“Women are considered to be responsible for bearing the burden of honour”

Leesa Gazi is a Bangladeshi-born British writer, playwright, theatre director and actress based in London. She is the concept developer, co-writer and performer of the theatre production Birangona: Women of War with the Komola Collective theatre group, which she later developed into the documentary film Rising Silence. sister-hood asked her about this project.

Your documentary Rising Silence covers the rape of Bangladeshi women in 1971. Why did you feel this story needed to be told? Why is it so under-acknowledged?

My father was a freedom fighter. My brothers and I grew up hearing heroic and harrowing stories of our Liberation War of Bangladesh from him. A few haunting images never left me. One of them was when my father witnessed hundreds of women and girls standing back-to-back on a convoy of trucks, like sacrificial animals. They were described as ‘Birangona women’, who had been subjected to mass rape, incarceration and torture during the Liberation War. I wanted to know these women on their own terms, beyond the labels and statistics. They were nowhere to be found. Their stories were eclipsed by various regimes after the assassination of the founder of the nation along with most of his family in 1975 – but their individual stories were also, like them, largely hidden, shunned, ostracised from their homes and society. 

After 1975, we were told two or three versions of the history of the country’s bloody birth. History would change along with the regime. I was one of the first generations of a new-born nation which had seen two bloody military coups. The history books of my generation used to read something along the lines of: in 1971, we fought against the ‘perpetrators’ (Hanadar Bahini). But who the perpetrators were, we were not allowed to know. Nor were we allowed to mention the Pakistani Army, Razakar or any truth about the war.

Many people suffered ridicule, harassment and were even killed for being freedom fighters in Bangladesh. They were representatives of an ideal which had a vast popular resonance, but which the authorities wanted to stamp out. Even the name of the founder of the Nation – Sheikh Mujibur Rahman – was not permitted to be mentioned in textbooks, the media or the public domain. Every attempt was made to erase him from popular memory.

So we can only imagine what the Birangona women had to endure. After the 15th of August, they were thrown out of women’s rehabilitation centres across Bangladesh overnight. The centres were then closed down, and documents were destroyed to erase the evidence of their existence. As far as the world is concerned, ’71 is a forgotten genocide of the 20th century. The suffering that the women endured stood little chance of being acknowledged. I met 21 Birangonga women for the first time in 2010. I filmed their accounts to hold onto some of their stories with their permission. One of them said, ‘What’s the point of telling you these stories? No one wants to know.’ That shook me intensely. I think the journey of Rising Silence began on that very day. 

What was the background to these crimes?

Pakistan’s suppression of the Bengali people of East Pakistan goes right back to just after the country was formed after the Language Movement began in 1948, culminating in the killing of students and protestors on 21 February 1952. Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the Governor-General of Pakistan declared that ‘Urdu, and only Urdu’ should be the state language, even though the Bangla language speakers of East Bengal made up about 56% of the total population. On that fateful day, blood was spilt; students were killed. This was a turning point for the people of East Pakistan; the seed of emancipation was planted. Popular unrest began in 1966, with the Six-Point Movement of Awami League, and a mass uprising took place in 1969. It was the pivotal point for the Bengali people, who gradually realised that fighting for freedom might be the only option left for them.

A general election took place in Pakistan in 1970 during the military regime of President Yahya Khan. The Awami League, led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was the largest political party, and won a landslide victory. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto conspired with Yahya Khan, refusing to hand over power to Sheikh Mujib. In spite of Mujib’s efforts, negotiations stalled. He was not trusted by the ruling Punjabi leadership, or the Pakistani establishment. When it became clear that promises made by the West-Pakistani government were not going to be honoured, the whole nation of Bangla-speaking Muslims and Hindus in East Pakistan began a spirited struggle for liberation. In a momentous speech on 7 March 1971, Sheikh Mujib called for a non-cooperation movement. On the night of 25 March, the Pakistani Army carried out Operation Searchlight, a planned military operation. Innocent civilians were indiscriminately gunned down in the streets, in homes, and in student residences across East Pakistan. These atrocities incensed the people of Bangladesh. It became a people’s war for liberation. 

A systematic campaign of genocide and the rape of 200,000 to 400,000 women and girls were carried out by the Pakistani Army and their local collaborators. This was part of their war strategy. Allegedly, imams and other Muslim religious leaders publicly declared that the Bengali women were gonimoter maal (war booty), openly supporting the rape of Bengali women. This conflict remains one of the first recorded cases of rape used as a weapon of war in the twentieth century. 

In Bengali, Birangona means ‘Brave Woman’. This was the honorific granted to the victims and survivors of mass rape by the Interim Government of Bangladesh, six days after the war ended. These women were hidden and forgotten for decades by a society in which rape is considered to be a source of shame for the victims.

Trailer for ‘Rising Silence’ by Leesa Gazi

How do South Asian concepts of ‘honour’ and ‘shame’ play into the crimes?

The stigma around sexual violence is monstrous. The status of ‘shoti’ (virgin/faithful) determines the moral character of any woman in South Asian culture. She is judged by it. Her worth depends on it. So she is labelled as ‘impure’ or ‘sinful’ when she is raped: despite being herself the victim of a crime. Women are considered to be responsible for bearing the burden of ‘honour’ in a family in a patriarchal society. ‘Shame’ is inflicted upon them for failing to carry that burden. They are nothing but bodies, sexual objects, reproductive units – their whole existence is defined by ’honour.’ Where women are seen as male property and custodians of male pride, defiling them is a painless method of defaming their fathers, brothers or husbands – and in turn, their families, their communities, and even their countries. When women are incumbents of the pride of others, they are also then held responsible for the loss of said pride, whether it was their fault or not. ‘Honour’ killings, female infanticides, sex-selective abortions and sexual violence towards women are commonplace in South Asia, and they all derive from the same mentality.

What has been the long-term impact for the victims?

Birangona Jharna Basu Halder once mistook someone as one of her tormentors, but she soon realised he was just a classmate of hers. She would see the shadow of her abusers in random places like that. This is how the demons of PTSD have been tormenting these women all through their lives.

In 2018 we attended the global survivor network organised by the Dr Mukwege Foundation with two survivors from Bangladesh. As we were going to the hotel, Jabeda, a survivor, suddenly stopped at the door. She said, ‘What if someone breaks in and tortures us?’ We looked at one another, stunned. It was a startling reminder of how the human body and mind carries trauma for decades and how, without any warning, it can express itself.

I have met some 80 Birangona women across Bangladesh since 2010. I found out that survivors have been dealing with the impact of physical trauma, emotional trauma as well as the societal trauma of stigma and prejudice that affects not only them but even their children and grandchildren. They tend to seek one another out to cope with their shared pain. Prayers and music have also helped them to heal, but their relentless struggle never ends. Once during an interview, Birangona Shurjyo Begum suddenly pointed towards a distant hayfield and said, ‘Look they are coming. You can’t see them but I can.’ 

Bangladesh’s Birangonas have never received any counselling to cope with post-traumatic stress. They have been living their lives with an unbearable burden. The protracted effect of it still burns. It reveals itself with the slightest trigger.

How did the project come into being?

A friend took me to meet 21 Birangona women in Sirajganj, Bangladesh in 2010. That was the first time I met them in person. I did not have any plans to create even the theatrical piece at the time, let alone to make a film. However, with their permission, I went to see them with a small camera crew to record their accounts. Maybe I had been looking for them without even consciously realising it since I was 17. I thought there must be many other people like me who wanted to know more about them. 

Since meeting them, I had been holding on to their precious accounts. A year or so passed before I heard inevitable news – that one of the women I had met had died. I kept on watching the video I had recorded. I did not want to forget her face, ever. Her name was Bahaton. That forced me to return to Bangladesh with our theatre company Komola Collective to create a play that interwove film footage by the individual Birangona women. After watching their own stories on stage, they said, ‘Go, tell the world.’

I felt the urgent need to save their stories through a more permanent record. I realised that when a Birangona woman dies, her story dies with her. With each of their deaths, Bangladesh had lost a piece of her history. Because the legacy of Birangona women is, in fact, the story of Bangladesh. Their stories are connected to what Bangladesh is today. So the idea to make a film about them surfaced in my mind. I did not have any experience in filmmaking, but I knew exactly what the film would explore and convey.

What was your experience of making the film? Was it difficult due to the harrowing nature of the topic?

It has been simultaneously the most inspiring and heart-breaking experience of my life. It has profoundly changed my perspective. I began this journey intending to make a film about some of the extraordinary Birangona women. At the end of the journey, I realised that their shared stories of how they tried to heal, and remain defiant without giving up on life has shown me how to find myself in the process. They took me into their homes and villages to share their lives and experiences – as women, beyond history and politics. They inspired me; they helped me to understand who I am, and what I am capable of as a woman. The human capacity to endure and thrive is innate. We don’t know our full potential in terms of our strength, resilience, compassion and our power to love until we are tested. Their stories are living proof of that. They accepted us without judgement and with an unconditional love that came naturally to them. Together we have discovered a deep bond of sisterhood.

I don’t know how it is even possible to think about saving people while living through extreme violence as they did. But that is what they did; they saved lives whilst living through such horror. I saw them disowning their children to protect them, building a future even while living with the ghost of the past, not fearing to speak their minds and rising from the ashes to stand tall. What a tremendous spirit they uphold! 

Photo credit: Shihab khan

“The one who loves another, their heart will weep forever. That’s why my tears never end’ – Then she broke into dance and song. It has been the most poignant thing to experience that after all this, they still have the heart to celebrate life. Being human is the best form of existence,’ said Birangona Rajubala. 

The crimes in Rising Silence were one of the first recorded examples of rape being used as a weapon of war in the 20th century. Today, sexualised violence is happening across identity lines in the accounts of Rohingya, Uighur and Yezidi women. Why does this happen, and what can we do about it?

In more or less every part of the world, male-on-female rape has been seen as a source of shame for the victims. Patriarchal societies have burdened women with the loss of dignity caused by rape, whereas the action of the perpetrator is often overlooked and not factored into the discussion. The root of evil comes from that mind-set. If you want to dishonour a family, you go after their daughters. Targeting women and girls using rape and sexual violence as a tactic of dishonouring, shaming and defeating the enemy comes from the same attitude. 

If we’re going to change these attitudes, we need to eradicate this view which has been encoded into our cultural DNA. It is also vital to address and listen to survivors’ stories, in the present and from the past. If we ignore or dismiss sexual violence that has been perpetrated in the past, then the same pattern of using rape as a weapon of war will not stop.

We could dismiss the accounts of Birangona women as isolated incidences of a forgotten war in a distant land, committed nearly 50 years ago. The problem is that the same pattern of sexual violence and rape continues to be used in armed conflicts today. There are present-day conflicts in particular in which rape as a weapon of war is endemic, such as the Rohingya conflict in Myanmar and in South Sudan.Rising Silence shows how women have dealt with the emotional trauma of sexual violence and social stigma. The relevance of this documentary is apparent, as women continue to bear the brunt of sexual violence in armed conflicts to this day. 

What have been the responses to Rising Silence? What are the next steps?

There are nine women featured in the film. Five of them died during the post-production stage of the film, but their legacy remains. Their endorsement and blessings have been the driving force for us to spread their voice across the world. Birangona Amina Begum said, ‘the world knows our names now.’ We will never forget that goosebump moment when Birangona Rijia Begum and Nurjahan Begum held the award for the Best Documentary at the Dhaka International Film Festival in January 2019. It is testament to them.

The first private screening of Rising Silence was in The Hague on December 2018, hosted by the Mukwege Foundation at the Global Survivor Network. Survivors from fifteen countries across the globe watched the film. The responses have been inspiring and overwhelming. They held hands, hugged one another tightly in little groups. There were the sounds of whispers and tears. They said the film ‘is like a mirror’. It was personally a humbling experience.

A unique online screening campaign of Rising Silence was organised by Nobel Laureate Dr Mukwege’s Foundation in August 2019. People from Asia, Europe, UK and the US have signed up to watch it via the campaign. We are honoured that the Mukwege Foundation has been championing this film.

The film won the Best Documentary Award at the Dhaka International Film Festival in January 2019 and is the 2019 Moondance Winner in the feature documentary category. Recently we received the Asian Media Award for Best Investigation 2019 in the UK.

Leesa Gazi, winner of the 2019 Asian Media Award for ‘Rising Silence’

We will continue to screen this film wherever we can as part of our mission. We are involved with other organisations in a movement to end rape in wars and armed conflicts. But the first step is to listen to survivors and believe them. 

You co-founded the Komola Collective. What’s the purpose of this group?

Four of us co-founded Komola Collective. We are a female-led arts organisation dedicated to telling the stories that often go untold – stories from women’s perspectives. We have come together from diverse backgrounds. We all have inimitable stories and unique experiences. We act as writer, director, actor, musician, illustrator, facilitator, composer, and designer. One of the aims of the Komola Collective is to revisit history to seek new viewpoints on women’s roles and their contribution to society. Another purpose of our company is to create work that challenges social taboos to provoke discussions and encourage a more integrated and cohesive society, as demonstrated by our award-winning documentary Rising Silence

We believe that storytelling through the arts can spark social change. We want to highlight stories that affect women and girls across cultures to promote women’s political and social rights and include men as advocates and supporters of equality to break down stereotypes and question accepted beliefs.

What is the value of increasing diversity in the theatre and the arts in general?

We have established diversified programming and audiences across different cultures and communities through our work and projects. Promoting diversity is crucial for us. We intend to hire at least 50% of our performers and production team members for any of our projects from diverse backgrounds because more diverse artists will bring forward their perspectives and insights, which will challenge the negative stereotypes that BME communities face and will also inspire greater understanding. We believe it helps build a bridge of harmony and cohesion between people from different faiths, colours and races. It allows BME artists to showcase their expertise and creativity, which will open doors to enhance their talents, build their careers, and be networked into the creative industries.

Also, diverse artistic content gets limited exposure in the UK arts. BME communities don’t see their stories being told often enough. But they are hungry to see representation of their culture because they want to be understood, realised and accepted.

Do you have any advice for upcoming female directors from minority backgrounds?

Tell stories that matter to you and on what you feel strongly about. If you think you are not getting enough opportunities, try to create your own.