A Woman's War
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 saree. 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.
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This year marks the 40th anniversary of the birth of Bangladesh, a nation that emerged from a bloody fight for independence from Pakistan. The story of Bangladesh’s liberation struggle is one that is well told and well remembered by the nation; the official narratives are retold and exchanged often – and often by heart. Stories of the origins of the movement, of its key players and events, of its Freedom Fighters, or mukti juddha, who came together to fight for Bangladeshi independence and emerged victorious in December 1971 after nine months of intense guerrilla warfare, are recounted in schoolbooks and events across the country, month after month, year after year.
But the individual stories stray from these official narratives. They begin long before the start of the war in March 1971, and continue far beyond its conclusion. They are the stories of women who grew up during the heart of the Language Movement, who attended college amidst intense political and social upheaval. Who found themselves in the middle of a war-torn country – and at the frontlines of the battle for its independence.
A woman’s war is distinct. She not only has to be a fighter, but is also expected remain a mother, wife, and anchor of the family. Women performed key roles in the 1971 war, serving as combatants, informants, nurses, weapons smugglers, and much more. They also suffered its consequences: psychological trauma, physical debilitation, displacement, widowhood, mass rape with associated pregnancies, and the destruction of their homes and livelihoods. At the end of the war, they were left with the dual burden of confronting its scars, while attempting to reconstruct their own and their family's lives.
Perhaps most egregiously, many found that their war experiences were a source of embarrassment and shame rather than honor and respect. Female mukti juddha, who served the same roles for which their male counterparts have been honored, were forced to conceal their histories in order to protect their dignity and livelihoods. Many found themselves cast out of their families or unable to find a suitor willing to marry a former fighter, fearing stigmatization by the woman’s past.
Yet, their ordeals remain largely invisible; as Sharmeen Murshid writes, “the 16 volume history of the liberation war published by the government shows an incredible amnesia about the role of women combatants…only emphasiz[ing] women as victims.” With records and rituals of recognition ignoring women’s contributions, their struggles both during and after the war are unrecorded and unrecognized.
While official narratives fail to recognize the histories of these female combatants, they remain deep in the hearts of those who experienced them. They face them day after day, developing ways to quietly cope and move beyond them. These women, who raised the first generation of Bangladeshis born after 1971, have been guiding forces in shaping the country and its identity. In learning their stories, and understanding how conflict has shaped them as mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives, one can see how war not only affects those who see 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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I set out a year ago hoping to learn some of the accounts of these women. What I found was a whole other history from the one that I had read about in books and papers.
The project started as a kernel of an idea, sparked by photographs I saw in Drik Photo Agency’s 1971 archives: images of Bangladeshi women in beautifully draped white sarees, marching in perfect lines, rifles perched on their shoulders. Images led to questions, which blossomed into an oral history and photography project – “A Woman’s War.”
The journey took all of 2011 and crisscrossed Bangladesh, bringing me from the heart of its megacity capital of Dhaka to some of the most remote villages in the countryside. It led to veterans, activists, legal experts, writers, and artists engaged in these issues of memory and history. It opened the door to a community of women who had been carrying with them their stories from 1971, most untold in forty years since the war’s completion.
In celebrating its fortieth birthday, will Bangladesh take the time to look back before moving forward? Will the histories of these women – those who ignited the liberation movement, meeting every week under a banyan tree at Dhaka University, who dedicated their lives to the war, losing children and spouses, parents and siblings along the way, who stepped into spaces where even many men would not dare to go – so long left out of the main narrative become incorporated? Each woman spoke to the importance of sharing their stories in this moment; with the start of war crime tribunals, they underscored a hope that a reassessment of national history will take place, one that brings the role of women as fighter rather than victim into the story. These are the histories and perspectives that Bangladesh has yet to confront, yet whose documentation and acknowledgement is crucial if the nation – and these women who fought for its independence – are to find justice and peace.
Elizabeth D. Herman is an independent photographer and researcher currently residing in New York, New York, having just returned from a year in Dhaka, Bangladesh as a Fulbright Fellow researching the political and social influences of narrative construction, focusing specifically on accounts of the Liberation War. The work developed into two projects - the first an examination of how current political agendas have influenced retellings of the war in national history textbooks over time, and the second a photography and oral history project documenting the lives of women who fought in the Liberation War. She was recently named a 2011 Finalist of The Aftermath Project for her work on the latter project.
Elizabeth recently graduated from Tufts University with a B.A. in Political Science and Economics. While at Tufts she received Highest Thesis Honors on her senior honors thesis in Political Science, which examined emerging representations of September 11th, 2001 in secondary school history textbooks worldwide. Elizabeth has been photographing since high school, where she spent countless hours tucked away in the darkroom. Since then, she has completed a number of photo essays focusing on various issues of human rights and social justice in Siem Reap, Cambodia, Hue, Vietnam, Ajmer, India, and Dhaka, Bangladesh, as well as in a number of cities throughout the US. Elizabeth also runs a small blog that focuses on the importance of narrative and language entitled, The Stories We Tell. For more of her photography work, please visit her portfolio site.