The following edited extract is taken from Anam Zakaria’s wonderful book 1971 and includes difficult content including violence and sexual violence that requires real consideration before using in the classroom. Questions that could guide a sensitive class discussion can be found below and could be used alongside a glossary and timeline.
‘For eight months, I was a rape victim . . . each moment, every moment, they took me. When the war was ending, in November , they threw me in a concentration camp . . . there, in the barracks, I saw what they [were] doing. I cannot even explain it because it is so inhumane. It is beyond my . . . uh . . . my imagination . . . beyond anyone’s imagination, the kind of torture [inflicted] on every woman there. Even I was tortured (in the camp) for thirty-two hours. I cried, I shouted to be released . . .’
This was Ferdousi Priyabhashini who was declared a freedom fighter in Bangladesh in 2016 and was reportedly the first woman to publicly announce herself as a birangona, a war heroine. 9 Born in 1947, Ferdousi would go on to become a renowned Bangladeshi sculptor. When she passed away in 2018, her death was mourned by many.
I had been working in Kashmir at the time I decided to talk to Ferdousi, documenting stories of shelling and war on the Line of Control (LoC). As a therapist and counsellor, I had also worked with people who had suffered violence and abuse, but I knew that a conversation with Ferdousi was going to be one of the most difficult ones I had ever had. I certainly didn’t want to probe her insensitively for the sake of my research. I thus decided to walk into her house without any set questions or agenda; I wanted to let her speak to me, to tell me what she wanted to, as she wanted to.
It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of women were raped in 1971. Estimates vary anywhere between 100,000 and 400,000 (these numbers are just as contested as the number of casualties). In the aftermath of the war, the Bangladesh government gave public recognition to women who were raped in an effort to prevent them from being ostracized by society. They were given the title of ‘birangona’, which literally translates as ‘war heroine’.
Such public recognition of rape is certainly rare; in several cases around the world, speaking about sexual harassment and rape evokes shaming of those who have been abused. It is as if the ‘dishonour’ rests not so much in the act as it does in speaking about the act. Those whose abuse becomes known are shamed far more than those who abuse. During my work in Kashmir and elsewhere in the region, I found many survivors had been silenced by family members to maintain the ‘honour’ of the community, even when the community was well aware of the rape. In Bangladesh too, as I would learn, such shaming continued to take place when survivors’ rape became ‘known’.
Some in Bangladesh have faced sanctions or were shunned by their families. The rehabilitation efforts by the state could certainly not shield all women, and in fact in some cases, their ‘branding’ as birangonas only stigmatized them further.
However, women’s experiences, both during and after the war, were far from homogeneous. Many of them found stable, nurturing and caring relationships, and in response to their public acknowledgement of rape and recognition as a birangona, found warmth and acceptance, rather than being shunned or ostracized. 14 Social background, family setting, personal relationships and class, all had a part to play, creating a far more nuanced experience among rape survivors than popularly imagined. In Ferdousi’s case, the public exposure of her rape in the late 1990s would be celebrated as a success story in Bangladesh. Her story found coverage in newspapers and books, and people expressed their respect for her courage. Afterwards, she would go on to work with other women to help them bring forward their own experiences and struggle to find them acceptance in society. She told me that it was important for her to share her story, and for others to do the same, for she didn’t want people to forget what had happened to women like her in the months preceding Bangladesh’s birth.
‘In 1971, I was in Khulna, which is where I was born. I started my career at the age of sixteen. I was working . . . I had to look after my whole family: my mother, brothers, sisters, and also my three sons. [It was a] Big family. So, I had to take jobs and continue working in 1971. I could not go anywhere, because I was in service.’ Ferdousi and I communicated in English, a language she is familiar with but not fluent in. Our conversation is punctuated with pauses, and bits of Bengali, as she tries to think of the right word to capture the essence of what she wants to say.
I learnt that despite coming from an aristocratic background, Ferdousi’s family faced many financial difficulties, especially after her parents were separated, when Ferdousi was only fifteen. As the eldest of eight children, it was Ferdousi who had to start earning a living at a tender age to provide for her family. By 1971, she also had her own family. ‘The first time I got married, [I was] very young, fifteen years old. It was a wrong choice, misguided. That’s where my misfortune started.’ Married in the early 1960s and bearing three children by the early 1970s, Ferdousi’s financial woes continued to worsen. When the couple divorced, she was left with the burden of looking after her growing family. In 1971, she told me she was working at a jute mill.
‘In March, news was coming in, but I thought it was just some trouble, that it would be all right. I was giving more attention to my personal life, to my office, rather than what the country was doing. I was not a politician. But my mother came from a political family (Ferdousi’s grandfather, Abdul Hakim, had served as a Speaker in the East Pakistan Provincial Assembly), so she was running here and there, bringing news. My mother was alert about what was going to happen. Then the attack started. The non-Bengalis jumped on us and started massacring people. A few Bengalis joined them too. After 26 March, we were running here, there and everywhere. My house had so many babies: an eight-month old, a two-year old, a three-year old. They would cry for milk. We ran for almost a week to save ourselves . . . we saw many places where people were killing others.’
Realizing that tensions ran high everywhere and that they were not safer away from home, Ferdousi decided to return to her town of Khalishpur, Khulna, and rejoin work. She was acutely aware of her monetary situation and how many mouths were dependent on her. ‘I vowed to join my old office . . . I had found Mr Fidai, our general manager at the mill, to be very kind and wonderful. When I saw him at the office, I thought there would be a place for me, that I would at least have a place to stay . . . some shelter. I said to him, “Allow me to do any work, even as a peon or messenger.” But he said no [and asked me to] join as his personal secretary and telephone operator. I was happy, but the day I joined, I found out what his plans really were.’
Sending most of her family to her brother’s house in Jessore, promising to send them money once she started earning again, Ferdousi had joined work with the hope of gaining some financial stability for her relatives and children. Instead, she would tell me how that marked the beginning of her ‘torture’.
Ferdousi narrated how Mr Fidai would send men to her house, knowing that she was alone and vulnerable, pushing her to ‘cooperate’ with the ‘visitors’. When she would refuse, false charges of the murder of a professor would be levied against her. She would further be threatened that the Pakistan Army would punish her for her brothers joining the liberation war forces.
‘They blamed many people like this. It was their wish . . . they would say, “You are the killer of the professor, you provoked the killing; in this area, most of the killing is because of you.” It was their excuse to torture me. They wanted women. I used to speak good Urdu and English. Now I am forgetting all the languages, but I used to talk fluently. So, they could communicate with me, talk with me,’ she told me, indicating that her fluency in the languages they spoke made her even more ‘desirable’. ‘A lot of officers used to come . . . my organization’s head used to send them to my house. Later, I was taken to the concentration camp in Jessore.’
I am still trying to digest everything she is telling me, when she starts narrating names. ‘Naval Commander Gul Zarin, Commander Aslam, Captain Ghani, Captain Zafar . . . all of them were from the naval office. And then in the Jessore Cantonment, Colonel Khatak, Major Banuree, Captain Abdullah, Captain Ishtiaq . . .’ the list of the men who had ‘tortured’ (a term she uses often) her rolling off her tongue. ‘This way I can, I have, memorized officer’s names.’ Forty-six years later, neither the names nor the memories leave her.
I look at Ferdousi and notice that the gentle and warm expression she greeted us with never left her face, even as she talked about the violence inflicted on her. I tried to imagine her as a young woman; what must have those days been like for her, isolated in her home, left so vulnerable? For a moment, I was unable to shake the images from my head. It became difficult for me to continue. However, Ferdousi continued to speak. This time, she told me of a Pakistani officer who had helped her during some of the worst hours of her life. Just as she cannot forget those who tortured her, it is important for her to remember those who had empathized with her, had wanted to help her. ‘When they took me to the concentration camp in Jessore, there was one officer who was kind enough to help me. He said, “Don’t cry or shout. I will send you back.” He wanted to help me.’ Eventually, she would tell me that the officer helped to get her released.
Ferdousi brought out old photo albums. She pointed towards a photograph of herself, of when she was young. ‘This is me in 1971,’ she said. As she looked fondly at her younger self, I glanced at her and then the room behind her. Her home is decorated with many of her own sculptures, sculpting material scattered across her garage. I wonder if art helps to heal her in anyway, building and nurturing sculptures from scratch, after all the destruction she has seen. Gently, I asked her what happened after she left the concentration camp. The war was close to finishing. How did she survive the remaining days?
She told me that her husband, Ahsanullah, who was resting in one of the rooms as we spoke, helped her. Together, they sought refuge in a hotel in Khulna. On 16 December, the day the Pakistan Army surrendered, Ahsanullah was with her. When he found her crying, he had said to her, ‘You’re not happy? This is a wonderful day. Our loveliest day!’ Ferdousi would turn to him and say, ‘Just the other day I was in a concentration camp, I cannot believe that the country is free.’
Together with Ahsanullah, Ferdousi built a life after the war, bearing three daughters with him. The post-war years, however, weren’t seamless. In fact, Ferdousi was accused of being a collaborator and faced many hurdles, some at the hands of her own relatives. Yet, she told me that her husband had supported her through the process. He was one of the first people to know what she had been through during the war and, later, when she would decide to speak out in the 1990s, he sat in the audience, telling everyone that she was his pride.
Before I left, Ferdousi gave me a hug and took a photograph with me in her garage. Then she smiled softly and asked me to visit her again when I came to Bangladesh. As fate would have it, that was the last time we met. Less than a year later, I read in the news that Ferdousi, freedom fighter and sculptor, had passed away.
Questions to guide class discussion
- Ferdousi publicly announced herself as a birangona – what could this mean?
- Why could Ferdousi’s story be so difficult to tell? Why could telling it have been a risk for Ferdousi?
- Ferdousi tells the story of her boss at the Jute Mill – Mr Fidai who blackmailed her – what did he do?
- Ferdousi lists names – who are these names of?
- Ferdousi also mentions another Pakistani officer. Is he a perpetrator of violence or not? Why?
- Ferdousi eventually left a concentration camp at the end of the war – but she still faced struggles – why? Who helped her?
- Why do you think Ferdousi’s has been so difficult to tell?
- Why could Ferdousi story be so difficult to hear for some in Bangladesh?
- Why could Ferdousi story be so difficult to hear for some in Pakistan?