"They say that freedom is a constant struggle… Oh Lord, we've struggled so long/ … we've cried so long/ … we've sorrowed so long/ … we've moaned so long/ … we've died so long/ We must be free, we must be free"—a popular Southern United States freedom song.
I first met Shila Debi at the Jahangirnagar University. She came to attend a photography exhibition on the War of Liberation, arranged by Bangladesh Chhatra Union. She invited me to visit her residence in the nearby Dairy Farm area. I accepted her invitation. On my way to her place, I asked a guy if he knew where she lived. He told me that he was a colleague of Shila Debi, and added that Shila has a "history" and it's the reason he has always had a soft corner in his heart for her. Later, I came to know that Shila is a Birangana and that was her secret "history". I also came to learn that Shila got her job because of her certificate in this regard. On another day, her brother showed me the certificate. It was among the first certificates signed by Gen. Ataul Gani Osmani in 1972, when war heroes and heroines were given the same status.
Shila's certificate shows that, contrary to popular belief, Biranganas were given the status of Freedom Fighter immediately after the triumph of the people of Bangladesh over the occupying Pakistani military and their local collaborators.
The Pakistani army raped over 200,000 women during the war in 1971. The position that the Bangladesh government took regarding these raped women (Biranganas), by giving them the status of a freedom fighter, is still unprecedented in the world. It's interesting to note that on December 22, 1971, AHM Qamaruzzaman, home minister of the then interim government, announced that all young girls and women who had been subjected to inhuman torture by the Pakistani army in the last nine months would be accorded full respect as "Biranganas" of the Bangladesh liberation struggle (Purbodesh, December 23, 1971, quoted in Mookherjee, 2016, page 130).
But it was the independence leader Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who owned and popularised the term Birangana, and attempted to ensure their status as war heroines saying that "tora amar ma, tora Birangana" (you are my mother, you are Birangana [or brave women]). Apart from this public recognition, attempts were made—though not adequately—to overcome social barriers facing the Biranganas. The newly formed government led by Bangabandhu set up Nari Punorbashon Kendra (Bangladesh Women's Rehabilitation and Welfare Centre) for the Biranganas in 1972. This centre facilitated the rehabilitation of women affected by the war by providing them with shelter, mental support and training as part of a reintegration initiative. Furthermore, the rehabilitation programme undertook abortion initiatives for Biranganas, retained their children for international adoption, arranged their marriages, trained them in vocational skills and/or gave them government jobs. (Mookherjee, 2007)
The recognition, which had the potential to be displayed as a model for the world, was a historical high point from which we gradually retreated, as the word "Birangana" was wiped out from the later-day definitions of a Freedom Fighter, and historical closures were enacted. It also reminds us of the constant struggle women face, even to hold on to their basic rights and the recognition and respect that they are due. Many of the Biranganas were forced to migrate to other countries, many committed suicide after being rejected by their family and society. And socially, the title "Birangana"came to represent a "dishonoured woman", synonymous with rape, forced pregnancy, abortion, suicide and war.
The glorious status of Birangana gradually faded out after the assassination of Bangabandhu on August 15, 1975. The text of the Freedom Fighter certificate was changed four times after 1975, leading to the erasure of the word "Birangana" from the certificate.
In the second certificate issued by the home ministry, the term "Birangana" was no longer there, but no explanation was given in this regard. The third amendment of the certificate for Freedom Fighters, issued by the liberation war ministry, also did not accommodate the war heroines. The changes made by the government had a crucial impact on the lives of Biranganas.
Three Biranganas came forward in the early nineties to make their identity public and testified before the Gono Adalot, which added a new dimension to their constant struggle: facing up to the public memory and breaking the silence and secrecy surrounding their history. Shortly afterwards, publisher and blogger Faisal Arefin Dipan (who was later murdered by Islamic extremists on October 31, 2015) published Nilima Ibrahim's book, Ami Birangana Bolchi (published by Dipan's Jagriti Prokashony). It opened the door for rethinking the narratives of Biranganas in Bangladesh.
However, in recent years, some Biranganas, mostly from the lower-class background (one notable exception being Ferdousi Priyabhashini), came forward with their names and testimonies that are reframing the narratives of the Liberation War. During the 2013 Shahbag protests, slogans like "Amar ma Birangana, tai amra aposhhina" (My mother is a Birangana, so we don't compromise) were heard. Here, Birangana is not a singular identity, but a collective one. Such structures of feeling added another dimension to the dominant nationalist-masculine discourses used to express patriotic feelings for the country and its birth.
Of course, the credit for the recent public awakening goes to the concerted efforts of young women activists who raised their voice from various parts of the country to renew the status of Biranganas as Freedom Fighters and to ensure their deserved recognition. However, we should always stay alert since even when their status is renewed as Freedom Fighter, would they get the honour they deserve in a society still largely dominated by the patriarchal forces?
The Ministry of Liberation War Affairs issued a gazette in 2019 with the most recent enclosure, through which a total of 322 Biranganas received the status of Freedom Fighters. The process of recognising them as Freedom Fighters again began following a High Court order that came on January 27, 2014. The order ensured that the Biranganas, who fought during the country's Liberation War, would get the status of Freedom Fighters and enjoy the same benefits that other Freedom Fighters are enjoying.
It goes without saying that this means a lot to them. I recall a Birangana saying at a programme in Dhaka University that when she was invited as chief guest at an event in her neighbourhood, she felt socially honoured for the first time in her life. Does that status help them regain their spirit which Bangabandhu had attempted to materialise? Maybe, or maybe not. Sadly, most of the Biranganas have already died. But restoring their honour is perhaps the greatest tribute we can pay them for the enormous sacrifices they had made, since when a Birangana dies, a part of history dies with her too.
Zobaida Nasreen teaches anthropology at the University of Dhaka. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org