Review of Neelima Ibrahim’s ‘A War Heroine I Speak’
A War Heroine I Speak is the English translation of Neelima Ibrahim’s critically acclaimed book, Aami Birangana Bolchi. Deftly translated by Fayeza Hasanat, it tells the story of women who had been brutally raped, tortured, and held captive by Pakistani soldiers during the Liberation War of 1971.
When we, as Bangladeshis, talk about the Liberation War we talk about it with pride. We talk about the thousands of freedom fighters who had shed their blood, sweat, and tears for our country. But when we talk about our freedom fighters, we hardly talk about the women freedom fighters who were subjected to sexual abuse during the war. This book brings to light a part of our history that society does not readily acknowledge. Divided into seven chapters, each chapter tells the story of a different war heroine; their extremely traumatic experiences in captivity and their attempts to return to “normal” life after the war are vividly presented.
Neelima Ibrahim, a social worker, was actively involved in campaigning for Biranganas to achieve their rightful place in society. To combat the injustice of these women being shunned by society, Ibrahim has worked extensively with many organizations toward relocating the women who had been raped during the war, and checking up on them and helping them later on in their lives.
All seven of the accounts portray, graphically, the brutal ways these women were treated, starting from when they were captured by the Pakistani soldiers. Some of them had been trying to escape when they were captured, some were taken when the soldiers came into their homes and killed their families, and some were betrayed by friends and neighbors.
The conditions in which they were kept and how they were treated are discussed in a matter-of-fact way, leaving the reader horrified. Ibrahim describes these events in detail because she feels it is vital that people know what happened. In the words of one of the war heroines, Tara, “It was possible for us to endure their brutal sexual tortures only because we were women. Men are weak. A man would not have had the mental strength to survive the relentless physical assaults we endured.”
However, after months of continuous gang-rape, they encountered a different kind of suffering after they were rescued. Hundreds of these women were taken to hospitals. Some were pregnant; some had contracted sexually transmitted diseases.
Bangabandhu had declared that the women who had been raped by Pakistani soldiers would be granted the status of freedom fighters, and be given the title of Birangana, which means war heroine. The government was also to give stipends to these women. However, many of the families of these women did not want to take them back, even though they were happy to collect the money the government provided. They were ashamed, and did not want to deal with what people would say. Society saw them not as victims, but as whores who would dishonor the family.
The husband of one of the Biranganas, Mina, told her, “What are you doing back here? ... Didn’t you have the courage to die?”
“Our freedom fighters were ready to celebrate their achievement,” said Rina, another Birangana, “Unfortunately they were not ready to accept and acknowledge us as their co-warriors. They saw in us as signs of their shame and guilt. Maybe that’s why they treated us the way they did: as objects of pity, if not of abhorrence.”
Out of the seven women here, some were not accepted by their families and had to leave the country. One of them married her captor and went to Pakistan with him. One had to leave her child to be raised by her sister.
A few of them were accepted by their families, and, with much difficulty, had managed to get educated. Neelima Ibrahim’s book is a caustic reminder that we had, in the celebration of victory, ignored the suffering of thousands of brave women. A War Heroine I Speak hopes to remedy some of that.
Preeti Huq works with Arts & Letters.