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 they played a very significant role in the war. But in the pages of history, we rarely see the heroic presence of women. They are mostly 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 the 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, though women participated in the war as guerrilla fighters, informers, mothers, nurses, doctors, organizers, motivator singers, journalists, volunteers, and different other roles. When we read any novel, reference book, or watch a 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 different other activities, always want to remind us only the incidents of rape of around 2 lac women in the war and for this, they have got 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 the year of 1947, Pakistan (East & West) and India got independence from the British Raj on the basis of 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 very beginning of the journey of Pakistan. In these protests and movements, women also participated along with the men. History suggests that women didn’t confine themselves to four walls, rather they came out to the street and raised their voices against dictatorship (Begum, 1990). They had participated in 1952’s language movement, 1954’s general election of United Front, 1960’s protest against the dictator Ayub Khan, 1966’s Six Points Movement, 1969’s mass upsurge, 1970’s general election of Pakistan (DURC, 2014). It proves that Bengali women were politically conscious and from a very earlier period of the birth of Pakistan, they fought for their rights coming to the street along with men. Even Bengali women joined at 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 for doing something for their homeland, which they proved in the year 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. But gender is totally a social and cultural construction that defines the roles and responsibilities of men and women in society. According to this perspective, women are considered to perform only household chores, reproduction, and rearing up the children. Even society has decided what should be the role of women at the time of war.
From the very beginning of human history, it’s been thought that war is totally a manly phenomenon (Pettman, 2005). Morgenthau, Kenneth Waltz, and many other scholars in their writings also mentioned the role of men on the battlefield. They argued that war has similarities with masculinity (Pettman, 2005). Women are weak and not capable of carrying guns, ammunition, and other materials on the battlefield are thought by a large number of people of the society still now. Rather they should stay at home and take care of family members at war times. As male members of the family remain busy on the battlefield, women have to perform economic activities too. Thus they are discouraged to join the war, even though some of them are very eager to participate.
Despite having these difficulties many women are seen participating in the war from their standings and they play a very significant role. But our traditional society isn’t interested in acknowledging their bravery and sufferings. This thing also happened to the women who participated in the liberation war of Bangladesh. Out of the 676 gallantry awards only 2 have gone to women named Dr. Setara Begum & Taramon Bibi (Roy, 2017).
There are several reasons behind undermining the contribution of women to the independence war of Bangladesh. 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 besides 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 of the women who participated in the liberation war were from lower caste and poor & illiterate. So, in many cases after the war, their heroic deeds didn’t 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 basically men. They only heightened the glory of the male freedom fighters in their writings.
- No initiatives were taken by the government and also non-government organizations after the end of the war to keep the records of women who participated in the war.
- In the films and dramas made on the events of the independence war, women in most of the cases are shown only as victims of war. These two are the main sources of entertainment and information to the mass people. As there the role of women isn’t 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 started taking from the individual level to unveil the contribution of women to the liberation war of Bangladesh. It was very late and by this time mass, people built their own world of imagination from the available history about the independence war. Now when they hear about the tales of brave women on the battlefield, it becomes very difficult for them to believe as they can’t relate it with the history which they taught earlier.
Bangladeshi Women’s Contribution to the Liberation War
At the time of the liberation war of Bangladesh half of the total population were 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 the training of guerilla warfare, and worked as combatants, some worked as nurses in the 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, 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 basically work on this issue. Their contributions to the war, staying from different individual positions, are discussed below.
Women as Guerilla Fighter and Informant
On the battlefield, many women directly fought against the Pakistani juntas. In 1971, 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 about 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 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 didn’t have any doubt about them. They didn’t imagine that women and children were being used as informers. Though this was very risky stuff, they did it very eagerly. Women had the ambition to do something for their country too at any cost. So, they didn’t flee from the battleground. Bir Protik Taramon Bibi used to cook for freedom fighters in Rajibpur camp (DURC, 2014). There she also performed the duty of informants. Like her, many other women performed their roles in the battleground. It was impossible to continue guerilla warfare without help.
Women as Volunteer, Social Worker & Organizer
Women played a very significant role as volunteers and social workers at the time of 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, JJharna 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 other administrative works both inside and outside the border. They showed their competency as successful organizers at different times.
Women as Doctor & Nurse
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 possible to get independence from West Pakistan. But 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. But now time has come to acknowledge them and their glory. In this regard, female scholars and writers should play an effective role and to many extents, they are performing their jobs very well. 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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