It was 1996 when I first got hold of Dr. Nilima Ibrahim's Aami Birangana Bolchhi, or rather, the book got hold of me—my soul, my spirit, every bit of my conscience and consciousness—with its gripping narration and harrowing tales of the sufferings of biranganas. Every now and then I would take the book out with the intent to translate it, but I would then put it back in haste, before my heart caught fire and got scorched seven times as I read each of the seven chapters of the book. It took me twenty years to finally gather the courage to translate a section from the book for the 2016 Independence Day Issue of the Daily Star. I am not ashamed to admit that I would have cowered away from that task yet again, had Dr. Fakrul Alam not stood as an obstacle to my cowardice. Upon his consistent encouragement and the insistence of Dr. Nilima Ibrahim's daughter, Sitara Ahsanullah's, I finally completed the translation of Aami Birangana Bolchhi—A War Heroine, I Speak—which, hopefully, will soon be published by Bangla Academy.
Last November, as I was translating the book, I was invited by CUNY's History and Women's Studies department to give a talk on the [Bengali] female body as the narrative of defiance. As I stood in front of a packed auditorium, talking about Bengali women writers and fighters, I felt belittled and ashamed of our failures—my failure—to properly acknowledge the war heroines for their service and sacrifice. It was then I decided to pay my tribute to these heroes by writing about them. My current book project takes into consideration the representation and re-presentation of war-heroines in context of the nation's socio-politico-cultural discourse, and also in the light of life writing—through reportage and memoirs. In the first part, I will offer a historiographic analysis, examining the public reaction and the representation of birangana bodies in the post-war phase. The second part of the book will include my translations of texts written by or about the war heroines. These translated texts will demonstrate the resilience of these women who defied the discourse of suppression that was imposed upon them (both during and after the war), and who decided to re-present themselves through writing. My translation of Aami Birangana Bolchhi will be included as a chapter in this section. The second chapter will include excerpts from memoirs [published or unpublished] written by the war heroines, in my translation, of course.
Bangladesh took an unprecedented step by acknowledging the rape survivors of the war and honoring them with a title for their bravery. However, one cannot overlook the ultimate impact of such gendered violence on both the raped body and the body of the country itself. Theorization of rape has become a dominant concern. On a more clear-cut feminist level, it can also be seen as patriarchal society's hypocrisy around the transgression of female chastity. By the way, even though I have used the term “victim”—in describing the war heroines in the introduction to my translation of Aami Birangana Bolchhi, I would not use that term in connection with these war heroes any more. After all, they bore the burden of the liberation war in their bodies. They were no less heroic than our brave freedom fighters, who confronted our enemies at the war front.
Indeed, during the war, the female body was targeted, identified, and assaulted by the enemies; and in the post-war country, her body was rescued, redefined, and rehabilitated—but in both cases she was defined in sexual terms. And it is because of such sexual framings, I am provoked to read the war-trodden Bengali patriarchy's attitude towards these women from a Freudian perspective. Let me put it this way: in the post war Bangladesh, the raped female body was treated like nation's “Id,” in need of suppression, regulation, and policing. The domestic patriarchy's “Ego” —father, brother, son, or husband—wanted to control the raped body by trying to take away her voice and by putting constraints on her mobility. The nationalist /governmental authority worked as a “Super ego,” in its attempt of renaming, relocating, rehabilitating, and restructuring her raped/impregnated/cleansed body.
On the other hand, the women themselves were not sure how to adapt to this new identity that branded them on the basis of their body perceived as an item of war. Hundreds of thousands of women refused to register as “war heroines,” many decided to be financially independent after being rejected by their families, a large number of them merged into crowds, and a sizeable number of them even went voluntarily to Pakistan with the soldiers. These women preferred a life of humiliation in the enemy country to a shameful life at home. Nilima Ibrahim's book records the life of one such woman, who married one of her rapists and went to live in Pakistan.
My book project, titled, Wounded Memories: the Written World of the War Heroines, has been recently accepted by the Brill Publishers. They are going to publish it as an academic book, under their Women and Gender series. My editor, Nienke keeps sending me enthusiastic letters, asking me to take my time, but finish it soon. I keep sending her reassuring emails. I know I am in no condition to delay the project, not because my publisher is eagerly waiting. I am obliged to complete the task and bring it to light, because they are waiting—my heroes, the hundreds of thousands of women warriors of my country are waiting—to speak through my writings. They are waiting to be heard and remembered, not as victims, but as valiant fighters. And for these courageous women warriors, I am trying to raise my voice so that their situation can be apprehended by the world.
Fayeza Hasnat, of the University of South Florida, muses on two of her forthcoming books.