A Woman’s War: Bangladesh

Kakon Bibi, photo by Elizabeth Herman
Kakon Bibi, photo by Elizabeth Herman

Elizabeth D. Herman is a New York based freelance photographer and researcher. Since 2010, she has been working on a photography and oral history project called, ‘A Woman’s War‘ – which documents the lives of women engaged in recent conflicts worldwide, as well as their struggle for justice, rights, and their identity as female fighters. As part of the project, she has travelled five countries and documented stories of 116 women in Egypt, Vietnam, Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Bangladesh. The project is a valuable contribution from historical point of view as well as women’s study.

Elizabeth worked in Bangladesh as a Fulbright Fellow to research on how politics influence the writing of national histories in textbooks. While there, she also kept working on ‘A Woman’s War’. She explored the experiences of Bangladeshi female combatants both during and after war of 1971.

Women’s role and suffering in the Liberation War of Bangladesh is still largely unknown. The women who were raped during the war of 1971 was given the title ‘Birangona’ (heroine) by the then government. Some benefits were given to them, but they were meager and mostly indirect – like, money and land rewards were offered to men who married the women. But in a country where rape is a serious stigma and consider women’s fault, the title ‘Birangona’ turned into a title of shame! Even though thousands of women were raped, tortured, handicapped, and suffered mental and physical abuse by the Pakistani Army, they failed to tell their stories because of social embarrassment. On the other hand, many women actively participated in the war. Some worked as spies, some risked their lives to help and train ‘mukti-joddhas’ (freedom fighters). They want to tell the stories of their struggle honorably. Elizabeth Herman provided some of them that opportunity.  Here are six Bangladeshi women’s story:

 

I have lived with these wounds in both of my legs for my whole life. I got them while fighting with Sector 9 in the Liberation War. But the government does not pay me the Freedom Fighter stipend they pay the men. I get no help from the government. Now, my family has nothing.

 

I do not know why some are called mukti juddha but we are called birangona…I used to care for and serve food to other freedom fighters when they would come to our house. Why are we not freedom fighters, too?

 

I sang for the soldiers. Before they would take the field for battle, me and the others girls would gather together and sing to them songs of freedom. Then they would go and fight for our liberation.

 

During the war, I used to hide weapons underneath my sari and bring them to the Freedom Fighters. I would sometimes have to bury them in the middle of the night to hide them from the West Pakistani army.

 

Both of my sons and my husband went off to fight during the war. One of my sons never came back. But I am proud. I am proud to be a war mother and a war wife.

 

As a woman Freedom Fighter I feel proud, all women cannot do what I did; I was not just a housewife or passing my time in India as a refugee. I was fighting for my country.

 

Elizabeth D. Herman is currently working in the US on American female veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Her work has been exhibited in a number of group shows at Tufts, as well as at a solo show at Shadhona Studios in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, NPR’s All Things Considered, GlobalPost, The Daily Beast/Newsweek, The Independent (Bangladesh), Warscapes, and FotoVisura.

Pictures copyrighted by Elizabeth D. Herman

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