Ferdousi Priyabhashini, who died in Dhaka, survived rape by Pakistani armed forces and led a campaign to highlight what many Bangladeshi women experienced during the liberation war
Long before there was “me too", there was a woman who rose to say, “It was me." She was not the first to say so, for there had been others, but the context in which she rose to speak up made her declaration crucial. Anywhere in the world, it takes a considerable amount of bravery for a woman to say in public that she has been sexually assaulted, but it is all the more courageous to do so in a deeply conservative society emerging from a liberation war, political upheavals, and amidst growing religious fundamentalism.
Ferdousi Priyabhashini, who died at 71 in Dhaka on Tuesday, displayed her courage many times over—not only in surviving months of sexual assaults and violence at the hands of officers of the Pakistani armed forces, or for speaking out about her suffering, which was shared by many but which had remained unmentionable for years, but also for embracing the title, birangona, the brave one, and leading a sustained campaign to create awareness, in Bangladesh and beyond, about what hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshi women had experienced during the nine-months-long liberation war.
Priyabhashini’s decision to go public was unusual in a society where victims of sexual violence were told to conceal what had happened to them because it was a matter of shame and public acknowledgement of it would dishonour the family, since many of the perpetrators were enemies who had departed and what they had done to the women was viewed as a collective humiliation, and because some of the perpetrators and their accomplices were men known to them and lived fully aware that nothing would happen to them, operating with impunity.
While Bangladesh’s founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had reached out to embrace the rape survivors after the war ended, a curtain of silence had fallen over the topic since 1975, when Mujib and most of his family were assassinated. The governments that followed showed little interest in pursuing justice, and steered Bangladesh away from the secular nationalism on which the nation was founded.
Many armies have used rape as a weapon of war, and many Bangladeshi women were abused, many of them multiple times. While Bangladesh recalls its liberation war with justified pride, there are relatively few visible manifestations of the women’s suffering. Of the many sculptures you find near the Dhaka University campus which commemorate the war, only one shows a soldier attacking a woman, and unless you are specifically looking for it, or unless someone points it out to you, you might miss it. Likewise, at Meherpur, where the Awami League declared independence, there is one tableau where you see a soldier disrobing a woman by pulling off her sari. In recent years, British-Bangladeshi actor Leesa Gazi and singer Sohini Alam have collaborated to create a play and are making a documentary film, and Bangladeshi-American poet Tarfia Faizullah and Bangladeshi poet Sadaf Saaz Siddiqi have written poetry, telling stories of the many birangonas.
It was Priyabhashini who broke the silence. I had gone to her home in 2011 when I was writing my book on Bangladesh. She had a warm, smiling face and she was embarrassingly hospitable, willing to talk about what was done to her. She calmly recalled her experiences, often looking straight into my eyes, noting my responses, speaking with confidence, without seeking sympathy.
In 1971, she had separated from her husband, whom she had married as a teenager. She had small children. She worked as a clerk at a mill and lived near Khulna, and it is at a mill that her nightmare began. Army officers would drag her from her living quarters and assault her night after night. “This is my life now, I cannot change it. I should try to stay positive. I stopped weeping," she told me, remembering those profoundly painful months. “I cannot tell you more. I cannot explain it to you. What happened to me was in a small part of one city. You have to multiply this across 65 districts. I wasn’t alone; there were many more women like me."
Over the years, some tried to challenge her account. Why had she not tried to escape, they wanted to know. “I don’t owe anyone an explanation," she said when we met. “You cannot leave your fate. I had nowhere to go. I had no money. My family had disowned me. I had nobody I could trust."
In 2000, at the Tokyo Tribunal, a people’s tribunal organized by Asian women and human rights organizations, she explained why she decided to speak up: “I saw that the history of the liberation war was being altered and the torture of women was being forgotten, and I decided I will speak up. If I speak of my experiences, a space will open up, women will learn how to fight."
And she rebuilt her life; she became a sculptor. She began picking up the city’s refuse—twigs, branches, waste paper, fallen trees—in other words, objects of no use to anyone, and saw beauty in them. “I collect rejected material. I pick up waste. And I turn it into art," she told me as we walked in her garden.
She gathered what the city had discarded, twisting those objects, transforming those fragile twigs by unleashing the beauty within, giving those wounded parts of a city’s debris a new identity.
I saw a branch, probably crushed beneath the tyres of a rickshaw, taking the shape of a bird in flight, denoting freedom. The stump of a tree became a stool, offering support. And messy leaves were reborn in a collage where they trembled gently, like waves in a lake. Priyabhashini remade her life and inspired many more.