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The stories of Bangladesh’s brave women


Birangona, women of war; The Komola Collective's performance now on and touring‘In 1971, more than 200,000 women and girls were systematically raped and tortured’.

In the play ‘Birangona, Women of War’, the year is 1971; the war of independence tears through Bangladesh, and no part of the country is left untouched.

In a small village, Moryom and her family wait fearfully for its arrival.

Amid the unrest and violence, Moryom still remembers the calming details of her life before: the taste of tamarind, the smell of her mother, holding her husband’s hand.

Every day they hide from the army in the pond behind their house, while across the country, women are disappearing from streets and homes.

When the storm finally hits, it will tear away everything.

Birangona means ‘brave woman’.

In Bangladesh’s war for independence from Pakistan in 1971, more than 200,000 women and girls were systematically raped and tortured.

After Bangladesh gained independence these women were ignored by a society where rape is seen as a source of shame for the victim.

Rape was not the only issue at the time – war babies were also a major problem that needed addressing. Several agencies became involved in organising these war children’s transfer to Europe – their need coincided with restrictions on availability of babies for adoption here.

Dr Bina D’Costa of Australian National University (ANU), and a scholar on the impact of violence on ordinary lives particularly in war and conflict situations, interviewed Dr Geoffrey Davis who was in East Pakistan in 1972 and witnessed the 1971 war’s brutality.

As a specialist in late abortions, he was brought in at the behest of several agencies.

Many women were forced to get abortions, in many cases extremely risky abortions that threatened the life and health of the women. Davis’s interview suggests that abortion camps were held in different parts of the country.

Taking about the rape strategy, Davis said, “They’d keep the infantry back and put artillery ahead and they would shell the hospitals and schools. And that caused absolute chaos in the town.

“And then the infantry would go in and begin to segregate the women. Apart from little children, all those were sexually matured would be segregated while the rest of the infantry tied…

“And then the women would be put in the compound under guard and made available to the troops.”

After the war the rape camps were disbanded and the Rehabilitation Organisation tried to get the women back to their village or town, Davis explained.

“But what was happening in a lot of instances was that they’d get a wife back to the husband and he would kill her. Because she had been defiled.”

Nobody wanted to know about this story, Davis continued, “…because it involved abortion and adoption of babies.

“And one aspect was that West Pakistan was a commonwealth country and all the officers were trained in England. It was hideously embarrassing for the British government.

“The West Pakistani officials didn’t get why there was so much fuss about that. I interviewed a lot of them,” he said.

“They were in a prison in Comilla and in pretty miserable circumstances. And they were saying, ‘What are they going on about? What were we supposed to have done? It was a war!’”

In August 2013, the Komola Collective travelled to Bangladesh to film Birangona women’s firsthand accounts and produce a research and development (R&D) theatrical piece based on their footage. A second phase of R&D for the UK audience ran in November 2013.

With the help of a videographer, the Collective filmed the testimonial of five Birangona women, and then, along with a local playwright, developed the script for a one-act play.

The piece uses physical performance, choreography and animation interwoven with films of the real Birangona women’s accounts to tell their stories.

The result of this collaboration is currently running at the Lost Theatre in London until 20 April, before a tour that lasts until 19 May and takes in Oldham, Birmingham and Leeds.

They were silenced, ostracised and forgotten. This is to help break this silence.

‘It makes for a brutal 60 minutes’, Tahmina Anam wrote in the Guardian recently, ‘and would be almost unbearable to watch if not for the use of mixed media, the clever animation of a Bengali folktale and flashbacks.

‘At the end, there is a long segment of video footage in which the Birangona women speak directly to camera.

‘They say they are still taunted for losing their honour, that their children are stigmatised, and that they worry no one will come to their funerals when they die.

‘The women bear not only the scars of what happened to them in the past, but the continual pain of everyday life as a woman marked forever by that defining moment of violence.

‘After the Komola Collective staged the production in Dhaka for the first time, one of the women said: “Go out and tell the world our story.”

‘And that is exactly what Komola are doing with this groundbreaking production.’

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