In the liberation war of Bangladesh, people of all ages participated impulsively. Apart from men, women also came forward to fight against the Pakistani junta and played a significant role in the war. But in the pages of history, we rarely see the heroic presence of women. They are mainly presented as victims of war. In this paper, the author has tried to identify the underlying reasons for undermining the contribution of women to the independence war of Bangladesh. And different roles played by women during the war, such as guerrilla fighters, informants, volunteers, social workers, organizers, motivators, and so on, have been discussed in the paper.
The liberation war of Bangladesh started after the announcement of independence by great leader Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on 26th March 1971. After a valiant struggle of 9 months, on 16th December 1971, Bangladesh got its independence from Pakistan. In the war, women also contributed to men from their standings. But the role of women isn’t discussed that much till now. However, women participated in the war as guerrilla fighters, informers, mothers, nurses, doctors, organizers, motivator singers, journalists, volunteers, and other roles. When we read any novel, reference book, or movie on the liberation war of Bangladesh, we rarely find the heroic presence of women there. It’s our failure that we only portrayed, and still, many of us are trying to represent women as the victims of war. Prominent writers and policymakers of ours, except a few, through their writings and other activities, always want to remind us only of the incidents of rape of around 2 lac women in the war. For this, they have the status of ‘Birangona’ (Amin, Ahmed & Ahsan, 2017). But in reality, this doesn’t show the whole picture. In the war, women played a significant role more than that. Without their help, it won’t be possible to get freedom only from the male freedom fighters. This paper tries to find out the contribution of Bangladeshi women to the liberation war of 1971 from different standings.
Background of the Study
In 1947, Pakistan (East & West) and India gained independence from the British Raj based on Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s ‘Two Nations Theory’ (Riaz, 2016). The West Pakistanis (present Pakistan) exploited the people of East Pakistan (present Bangladesh) by various means and created discrimination in social, political, and economic sectors (Riaz, 2016). The people of East Pakistan protested against this inequality and discrimination from the beginning of the journey to Pakistan. In these protests and movements, women also participated along with men. History suggests that women did not confine themselves to four walls. Instead, they came out to the street and raised their voices against the dictatorship (Begum, 1990). They participated in 1952’s language movement, 1954’s general election of the United Front, 1960’s protest against the dictator Ayub Khan, 1966’s Six Points Movement, 1969’s mass upsurge, and 1970’s general election of Pakistan (DURC, 2014). It proves that Bengali women were politically conscious. From a significantly earlier period of the birth of Pakistan, they fought for their rights, coming to the street along with men. Even Bengali women joined the RaceCourse Field on 7th March 1971 to hear the speech of the undisputed leader of Bangladesh, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (Begum, 1990). They had the aspiration in their mind to do something for their homeland, which they proved in 1971 by engaging themselves at war both directly and indirectly.
Reasons behind Undermining Women’s Contribution
Sex is the biological characteristic that differentiates a man from a woman. However, gender is a social and cultural construction that defines the roles and responsibilities of men and women in society. According to this perspective, women only perform household chores, reproduction, and rearing children. Even society has decided what should be the role of women at the time of war.
From the beginning of human history, it has been thought that war is a manly phenomenon (Pettman, 2005). In their writings, Morgenthau, Kenneth Waltz, and many other scholars also mentioned the role of men on the battlefield. They argued that war has similarities with masculinity (Pettman, 2005). Women are weak and incapable of carrying guns, ammunition, and other materials on the battlefield, which is thought by many people in society still now. Instead, they should stay home and care for family members during the war. As male family members remain busy on the battlefield, women also have to perform economic activities. Thus they are discouraged from joining the war, even though some are very eager to participate.
Despite these difficulties, many women are seen participating in the war from their standings, playing a very significant role. Nevertheless, our traditional society is not interested in acknowledging their bravery and suffering. It also happened to the women who participated in the liberation war of Bangladesh. Of the 676 gallantry awards, only two have gone to women named Dr. Setara Begum & Taramon Bibi (Roy, 2017).
There are several reasons behind undermining women’s contribution to Bangladesh’s independence war. They are mentioned in the following:
- Our patriarchal society is still not interested in recognizing the sacrifices and bravery of women in the liberation war against men. Most of us feel uncomfortable discussing the heroic role of women besides men on the battlefield, remembering the incidents of rape of around 2 lac women done by Pakistani soldiers.
- Most women who participated in the liberation war were from lower caste and poor & illiterate. So, in many cases, after the war, their heroic deeds did not get the attention of the researchers.
- Scholars and researchers who have written various articles and books on the liberation war of Bangladesh till now are men. They only heightened the glory of the male freedom fighters in their writings.
- The government and non-government organizations took no initiative after the war’s end to keep records of women who participated in the war.
- In the films and dramas made on the events of the independence war, women, in most cases, are shown only as victims of war. These two are the primary sources of entertainment and information for the mass people. As the role of women is not shown, it has been constructed in their minds (especially the young generation) that men only fought for the country.
- After a long time (around 17 years), initiatives were taken from the individual level to unveil the contribution of women to the liberation war of Bangladesh. It was very late; by this time, masses of people had built their world of imagination from the history of the independence war. When they hear about the tales of brave women on the battlefield, it becomes tough for them to believe as they cannot relate it to the history they taught earlier.
Bangladeshi Women’s Contribution to the Liberation War
At the time of the liberation war in Bangladesh, half of the total population was women (DURC, 2014). They contributed to the war from their positions, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly. Many of them, crossing the border, reached India, took guerilla warfare training, and worked as combatants. Some worked as nurses in hospitals, and some chose other voluntary jobs in the refugee camps. Moreover, they also contributed to the liberation war by staying inside the country by providing food, shelter, inspiration, and information to the freedom fighters. We have learned about their sufferings and sacrifices from Nilima Ibrahim, Jahanara Imam, Sufia Kamal, Roma Chowdhury, Selina Hossain, Forkan Begum, and many other prominent writers who work on this issue. Their contributions to the war, from different individual positions, are discussed below.
Women as Guerilla Fighters and Informants
On the battlefield, many women directly fought against the Pakistani juntas. In 1971, the Gobra camp was established in Kolkata, India, where women freedom fighters were provided training to take part in the frontal war through the direction of MP Syeda Shajeda Chowdhury (Begum, 2010)). In that camp, about 300 women received training in civil defense, nursing, and how to operate weapons and guerilla attacks (Khan, 2017). At Assam, Tripura, and Meghalaya, another three camps were set up for female fighters (Khan, 2017). On the battlefield, Kakon Bibi, Shirin Banu Mitil, Ashalota, Rawshan Ara, Bithika Bishwas, Meherunnesa many more women fought frontal wars for the country. The first women’s guerilla squad was formed by the leadership of Forkan Begum (DURC, 2014). They were selected from different refugee camps and then sent to training. A. S. M. Abdur Rob managed training for themselves according to the order of Sheikh Fazlul Haq Moni at Lembucherra Camp, Agartala (DURC, 2014).
At the time of the liberation war, women and children were used to collecting and passing information as the Pak juntas did not have any doubt about them. They did not imagine that women and children were being used as informers. Though this was scary stuff, they did it very eagerly. Women were also ambitious to do something for their country at any cost. So, they did not flee from the battleground. Bir Protik Taramon Bibi used to cook for freedom fighters in the Rajibpur camp (DURC, 2014). There she also performed the duty of informant. Like her, many other women performed their roles in the battleground. It was impossible to continue guerilla warfare without help.
Women as Volunteers, Social Worker & Organizer
Women played a very significant role as volunteers and social workers during war. They did these things willingly to accelerate the process of getting independence. They provided food and shelter to the freedom fighters staying inside the country. Sometimes they sacrificed their lives and many others to hide and save Muktibahini from the Pakistani armies.
In the book ‘Women, War and the Making of Bangladesh- Remembering 1971’ Yasmin Saikia mentioned the name of some women named Dr. Syed Ahmed Nurjahan, Suhasini, Devi, Jharna Chowdhury as Social workers (Roy, 2017). They involved themselves in the rehabilitation process of distressed and victimized women and children. This continued from the time of the liberation war to the after-war periods.
Some other women engaged themselves in recruiting freedom fighters, raising funds, collecting medicine, and doing other administrative work both inside and outside the border. They showed their competency as successful organizers at different times.
Women as Doctors & Nurses
In the battleground women also served the wounded freedom fighters and mass people as doctors and nurses. In this regard, Dr. Sitara Begum is a lively example. She crossed the border and reached Agartala. There she gave treatment to the wounded freedom fighters and refugees. She got ‘Bir Protik’ appreciation from the country for her tremendous support at the battleground (Begum, 1990). Dr, Fauzia Moslem also performed the role of a physician at the Agartala camp. Moreover, many other women voluntarily took the responsibility to render treatment to wounded people like doctors and nurses in the refugee camps.
Women as Journalist, Writer & Musician
Many women contributed to the liberation war of Bangladesh through their writings. They collected news from the battlefield and wrote them in newspapers and leaflets and disseminated it throughout the country. Mass people and freedom fighters got informed by this news. They got motivation from their success story written in these write-ups. And that made them more ambitious about independence. In the National Museum of Bangladesh, there are mentioned about 88-word soldiers and 11 of them are women (DURC, 2014).
Patriotic songs broadcast from Shadhin Bangla Betar Kendra in 1971 gave inspiration to the freedom fighters to fight for their country. This radio station started its broadcast on 26 March 1971 (Nesa, 2015). ‘Joy Bangla Banglar Joy’, ‘O Bhai Khati Sonar Cheye Khati’, ‘Mora Ekti Fulke Bachabo Bole Juddho Kori’, ‘Sob Kota Janala Khule Dao Na’, ‘Sona Sona Sona Loke Bole Sona’, ‘Purbo Digonte Surjo Utheche’, ‘Nongor Tolo Tolo’ are some songs telecast from Kalurghat Shadhin Bangla Betar Kendra in1971.
Salma Islam worked as the organizer of this cultural activity (Nesa, 2015). Shanjida Khatun, Rupa Farhad, Laila Hasan, Kalyani Ghosh, Ratna Das, Mitali Mukahrjee, Mala Khan, Shila Saha, and many other female singers sang various songs at Shadhin Bangla Betar Kendra and inspired the freedom fighters (Nesa, 2015).
Women as Motivator
Jahanara Imam is regarded as the mother of martyrs in the history of Bangladesh (Roy, 20170. She didn’t participate in the battlefields with arms. But she played a very significant role through sending her son Rumi to the war. She sacrificed her son for the country. We know this from her book ‘Ekattorer Dinguli’ and many other writings. Like this, Safia Begum sent her son Azad to the battlefield in the year 1971 and we knew it from the novel ‘Maa’ written by Anisul Huq. And many other women like this sacrificed their sons by sending them to the battleground. They always motivated their sons to fight for the country. Alongside this, women as wives, sisters motivated males to fight for the country.
At the time of the liberation war, half of the total population were women. They played a very significant role in the war. Without their sacrifice and contribution, it was not have been possible to get independence from West Pakistan. Nevertheless, their role is always ignored and denied in the independent history of Bangladesh. Our history of the independence war remains incomplete without recognizing the sacrifices of women.
Nevertheless, now the time has come to acknowledge them and their glory. In this regard, female scholars and writers should play an influential role, and they are performing their jobs very well to many extents. Bangladeshi gov’t should take the necessary initiatives to find out the female fighters who kept a significant role in the liberation war and recognize their sufferings and sacrifices.
Writer Sabbir Ahmed Emon MSS in International Relations Bangladesh University of Professionals (BUP)
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