Tales of Endurance
By Aasha Mehreen Amin, Lavina Ambreen Ahmed and Shamim
Some of the women who narrate their experiences of 1971 in
the film 'Tahader Juddho'
One of the greatest shortcomings in the perception of our
fight for Independence is our consistent failure to recognise
the role of women in our Liberation War. In fact, the role
of women is largely ignored, denied and misconstrued in our
mainstream history. This is because of our general tendency
to think of war only in terms of physical fighting and exchange
of gunshots. But our liberation war or any war for that matter,
which has involved the entire population of the country, has
been a struggle through which a united nation has asserted
its aspiration for freedom. Such wars are not fought only
in the battlefields, neither are they fought only with guns.
War heroes include those women who have supported the valiant
freedom fighters with food, shelter, funds; who have nursed
the wounded and hid weapons risking their own lives. They
also include those who have willingly given their sons to
war, who have lost their loved ones and even worse been subjected
to sexual abuse and still survived to tell their stories.
Maiful fought in a battle against the Pak army. Her husband
Jalil Molla was shot and died soon after. - Courtesy 'Muktir
Bir Protik Taramon Bibi fought against Pakistanis in the
liberation war in her village home in Shankar Madhabpur Kurigram.
She was in Sector 11 under the leadership of Sector commander
Abu Taher, Bir Uttam. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibor Rahman's
Government honoured her with the Bir Protik title in 1973,
for her courageous role in resisting the Pakistan occupation
force with weapons. After independence, there was no trace
of her whereabouts. In 1995, a researcher found out where
she lived and consequently the women's organisations brought
her to Dhaka. Her story of bravery was soon published. Taramon
Bibi was honoured with the prestigious Bir Protik title 24
years after the war in 1995. Prime Minister Khaleda Zia handed
Taramon Bibi the award in a simple ceremony on December 19,
It was Taramon's Godfather, Muhib Habildar, who motivated
her to become a freedom fighter. He was a solider who was
on duty in a camp close to her village. Taramon was about
13 or 14 when she joined the camp. At first, she was brought
to the camp mainly to do the cooking and cleaning, but later
when Muhib saw that she was a very strong and brave young
lady he taught her how to use arms like the rifle and stein
Taramon recalls the first time she attacked the enemy with
arms. She was having lunch at the camp. Suddenly, the muktijoddhas
came to know that a gunboat carrying the Pak army was heading
towards where they were located. Taramon got prepared for
combat with her comrades, and together, they succeeded in
getting rid of the enemy. After that, Taramon had to fight
with arms on many occasions. In fact, she has encountered
the Pakistanis so many times, that she lost count of the number.
She said, she obeyed instructions from her mentor and Godfather,
Muhib. The muktijoddhas praised her for being a good marksman.
In those days, she never thought about the risks involved
in what she was doing. "We were fighting to free our
country," she says, " the last thing on my mind
was worrying about my own safety." She was totally committed
to the cause of her motherland just like so many others at
the time. Taramon and her camp mates sought refuge in bunkers
when the enemy changed their tactic and started an air-bombing
onslaught. The Pak army raided the camp a few times and hurled
bombs killing several people. But fortunately, Taranmon escaped
death. When the war was over Taramon came to Dhaka with her
Godfather. Muhib Habildar always used to inspire her. He would
say that they fought againts great odds, to gain independence.
All the hardship and sacrifice were for the cause of the motherland.
However Taramon has a complaint. The country has given recognition
to many freedom fighters and also provided a certain amount
of financial assistance to them. But she never received any
kind of monetary benefit from any of the governments till
date. She feels that she was ignored because she is a woman
and people don't take women freedom fighters seriously. Taramon
lives with her farmer husband and two children in Kaliakoir,
Dr. Captain (Rtd.) Sitara Begum is the only other woman besides
Taramon Bibi to get the 'Bir Protik' award for gallantry in
the Liberation War. Bir Protik Sitara Begum was born in Kolkata
in 1945. She is number three among three sisters and two brothers.
Her father Md. Israil Mian had a law practice in Kidhoreganj
where Sitara spent her childhood. After completing her Matriculation,
Sitara finished her intermediate from Holy Cross College and
then studied medicine at Dhaka Medical College hospital. When
she received her medical degree, she joined as a leutenant
in the army's medical corps in 1970. In the turbulent days
of 1970, Sitara was posted in the Comilla Cantonment. At the
time, her brother, valiant freedom fighter Major A. T. M Haidar
was transferred to Comilla from Pakistan. He joined the 3rd
commando battalion in Comilla. Both Haidar and his sister
Sitara went to Kishoreganj to spend Eid holidays in February
1971. The non-cooperation programme had started throughout
the country by then. Sitara's vacation was not over yet. Haidar
warned Sitara not to go back to the Cantonment thus, she returned
home in Kishoreganj. Haidar sent some members of the Muktibahini
as well his parents and Sitara to Meghalaya, India. It took
the group almost two weeks to reach Meghalaya from Kishoreganj.
There was a makeshift hospital known as 'The Bangladesh Hospital',
with almost 400 beds. Captain Dr. Sitara was the Commanding
Officer of the hospital under Sector 2. Among those who worked
there were some final year students of the medical college.
Some doctors from UK also offered their services to the hospital.
Sitara had to go to Agartala regularly to get medicines.
The hospital had an Operation Theatre, the floor of which
was covered by plastic. The hospital not only catered to Bangali
patients and wounded freedom fighters, members of the Indian
army also sought medical aid at that medical centre. Sitara
and her colleagues got to know about Bangladesh's independence
on December 16 through the radio. She returned to Dhaka a
few weeks later. But after her brother Major Haidar was killed
in a conspiracy in 1975, Dr. Sitara left Bangladesh her family
and settled in America.
Many women devoted themselves to taking care of the refugees
in the camps during the war. Courtesy: Muktijuddo Jadughar
Geeta Kar was only 15 during the War of Independence, yet
she vividly recalls what happened during those significant
nine months. Her father was killed on May 5, 1971 by the Pak
army. Shocked by the incident, Geeta left her home in Rajbari
leaving behind her mother and younger siblings and headed
for India. They walked for nine days before they reached India.
Geeta was determined to fight to free her motherland from
the ruthless grip of the Pakistanis. When she was contemplating
on joining the freedom movement, she learnt about how Bangali
people who have crossed the border and arrived in our neighbouring
country were getting organised to ward off the Pakistanis.
Geeta soon enlisted her name in the Mukti Bahini. She joined
the camp on July 2, 1971 and underwent training on guerilla
warfare and first aid. There were more than 200 women in the
training group. Most of them had lost their family members
and were resolute to take revenge. The food they used to get
at the training camp was paltry but that didn't bother the
camp inmates. Geeta reminisces that the main driving force
was the desire to win the battle against the Pak army at any
cost. After the training was over, it was time to go to the
actual battleground to utilise the skills. But only 15 young
women including Geeta gave their consent to join the war.
A guide was sent with the group of novice, but he had could
not communicate with them in Bangla or English. To make things
worse the guide disappeared without a word one fine day abandoning
the courageous young people who were ready to face the enemy.
But the determined group proceeded without their guide. They
went without proper meals for almost ten days and survived
on banana and water. Then somehow they managed to reach the
Sylhet border. At first it was difficult to convince the Indians
of their true intentions. Finally, a man named Makhon Shom
from the refugee camp assured them all possible help. He arranged
for food and lit fire to keep them warm. Thanks to Makhon
Shom's kindness, Geeta and her fellow mates were able to reach
Agartala. However, when they arrived there, the women were
not sent to the war zone as they expected.
Instead, they were told to assist at the 480-bed hospital
in Agartala known as the Bangladesh Hospital. The group of
young women put their heart and soul into their job as medical
attendants. Geeta remembers meeting numerous freedom fighters
at the hospital, and most of them were brought to the hospital
with serious injuries. She and her friends consoled themselves
in the knowledge that helping out at the hospital was almost
as good as fighting in the war. After all, both the tasks
had the same goal. Geeta returned to Bangladesh with the wounded
Muktijoddhas and her friends at the hospital five weeks after
the Victory Day at the last week of January. They returned
to Dhaka after spending a week in Comilla. Most of her co-workers
had immediately returned to their homes when they reached
Dhaka. But Geeta didn't know where to go since her father
Hena Das, the current President of the Bangladesh Mohila
Porishad was the Head Mistress of Narayanganj High School
in 1971. Hena was an ardent member of the Communist Party,
Bangladesh Teachers' Committee and Bangladesh Mohila Porishad.right
from the start. Hena was in Kolkata during the war. On her
way to Kolkata, she delivered speeches in favour of Bangalis'
fight for freedom at the women's meetings there. Her main
work was with the refugee teachers. A Bangladesh Teachers'
Committee was formed comprising teachers from all levels in
Kolkata. Fifty camp schools were set up with foreign assistance
and Hena was in charge of running the schools. She used to
explain to the children the reasons behind the Muktijuddho
and also motivated the teachers. Hena participated in collecting
clothes and other necessary items for the children in the
refugee camps. Since the Headquarters of the Communist Party
was located in Kolkata, she was very much part of the party's
activities. Hena was constantly on the move until May 1, 1971,
at different places in Narayanganj, in the fear that she might
get caught. At one point, she took shelter in the science
building with her sick husband and five-year old daughter.
There were some people who risked their lives to keep in touch
with her in those uncertain days. One of her well-wishers
was her teacher Nurul Amin, who was later brutally killed
by the Pak army. Hena was aggrieved by her teacher's death.
But as Hena recalls, she had to deal with the loss of many
people who were close to her in 1971, such as, the death of
her student Momtaz, and the murder of the parents of another
The Liberation War has been an attractive subject for film
makers and a good number of documentary films have resulted
from this interest. Being the most powerful medium to hold
people's attention, films have played a significant role depicting
the oral history of the Muktijuddho. But most of these films
have focused mainly on the freedom fighters, genocide and
the agony of people being driven out of their homeland. The
incredible role of women during the war and after, have not
been given its due recognition. During the war not only were
women systematically sexually abused, they also had to face
the grief and shock of losing their loved ones, their homes.
With remarkable resilience and strength, women fought the
war in so many different ways. Two films -- one by Tareq and
Catherine Masud called Narir Kotha and the other by journalist
Afsan Chowdhury called Tahader Juddho together encompass the
untold stories of women in the Liberation struggle, one that
continues even today.
Narir Kotha, a joint production of Audio Vision (Tareq and
Catherine's production company) with Ain O Shalish Kendra,
a human rights organisation, focuses on women who suffered
immensely during the war. Victims of rape were among the most
traumatised. They not only had to endure the horror of sexual
abuse but also the pain of being humiliated and ostracised
by society as well as their own families. In the film, survivors
of abuse by the Pak army talk frankly about their ordeal and
how they are still having to deal with the stigma of being
'tainted' in the eyes of society. The 25-minute film also
includes interviews of women who survived massacres and lived
to tell their stories. It is clear that the film does not
intend to make people sorry for these women. Rather it is
to demonstrate the incredible strength and will to survive
that needs to be recognised and respected.
Even though the country won freedom 30 years ago, those who
fought in the war are still batling with poverty and hardship.
Courtesy: ‘Tahader Juddho’
The underlying theme of Narir Kotha is 'the trauma and triumph
of women in '71' . It begins with footage of women engaged
in various activities of the Liberation War -- serving in
hospitals, distributing clothes to victims. The theme song
'No one talks about the role of women.'
Everyone sings the praises of men.
Didn't women folk contribute to the cause of Independence?'
The camera then focuses on renowned sculptor Ferdousi Priyabhashini
who survived sexual abuse at the hands of the Pak Army and
their collaborators in '71. As one of the first women to publicly
speak of her ordeal she is movingly honest and comes out as
a person who has gone though the worst nightmare but has managed
to survive by channelising her pain into something creative.
In the interview she says that after independence of Bangladesh,
she was faced with another ordeal as her society refused to
accept her. "I became the target of terrible insult and
humiliation....At one point I realised I don't need any human
being in my life."
It was the very isolation that led Priyabhashini to take
refuge in sculpture. Using objects normally unappreciated
and unwanted (like roots and tree trunks) -- much like her
own plight -she created sculptures.
"As I became engrossed in my own work, I withdrew from
friends and society," says Priyabhashini.
The next story the film narrates through the women survivors
is about how 18 women of Kodalia village in Faridpur were
massacred by the Pak Army on May 1971.
Rabeya, now a middle aged woman, recounts how the village
people hid in a ditch in the jungle when they saw the Pak
Army approaching. About 30 women were in the ditch. Along
with them were their children. Among them was Chanu who was
about 10 or 12 years old. "The Army surrounded us and
the 10-12 year old boys like me...and took us away from our
parents," says Chanu who had to witness the murder of
his mother, aunts and cousins on that terrible day. The army
caught the women and made them sit in front of a madrasa.
They then started firing on their hapless victims. Sufia,
now an old woman was present along with her daughter Hamida
who was seven months pregnant at the time. "They set
the machine guns and then brought water from the pond,"
recalls Sufia. "They said to us 'Do you Bangalis want
to drink some water'?...I told myself I wouldn't drink water
from the kafir's hand."
Rabeya describes how right after this the Army started firing:
"....women fell like birds. Babies died in their mothers'
A few who were grazed by the bullets survived. Hamida, Sufia's
pregnant daughter, however, didn't. "She asked her father
for some water. After drinking the water, she died,"
says Sufia, tears overflowing her eyes. Sufia still bears
the scar of a bullet in her stomach which had hit her during
the massacre. One of her daughters had later pulled it out.
Chanu's mother too was among the casualties. "My mother
was hit by six bullets, she had fallen over on her stomach."
Among those still alive were Chanu's aunts, cousins and other
relatives. They were still alive and begging for water. Little
Chanu ran to his house only to find it burning. So he took
a few coconut shells and filled them up with water from the
pond. "Some of the women died while I was giving them
water." The impact of seeing so many of his relatives
dying in front of his eyes was too much for Chanu and he lost
"I don't think they were Muslims. How could Muslims
kill others this way? asks Rabeya relating how women alone
in their houses were raped by the soldiers. After this incident,
says Rabeya, the men of the village joined the resistance.
Smritirekha Biswas's story is next in the film. Smritirekha
was only 12 in 1971 when the Pak Army burnt down her village
forcing her and her family to join the millions of refugees
in an excruciating 13-day journey to the border. Her family
included her pregnant mother, her 80-year old grand mother
and younger brother and sister. For 13 days Smritirekha carried
her little brother Babu.
"The country got freedom," says Smritirckha "but
we never got back what we lost. So how can I say we benefited
from independence?....we still couldn't rebuild our house...
The kind of communal harmony we had is no longer there."
The film then focuses on Adivasi women -- a group that played
a very active role in the '71 struggle, women who have never
been recognized for their courage. In a remote village in
Rangpur, the film makers find a few Adivasi women toiling
in the paddy fields. It is characteristic of this community
for women to slog all day in the fields while their husbands
fritter away their wives' earnings in alcohol and gambling.
Mazlibala, an Adivasi woman, was a young woman who had been
sexually abused by war collaborators.
She had just been married. One day some collaborators started
following her. Mazlibala hid in a small bush. "They shouted
at me, 'Don't move!'," says Mazlibala. "I was trembling
with fear, I couldn't run any more. When I came home my father
asked why I was crying. My father went to chase the collaborators
with bow and arrow."
The next day her father sent her to her husband's house thinking
she would be safe. But again she was attacked. Her husband's
grandfather hid her under the bed and her sister-in-law under
a mound of hay. "At that point I asked myself' "Oh
God is there no one in this world for me," says Mazlibala,
who is obviously still traumatised by the experience, "What
did I do to deserve this?"
Although she does not explicitly say that she was raped,
it is obvious from her emotional response that she was sexually
abused. Later when Mazlibala took refuge at her relative's
house they asked why she was crying all the time and whether
the collaborators had dishonoured her. "Is physical dishonor
all that matters?" demands Mazlibala, her face washed
with new tears. "Haven't I lost my honour anyway?"
"Even to this day people ask me, 'Is it true something
happened to you back then?'"
"But how can I talk about that? What's the point of
talking? If I speak of it, it will only bring shame and dishonour
At this point another incident is referred to -- that of
how Adivasi (indigenous) men and women along with a few Bangalees
attacked the Pak Army in a courageous fight against the enemy.
In April 1971, a large number of Santals - men and women --
surrounded the Rangpur Cantonment. Armed with bows and arrows
the Adivasies attacked the soldiers. Their hatred of the Cantonment
was deep-rooted. Like Mazlibala, many other women had been
sexually assaulted by the Pak soldiers and their collaborators.
The proximity of the Cantonment to remote areas where many
such Adviasi lived, helped to perpetuate these sex crimes.
"The men could not tolerate the Army's torture of their
daughters," says Nataniel Lakra, an Adivasi man in the
film, "Men, women, old and young we all jumped into the
fight...with whatever weapons we could gather, even sticks."
According to Lakra many of the Adivasi women fought with bows
and arrows and killed some of the soldiers."
For women like Mazlibala, the fight goes on. "We participated
in the Liberation struggle ...now we're struggling with our
soil. Still our sorrow doesn't leave us...The struggle will
There were many other women who actually took part in defending
their land or their families when the Pak Army attacked. The
film turns to Choto Paitkandi village where men and women
together defended their village with bamboo spears and shields.
A mute woman tries to describe how the army came and set fire
to the village. She lost her speech after her husband was
killed while fighting the Pak Army.
A village woman informs that the soldiers killed the men
and raped the women. Another woman describes how her mother-in-law
joined the fight with bricks and stones and was shot dead
by the Army. "So many women died," she says. "Women
tied grenades to their bodies and threw themselves on the
The whole village swooped on the soldiers and started beating
them. The soldiers then jumped into a lake. But the village
folk jumped in and killed them.
"It's not only men who fought in the war, women did
too. My mother-in-law died in that fight, nobody talks about
The film ends with the same song that reverberates throughout:
Nine months of grief and pain
Does the father have the only claim of parentage?
Have we forgotten the sacrifice of millions of mothers and
Dramatic, without any contrivance, the stories in the film
touch the heart. While one shares the grief of these women
who have lost so much at the prime of their life, one cannot
but feel inspired by their courage and capacity to survive.
Produced and directed by Afsan Chowdhury, the film "Tahader
Katha" (Their War ) brilliantly captures the role women
played in 1971.
Tahader Juddho contains a series of interviews where the
subject of the film, the poor illiterate village women, describe
their experiences of 1971. We learn from these women who,
at tremendous risk to themselves and their families, surreptitiously
delivered food to Muktijodhas, saved them from watchful razakers
by hiding them in their own house, provided them with clothes,
blankets etc, or smuggled arms from one place to another.
But these heroic acts and zealous patriotism of these poor
women have not been recorded in the history. Neither are they
considered worth mentioning. With our patriarchal mindset
we are more comfortable to think of women only as hapless
war victims who at best can appeal to our sympathy but cannot
command our respect.
Rokeya Begum was expecting a child when the war broke out.
Her husband used to bring his fellow freedom fighters home
whom Rokeya used to feed. This brought the wrath of the Razakars
upon Rokeya. Following their threat Rokeya decided to take
food to the nearby island where the freedom fighters had camped
in. To make sure that she was not being followed by anyone
Rokeya used to get out at night and reach the island on a
boat steering all by herself. She also used to keep their
weapons in the well of her house. Sometimes the Muktijodhas
spent nights in her house and on those nights Rokeya kept
vigil very often passing the whole night sleepless. "People
talked a lot of things----I am a bad woman--------I go out
alone at night----------- chat with the muktis-----feed them.
But fortunately my husband always stood beside me", says
Farida Akhter of UBINIG, the feminist outfit who has worked
to organize women freedom fighter has strong views on the
nature of gender discrimination and war roles. She says of
what women did in the war and how it contrasts with male warrior
pereceptions. Citing an example, she said of a woman who had
a little child, but taking food to the Muktijodhas occupied
her attention more than looking after her baby. One day, when
she returned home after feeding the fighters she found her
child lying dead. A Pak army soldier hat stood on the baby
with his boots on had killed the child. But she is not recognized
for her role.
Shohagpur Kakurkandi in Sherpur district. On one monsoon
day in a matter of just two hours almost all the men were
killed by the Pakistani army and their collaborators. It is
called the "widow's village" now.
Kohinoor Begum had to flee from one place to another with
her newborn baby and a girl. One of her brothers went to the
war while the other was too severely beaten up by the razakars
that he couldn't go to the work. Besides her two children,
Kohinoor also had three young sisters. Kohinoor had to look
after her all of them, which she did. She married off all
of her three sisters, raised her children and looked after
her old bed-ridden mother who later became mentally imbalanced
due to shock.
As the film progresses and we hear more and more stories
of these valiant women who put everything at stake to win
freedom for the country, we cannot help comparing the lives
of these forgotten women with those of male freedom fighters,
who have been recognized by the state and by their own communities
as real heroes, as Bir Srestho, Bir Bikram etc. As the film
ends the question, Chowdhury asks implicitly throughout the
whole film also haunts us: Weren't these women as much Muktijodha
as the men who fought the Pakistani army with guns?
But the most important role the women played besides taking
active participation in the war and helping the Muktijodhas
in various ways was as sustainers of families and households
"And it's on standing on these households that society
itself survived in 1971". says Afsan Chowdhury. For these
women it was a war of existence, a fierce struggle to survive
which did not end with the war. These remarkably courageous
women have waged a tough struggle to keep the family going
on, raised their children and passed on the spirit of fighting
to them. Whether they find room in the pages of history or
not, it is an undeniable truth that it was their sacrifice
and strength that helped us to win our freedom. For these
poor, ordinary village women who had to fight simultaneous
enemies on personal social and national level, the fight goes
(Some information has been taken from ‘Muktijuddher
Smriti’ published byBangladesh Mahila Parishad.)