Rising from the Ashes: Women’s Narratives of 1971 is, from a critical standpoint, a compendium of almost all facets of human nature, ranging from extreme cruelty to supreme acts of kindness (at times from unexpected quarters), with avarice, lust, selfishness, betrayal, sympathy, empathy, fatalism, and wily thinking thrown in between. Specifically, the book is a narrative about Bengali women during the war of liberation. The Foreword (by Hameeda Hossain) to the anthology explains the background of the undertaking: “In 2001 Ain o Salish Kendra published oral histories of 22 women who recounted their experiences during the war of independence in 1971 — accounts of loss, sexual violence, displacement, desertion, escape.” Subsequently, with Niaz Zaman’s deft translation, UPL has published the book in English. The expected larger readership will get to know about the privations suffered by Bengali women during the war, and, importantly, for years after Bangladesh had become a sovereign independent nation-state.
The narratives of the 22 women, while being able to move most readers, do not attempt to present any profound sociological or socio-economic theory, although several of the writers round off their individual pieces with comments and observations that are reflective of the usually highly-charged persona of the average Bangladeshi. Almost all the interviews of the women were conducted in 1997, with a significant follow-up of one case in 2005. The rationale for making their stories public at the risk of their falling victims again is provided by Hameeda Hossain: “…many feminists argued that women needed to share their pain as part of the national narrative, to seek not only retribution for the past, but restoration of their human dignity. Justice also demanded that these stories of war crimes became warning signals against the violence in our societies.” The reader will discover that several women actually suffered a variety of repercussions when their stories went public, and in some cases their human dignity was debased, while one can legitimately wonder if these stories have had much of an, if any, effect against violence in our society.
A more practical limitation in terms of intensive study on the subject is offered in the introduction by Mofidul Hoque: “Any oral history project has its strengths and limitations. Oral accounts can probe deeper into human experience that remains outside the purview of formal history, but the broad perspective of historical events cannot be fully explored by oral accounts only. Moreover, there is a limitation on the number of oral accounts one can collect and analyse.” The reader, therefore, may choose to go through these accounts as individual narratives, and then draw the appropriate conclusions. The selected women are drawn from Dhaka, Narayanganj, Chittagong, Chittagong Hill Tracts, Khulna, Satkhira, Kushtia, Natore, Barisal, and Sherpur.
Several of the respondents, even though a quarter of a century had passed between their traumatic ordeal and their interviews, showed signs of what I think (and I could be wrong on this) is being called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to explain the behaviour patterns of US (and other countries’) veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars. Zebunnessa Begum, Nilufa, Rumana, Farzana and Sharmin (the last four being sisters), all from educated middle class backgrounds, displayed what can only be described as PTSD syndromes while being interviewed or while talking of their experiences and acknowledging that they were psychologically disturbed. Zebunnessa, mother of well-known Rabindra Sangeet singer Sadi Mohammad Taqiullah and dancer Shibli Mohammad Enamullah, lost her husband, who was murdered by some Biharis in Mohammadpur as soon as the military crackdown began. Almost at the same time, in Narayanganj, Nilufa and her siblings lost their parents, killed by the Pakistan army.
Then there were the privations suffered by women (in some cases, they were hardly more than children) from a rural, not-so-well-off background. Most were raped, some had lost their husbands at the army’s hands, and all were (expectedly) severely traumatized. Most have carried their psychological scars even to the day they were interviewed a considerable distance in time from the events that took place, and almost all have complained of their perceived and real neglect by successive governments of Bangladesh, and the social ostracism they have endured after they testified in public at the people’s court organized by the Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Committee.
The effects of war have been much greater than the loss of a loved one or of the forcible violation of one’s body. For example, in Zebunnessa’a case, she is convinced that her eldest son went through a major personality change for the worse as a result of the loss of his father and the war itself. She herself had to go through enormous hardship to make ends meet, and care for her children as they were growing up. Hers is a story of a brave woman determined not to let the sustained trials and tribulations of life defeat her, but the impression that unmistakably comes through in her narrative is that she has been deeply scarred psychologically, a condition from which it will take a lot to come out of. The more poignant story is that of Nilufa (who was barely into her teens when her parents were killed) and her younger siblings. Not just having to go through the loss of both their parents, they had also to undergo the collective onslaught of avarice, deprivation, injustice, neglect, indifference, snide remarks, and suffering at the hands of relatives, immediate and close, long-time neighbours, opportunists, and the government. Farzana’s anguish is an eloquent testimony to their situation: “Losing our parents, we lost everything…. It becomes impossible to maintain one’s social status if one’s parents are dead.”
The traumatic experiences of women were not limited to just the Bengalis, Muslims and Hindus alike. The story of two indigenous women from the Chittagong Hill Tracts, one poor, and who was raped, and the other from a well-to-do, influential, and distinguished family lineage, whose husband was killed by the army, allegedly at the instigation of another indigenous man, are both a narrative of army brutality, and one of jealousy and avarice. Both the affected women have apparently remained stoic in the face of post-traumatic adversity, but that could be due to any number of reasons, including personality traits of their ethnic community. The poorer of the two, however, in addition to being stoic, has also been suffering from PTSD and has fatalistically resigned herself to the physical trauma that was visited on her.
Many of the affected women talk about the negative attitude of their relatives. Social mores and strictures often gain ascendancy over the victimized kin’s distress and psychological scarring. The experience of Zulekha, who was raped and whose husband was killed, illustrates this point. Not only in the post-liberation period her neighbours, under various pretexts and stratagems, gobbled up what little land she and her husband had owned, she was ostracized in her community, and when she went for financial help to her well-to-do elder brother’s house in Bashirhat, India, she was told by him and his wife never to come see them again. In a cruel twist of fate, she had to sell the metal water jug she had carried with her for raising money for her return fare back to Satkhira.
Among the saddest outcomes of the raped women’s fate have been the taunts and vicious remarks their children have received from various people. These children themselves became tangential victims, and some even contemplated suicide while a few even blamed their mothers for having been raped. Some of the husbands understood their wives’ ordeal; others were much less accommodating. The most startling story in the book is the saga of Binapani Saha, the widow of an affluent Hindu businessman of Sherpur, and Major Riaz of the Pakistan army. One has to read this fascinating story to later cogitate over the otherwise improbability of it all. Except that it happened as narrated. The story was told by the slain Nibaron Chandra Saha’s widow Binapani and their son Gautam Chandra Saha, who was about to enter his teens in 1971. Nibaron Saha was killed apparently on the orders of the Pakistan army commander in the area, Major Riaz. There are a lot of twists and turns in the tale, but eventually Riaz became the protector (mainly from a variety of local people) of Binapani and her son. The upshot was that neither mother nor son is prepared to place any blame on Riaz for Nibaron Saha’s death.
In fact, the reader will get a lot of reactions regarding the war and their ordeal from the victims that might defy their credulity or common knowledge. For example, Zebunnessa, who lost her husband at the hands of Biharis, also singles out other Biharis who saved her and her family. Blame has gone around in several directions to explain their misfortunes, both during, and following, the war of liberation. Rising from the Ashes: Women’s Narratives of 1971 should enthrall the reader, though the more research-oriented scholar will have to look for much more additional material.
Dr. Shahid Alam — filmmaker, actor, critic — is Head, Media and Communication Department, Independent University Bangladesh (IUB).
By Shaheen Akther (Editor) Suraiya Begum (Editor) Meghna Guhathakurta(Editor) Hameeda Hossain (Editor) Sultana Kamal (Editor) Niaz Zaman(Translator)