Opinion: Bangladesh's 'women of war' remember Bengali Language Movement

Written By: Nishtha Gautam WION
Noida, Uttar Pradesh, India Published: Feb 21, 2017, 10:01 AM(IST) Updated: Feb 21, 2018, 04:54 AM(IST)

Birangona: Women of War? talks about the victims of mass rapes in Bangladesh during the liberation war Photograph:( Others )

What is the language of trauma? How do we express the horrors our psyches and bodies face? In most cases, the answer is mother tongue. But what happens when the very trauma is caused, in some measure, by the mother language or the denial of the same? 

Remember the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war and the answer becomes a sordid tale of a naked power struggle. East Pakistan fought for its right to use Bengali as the official language, amongst other things. From the Bengali Language Movement in 1952 to the liberation in 1971, mother language received libations of blood. A new nation was eventually birthed and with it another painful linguistic conundrum.

On this International Mother Language Day, I remember my conversation with Sadaf Saaz, a poet, writer, and women’s rights’ activist from Bangladesh. Saaz describes her activism as an “idea of unpacking what is happening around us.” She says, “It’s an overused word but the idea of ‘awareness’ doesn’t have an expiry date. Because things aren’t always what they appear to be. We may think or be progressive in so many ways, and we indeed are, but there are certain structural things that still need to be changed. I think as a nation we’ve made huge strides but attitudes that need to be changed. And that’s why I produced the play Birangona.”

The idea of ‘awareness’ doesn’t have an expiry date

Women of War

‘Birangona: Women of War’ talks about the victims of mass rapes in Bangladesh during the liberation war. Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rehman referred to these women as ‘birangonas,’ Bengali for women warriors.

Saaz begins to talk about these non-warring women warriors who bore the brunt of the Bangladesh war. “I think these women have lived their lives with dignity and fortitude. Many in society shunned them but many others took them in. They are now able to voice what happened to them after all these years.”

Yet, as Salil Tripathi observed in his ‘The Colonel Who Would Not Repent’, the birangonas rarely use language as a tool to say what actually happened to them in 1971. It’s always unsaid, alluded to or met with downcast eyes.

The Language of Honour and Justice

Saaz shares an interesting perspective on retribution. “Very few women out of so many I’ve spoken to want justice in the way we understand it. Many of them just want the crimes to be acknowledged, that this actually happened to them. This is what they believe justice to be. They want their pain to be acknowledged.”

Can a mere acknowledgment of one’s ordeals be justice enough?

Saaz continues, “They want respect in the society. Now, respect in society is something that people take for granted. But just imagine this: first going through such an ordeal and then to have society shun you for something that is not your fault!” 

She adds, “For many years in the Bangladeshi society loss of honour was associated with women. How our mothers, sisters and daughters lost their honour during the war. But actually, the honour was lost by those who raped.”

"Theirs was another type of battle. For survival.”

Naming Conundrum

Does the very term ‘birangona’ not reinforce the patriarchal idea of honour in some ways? On one hand, there is a condemnation of the rape victims as damaged goods and, on the other, their valorisation as the brave ones: binaries are inescapable.  

Saaz gives a measured response. “You have to realise the context. Sheikh Mujib used the word for the first time. Six days after the war, there were a billion of things to do in this country that lost everything. An attempt was made to give some kind of recognition to the horror that had happened to these women and to give assurance that the government supported them.”

She continues, “I think it was a commendable attempt. I agree, since then it has become a pejorative term associated with the stigma of rape. Today there’s a debate in Bangladesh about dropping this epithet and call them freedom fighters instead. But then, they did not take up arms. Theirs was another type of battle. For survival.”

“In the women’s movement in Bangladesh, talking to women survivors, this is one name we are still working with. We have to be careful about recognising what they went through but their identity shouldn’t be just that. You don’t like to be called the raped one.” She takes a deep breath.     

'I feel it does take time for a country to come to terms with its past and start speaking about it in a layered way'

Gaping Holes in the Narrative

At this juncture, I ask her about her personal moments of realisation. Has her knowledge of history prepared her enough or does she still get shocked?

Saaz says, “Although I had heard stories that rape was used as a strategy of war, for a long time I didn’t know of concentration camps. And the fact that despite being a woman in Bangladesh, an insider to the women’s movement, I didn’t know of this exemplified that the information wasn’t getting out. While the “they came, they raped, they left” narrative was horrific enough I didn’t realise the extent of the cold-bloodedness with which women were kept as sex slaves to be repeatedly raped.”

Does she think, then, that poets, artists, journalists did not do their job well in filling the gaps in history?

She responds with a slight shake of the head. “We were described as the ‘basket case’ by Kissinger. We’ve come a long way since then. When I see what has been written about the war, I feel it does take time for a country to come to terms with its past and start speaking about it in a layered way. Nuanced narratives are coming out now. That’s a reason why we put together a literature festival too to nurture and have spaces where people would start writing more about the things that really matter.”

Saaz is the co-director and producer of the literature festival Hay Festival Dhaka.

Sometimes the very language becomes frustratingly inadequate in its basic function: expressing love and pain in their extremity

Language and Form

How does she want the unspeakable to be spoken about? Does she want more of documentary writing or fiction and drama?

“Of course you need the hard research, the numbers and figures. Not enough has been done on the subject of the Bangladesh genocide. No consensus on the number of people killed or women raped. It is probably the largest forgotten war. People forget that in Bangladesh there were mass rapes. On the international stage, you hear about countries like Bosnia but not Bangladesh.

But I do think, using other forms of creative expression where you can engender empathy, where you can make people see the things real human beings went through and they identify like ‘this could have happened to me had I been there’ can be extremely powerful. Cultural and literary representations are extremely important.”

About representations, Saaz has a bone to pick with the western media. “We have 4.5 million women who are first generation workers outside the home in the garments industry. Contrary to what the western media tries to portray, it has given them access to resources and empowered them in real terms.”

Bangladesh continues to grapple with challenges of identity: linguistic, religious, gender, and political. What began with the language movement in 1952, reached its peak in 1971 and remains a living and breathing presence in the country. Language and the right to use it may be worth dying for. But sometimes the very language becomes frustratingly inadequate in its basic function: expressing love and pain in their extremity.     

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)


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