Burden of being a 'birangona'

On 22 December 1971, only few days after victory was achieved (on 16 December 1971), the government of the newly independent state of Bangladesh awarded the women who had been raped during the war with the honorary title of 'Birangona', meaning 'brave woman' and often translated to and associated with 'war heroine'. The term was first given by the then president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The term was meant to pay respect to the women for their sacrifices during wartime. However, the title did not deliver all that it promised.

In a conservative country like Bangladesh where society views female sexuality as sacred, rape was, and largely still is, seen as an enormous source of shame for the assaulted woman.

The whole idea of women having 'lost their all' as a result of having been raped, reinforces a prevalent social norm - that a woman's 'all' lies in her virginity in the case of unmarried women, in her chastity in the case of married women, and in a woman's sexual exclusivity in general. The age-old relation between hysteria and the womb (called hystera in Greek) can be extended here, where a woman's sexuality determines her well-being and where something like rape establishes the death of her soul and her social self. While rape is a heinous sexual crime, presenting it as the end-all for a woman leaves her with little in life after the violation. Magnifying its significance to this extent, it may be argued, also contributes to its popularity as a weapon in times of war, where it has the power to have a woman ostracised by family and community and leaves any society, and especially conservative ones, split apart.

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Though the label was given to honour the dishonoured women and help them to regain acceptance in society, it had the opposite effect. The 'birangona' title became synonymous with violated woman and only served to identify the 'bad' woman and isolate her. It soon became a mark of shame. These women were outcasted by society - making her a sympathetic figure for some, whilst a figure of shame for others. As such many women did not want to be associated with such title for fear of being rejected by society and stigmatised, and hence we know very few of them. As if their horrendous ordeal was not enough, many women faced the heartache of not being accepted even by their own families. This included parents in the case of unmarried women and husbands and in-laws in the case of married women. Some were even told by their own mother that she should have died and never come back.

Abandoned by their own community and loved ones, many women were pressurised into leaving their home and picking up prostitution since they were already "scarred". As a result of this exclusion and emotional torture, many Birangonas migrated to India, while others chose to take their own lives.

These women were seen as victims and were often portrayed in the media following the war as 'oppressed', 'disgraced' and 'dishonoured' rather than muktijuddhas who endured physical and psychological scars in freeing Bangladesh and who have shown incredible courage and endurance to survive the ordeal. The label 'birangona' itself was rarely used. Some people even distorted the word 'birangona' and pronounced it as 'barangona', meaning prostitute in Bangla. Other derogatory term used to tarnish her image included 'lanchhita' (carrying connotations ranging from being disgraced, harassed, insulted, and persecuted to stained, tarnished, spotted and soiled), 'biddhosto' (ruined or destroyed) and 'bibhranto' (confused or bewildered). Phrases such as 'women who have lost their all' also portrayed a shattered image of one who is supposed to be a heroine. Their suffering, both during and after the war remains unrecorded and unrecognized. Whilst others fought the war with their weapons, the birangona fought it with her body. In return, they were neither given state honour nor social respect. For most part, they could not live with their heads held high.

I became the target of terrible insult and humiliation... At one point I realised I don't need any human being in my life.

Ferdousi Priyabhashini, renowned Sculptor

Despite the glory apparent in the title of the birangona, society was hesitant in accepting, let alone glorifying, the woman behind the label.

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Many of the razakars who had handed these young women over to the Pakistani military integrated back into society, and ow claim to be freedom fighters and occupy high position within society such as judgesn. ht

The country got freedom, but we never got back what we lost. So how can I say we benefited from independence?

Smritirekha Biswas, victim

Rehabilitation

Post independence, there were few rehabilitation centres and supporting organisation to help the birangonas. Bangladesh did not have neither the qualified psychiatric staff nor the facilities to help them with their long term healing. Most women got abortions, performed in secret clinics by local dais (midwives) or untrained local doctors using medically unsafe methods. Thousands gave their baby away abroad for adoption.

In 1972, the Bangladesh government established the Women’s Rehabilitation Organisation to institutionalise women’s-rehabilitation projects, with the National Central Women’s Rehabilitation Board coordinating the government’s post-war policies.

Rehabilitation centres were set up to provide medical aid to the women including treatment for diseases and abortion of unwanted pregnancies. In addition to state-sponsored programmes, International Planned Parenthood and the International Abortion Research and Training Centre, and local clinics helped women to carry out abortions. Clinics were set up with the support of the Bangladesh Central Organisation for Women’s Rehabilitation in Dhaka and 17 outlying areas, in order to cope with unwanted pregnancies. The Red Cross and the Catholic Church also became involved in such rehabilitation programmes.

Women were also given socio-economic support. As part of this scheme, they were provided with training which would enable them to make a living on their own. In addition, a marry-off campaign was lodged which encouraged Bangladeshi men to come forward and marry the rape victims. Measures were also taken to send abroad many of the war babies - those born as a result of wartime rape - for adoption by foreign families.

Abortion and adoption were thus viewed as quick way of 'cleansing' the women - and the nation - of the 'lajja' (shame) and 'daag' (stain).

After the war, they [women] were the ones expected to reconstruct families, while dealing with the scars of war.

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The story of Amirjaan is a common one. For many like her, life stopped with the war. For others, it somehow went on. For all of them, the wounds are beyond cure, and society has done little to help the healing. While glorifying the grand label of 'war heroine', society has either insulted outright, or else neglected, or, at the least, ignored the women within the label who sacrificed themselves in the war for its independence. Ensuring justice, respect and dignity for the birangona is the only way to honour their sacrifice.

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Forgotten war babies

Bengali families tend to be large. And while Bangladeshi citizens can be foster parents, this is a difficult process. These factors along with the damage caused by a crippling war prompted the newly born government of Bangladesh to find quick solution for its socio-economic problem.

Under the Bangladesh Abandoned Children (Special Provision) Order of 1972, the government encouraged foreign adoption agencies to take war babies from Bangladesh during the early days of post-conflict period. The US branch of the Geneva-based International Social Service was the first international adoption agency to work in post-war Bangladesh. Through the Missionaries of Charity, other institutions also became involved in the programme, including Families for Children and the Kuan-Yin Foundation (both in Canada), the Holt Adoption Program (US) and Terre des Hommes (Switzerland).

Many of the social workers and medical practitioners were left with the daunting task of dealing with pregnancies. And while many of these workers were genuinely committed to supporting the victims, there were occasions when decisions of terminating pregnancy or giving up the baby for adoption went contrary to the women’s own choices. Pleading by young pregnant girls were ignored in many instances as they were considered 'too young' to make mature decisions.

Many girls cried and did not want to give their babies away … We even had to use sedatives to make the women sleep and then take the babies.

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Confusion over how to deal with the war babies appears to have gone to the very highest levels. Then-Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Mujibur Rahman repeatedly referred to these birangona (valiant) women as his "daughters", and asked the nation to welcome them back into their communities and families. However, he also declared, with incredible insensitivity, that "none of the babies who carry the blood of the Pakistanis will be allowed to remain in Bangladesh". Nilima Ibrahim, a prominent social worker and feminist author, recalls her meeting with Sheikh Mujibur, in her book 'Ami Birangona Bolchi'. When questioned about the status of the war babies, the prime minister said, "Please send away the children who do not have their father’s identity. They should be raised as human beings with honour. Besides, I do not want to keep those polluted blood in this country".

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An appeal was issued by Mother Teresa on 21 January 1972 urging women not to have abortions, and instead to contact the Missionaries of Charity, which offered to take care of the war babies. Most of these war babies were adopted by families in Canada, with some were also sent to France and Sweden. This met with objection from Muslim clerics who feared the children would be brought up with Christian upbringing.

Today, there is very little information about these children – about how they have developed, about how they often lived without social recognition within their societies, about what happened to those who were adopted by people from other countries. They remain an unspoken part of Bangladesh's history, brushed under and abandoned. Just like their mothers.

I had a lousy dad, who just insulted me … I tried to commit suicide four years ago … I often wonder why I am here in Canada, adopted by parents who divorced three months after I was adopted … I hated being a kid, and I am angry at Bangladesh for not taking care of me when I needed it most. I don’t have any roots and that makes me cry. So that is why I am trying to learn more about where I was born.

Plight of a 'war baby'

While scattered narratives point to the experiences of children who fought during the war and were raped by the Pakistan Army or brutally killed, almost nothing is known about the destiny of the war babies. By now, they have largely disappeared from the official history of Bangladesh. The state acted as the moral agent, deciding who could stay and who could leave. Although the social workers and humanitarian and medical practitioners considered themselves to be working in the best interests of the war babies and their mothers, the assumption that they should be separated ultimately deprived the babies a chance to be raised by their birth mothers. This also generated additional trauma for already upset women.

...There is no way of knowing the fate of all the adopted war babies. Undoubtedly, however, their past and the trauma of violence that is linked to their births have haunted nearly all of them. Perhaps, by tracing through their histories, it could be possible for Bangladesh to obtain crucial data regarding its own interlinked past. But in this, it must be understood that it is not ethical to try to find these individuals, nearly all of whom have no intention to be found. Instead, it is more important to understand how, three and a half decades ago, the state, families and communities united to construct a destiny for Bangladeshi women and the war babies. This understanding would also benefit the movement in Bangladesh to seek redress for war crimes committed in 1971.

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