Birangonas: Our dearest sisters

Aside

bImagey Shahanaz Jahan Pushon, translated for AlalODulal.org by Tibra Ali

“Husbands? Where will we find husbands. Some of our husbands died during the war, others have left us.”

One shock followed another. Keeping my expression natural, I asked, “Children?”

“The kids have grown up, the eldest two sons have moved in with their in-laws. They never visit or ask for my news. The daughter too doesn’t come.”

“Then where do you live?”

“I don’t have a place to stay, dear sister. I live with her. (Pointing to another birangona). She, too, doesn’t have a place to stay, she lives at her paternal uncle’s.”

“Hey, want to go to Sirajgonj with us? A few of us are going there to meet with birangonas (war heroines).” Trimita proposed suddenly.

On hearing this I became excited. Birangonas! Birangonas! So many songs have been composed, so many texts written about them. I have read some of it, and sometimes, on hearing about them on the television, I have tried to form a mental picture of what they look like, what kind of women they are.

I remember when I was in ninth grade, and a student at the Cadet College, for some reason or another I had fetched from the library shelves a book on the Liberation War. I can’t recall either the title or the author’s name anymore. It was based on the real war-time experience of a retired army general. In the book he described how, after defeating and taking over a Pakistani Army camp, he rescued from a room there a number of abused women who were stark naked. Their saris had been taken away from them, as having saris gave them the opportunity to commit suicide. After that, the book contained some descriptions of the torture these women suffered, reading which made me cry for the rest of the day. It was like going through a trauma, as I couldn’t imagine what it would be like if someone took away even my right to commit suicide.

A sharp gash formed in my soul, and a mistrust in humans was born inside of me. Why and how can someone, caught up in the ecstasy of rape, fling open the thighs of a woman? Bayonet her between her legs? If they are human beings, what am I? Or if I am human, what are they? Do we belong to the same group? For a whole week I silently brooded over these questions.

A long time has passed since then. Out of fear I didn’t open books on the Liberation War anymore. I can’t bear descriptions of human barbarity. No longer did I read the stories of birangonas. I consoled myself by saying that after Liberation many freedom fighters, like that general, must have liberated all the enemy camps in December of 1971 and set the girls free. And the government, having honoured them with the title of ‘birangonas’, must have set up rehabilitation centres for them. In particular, the fact that these days one often hears poetry about birangonas being recited in emotional tones on various television channels on Victory Day made me think that these women must have gained the love and respect of the people. If not, why would there be so many poems written about them? Besides, upon listening to the extensive discussions of the birangonas by the so-called intellectuals gave the impression that these women have become ‘stars’ of this country. The political parties, even if for the selfish reasons to improve their own images, must have been fighting each other to give the birangonas plush apartments and other benefits and thus increase their own standing with the people. To say nothing about the media and the social welfare organizations, I imagined.

“Are you going there just to meet with them or do you have some other purpose?” I asked Trimita.

“No, not just to meet with them but also because of that play that we put together every year to raise funds.”

“Oh, you mean the Vagina Monologues?”

I suddenly remembered Trimita, Tasaffy and a few others squander their time every year by putting together a show about ending violence against women. The money that they raise every year from this, they donate to some grass-root women’s organization. I too once took part in this play.

“Yes, earlier this year we decided that we shall give the collection that we raise to the birangonas. There is an organization called ‘Naripokkho’ that is helping us get in touch with twenty-one birangonas. So we are going to Shirajganj to hand over the money to them.”

Hmm, I thought, what difference would a small amount, raised by insignificant people like us, make to the birangonas. They must be living in big apartments. Still what harm could such a small gift cause? And this is my chance to meet them as well.

The seven of us started at 7 AM in the morning and arrived at Sirajgonj at 10 AM. Our group consisted of me, Trimita, Shanta, Tasaffy, Tahmina, Priyota, and Orchid. For some reason our discussion during the entire journey centred around the much talked about Bangla cinema film star Ananta Jalil and his movies. There is no doubt that the man is creating waves. On the way we learned that we are going to the office of an NGO called “Sirajgonj  Mohila Uttoron Shangsta” (Organization for the advancement of the women of Sirajgonj). I surmised that the birangonas must all live there together. Perhaps the government had set it up for their accommodations and other needs.

We arrived at last to a pretty one story concrete building. I wondered how 21 birangonas could live in such a small building. We were welcomed by Shafina Lohani who is the founder and director of the NGO.

The first thing I noticed when we went in were a group of women who looked like street beggars sitting around on some plain looking furniture. A little like the domestic female servants (“buas”) that one sees in the middle class homes of the cities. I didn’t realize who they were. I wondered what these women were doing at the offices of the biarngonas?

Shanta smiled and walked towards them and at that moment it dawned on me like daylight that these women were the birangonas at the centre of our stories, and poems, and countless discussions by intellectuals and politicians and millions of people.

I quickly recovered from the shock. I felt a sharp pang of guilt (I don’t know what caused my guilt). I kept on thinking whether the few of us in such a short time can “make up” for the profound disrespect that we, as a nation, have shown to these women by reducing them to this state?

After giving them my ‘salam’ I walked towards them. Sitting down amongst them I started talking to them like old friends. I kept silent about how much I admired and adored them. But, while holding their hands and hugging them I prayed, “Allah, please convey to their hearts at least a fraction of the love I feel for them”. Human beings are able to understand love or hate instantaneously. I think they were able to intuit my feelings for them. I asked them where they lived, where their husbands and children were. They smiled at my ignorance.

“Husbands? Where will we find husbands. Some of our husbands died during the war, others have left us.”
One shock followed another. Keeping my expression natural, I asked, “Children?”

“The kids have grown up, the eldest two sons have moved in with their in-laws. They never visit or ask for my news. The daughter too doesn’t come.”

“Then where do you live?”

“I don’t have a place to stay, dear sister. I live wherever I can. (Pointing to another birangona) She, too, doesn’t have a place to stay, she lives at her paternal uncle’s.”

Another came and sat down beside me: “We don’t have a place to stay, dear sister. After it happened (after ’71 that is) everyone in the village drove me out. Now I live in a chchapra (a small shack made out of bamboos or other such cheaply available material) squatting on the government land beside the railway line.”

“How do you eat?”

“Amma sometimes calls us and gives us some money or clothes – that’s how we stay alive.”

In a short while I realized, none of these women have a place to stay. Most don’t get to see their children. After ’71, most of them supported themselves by working as maids in other people’s houses or as seamstresses. Now that they are old, they have lost their ability to work, and their only support now is ‘Amma’.

This Amma is Shafina Lohani who has been beside them since 1971. Before 1971 she was involved in student politics at Rajshahi University. During 1971 she was active in the Liberation War. Afterwards she worked in the rehabilitation centre for the birangonas and in 1980 she started getting the birangonas of Shirajganj together. Since then, she has been single handedly looking after these women. Shaifna Lohani is a simple human being who goes about her business quietly and she is virtually unknown to us. I know the names of the likes of Ananta Jalil but as an educated woman I don’t know who Shafina Lohani is. I felt ashamed at this. Quietly a deep reverence for her formed in me. And I even started dreaming a little about doing something like her in the future, and become someone with a pure soul like her.

In a little while all of us became very intimate with each other. Birangona sister Rajubala sang us a kirtan. To her delight we clapped and danced to her song. I have never received so much love and warmth in such a short time. At one point one of the sisters said “Why don’t you oil your hair, why don’t you tie back your hair?”

It’s been 10 years since the passing of my mother and that someone has asked me to rub oil into my hair! I was close to tears. I wondered how these women became so pure and holy? Their eyes, face, touch was holy, like my mother’s.

When we were about to leave the sisters became tearful, “We become attached, sisters,” they said. I have worked at many places, lived a number of years, but never have I felt like this when saying goodbye.

On our way back I felt that part of my soul has become joined with theirs, and that bond will make me return to this place.

________________

This article was inspired by One Billion Rising for Justice, End VAW campaign.

আমদের প্রিয় বুবুরা

-শাহানাজ জাহান পুষন

“কিরে, সিরাজগঞ্জ যাবি আমাদের সাথে? আমরা কজন যাচ্ছি বীরাঙ্গনাদের সাথে দেখা করতে।” হঠাৎ করেই ত্রিমিতার কাছ থেকে প্রস্তাবটা পেলাম।

শুনেই মনটা চঞ্চল হয়ে উঠল।বীরাঙ্গনা! বীরাঙ্গনা নিয়ে কত গান, কবিতা, গদ্য রচিত হয়েছে। তার কিছু পড়েছি, শুনেছি, কখনও টেলিভিশনে তাদের কথা শুনে মনে মনে “বীরাঙ্গনারা দেখতে কেমন, তাদের ব্যক্তিত্ব কেমন” তার ছিত্র দাঁড় করিয়েছি।

আমার মনে আছে, ক্লাস নাইনে যখন ক্যাডেট কলেজে পড়তাম তখন লাইব্রেরি ক্লাসে কি মনে করে মুক্তিযোদ্ধাদের উপর লেখা একটা বই নামালাম। বইটার নাম আজ আর মনে নেই, লেখকের নামও মনে নেই। একজন অবসরপ্রাপ্ত সেনাবাহিনীর জেনারেল মুক্তিযুদ্ধের বাস্তব অভিজ্ঞতার ভিত্তিতে বইটা লিখেছিলেন। সেখানে তিনি পাকবাহিনীর একটা ক্যাম্প দখলের পর একটি কক্ষ থেকে কিছু নির্যাতিতা মেয়েদের নগ্ন অবস্থায় উদ্ধার করেন। তাদের শাড়ি খুলে নেওয়া হয়েছিল, কেননা শাড়ি থাকলে তা দিয়ে তারা আত্নহত্যার চেষ্টা করতে পারে। এরপর তাদের নির্যাতনের কিছু বিবরন ছিল, যা পড়ে সেদিন সারাদিন, সারারাত কাঁদলাম। ট্রমার মত হয়ে গেল, কেউ যদি আমার আত্নহত্যার অধিকারও কেড়ে নেয় তাহলে কেমন লাগবে তা ভাবতে পারছিলাম না।

বুকের ভিতর তীব্র একটা ক্ষত তৈরী হল, মানুষের উপর অবিশ্বাস জন্ম নিল। কেন, কিভাবে একজন মানুষ ধর্ষণের উল্লাসে একটি নিরাপরাধ মেয়ের দু’পা দু’দিকে টেনে ছিঁড়ে নিতে পারে? দু’পায়েরর মাঝখানে বেয়নেট চার্জ করতে পারে? তারা যদি মানুষ হয়ে থাকে তাহলে আমি কি? আমি যদি মানুষ হই তাহলে ওরা কি? আমরা কি একই গোত্রীয়? পুরো এক সপ্তাহ বোবার মত শুধু এই ভাবলাম।

তারপর বহুদিন কেটে গেছে। ভয়ে আর কোন মুক্তিযুদ্ধের বইয়ের পাতা উল্টাই না। মানুষের নৃসংসতার বর্ণনা সহ্য করতে পারিনা। বীরাঙ্গনাদের গল্প আর কখনও পড়িনি। নিজেকে এই বলে সান্ত্বনা দিয়েছি যে দেশ স্বাধীন হবার পরে নিশ্চয় ওই মেজর জেনারেলের মত মুক্তিযোদ্ধারা ৭১ এর ডিসেম্বরে সব হানাদার ক্যাম্প দখল করেছে, আমাদের মেয়েদের মুক্ত করেছে। সরকার তাদের জন্য পুনর্বাসনকেন্দ্র তৈরি করে তাদের “বীরাঙ্গনা” উপাধি দিয়ে সম্মানিত করেছে। বিশেষ করে বিজয় দিবসে বিভিন্ন চ্যানেলে আজকাল উদাত্ত গলায় প্রায়ই বীরাঙ্গনাদের নিয়ে কবিতা শুনে ভেবেছি ওরা নিশ্চয় এতদিনে মানুষের শ্রদ্ধা, ভালোবাসা ও সম্মান পেয়েছে। তা না হলে তাদের নিয়ে এত এত কবিতা তো আর লিখা হত না। তাছাড়া চ্যানেলেগুলোতে তথাকথিত বুদ্ধিজীবিদের বীরাঙ্গনাদের নিয়ে ব্যাপক বিশ্লেষণধর্মী আলোচনা শুনেও মনে হয়েছে বীরাঙ্গনারা এখন এদেশের “স্টার”। রাজনৈতিক দলগুলো নিদেনপক্ষে নিজেদের ইমেজ বাড়াবার জন্যেও নিশ্চয়ই এতদিনে কাড়াকাড়ি করে ওদের জন্য বিলাসবহুল ঘরবাড়ি দিয়ে ও অন্যান্য সুযোগ সুবিধা প্রদান করে জনপ্রিয়তা পাবার চেষ্টা করেছে। আর মিডিয়া ও অন্যান্য জনকল্যাণমূলক স্থাপনাগুলো তো আছেই।

“শুধু দেখা করতে যাচ্ছিস নাকি অন্য কোনো উদ্দেশ্য আছে?” প্রশ্ন ছুড়লাম ত্রিমিতার কাছে।

“না, শুধু দেখা করতে না। ঐযে প্রতিবছর আমরা একটা থিয়েটার পারফর্ম করে ফান্ডরেইজিং করি না?”

“ওহ, দ্যা ভাজাইনা মোনলগস্?”

আমার মনে পড়ল ত্রিমিতা, তাসাফী এবং আরও কয়েকজন নিজেদের সময় নষ্ট করে নারী নির্যাতন প্রতিরোধ বিষয়ক একটা থিয়েটার নাটক করে। সেটার টিকেট বেচে যে টাকাটা পায় সেটা প্রতিবছর কোন একটা তৃণমূল নারীসংস্থাকে দান করে দেয়। আমিও একবার এ নাটকটিতে অংশগ্রহণ করেছিলাম।

“হ্যাঁ, এবছর শুরুতেই আমরা ঠিক করেছিলাম ফান্ডরেইজিং-এর টাকাটা বীরাঙ্গনাদের দেব। নারীপক্ষ নামের একটি সংস্থা আমাদের সাহায্য করেছে ২১ জন বীরাঙ্গনাদের সাথে যোগাযোগ করতে। সিরাজগঞ্জ যাচ্ছি ওদের সাথে দেখা করে টাকাটা হস্তান্তর করতে।”

হুম, আমি ভাবলাম আমাদের মত ছোট মানুষদের নাটক করে আয় করা অল্প কয়েকটা পয়সায় ওদের আর কি হবে! ওরা নিশ্চয় এখন বড় বড় বাড়িতে থাকে। তবু ছোট্ট একটা উপহার আমারদের পক্ষ থেকে মন্দ কি? এই সুযোগে দেখাও হল।

সকাল ৭টায় রওনা দিয়ে আমরা সাতজন ১০টা নাগাদ সিরাজগঞ্জ পৌঁছালাম। আমি, ত্রিমিতা, শান্তা, তাসাফী, তাহমিনা, প্রিয়তা এবং অর্কিড। পুরোটা পথ আমাদের আলোচনা কি এক কারনে দখল করে থাকল বাংলা ছায়াছবির বর্তমান আলোচিত হিরো অনন্ত জলিল ও তার সিনেমাগুলো! লোকটা যে আলোড়ন তুলেছে এই ব্যাপারে কোন সন্দেহ নেই। পথেই জানলাম আমরা যাচ্ছি “সিরাজগঞ্জ মহিলা উত্তরণ সংস্থা” নামে একটা এনজিও অফিসে। আমি ভাবলাম উনারা মনে হয় ওইখানে সবাই একসঙ্গে থাকেন। সরকার থেকে থাকা খাওয়ার বন্দবস্ত করা হয়েছে হয়ত।

অবশেষে আমরা পাকা ছোট সুন্দর একটা একতলা বাড়িতে পৌঁছালাম। এইটুকু জায়গায় ২১ জন থাকেন! অবাক হলাম ভেবে। আমাদেরকে অভ্যর্থনা জানালেন সাফিনা লোহানী খালা যিনি এই এন জি ও-র উদ্যোক্তা ও পরিচালক।

ভিতরে ঢুকেই দেখলাম একটা লম্বামত ঘরে সাধারন চেয়ার টেবিলে বসে আছেন বেশ কিছু প্রায় ভিখারিনিবেশ বৃদ্ধা। শহরের মধ্যবিত্ত পড়িবারগুলোতে বাসায় যে কাজের বুয়া থাকেন, তাদের যে বেশে আমরা দেখি অনেকটা সেই রকম। আমি বুঝলাম না এরা কারা। বীরাঙ্গনা দের অফিসে এরা কি করছেন?

শান্তা মিষ্টি হেসে ওদের দিকে এগিয়ে গেল। আর তখন আমি হঠাৎ দিনের আলোর মত পরিষ্কার বুঝতে পারলাম এরাই আমাদের গল্পের, কবিতার, লক্ষ কোটি সাধারণ মানুষ, বুদ্ধিজীবি ও রাজনীতিবিদদের আলোচনার কেন্দ্রবিন্দু প্রিয় বীরাঙ্গনারা।

দ্রুত শক কাটিয়ে উঠলাম। তীব্র অপরাধবোধ হচ্ছিল (জানিনা কেন, কার অপরাধে, কি অপরাধে?) মনে হচ্ছিল আমরা গোটা জাতি তাদের যে অপমান করে এই বেশ দিয়েছি তা কি আমরা এই অল্প কয়েকজন, অল্প একটু সময়ে একটুও “মেক আপ” করতে পারব?

তাদের সালাম দিয়ে এগিয়ে গেলাম। তাদের সবার মাঝখানে বসে পুরাতন পরিচিত বন্ধুর মত কথা বলতে শুরু করলাম। আমি তাদের কতবড় ভক্ত, মনে মনে তাদের কতখানি শ্রদ্ধা করি তা ব্যাখা করলাম না। তবে তাদের হাত ধরে, তাদের সাথে আলিঙ্গন করে আমার হৃদয় খুলে মনে মনে প্রার্থনা করলাম “আল্লাহ, আমার মনে তাদের জন্য যে প্রচন্ড ভালোবাসা তার কিছুটা হলেও তাদের কাছে পৌঁছে দাও।” মানুষ এমন এক প্রাণী যে ভালবাসা আর ঘৃণা সঙ্গে সঙ্গে বুঝতে পারে। তারা মনে হয় আমার আন্তরিকতাটা অনুভব করলেন। তারা কোথায় থাকেন, স্বামী সন্তানেরা কোথায় জিজ্ঞেস করলাম। দেখি মুখ টিপে হাসলেন আমার গাধামিতে।

“স্বামী? স্বামী কই পাব? স্বামীতো কারও স্বাধীনতার সময় মরছে আফা, কারও ছাইড়া চইলা গেছে।”

একের পর এক শক, তবু মুখ স্বাভাবিক রেখে বললাম “বাচ্চারা?”

“বাচ্চারা বড় হইছে, বড় দুই পোলা শ্বশুর বাড়ি চইলা গেছে। আহে না, আমার খবর লয় না। মাইয়াও আহেনা।”

“তাহলে আপনি থাকেন কোথায়?”

“থাহার জায়গা নাই আফা, ওর ঘরে থাকি। (আরেক বীরাঙ্গনাকে দেখালেন) ওরও ঘর নাই, চাচাত ভাইয়ের বাড়িত থাহে।”

“হু ঘড় নাই বুবুমনি(আরেকজন পাশে এসে বসলেন) গেরাম থেইকা হেই ঘটনার পরে (৭১ এর পর) সবাই দূর দূর কইরা তাড়ায় দিছে। অহন রেলের পাশে সরকারী জায়গায় ছাপড়া তুইলা থাহি।”

“চলেন কিভাবে?”

“এইযে মাঝেমধ্যে আম্মা ডাক দিয়া ভালমন্দ দেখেন, ট্যাকে পয়সা দেন, শাড়ি কাপড় দেন, এইতে বাইচ্চা থাহি।”

অল্প সময়ে বুঝলাম, এদের কারও ঘর নেই। বেশিরভাগ সন্তানেরা তাদের দেখেন না। তারা ৭১ এর পর এর-ওর বাড়িতে কামলা খেটে, কেউ সেলাই করে জীবিকা নির্বাহ করেছেন। এখন বৃদ্ধা হয়েছেন, কাজ করার সক্ষমতা হারিয়েছেন, এখন তাদের একমাত্র ভরসা “আম্মা”।

আম্মা হলেন সাফিনা লোহানী যিনি তাদের পাশে আছেন ৭১ এর পর থেকে। ৭১ এর আগে রাজশাহী বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়ে ছাত্ররাজনীতি করতেন। ৭১ এর মুক্তিযুদ্ধে সক্রিয় ছিলেন। ৭১ এর পর এদের পুনর্বাসন কেন্দ্রে কাজ করেন ও পরে ৮০ সাল থেকে সিরাজগঞ্জে বীরাঙ্গনাদের একত্র করা শুরু করেন। সেই থেকে তিনি নিজের একক উদ্যোগে তাদের দেখাশুনা করে আসছেন। সাফিনা লোহানী একজন নিভৃতচারী সাদাসিধে সাদামনের মানুষ যার নাম আমরা কেউ জানি না। অনন্ত জলিলের নাম জানি কিন্ত এখনকার সময়ের শিক্ষিত, সচেতন একটা মেয়ে হয়েও আমি তার নাম জানিনা। বড় লজ্জা হল। আর মনে মনে তার ভক্ত হয়ে পড়লাম। একটু একটু স্বপ্নও দেখে ফেললাম তার মত ভবিষ্যতে কিছু করার, সাদামনের মানুষ হবার।

অল্প সময়েই আমরা সবাই ঘনিষ্ট হয়ে গেলাম। বীরাঙ্গনা রাজুবালা বুবু আমাদের কির্তন শোনালেন। আমরা তার খুশিতে হাততালি দিলাম, নাচলাম।এত অল্প সময়ে এত মায়া, এত ভালোবাসা আমি আর কখনও পাইনি। এক বুবু এক পর্যায়ে আমাদের বললেন “চুলে তেল দাওনা ক্যান? চুলটা বাধনা বুবু!”

আমার মা মারা যাবার ১০ বছর পর আর কেউ আমাকে আমার চুল তেল নেই কথাটা বললেন!ভীষণ কান্না পেয়ে গেল। এত পবিত্র কেন এরা? তাদের চোখ, চেহারা, স্পর্শ পবিত্র, আমার মায়ের মত।

আমরা যখন চলে আসব বুবুরা ছলছলে চোখে বিদায় দিয়ে বললেন “মায়া লাইগ্যা যায় বুবু।” আমি নিজে এত বড় হয়েছি, কত জায়গায় চাকরী করেছি, কিন্তু কখনো কোথাও এমন বিদায় নেইনি।

ফেরার পথে মনে হচ্ছিল আমার হৃদয়ের একটা অংশ তাদের সাথে জোড়া লেগে গেছে, সেটার টানে এখানে আমাকে আবারও আসতে হবে।

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এই লিখাটি উদ্যোমে উত্তরণে শতকোটি (One Billion Rising) নামক একটি নারী সহিংসতা বিরোধী বিশ্বব্যাপী ক্যাম্পেইনের উদ্যোগ।

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A Social Rising

Aside

Trimita Chakma, Tasaffy Hossain, and Tahmina Shafique

February 14, 2013 was a different day in Bangladesh. People from all walks of life took to the streets across the country. Women, men and children, countless adorned in red, joyously singing and shouting and demanding an end to a culture. A culture that has been “normal”, “private” and more importantly, “silent”. A society, which otherwise reflects significant lack of prioritisation on violence against women issues, came together to show their support. Almost 3 million men and women, through more than 335 organisations, occupied the streets in more than 40 locations in Dhaka and across all the 64 districts in Bangladesh, demanding an end to violence against women with joy, empowerment and exuberance. There were human rights activists, factory workers, union workers, lawyers, bankers, parliamentarians, tea garden workers, UN employees, school children, university students, farmers, teachers, domestic workers, adivasis, artists, writers, local government personnel, homosexuals, heterosexuals and hijras (transsexuals), young and old, survivors and allies.

“Silence — NO MORE”, they chanted, hoisting red banners, their red clothes signifying the colour of fire, of rising and more importantly, of power. ‘NO MORE violence against women,’ they sang in unison as they took to the streets. These were people who stepped out of small shops, factories, construction sites, stations, schools, universities, offices, homes, corporate houses, banks all across the country.

Human chains were formed in Lalmonirhaat, Faridpur, Magura, Barisal, Khulna, Rajshahi, Kushtia, Gaibandha, Chittagong Hill Tracts, and all other districts across Bangladesh. “It made me feel significant, like I am not alone,” said a woman from the crowd.

Six months earlier, a bunch of women came together in a meeting with Kamla Bhasin, a renowned South Asian feminist, who came to Bangladesh to strengthen the collective movement in South Asia and join a global campaign. These women have been advocating for women’s rights and play a significant role in the feminist movement in Bangladesh. Thus began the path to making Uddomey Uttoroney Shotokoti aka One Billion Rising (OBR) Bangladesh happen.

From small meetings, to very few organisations as partners, the coalition expanded, bringing numerous diverse organisations and individuals to stand under the same umbrella, to strike at the core of violence and RISE against violence against women.

In Bangladesh, violence against women has, historically, been a focal point of the feminist movement. Yet, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Bangladesh ranks fourth among the world’s nations with respect to violence against women. Almost every day, numerous women in Bangladesh are subjected to different forms of violence including rape, murder, acid attack, trafficking, domestic abuse, forced marriage, tortures related to dowry, and abduction. Since 2001, there have been 184,422 reported cases of violence according to the police headquarters. In 2012 alone, there were 19,617 reported incidences of violence against women in Bangladesh and this is just the reported number.

It was within this context that the rising in Bangladesh was imperative to bring this issue to the forefront. The campaign gave the women’s movement in Bangladesh a different dimension for reaching out to the general public, particularly the youth. Social networking, too, has helped this reach. The OBR Bangladesh page on Facebook currently has 11,151 men and women following, of whom 42% are men and 60% are below the age of 34.

The One Billion Rising campaign mobilised men and women all around the world in a joyous manner, bringing together coalitions of groups and individuals from different nationalities, ethnicities, cultures and religions that have never worked together before.

The OBR campaign began as a call to action by V-Day based on the staggering UN statistic that 1 in 3 women on the planet will be beaten or raped during her lifetime. With the world population at 7 billion, this adds up to more than one billion women and girls. It was a call for people across the world to come together to express their outrage, strike, dance and rise on 14 February 2013, V-Day’s 15th anniversary, in defiance of the injustices women suffer, demanding an end at last to violence against women.

V-Day is a global activist movement to end violence against women (VAW) and girls. V-Day is a catalyst that promotes creative events to increase awareness, raise money and revitalise the spirit of existing anti-violence organisations. V-Day generates broader attention for the fight to stop violence against women and girls, including rape, battery, incest, female genital mutilation (FGM) and sex slavery. In 2012, over 5,800 V-Day benefit events took place produced by volunteer activists around the world, raising awareness about the different forms of violence against women and girls prevalent across the different societies and nations.

The Vagina Monologues, one of V-Day’s events, was brought to Bangladesh in 2010 by a group of women who felt that a platform needed to be created for both men and women to start off dialogues about women’s sexuality and the social stigma surrounding rape and abuse.

When we started The Vagina Monologues it was already being performed in more than 140 countries. We piloted this platform under the name of V-Day Dhaka in 2010. The audience was largely people who had considerable exposure to western culture but most of them were not familiar with the controversial play. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive — especially, from older women who really appreciated the openness. The response from men was also very encouraging and some of them have been our strong supporters. Over the last three years, we have reached at least 1,500 audience members in Dhaka and raised over 10 lakh taka, which went to grassroots organisations working for women’s rights.

Critics pointed out that the play focuses on the urban (mainly Dhaka) population whereas VAW is more relevant among the grassroots. Another criticism was that the issues represented in the play were not relevant to Bangladesh and alien to our culture. In reality, most issues that women face regarding their bodies, sexuality, abuse and violence are global.

VAW, even though extremely prevalent in grassroots, also exists in the urban population significantly. In fact, cases suggest, the norm of silence and issue of preserving the idea of ‘honour’ exists in urban population.

Many women have said that they could relate to the monologues such as “Hair”, “The Flood”, “My Short Skirt”, “Because he liked to look at it”, “Say it” in ways and levels that show that these issues surpass cultural and social boundaries.”My Short Skirt” particularly was very popular with the female university students who often felt judged because of what they chose to wear. Many women connected to these monologues that depicted stories of reclaiming women’s bodies, sexual pleasure, rape, sexual harassment and more.

“In a strange way, this really helped me reconcile with my story,” said a woman. She was a survivor of rape, and listening to the monologue about another survivor made her find a certain strength in herself she had not been aware of before.

“You hear about rape every day, so much that you forget to think about it in a personal manner. The monologues brought back the human, the personalized face of rape,” another woman wrote.

It really made me love my body the way it is and love myself even more.

That monologue was a tight slap on the repressive patriarchal psyche across the world.

We also learnt that last year the provost of one of the women’s universities in Bangladesh banned the performance of The Vagina Monologues on campus because of the word ‘vagina’. The students organised a protest against this ban where more than 500 people including men participated; they chanted the name of the play. This year in March they will be performing it and raising money to donate to a One Stop Crisis Center.

With each year we performed, first in closed spaces, then at more and more public events, many more women and men came out. Complete strangers. People whose stories we had never known. We have had many young women and men open up to us about issues they have faced in their own lives — eve teasing; to be asked to be ‘the man’ after her father’s death; how men can help their close female friends deal with their abusive boyfriends; concerns about young men learning aggressive ways of sex from pornography. They all wanted to speak, to know, to make changes — and events organised by V-Day Dhaka and OBR, in some way provided that space to open up without inhibition.

As we move to another year, the vision of V-Day Dhaka expands beyond the play — to provide a platform to start off discussions about gender and sexuality among men and women, to give voice to issues that are rarely discussed in society — confronting themes such as rape, birth, menstruation and sexual awakening. During Eve Ensler’s visit in January 2013, V-Day Dhaka performed monologues based on real stories of violence and abuse faced by Bangladeshi women. We wish to have these performed in Bangla catering to the larger Bangla speaking community in the future. We hope to focus specifically on the youth, who will be the advocates for the next generation, in creating a more educated society. We envision the Bangladeshi students performing the play at universities, creating a space for the youth to come together and add to the lack of education regarding these issues.

When we started V-Day Dhaka in 2010, we did not anticipate that we would be involved in a global campaign. The initiators of OBR Bangladesh included many of the veteran activists of the grassroots Bangladesh Women’s movement who were core in making this campaign a success. This platform brought together young feminists like ourselves to work closely with these extraordinary, energetic and powerful women, from whom we have much to learn.

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The OBR campaign demands a universal platform for autonomous   feminist movements through which we hope to originate changes in policy and reshape the normative and social understanding of violence against women, both nationally and internationally.

By being a part of One Billion Rising, alongside 202 other countries, we discovered solidarity and a potential for immense possibilities. In one day, three million men and women in Bangladesh were out on the streets, questioning a society — a society where patriarchy holds a solid ground; a society where violence against women is common practice denying them equal opportunity, security, self-esteem and dignity within the family and in the society as a whole. Uddomey Uttoroney Shotokoti perhaps is the beginning of a new consciousness for Bangladesh. Because when you penetrate into a people’s consciousness, society begins to shift.

Trimita Chakma works at Coffey International Development as Alumni/MIS Manager. She is also a campaigner for the rights of indigenous peoples both in Bangladesh and internationally. She is currently working on research on access to justice for indigenous women of CHT for Asia Pacific Forum on Women Law and Development (APWLD).
Tasaffy Hossain works in the development sector. She was pioneer for bringing VDAY’s controversial play “The Vagina Monologues” in Bangladesh for the first time in 2010.
Tahmina Shafique works in the development sector. She has been engaged in various women’s rights initiatives. Earlier, Tahmina worked as a researcher and writer in the areas of women’s right, indigenous people, and economic development for media and research organisations.

This article was originally published in the Daily Star http://archive.thedailystar.net/forum/2013/March/rising.htm

This is the TIME!

Aside

It is a different day today in Bangladesh. There is a different air, a different aura, like never before. People from all walks of life, locations, across the country have taken to the street. Women, men, children, every one are walking on the streets demanding an end to a culture. A culture that has been “normal”, “private”, “silent”. A society which treated violence against women as a “normal’ issue has shown their support today as they occupied the streets in Dhaka and across all districts in Bangladesh.

“Silence- NO MORE”, chanted women and men. ‘NO MORE violence against women, they sang in unison as they took the streets today at 1 pm. These were people who stepped out of small shops, factories, construction sites, stations, offices, households, everywhere from across Bangladesh.

Human chains were formed in Lalmonihaat, Faridpur, Magura, Barisal, Khulna, Chittagong Hill Tracts, and all other districts across Bangladesh!

In Dhaka, following human chains, we have moved to Shilpakala academy field now. Here we have organized a festival to play a tribute to women across Bangladesh, across the world. Numerous performances are taking place here. Arnob is on stage now as we write this post, come join us as we celebrate womanhood, as we stand in solidarity to say NO to violence against women. It has been way too long, the time has come!

Next few performances include Shadhona dance, Action Aid shelter home girls’ performance, Shomporker Noya Shetu, Krishnokali, and more! We will be singing Jagoroner Gaan at 6.30 this evening. We will be lighting candles in solidarity with Shahbagh and the entire nation at 7pm.

Come join us now!ImageImage

Why We Fight

Aside

By Tamanna Hossain

Society loves reminding us time and time again, that our situation has improved vastly over the past century. Many women are now allowed to have an existence beyond their homes and their men, be it through education, a career, independent friend-circles or non-domestic hobbies. So with a hint of impatience and unguarded rebuke we are asked – what more do we want? Why can’t we be content with the scraps patriarchy has thrown our way?

Why indeed.

Because despite the concessions we have so magnanimously been granted, we are still being harassed, beaten, and raped in the streets, in our homes, and in our bedrooms. Because assaulting us is still seen as a bad habit men have rather than a conscious, violent choice punishable by law.

Because we are still blamed when we are raped, violated, and our bodily integrity torn to shreds. Because we are still called sluts and whores who “asked for it” instead of being given the justice we deserve and often need in order to heal. Because we are told to shut up and suck it up in the name of vague notions like “family honour” and “social reputation”.

Because our moral integrity is tied to the status of our hymen. Because, we are hyper-sexualized but not allowed to be sexual.  Because, our sexuality is presented as being either passive or destructive. Because,we are not allowed healthy acknowledgments, let alone expressions, of our sexuality without losing our value as a human being.

Because, we are defined by the color of our skin and the number on our weighing machines. Because, virtual strangers feel entitled to provide unsolicited judgment and advice regarding our bodies. Because, we are expected to smile politely, while publicly evaluated and found wanting. Because we live in a white-washed, post-colonial nightmare where being dark skinned is ugly.

Because we can’t earn more than our husbands without emasculating him. Because it’s considered ridiculous to expect our husbands to cook, clean and be supportive. Because wife-beating is seen as an embarrassing habit rather than a crime. Because marital rape is still an oxymoron.

Because we are expected to laugh at rape jokes that act as violent reminders of violent crimes. Because we are seen as nit-picking shrews when we complain about degrading, gendered language that normalizes and perpetuates patriarchal roles. Because “being a pussy” represents weakness and “having balls” conveys strength, even though pussies can take a pounding and balls hurt easy.

Because women fighting for their rights are painted as paranoid, malcontent home-wreckers who are either man-hating prudes or uncontrolled sluts out to make sluts of everyone.

Because double standards, misogyny, and gender violence are a part of the very fabric of human society, not just in Bangladesh, but everywhere.

Because the list of reasons why we fight can’t possibly end here.

Tamanna graduated from Lawrence University with a degree in Mathematics and Philosophy. She is the former president of the Lawrence University chapter of V-Day and is a lifetime member of Kappa Alpha Theta. She is now a part of VDAY Dhaka and One Billion Rising Campaign in Bangladesh. 

In the name of Honour

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Tahmina Shafique

Our lives, as women, in Bangladesh, are founded on a twisted interpretation of “Honour”. This concept is based not on honesty, integrity and fairness, but rather on some perceived “worthiness” and “respectability”. In this light, the Bangladeshi family is viewed as a unit of honour, and the family affects a woman’s identity and social standing; simultaneously, there exists a mutual feedback loop wherein a woman’s conduct, and how it is perceived by others and the society at large, has an impact on the family.

Therefore, it becomes important for us to fulfil the expectations held by family and society in order to be accepted and to experience feelings of belonging to this central institution that we are tied to through birth or marriage.

Unfortunately, the reality of maintaining this honour in our lives is often at odds with our own individual freedom, choice, will or achievement. Our lives are not based on “freedom”, on “liberty” or on the ability to live within a free spirited space. Yet, as a nation, as a society, collectively, we pride ourselves on values such as freedom and democracy.

There is a great deal of research on-going on women across the world, and specifically in South Asia. Increasingly, there are cold hard statistics that clearly indicate escalating levels of violence against women. Missing in these numbers are numerous unreported nightmares faced by women in trying to reconcile with their place in society. No amount of progress in terms of education, class, and development has resulted in the evolution of our society.

obrbd-logoEvery move, every decision that a woman takes must ensure that this honour is restored. So, when a girl is raped or sexually abused by family members, it becomes a secret that must be kept forever, because it will hurt the “honour” or the social standing of the family. Honour, then, is far more important than any damage created within the daughters of families. So, the daughters of these numerous honourable families go through abuse thrice in their lifetime- first, when the actual event occurs; second, in the aftermath of dealing with trauma for a lifetime, and third, dealing with the silence and ignorance of her family.

Even outside of the family boundaries, if a woman is sexually harassed, abused or raped, it is still her duty to keep the honour of her family intact. If she does stand up and fight it, which entails breaking away from silence and talking about it, will invariably hurt the honour of the family, of the acquaintances, of the greater society. Starting from families and the greater society, everyone will continue to use their combined forces to “justify” rape or any form sexual assault- “she was not honourable enough”, she was not dressed appropriately”, “It must have been her fault” and more.

The streets tell women that sexual harassment is all right and honour has a different meaning than we think. Being grabbed, being pinched, being verbally abused is normal. ‘A little bit of sexual abuse is all right and it is common’, that’s what they will tell you. Silence is the “key”. Who would appreciate a woman standing up in the street and creating a chaos? This is definitely not respectful or honourable in the eyes of our society.

Even in a marriage, it must be the woman who must keep that honour intact. Once you sign up, no amount of violence or emotional abuse is justified enough for a decision for walking away. It is the woman’s duty to maintain the honour of her family and her in-laws. Being pushed or thrown by your husband, in the middle of a fight, is simply a moment of anger and nothing more. It in no way indicates violent tendencies. Leaving is often not the first choice a woman is able to take, because walking out leads to series of battles with their own families and the entire society.

Honour even extends to our achievements as women. How can you, as a woman, achieve so much in your work place or in your career? How can an honourable woman put her career first? There must have been something wrong. It is not about intelligence or efficiency or anything more.

It does not end. Honour extends to how we, as women carry ourselves. From what we wear, to what we do, to whom we mingle with, and what we say, is constantly under scrutiny. If you are a daughter of an honourable family, if you are the wife of an honourable husband, if you are a mother, you must maintain the norms that this society has created for you and live up to the expectations that the society has carefully designed for you.

It never ends, really. Not from birth; not even till our very last breath.

Many men, and unfortunately women themselves, too, believe that the well-being of the entire society lies on the shoulders of a woman and, more importantly, in her ability to suffer every wrong, in utter and submissive silence. This means that, while there will be many legal and technical arguments, the actual arena in which all cases of violence against women may be won or lost are the hearts and minds of the ordinary men and women of our society. Because it is really not the law alone that has failed to prevent violence against women; it is the collective, colossal force of prejudice, chauvinism and insensitivity of this very society that has brought us where we are. Unless we change this mindset, unless we change the fundamentals through which we shape a woman’s place in this society, we will continue the twisted legacy of imposing our perverse sense of honour on our daughters, and on women for decades to come.

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Tahmina Shafique works in an international development agency in Bangladesh. She is a part of VDAY Dhaka and a member of the core organizing group of One Billion Rising Campaign Bangladesh.

published: http://opinion.bdnews24.com/2013/01/15/in-the-name-of-honour/

Voices of South Asian Women… Join us! The time is now!

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South Asian Women’s Day celebrates the voices of South Asian women, their rights and belief in peace, justice, human rights and democracy. Following the declaration of this day by Sangat – A South Asian Feminist Network – in October 2002, every year, several organisations have come together as part of the International Fortnight Campaign against violence against women to express South Asian women’s solidarity for peace, justice, human rights and democracy.

 The region of South Asia is bound by a common thread of history, language, arts and culture. Its concerns are similar too—rising levels of poverty, widening income gaps, greater emphasis on weapons and military, increasing intolerance towards minorities, civil unrest, human rights’ violations, and most of all, increasing violence against women. South Asia is one of the most violent regions for women.Our effort is to create consciousness as South Asians for concerns in our region, to forge friendships across borders and support each other in creating a more peaceful South Asia.

This year with the ongoing ONE BILLION RISING CAMPAIGN we would like to invite you to symbolically connect all the on going activities in the different regions on the 30th of November as a mark of solidarity and strength to root out violence in our regions.

 The Program will be held at ‘Bokultola’, Faculty of Fine Arts (Charukola Onushed), Dhaka University. Time: 3.30pm.

This will be followed by a walk for reclaiming the night, with the slogan “‘raater bera bhhangbo, shadhhin bhhabey cholbo”

It is important as South Asians to come together, to express our solidarity and raise our voices against injustice and for peace, justice, human rights and democracy.

Every year, men and women of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma India, Pakistan, Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Tibet gather to speak in one firm voice about the need to reinforce democracy, peace, human rights and dialogue in the region. This year let us all rise together in solidarity for a safer world for women and girls.

We mark this day every year to raise the voices of South Asian women. to express solidarity and demand for a violence free world.

 
 ImageOn Behalf of Sangat

Peace is possible. If we Think it. Plan it. Do it.