Published : 13 Sept 2013, 01:36 PM
Updated : 13 Sept 2013, 01:36 PM

The winter of 2010 was particularly cold. I remember the first week of January; fleeing to the relative warmth of Dhaka from my parents' freezing house in Savar, keeping warm in layers of sweaters and shawls.

Leesa Gazi, visiting from London, called. Could I donate some winter wear? Or did I know people who would? She and her friend Ishrat Nishat were putting together care-packages for a group of Birangona in Sirajganj. My curiosity turned into eagerness as Leesa invited me along. I accepted with alacrity.

There were, Leesa told me, 21 destitute Birangona in Sirajganj. A non-profit, Sirajganj Uttoron Mohila Shangstha, provided them with some support. And there were individuals — although nowhere near enough — like Nishat apa, who helped through donations. She visited regularly, sometimes by herself, sometimes with others. This time Leesa was taking a camera crew; she wanted to make a documentary.

In the second week of January, I hopped aboard a microbus loaded with blankets, shawls, packages (containing essentials like rice, matches, salt), and video recording equipment. Leesa was my friend, the camera crew were friendly , and Nishat apa possessed a warm energy which pulled everyone in. Yet I felt tongue-tied and slow. I thought it was because everyone else had a specific role; I was just tagging along. It wasn't until we clambered back in our vehicle after a tea-stop that I realised what it really was: I felt fraught.

The existence of thousands of women raped during the war was common knowledge as was the shameful contumely and neglect heaped upon them in our liberated nation. As a teenager, and later, the more I had read, the angrier I had grown. But that anger also contained shame — what could be done about them? What could I, or anyone, do?

I first came across the word Birangona in a schoolbook retelling of the legend of Birangona Shakhina, warrior queen of Mymensingh. The word Birangona was feminine for Bir, brave.

Later, I would come across the word Birangona again and again in writing related to the 1971 Liberation War, just as I would find the line (or some variation of it), Our liberation won through the blood of thiry lakh martyrs and the honor of two lakh mothers and sisters. Both were part of the clichéd rhetoric of the war. It wasn't until I came across Naib Uddin Ahmed's iconic photo of a Birangona, masses of hair and her fists (in a gesture that supplicated? hid? barred) covering her face, that it suddenly came to me that the lakho ma-boner shotitto (the honour of hundreds and thousands of mothers and sisters) meant actual women — living, breathing beings. It wasn't until then that I began wondering where they were; why our schoolbooks taught us the names of the Bir Protiks, Bir Srestha, Bir Uttam, but never those of the Birangona.

Somebody pointed me to Neelima Ibrahim's groundbreaking two-volume work Ami Birangona Bolchi (I, the Birangona, Speak) where she compiles the 'stories' of several women raped and imprisoned during 1971. Bit by bit I came to understand the horror of the Birangona — not just the fact of the torture during the war, but the torture they underwent after.

In Ibrahim's book, the Birangona gain voice for the first time; yet her preface to the 1997 edition (published over two decades after the war) is telling about the space these women inhabit in the public consciousness and the public conscience. Here she apologises for failing to publish the third volume: "I desist for two reasons…The second being the conservative mindset of contemporary society. Our current society is more conservative than that of 1972. They do not even hesitate to label the Birangona 'sinful.' The normal, easeful life from which they were deprived twenty five years ago — I hesitate to humiliate them again…It is wrong to rub salt in old wounds, to humiliate and hurt anew, those who we once cast aside from our society."

In the book Narir Ekattor O Juddho Poroborti Kothyo Kahini (compiling findings from Ain O Salish Kendra's oral history project; translated as Rising from the Ashes: Women's Narratives of 1971), a case study notes how several Birangona who appeared in public in the 1992 Gono-Adalot (public mock-trial organised as a mode of popular protest) to bear witness against war criminals returned home to be vilified by their communities.

So it continues.

The crucial difference that Ami Birangona Bolcchi made was that it went beyond mere cataloguing of atrocities, or perceiving the Birangona as only victims, or framing them in  abstract notions of sacrifice, glory, shame. The voices of the Birangona resounded clearly in Ibrahim's work; Lucky Enam, the theatre personality, later created a play based on Ami Birangona Bolcchi. Shaheen Akhtar's work in documenting women's war experiences partially inspired her novel Talaash, with the Birangona protagonist defying the conventional strictures of sexual morality demanded of women.

The crucial difference was that we could begin to see them as human beings. They were no longer hidden behind an obscuring veil — self-created and/or imposed — they were people with stories as varied as yours or mine.

And we found different stories in Sirajganj. The Birangona whose children wanted to care for her but could barely feed their own children, let alone the elderly mother; the Birangona whose children disowned her for her 'shame'; the Birangona who was the beloved wife, ostracised by her village and parents-in-law because of her 'dishonour', but whose husband's warm embrace gave her strength — until he was murdered during communal riots.

When we arrived at the Uttoron office, they were waiting. They stood on the balcony above the office entrance looking down at us. I looked up and for a few seconds saw only white light: walking from sunshine to the shade of the building had blurred my sight. Then my vision adjusted and for a brief moment before we entered I noted the bright colours of their saris: green, red, white, pink.

We sat on the floor of a spacious, bare room and listened. Some cried when speaking of the atrocities visited upon them during the war. Some recounted those days with ease but broke down telling us of the rejections and oppressions that came after — from family, from neighbours, from people they should have been able to trust. Some spoke with anger; some with sorrow. They told us of emotional scars and physical: most of them had continuing health issues resulting from the massive trauma they suffered during the war and no resources to obtain adequate treatment. This war that happened almost four decades ago. They allowed us glimpses into their lives and emotions. Grief. Wrath.  Incomprehension. Understanding. Forgiveness. Anguish.

What I did not see in them was shame.

Yet the emotion I recall for myself from that day is shame. Shame because I sat while Asiya Begum put her hand on my back and consoled me: she felt bad because we were so distraught by their stories. Shame because again and again, so many of them told us how happy they were, how grateful that we had gone to meet them, we, the bhalo manusher maiyara, the daughters of good people. They were grateful for the things we brought, that would take care of some of their material needs for a brief while; but most of all they were grateful that they could tell us their stories and that we listened.

In Ami Birangona Bolcchi, the Birangona Rina says: "My desire for a particular moment will remain till my death. That a young man or woman from this generation will stand in front of me and say, Birangona, we revere you. Our salaam to you, a thousand times. You are a brave freedom fighter; you, too, have a part in this flag. Your voice echoes in our national anthem. You have first right to our soil. I live in hope of that auspicious moment, in hope of the awakening of conscience."

The process of documenting the voices of the Birangona begun by Neelima Ibrahim continues, now, through the work of the Komola Collective ( and Leesa Gazi and their play Birangona: Brave Women (!current/c1mkx). Through the years, sparse but certain, every book, poem, play on the issue have been steps marking our way toward that auspicious moment: a moment yet to be reached.

It is time we understood that the loss of their voices means the loss of our own. It is time we learnt that to dishonour these women is to dishonour ourselves.

Birangona, brave women, our salaam to you, a thousand times.

Shabnam Nadiya is a writer and translator.