The Women of 1971, on Either Side of the Bengal Border

Women's experiences of violence during the Muktijuddho in Bangladesh and the Naxalbari movement in West Bengal paint a complex picture.

What do we understand when we identify ourselves as feminist?

The Wire’s Histories of Feminisms project is an attempt to emphasise that there is no linear or one way of understanding and experiencing feminism. Through a series of articles, The Wire draws your attention to some of the different narratives and debates that, over the decades, have come to define feminism. For instance, we recall the first generation of feminists in Kerala, the first women lawyers who surmounted formidable challenges to claim their rightful place in the legal system. We shine a light on women authors who pushed the boundaries of feminism in literature, bring before you the perspectives and experiences of feminist Dalit and Muslim women. We talk about how protagonists of many radical movements and uprisings in public memory are usually male.

Side by side, we bring you important debates around 19th-century cultural nationalism and gender reform, the discussions around sexual violence, the law and the MeToo movement.


The year 1971 remains a significant marker in the contemporary history of South Asia.

In India, the Naxalbari movement, which began in 1967, had entered its most violent phase by the end of 1970, and 1971 has been described in academic historiography and public memory as the year of bloodshed. Naxalite guerrilla groups and the law-enforcement agencies of the state like the police and para-military troupes in West Bengal regularly engaged in ‘encounters’.

East Pakistan was fighting the war of liberation while Pakistan was relying on the brutality of military might to quell what it considered a civil war. In Sri Lanka, the JVP – Janatha Vimukthi Perumana – uprising marked an insurrection against the government, led by the radical Left. In Jhapa district of south-eastern Nepal – a district on the Indian border – the Nepalese communist party organised its first armed movement against the panchayat government in Kathmandu, inspired by the Maoist ideology and the Naxalbari movement. South Asia, it seems, was at war in 1971.

The protagonist of these uprisings, or movements in public memory and possibly in the majority of academic histories is usually, inevitably, male. It is not at all an original point to make that the image of the armed political activist rarely evokes that of a woman. And yet, the image of the ‘victim’ of political violence never quite excludes women. Public memory is accustomed to divide political violence in an easy binary of male/female, agent/victim. The woman warrior is a fascinating creature in public memories because she is a (potential) perpetrator of violence; because she transgresses settled boundaries of gender performance; because she is not ‘normal’.

Situating the non-normal woman activist within the history of 1971 across the Bengal border compels us to ask: what happens when the comrade at home demands the equal right to fight with arms? What happens when revolution crosses the doorstep of the home? ‘Ekattorer naari’ or the women of 1971 present a nuanced historical background that combines memories of struggle without the border along with horrific experiences of violence, which resulted in creating newer international borders.   

Women in the Muktijuddho

The scholarship on ekattorer naari in the Bangladesh Muktijudhho (Bangladesh War of Liberation) shows us a very complex scenario of women’s experiences during the period of intense political violence from March to December 1971. When the West Pakistani army surrendered in December 1971, the Indian Army and Mukti Bahini rescued many Bengali ‘comfort’ women from army barracks. Their plight could not be ignored as more horrifying experiences of rape and resultant pregnancies started to come to light.

The question of raped women could neither be overlooked nor addressed with the full rigour it required by the newly established Bangladesh government under the prime ministership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in the chaotic months after Bijoy Dibosh (Victory Day on December 16, 1971). In February 1972, the beleaguered government declared the title of birangona (literal translation is ‘the valiant woman’, but in Bangladeshi nationalist parlance it meant war heroine) for all raped women. Eminent women social workers like Neelima Ibrahim, Baby Moudood, Shahera Ahmed, Begum Sufia Kamal, Badrunnesa Ahmed, Nurjahan Murshed and many others joined the government effort to rescue and rehabilitate raped women by constituting a central board for rehabilitation, which was later re-constituted as the Naari Punarbashon Kendro.

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The board offered medical help (which most often involved bringing pregnant women to abortion clinics with their consent) and then transferring them to institutes of vocational training to enable them for economic independence. They also often arranged for money if conscientious young men wanted to marry a birangona. Nayanika Mukherjee and Bina D’Costa have done nuanced analyses of such government efforts, including their limitations in the face of a war-torn and conservative society.

The rehabilitation programme of birangonas acted as a significant mark of self-identification of Bangladesh as a different kind of Muslim nation: a modern, tolerant postcolonial nation-state. This claim for difference, however, could not be sustained for long, if we remember Neelima Ibrahim’s plea to her readers in Ami Birangona Bolchhi (I, Birangona Speaking, 1998) – a collection of oral narratives of eight birangonas – not to make any effort to contact the birangonas she has interviewed. Ibrahim writes in her very short Introduction that those tortured souls have perhaps got some sort of peace after narrating their horrifying experiences to her and she would be obliged to her readers if they are spared the agony of ‘identification’ once more.

The collection of oral histories of women’s participation in Muktijuddho in the last 25 years is slanted heavily on the side of the stories/memoirs of birangonas, and rightly so, as the human cost of sexual violence has been incalculable for raped women. Scholars like Yasmin Saikia and Naeem Mohaieman complicate the narratives of rape, killing and carnage further by referring to the violence suffered by ‘Biharis’ (non-Bengali Urdu-speaking Muslims who migrated from India after 1947) during and after Muktijuddho in the hands of freedom fighters and their supporters.

The long silence on sexual violence faced by Bihari women had received no government recognition. The presence of ‘naari Muktijoddhas’ in the ranks of ekattorer naari brings in a different kind of depth to the figure of ‘woman victim’ and expands the history of the Muktijuddho. In Muktir Kotha, the acclaimed documentary film on forgotten rural Muktijoddhas of Bangladesh by Tareq Masud (1999), several women from Chhoto Paitkandi village of Faridpur district asserted that women participated equally in the retaliatory violence against the Pakistani military in May 1971.

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As a village woman narrates her experiences, she says that her mother-in-law died during the skirmish and ends her narration with a defiant assertion that women fought equally and yet they remain unacknowledged in the annals of Muktijuddho. Taramon Begum, Kakon Bibi (also known as Muktijuddho Beti in her locality), Korfuli Beoa, Pear Chand, Syed Jeenat Ara Begum, Beethika Biswas, Shishirkona, Halima Parveen, Fatema Khatun, Karuna Begum, Najma Begum – each of these names are now being invoked by historians of the Muktijuddho to tell stories of women’s courage, resourcefulness and physical fitness in leading scout teams and guerrilla actions, throwing grenades and firing light machine guns.

Women in the Naxalbari movement

Across the border in West Bengal, in the Naxalbari movement, women activists were also marked more as victims or possible victims rather than as perpetrators of violence. The body of a woman was, therefore, only partially inscribed as a revolutionary. The simplistic explanation lies in women’s rare participation in armed confrontation with the police. The police also refrained from killing women, though that restriction did not deter them from torturing women.

Women’s memoirs of experiencing violence under police custody reveal that forced stripping, repeated beatings and other forms of torture were nearly ritualised for Naxalite prisoners along with unbelievable verbal violence, replete with sexual insinuations. An Amnesty International report highlighted the case of Archana Guha, who suffered vicious torture for weeks in police custody in 1974. Later, the Archana Guha case became a hallmark of struggle for justice for Naxalite torture victims.

Women’s experiences of violence within the movement were complex. It is needless to say that the difference between death and torture is vast as the tortured person, in spite of extreme suffering, continues to live. However, expanding the meaning of martyrdom or death offers broader possibilities of interpretation if we take account of gendered meanings of death. Women activists, whose partners were killed by the police, were revered as martyrs’ widows and they were expected to become symbols of sacrifice.

Credit: Youtube

Martyrdom was extended to their living bodies through a strange extension of feminine virtues into revolutionary virtues. Their desires to move on in life with newer relations of romantic love were severely criticised by their male comrades. Their role as inspirational figures was fixed as sacrificing partners. Death was marked on life, denying the alive any chance to overcome that marker.

Women’s experiences of violence during the Naxalbari movement, therefore, fused torture, martyrdom, suffering and duty on their bodies. These finer textures of violence indicate that in-between the extreme categories of victim and perpetrator lies a vast range of meanings that confuse scales of categorisation.

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Women of Bengal in 1971 were thus being written over by different rhetorics of revolutionary violence and virtue, ethnic violence and nationalist honour, militarised brutalisation and torture by state security agencies. The persistence of this complex past is yet to be resolved in a conciliatory manner. Renowned feminist scholar Uma Chakravarti remembers that in 2001, at a women’s studies Conference in Lahore, women scholars from Pakistan expressed their apologies to Bangladeshi scholars for the rape, killing and sexual torture of 1971 and narrated how the women of Pakistan made efforts in 1971 to make their voices heard against the reports of violence in East Pakistan/Bangladesh.

The significance of such a gesture was enormous and yet within a day or two, Pakistani and Bangladeshi scholars were at bitter ends of an argument regarding the ferocity of violence against women in 1971. Chakravarti alerts us to a shared wound which needs care from all, and yet in the chessboard of international politics it has been opened again and again without allowing it to heal.  

Mallarika Sinha Roy is assistant professor at the Centre for Women’s Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University.