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. Continue reading

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commentary, photography

women of the revolution: cairo, egypt

 

Back on the blogging train, and this time with a recent piece I did for GlobalPost.  The photographs were published here, the words are up only on this site.  This continues an exploration that I’ve been working on for the past few years, on the role and experience of women in conflict, previously done in Vietnam and Bangladesh, and now here in the United States.  This is the chapter from Egypt, centering on what Cairene women had to say on being female and immersed in the recent political uprisings in Egypt.  They spoke both to the events themselves, and to the representation of women in the revolution by the media; their responses were impassioned and highly varied – read on to learn more.

Women of the Revolution

The events of Tahrir Square in January and February 2011 have been hailed as everything from a boon to a bust for the women of Egypt, with countless reports covering and recovering retrospectives on women’s role in the continuing Egyptian revolution.  But what do the women themselves have to say, about their own stories? Continue reading

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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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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.

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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.

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commentary, video

whoops!

So this one time, I fainted after interviewing a woman who shot down an American fighter pilot in the Vietnam War and woke to find her rubbing mentol into my temples. And as it turns out, there’s a video of it! By our wonderful translator, Chau, who’s giving the play by play in the clip.

Taken this past summer while working on the Woman Warriors project in Hue, Vietnam.  And here’s the portrait of the lovely Vietnamese grandmother who’s fanning me (and who later gave me some wonderful homemade lemonade to help me feel well enough to make her portraits).

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