to school half of the time and work half of the time.”  He was educated in Sihanouk’s schools and then taught later from 1971 to 1975 after receiving his BA.  When the Khmer Rouge took power, he was one of the few teachers who survived.  His experience gave him perspective on the broken education system.

Mr. To recognizes the system should be overhauled.  “The government should train the children to get both a general education and technical training,” he said.  “From my experience, technical training is extremely important.  During the Khmer Rouge, though it was a hard time, I was able to survive knowing the technical farming skills that I know.  If we can train children in both ways, then perhaps they can achieve more success.”

This method might seem pointless in Siem Reap with its bustling streets and crowded markets, but it could be extremely useful in agrarian villages.  These villages are plagued by high drop out rates after primary schools.  Many have no secondary schools, and villagers can’t afford the time or money to head for town.

But even if the schools were in children’s backyards, many still could not go.  They’re needed to help their families.  Driving through Phnom Kong, it’s not rare to see a 4-year-old child washing clothes by a pump or tending to the family’s cooking fire.   As early as nine, the children are encouraged to work as recyclers, beggars, booksellers, and more.  When they hit their mid-teens, they’re often expected to have at least a part-time job.

To increase enrollment, some countries have adopted programs known as conditional cash transfers (CCTs) in which parents are given money, and sometimes food, in exchange for keeping their children in school.  In places such as Mexico, communities have seen startling results.  CCTs have been especially successful to help increase numbers of students continue on to secondary school, which is when many Khmer children drop out.

In the absence of such programs, many Cambodians see education not as an investment that leads to increased income but rather as a risk – and one that including losing an additional salary.  When families earn a dollar a day, that matters.

Anna Svey, now 16, was forced to leave school after eighth grade to work and care for her family.  Though she recycled cans from age 9 and hawked books on the streets since she was 12, she found a balance all too familiar to young Cambodians – school from 7 to 11, then work after lunch.  Anna was the first in her class and reading is still her favorite pastime.  But her mother’s seventh child, with the death of her father, was too great a strain.

Now she spends mornings cleaning and cooking.  At night, she asked tourists in perfect English to buy her cheaply photocopied books.  She sells maybe one, maybe two, but more often none.  Her mother depends on this income, so she perseveres.

Older Cambodian children often forgo school to support their siblings.   Ms. Am, mother of four and recently a widow, was forced to let her two older sons drop out to support the family and keep the two younger children in school.  “I decided to send all of them to go to school and see which one is the better one and who can advance their education, so later on I can expect that they would work in a company and make some money,” Am said.

For children who only work, few hopes lie ahead.  When asked what she would like to do, Anna said, “Whatever my mother wants me to do.  I will do whatever she says.”  Most likely, that means working for the family, contributing her salary to feed for six brothers and sisters.

Even those children who stay in school face difficulties:  large classes, generic teaching methods, badly trained and unmotivated teachers, and a lack of resources. Teachers, underpaid, often take an additional job and become restless when they their students cannot focus.

Still, important steps have been taken over the past decade to train teachers. The Ministry of Education has opened new facilities, and foreign voluntary agencies help.  VVOB, an education for development program run by the Flemish Association for Development Cooperation and Technical Assistance, works with the Provincial Teacher Training College in Siem Reap to train teachers.  Free of cost and working around a five-tiered learner-centered methodology, it is running from 2004 until 2009.

Tola Keng, a 23 year-old student there, managed to continue his education through high school, unlike to two of his eight brothers and sisters, who had to leave school due to economic hardship.

Now, he feels he’s found his calling.  “This school is so different from studying in the secondary school in the countryside.  In secondary school, you learn many different subjects.  But here, you are trained to become a leader; I’m being trained to become a teacher.  I want to become a leader for my people, to help them be good people.”

On Nguon, the assistant project director, said, “We want to work on capacity building here and fund and support teacher training in order to guide teachers to learn the learning-centered methodology.”  He sees this as a vast improvement from the repetitive and rote recitation of the traditional teacher-centered ways.

Although Mr. On is hopeful, he says there is a long way to go; “If you compare Cambodia to other countries in the region, like Malaysia and Thailand, we are still at a lower level than them, especially in the lower schools.”  Just as the killing fields stand as a constant reminder of the Khmer Rouge, so does the brokenness of the education system that persists today.

Most disheartening is the fact is that many feel the golden age of education in Cambodia is a past success rather than a future goal.  King Sihanouk’s overhaul of the education system created an incredible infrastructure of schools, but that surge in enlightenment thinking all but vanished with the country’s decades of civil strife that followed.

However, there is hope.  The Ministry of Education has passed three policies that are working to improve enrollment rates and quality of lessons.  NGOs like VVOB are working with the government to learn how to better teach Khmer youth.  And, when prodded a bit more, Anna admits that one day she would like to save up enough money to move to Australia or England and open a store of her own.  Perhaps, a bookstore.

red school

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a quick update

ajmer, rajasthan, india; august 2009.

ajmer, rajasthan, india; august 2009.

it’s wild here. completely overwhelming, but that was to be expected. Delhi was unbelievable – you take some hair raising car rides, and we took a train down to Ajmer that let us see the Rajasthani countryside. the colors are incredible – all the women, no matter if they’re rich or poor, wear these brightly colored saris – orange, neon yellow, florescent pink – and look so beautiful and ethereal in them. i think the internet is too slow to upload pictures, but i may try to let some load overnight. we’ll see.

there was this huge electrical storm tonight in which it didn’t rain for a long while – just lightning skipping between the clouds. but then, all of a sudden, the skies opened up and it just poured. a literal monsoon. we were about to eat dinner outside, and had to quickly dart in! but made sure to stop on the porch and watch the sheets of rain coming down for a while.

besides that, the jet lag still lingers and afternoon naps beckon when the temperature hits 100F. luckily, that’s when the light’s the worst for photographs! Jess and i have a lovely room that overlooks the courtyard and has a duck for a doorkeep, and we’re both pretty tired right now and are going to hit the sack. i’m still working on building my hindi vocabulary, but for now, namaste!

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just arrived in Delhi!

A quick post – Jess and I just got to the Ananda Hotel in Delhi, where we have a mere few hours before we have to head out again.  It’s midnight and we’re not tired at all, so we’re taking care of computer tidings while we have the internets.  And watching “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.”

Check in at this site from time to time  – I’ll try to post whenever I find wifi.  For now, a quick shot to express our general sentiment.

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bienvenue à paris

A few early disclaimers to begin with. So, this has been promoted as a photoblog, and as I’m certainly not one that likes false advertising, I’m hoping to follow through with that very soon. But as this post will reveal, there’s a reason to this madness – and if that’s still not good enough for you, head over to http://www.flickr.com/photos/elizabethdherman, where I’ve uploaded a few thus far. Bookmark it, RSS it, compulsively click the refresh button – whatever you may desire, and I’ll do my best to satiate your internet hungers.

This has been a week of adjustments, not only to Parisian ways, but also to having a bit of free time plopped in my hands. Faced with an afternoon to myself – when does that ever happen, nevermind in Paris?! – I decided to walk all the way down from the ACCENT center where classes are held (near the Bastille), back to my dorm at the Cité U, down in the 14e arrondissement. Mapping my route out to the best of my abilities on GoogleMaps, it looks like it turned out to be about 6.5 miles, what with all my twisty turns and indirect strolls; it was a two and a half journey that took me across Ile. Saint-Louis, down boulevard Saint-Michel, through le Jardin du Luxembourg, beyond Denfert-Rochereau, and led me to discover le Parc Montsouris, a beautiful little treasure right across from la Cité. See the map for deets.

Though the D80 was in my bag (which reminds me, I still need a name for that one – suggestions?), I decided to leave it there during the hike. The earbuds also ended up packed away within the first ten minutes as well. Though not having to zip and unzip my bag was an added plus, it was more the ‘I need to feel this right now and not try to take a zillion pictures to attempt to capture it’ that won me over. Laura and I had had our day rollicking around taking photos in and around the parks of the 1e arr, but this time seemed more like a chance to blend into the fabric of the city and see how it worked and sounded and ate and moved. The camera, while I love seeing new places through its eyes, is, as you might guess, a hinderance at times. But! Have no fear, I’ll try not to let myself be deterred. Blindshooting is still one of my favorite past times, and aren’t sidewalk cafés just calling out to that?

For now, it’s off to bed for this one, while keeping one eye open in hopes of another lightning show like the one a couple hours ago saw. Stay tuned, folks, and thanks for checking in!

Bisous, or as they say here –
Biz

Responses below or to elizabethdherman (at) gmail (dot) com. Ask me for the cell!

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