‘Women as Nation’ and ‘Nation as Women’:
Literary solutions to the Birangona problem
RUBAIYAT HOSSAIN examines the representation of the Birangona in fictional literature as a larger picture of the role of women in nationalism.
- Photo: ZAHEDUL I KHAN
The iconification of ‘women as the nation’ creates a framework of imagination where women’s bodies appear literally as the map of the country. The spatial connection drawn between the female body and the territorial landmass symbolises women as the nation. Rabindranath Tagore’s famous song, ‘Amar Shonar Bangla’ or ‘My Golden Bengal’ uses this template of representation as the landscape of Bengal transforms into different parts of the female body. The mother’s face, her smile, the ends of her sari all become diffused in the visualisation of the nation as the female entity assumes a maternal role:
“Oh mother, in autumn, I have seen your sweet smile in the harvesting fields, Alas! What I behold, your sweet smile, my golden Bengal, I love you…what a sight, what a shade, what gentle love, what attachment you have spread with the ends of you sari…”
As the ends of the mother’s sari become the umbrella of national solidarity, motherhood is politicised and “stereotypically situated” (Mookherjee 2003) at the breaking down point between the public/private dichotomy. The iconificatoin of ‘women as nation’, on the other hand, imposes the qualities of the nation on to women. Nineteenth century Bengali nationalism sought its unique, spiritually superior and private domain of nationalism by locating unique national attributes in women. Women, thus, became the ground upon which nationalism flourished and modernity was authored. For example, the 19th century Bengali nationalist interpretation of the word ‘freedom’ differed from the Western notion. It was argued that in the West, ‘freedom’ meant jathecchachar, to do as one wished, and the agency to self indulge; in India, however, ‘freedom’ meant freedom from one’s ego, the capability to sacrifice and serve willingly. Imagining ‘nation as women’ thus, operates with the logic of imposing national cultural attributes on women, resulting in the deliverance of a circumcised notion of individuality to the modern Bengali woman.
Women’s bodies with its reproductive capacity, symbolic significance, and socially prescribed feminine attributes become an integral part of national imagination of cultural identity and political solidarity. The national “battle over the cradle” (Peterson 1998), thereby, appropriates its authority over women’s reproductive activities. In this context, raped women even though, impregnated involuntary, fall in the category of having stepped out of the national mold of women as subvert and chaste cultural symbols. The loss of women’s chastity results in the visibility of women’s sexual and reproductive activities outside the kinship of family network unauthorised by patriarchal nationalism. Being raped and carrying a war baby brings out the individualistic expression of the female sexuality into the uncomfortable zone of the public, thus, the appearance of these women calls into question the ambiguity of Bengali modernism, which fails to deliver individualism to its women, “[It] is this double helix of the posturings of modernity of the progressive middle class’s resistive politics along with hypocritical value judgment and moral positions that place the raped woman in a place of taboo and transgression” (Mookherjee 2003). As Nayanika Mookherjee argues in her article “The Body-Politic of Raped Women and Nation in Bangladesh”, the appropriation of Birangonas is then made possible by the “aestheticization of rape” and the “mothering of the raped woman”. However, as I will argue, the literary representation of the raped women does not only limit itself to the feminisation of nature and mothering of raped women, but engages in a multilayered literary approach towards neutralising evidence of women’s sexual and reproductive activities outside the socially sanctioned marital affinity.
The multilayered literary solutions offered to the Birangona problem unfolds on the premise of rendering rape and unwanted war babies in coherence with the national imagination of women as chaste, sacrificing, loyal in upholding the nation’s superior cultural identity and continuing the national solidarity and kinship. The loss of chastity and women’s reproductive activities outside marriage is reinterpreted in this context by understanding rape not as violence against women per se, but as women’s unlimited capability to endure pain and self sacrifice for the cause of the nation. Similarly, women’s unauthorised reproductive activity is rendered unproblematic by flipping the passive role of the womb as a tool of ethnic cleansing to a tool of extending the family kinship. This template of representation erases women’s individual accounts of rape and blends them into the glorious narrative of nation. However, in order to understand the pattern of literary and visual solutions offered to the Birangonas, one would have to understand the politics of Bengali masculinity, and the symbolic significance of women in the trajectory of Bengali national imagination between 1947 and 1971.
Certain ideals and practices of female sexuality was central to both the Bengali Hindu and Muslim imagination of the colonial construction of ‘the private’ — a site from where nationalist movement would eventually be launched. Chastity, selflessness, obedience to the family and finally the assigned position of women in the spiritual realm was further layered by the social institution of purdah for Bengali Muslim women. Purdah was widespread both among Hindus and Muslims, though for Muslim women the measures were more strict. They were not allowed education until the later part of the 19th century, whereas, Hindu girls going to school had become prevalent both in urban and rural areas, “as for the Muslims in Bengal, a large section of the community were opposed to education for women on the grounds that it would violate the sacred custom of purdah” (Amin 1992, 740). For Muslim women the initiative for establishing educational institutes for girls came from women themselves, Faizunnesa Chaudhurani (1847-1903) established a girls’ school in Comilla in 1873 and Begum Rokeya Shakhawat Hossain established a girls’ school in Bhagalpur in 1909 which she moved to Calcutta in 1911. The notion of purdah is directly in link with keeping the feminine and masculine attributes separated and distinct. It is articulated by contemporary fundamentalist leaders like Maulana Matiur Rahman Nizami in Bangladesh that public surveillance of women reduces their fertility. The beauty and sexual appeal of women is also named devious and destructive for the public sphere of society. Thus the added burden of Muslim Bengali women is the over-emphasis on purdah, which denotes a stricter management of female sexuality and more restrictive measures against her mobility in comparison to Hindu women.
As Bengali women of East Pakistan, Muslim or non-Muslim, became the target of racialised gender specific mass violence propagated by the West Pakistani Army, the Bengali women actually became the battle ground between West Pakistani Muslim masculinity versus the East Pakistani Muslim masculinity. The East Pakistani people were considered less Muslim than the West Pakistanis since “poor Muslims of lower profession in rural Bengal retained many of the customs and manners of Hinduism from which they were largely converted” (Shah 1992), and the Bengali passion over the language and literature further emphasised the cultural division between West and East Pakistan. Women in this cultural debate, yet again, became the contesting ground. It would be faulty not to mention that, from the inception of Pakistan, women have been an active force in politics, especially in Communist peasant movements and student movements in the Eastern wing. East Pakistani women’s mobility and cultural affiliation with the so called Hindu culture became the moral grudge of West Pakistani authority:
- Photo: ZAHEDUL I KHAN
The attitude of the ruling power was always disapproving of Bengali culture and its latent nationalism especially in the formulation that culture received in the life-styles of Bengali women. Thus in the cultural milieu of the period immediately preceding the mass uprising of 1969, all the cherished cultural paraphernalia of Bengali life, the red and yellow festive sari worn by the women, the ‘tip’ on the forehead, the local flowers, melas or fairs, the Bengali diet of puffed rice and molasses, Tagore songs, and poetry sessions, assumed the significance of a symbolic protest–a form of cultural resistance.
When Bengali women were raped in 1971 it was not only women’s bodies that were violated, but the very sense of Bengali masculine pride was violated “[T]hese horrifying actskillings, rape and the mutilation of women and children — are understandably an embarrassment to the sensitive people of Bangla Desh now locked in the battle for their homeland” (Mascarenhas 1971). The mass rape of Bangladeshi women created a moral dilemma of Bangladeshi masculinity, which failed to provide any strategic protection for its women at a moment of crisis. The very question of national integrity was at stake, and the superiority of West Pakistani Muslim masculinity loomed large over the Bengali Muslim masculinity. In the British colonial context, Bengalis had been identified as the non-martial race by the British, but Muslims in general were thought to be more masculine than Hindus. When Pakistan was created with two wingsthe Bengali Muslims were identified as “gentle and artistic” (Aziz 1974), and the “official recognition of the superiority of the West Pakistanis over the East Pakistanis as ‘Martial Race’ to rule over the East Pakistanis” (Khandaker 1977) a scale of masculinity was created where the West Pakistanis held the highest rank. Bengali representation in the military service was minimal and Ayub Khan in Friends Not Masters clearly and vulgarly claimed the superiority of West Pakistani masculinity. All these factors accentuated the crisis of Bengali masculinity in the newly formed nation. Thus, successful management of this crisis was vital in restoring the supremacy of Bengali masculinity.
The literary solutions offered to the Birangona issue tackled the crisis from several different angles. First of all, these women never appear as individuals, but always as someone’s mother, daughter and sister, however, never as wives. Secondly, these women always appear as peripheral characters and never as main subjects. The incidents of rape and women’s trauma, therefore, are merged into the larger landscape of military atrocities. In this landscape there is no particular difference between the hay stacks burning, villages massacred and women being raped all at the same time. Often a line of respectability is drawn between the author and the rape victims where chastity yet is represented as women’s most valuable possession, a loss of which is incomprehensible to the author as he/she laments for ‘others’ who have lost it. Bulk of literature on 1971 and special volumes on women’s contribution to the freedom movement represents women as mothers in which context she is completely stripped out of her sexuality and represented as the eternal icon of love, sacrifice, endurance and service for the patriarchal nation. It is this mother’s spiritual high ground that is glorified in the larger literary template of rendering rape or the loss of chastity in coherence with national morality. However, there are very few literary pieces that speak directly about victims of rape and the social aftermath of it.
Mainstream Nation Literary Representation: “In order to protect their sacred izzat from West Pakistani invasion, they heroically jumped down from the roof one after another…”
Radio Bangladesh in 1971 declared that “of all the outrages of Yahya against the people of Bangladesh the one that closely follows the act of genocide has been the violation of Bengali women with senseless brutality” (Alamgir 1984), but they also did not forget to ask the most crucial question, “who will be responsible for these products of sadistic crime? What will happen to these unwanted but otherwise innocent children?” (Alamgir 1984). The concern here is not the women who were violated, but the illegitimate children they were going to produce. This attitude dominates the national archive of ‘Banglapedia’ where Biranganas appear as a footnote to war-babies. Women’s death prior to the violation of their izzat is glorified in the nationalist narratives such as Muhammad Nurul Qadir’s Dusho Cheshotti Diney Swadhinota (Freedom in 266 Days) to an extent that the mass rape of Bengali women at Rokeya Hall (the largest women’s dormitory in Dhaka University) during Operation Search Light on March 25, 1971, is eliminated from his narrative,
Even though the Bengali women fought for their ijjat and the freedom of Bangladesh, they failed against the armed military force. In order to protect their sacred ijjat from West Pakistani invasion, they heroically jumped down from the roof one after another. They preferred death with smiles on their faces, rather than staying alive and becoming prey to the barbaric military force (Qadir 1997).
The report provided to the Bombay Weekly Biltz (April 6, 1971) by British businessman A. Sanders contradicts Qadir’s description of what actually happened at Rokeya Hall. Whereas Qadir’s narrative denies any incident of rape committed at Rokeya Hall, Sanders’s narrative reproduced in Jag Mohan’s The Black Book of Genocide in Bangladesh testifies to the fact that, mass rape of Bengali women was indeed committed at Rokeya Hall. Such is the nationalist narrative that denies mass violence against women and declares them dead prior to enemy invasion.
Literary Fictions: Motherhood is Sublime!
Women’s role in 1971 in the fictional genre is glorified primarily as mothers. As women are represented as mothers their sexuality automatically is muted and their sexual activities only remain visible in the realms of reproduction and child rearing. The identification of mothers as the nation draws a parallel between the mother’s endless endurance and the national resilience to survive against the odds. The mother is also viewed as the singular entity who at all times, and under all circumstances denies to let go of the glorified memories of those sons who shed blood and died in 1971.
There exist fictional works of female authors that represent raped women as subjects and carriers of war babies. Here, the topic of rape is dealt with intricacy to locate a sense of purity even in the context when chastity is lost. I will discuss Selina Hossain’s Kath Koylar Chobi or ‘Charcoal Drawn Picture’, and Shayamali Nasrin Chowdhury’s Nirudishto Maayer Khoje or ‘In Search of the Lost Mother’ to demonstrate how chastity is restored in the context of rape.
Nirudishto Maayer Khoje is a story about Jim, a war baby who was adopted by a Canadian family in 1972 and comes back to Bangladesh is search of his mother in 2003. As soon as he lands at the Dhaka airport he feels a ‘naarir taan’ or the pull of the mother’s umbilical cord and the immediate connection between the biological mother and the mother nation is drawn. As Jim goes on looking for his mother with the help of a NGO worker he encounters the hidden stories of women who were raped in 1971. The search goes on without much success as most women remain unwilling to speak. Finally a letter arrives from a woman named Bokul with some news of Jim’s mother. Bokul was in the same room when Jim’s mother Naznin gave birth to him in the rehabilitation center in Dhaka. Bokul testifies that Jim was not after all a war baby, because he was conceived when his parents were still together before the war separated them. Bokul sent her blessings to Jim and reaffirmed her need to remain unindentified as her current family life could be disturbed if the past was revealed. In the last scene of the book Jim travels to his mother’s village only to find that the whole village now was under water. There was no trace of even the land where his mother had stepped her foot on, “the last sign of remembrance, the village…even the village was under water! Father, mother, grandfather, grandmother all are gone! Even the village!” Jim insisted that their boat be taken to the exact spot in the river where the village once used to be. Touching the water and being bathed in the rain Jim felt,
Even if everyone else may leave me, my country will stand by me. Today I am without any burdens, I am free. I do not have an identity crisis anymore. The disgrace of ‘war baby’ has been lifted from my head. Like all others, I am also the sign of my parents’ love. (Chowdhury 2004).
Even though the novel addresses the issue of women’s sexual slavery at the Army barracks, mass rape of Bengali women and the consequences of war babies, the disclosure, recognition and self-identification of women as sufferers of rape is completely absent. The Birangonas in the novel are living without revealing the experiences of 1971. One woman Jim meets in a village, comes wearing a burqa and says, “I don’t wear burqa to observe purdah, rather, I wear it to remove myself from public gaze, otherwise people still point fingers at me” (Chowdhury 2004). As these women hide themselves and their stories from the public gaze, the only pre-condition for them to exist becomes the very denial of rape as a crime inflicted on their minds and their bodies. Chastity is located in Jim’s mother Naznin, who even after being detained at the Army barrack secretly prayed for her baby to be safe, as she considered the baby as the last sign of her husband. Her devotion to the child and ultimate mental breakdown and death after the child was given up for adoption validates motherhood and women’s commitment to sustaining the family heir or the national kinship network. Finally, with the entire village submerged under water even the grounds upon which Naznin once walked upon was annihilated and purified by the river.
The very presence of Birangona is set on a literary platform where chastity is re-entered by denying existence, autonomy and individual voice to the women. They could certainly exist, but, under the mass head quote of, “two million mothers and sister’s lost their izzat” which yet again denotes that it was the loss of chastity that was the key factor. Recognition of women as human subjects and rape as a war crime becomes irrelevant — not worth restoring in the national moral imagination. It is chastity, the magic element, which needed to be restored. Even the literary solutions offered to the Birangona problem by most prominent female writers in Bangladesh deeply sympathetic to the cause, strictly follow this nationalist pattern. As motherhood works as a force to dilute the threat of Birangona’s sexuality, Selina Hossain in her novel flipped the notion of womb from a passive object to a space of resistance and agency.
Kath Koylar Chobi is a story of Dulal, another war baby from Canada who comes back to Bangladesh to find his mother in 2000. Unlike Jim from Chowdhury’s novel, Dulal brings with him his mother’s address, which his adopted parents had collected at the rehabilitation centre before taking the child away. Dulal, however, is HIV positive and this makes the search for his mother a story of death and lost identity. He attempts to piece together an identity for himself before he prepares for death. In a parallel story line, we meet Choiti Rani, an old woman working as a day labourer at a tea estate in the North Eastern part of Bangladesh. Choiti Rani’s family was brought to this area by force during the British colonial period. Choiti Rani and her community lost their tribal kinship and community and lived as outsiders in Bangladesh, working under inhuman conditions with very little pay from the tea estate. There always remained a great desire for this community to go back to Assam where they had originally come from and re-establish their own clan. It is this desire of establishing a clan and starting a new social order away from the oppressive structure imposed at the tea estate that drive Choiti Rani’s narrative forward.
Choiti Rani was married as a young girl and her husband died shortly after. She was then raped by the Bengali tea estate manager and eventually taken into the Army barracks during the 1971 war. She kept her son from the first rape, but the second one was taken away from her by force at the rehabilitation centre. Choiti Rani named her first son, Kukua Kanu and imagined him to be the head of the new clan she is to establish. As Kukua Kanu did not have a father’s identity he was independent to start a clan of his own, as Choiti Rani said, “because he doesn’t have a father, he will be the prodhan or the chief. He will grow with his own identity and name. There will be no father figure over his head” (Hossain 2001). Later, Choiti Rani initiated a sexual relationship with another tea estate worker Joton to increase the number of people in Kukua’s clan, she approached him saying, “ami Kukuar gotrer ak ek jon manush barate chai” meaning, “I want to increase the number of people in Kukua’s clan” (Hossain 2001). A woman’s role as the biological reproducer of the nation reaches its ultimate height with Choiti Rani literally using her fertility to give birth to new members of her clan. The spatial attribute of the nation is imposed on Choiti Rani’s body as it is visualised exactly like a fertile piece of land, ready to be ploughed and grow green in crops:
Joton feels that Choiti Rani’s clay body is amazingly fertile. As if it doesn’t have a shape. As if her entire being is like a spread out farming field. Wherever Joton puts his hands, grass grows, and wherever he puts his lips, grass grows. The barren land turns into a wide meadow, ready to welcome new settlements. (Hossain 2001).
The entire idea of rape and forceful pregnancy is flipped in this context to make the womb and the female body a space of resistance and rebellion holding the agency to rebuild the nation by literally biologically reproducing the members of it. It is this particular use of the female body and its biological functions that renders the incident or rape and loss of chastity unproblematic, even glorious in this narrative.
In course of time, Choiti Rani loses her first son (whom she got from the Bengali manager) Kukua Kanu and decides that Kukua Kanu’s son Agun would be the head of the clan. As time passes, the oppression of the tea estate authority reaches its peak and Choiti Rani loses her fertility to give birth anymore. With her only son dead she is stuck at a point from where she would have to wait a really long time for her grandson to grow up and have babies. It is a perfect moment for the new and long lost clan member to arrive,
Choiti Rani feels she can’t stand up anymore. It is not Dulal who is standing in front of her, but the entire Muktijuddho of 1971 was standing there. Military atrocity was going on every day and women were tortured. The blood of their body, the blood in the wounds — like red blood jabas. She stands face to face with Dulal and says, ‘I never found my younger son. He was born two months after the war. His father is one of the Pakistani militaries at the camp. I don’t really know who his father is. Neither do I care to know about the father’s identity. I know he is my [my emphasis] son. I have been waiting for my younger son. I still have hopes that he is alive and one day will come back to me. I heard you came here in search of your mother. Will you tell me your mother’s address? (Hossain 2001).
Choiti Rani’s emphasis on the mother’s identity and not the father’s is a technique that has been used by Selina Hossain to locate agency in the woman, but this agency is only delivered to her when she assumes the role of a willing mother ready to endlessly biologically reproduce the nation. It is at this juncture that Choiti Rani is redeemed of her disgrace of being raped and losing her chastity because of the transformation of her entire self into the vehicle of continuing the community kinship network. It is yet again, through the light of the virtuous presence of motherhood, the literary narratives to render the figure of the raped woman and her loss of chastity sublime and spiritually uplifting to the national moral imagination. It is only by assuming the role of a mother that the raped women are allowed to exist in literary representation where the topic of rape is yet again, further removed from the context and the rectification of chastity becomes the grand narrative:
Dulal’s [the war baby] voice ‘Maa…Maa’ spreads all over the tea estates and open meadows. Thunder lightening came from that call with scattering lights. As if the light was standing on the tea garden and Kukua saying, God has come to my virtuous mother. Megh Boraik saying, there is no sin on my virtuous daughter (Hossain 2001, 219).
One must note that Selina Hossain locates her narrative of the raped woman in the tea estates in a migrant community where matrifocal structure could be tolerated. The kuli or day labourer community has a separate set of social norms than the average Bengali community, and it is by creating this safe distance that Hossain situates the incident of rape and the figure of the raped woman in the narrative of 1971. Further distance is created between Choiti Rani (the raped woman) and Bangladesh as a nation by tracing her identity from beyond the borders of Bangladesh by the mechanisms of forced migration. This absurd placing of the Birangona, in this context, highlights once again the need to remove these women as far away as possible from the centre of national imagination. If Birangonas are to be given a space to exist, it is given either by killing them (Nirudishto Maayer Khoje) or by tracing their ethnic and national identity from beyond the border of Bangladesh (Kath Koylar Chobi). It is by creating this distance that the disclosure of the Birangona figure is made possible in the fictional literature work by women.
Rubaiyat Hossain is a filmmaker and researcher.