In 1971, during the nine-month war that gave Bangladesh its independence from then West Pakistan, four sisters – Amina, Maleka, Mukhlesa and Budhi Begum – were abducted by Pakistani soldiers and local collaborators. They were among the more than 200,000 women held in rape camps and were detained for two and a half months.
“Twenty-two of us would lie like corpses in that room,” says Maleka as she explains how her elder sister Buhdi, “unable to bear the pain”, died before they were released.
Four decades on, Mukhlesa, who had crouched in water trying to evade the kidnappers, shows film-maker Leesa Gazi the sites of atrocities she witnessed. She explains how the soldiers took the women with them wherever they went, placing them to the fore as a human shield.
The sisters’ stories are part of Gazi’s award-winning documentary, Rising Silence, screened on Tuesday in London, which preserves the testimony of some of the few women who are still alive, several of whom have died since filming.
Gazi, a British-Bangladeshi actor and playwright, was herself a teenager when she first heard about the “Birangona” women. Their stories had been strangely absent from her school history books but her father, a former freedom fighter, described seeing hundreds of women standing back to back in trucks on their way to the capital, Dhaka. Gazi resolved to find out more about their story.
What the women had experienced was one of the first recorded examples of rape being used as a weapon of war in the 20th century.
On their release, witnessed by Gazi’s father, the women would be awarded the honorific title of “Birangona”, a war-heroine (literally a brave or courageous woman) by Mujibur Rahman, the “father of the Bengali nation”. He ordered rehabilitation centres with vocational training for those whose families wouldn’t take them back.
Rahman was assassinated in 1975, while he was serving as prime minister, and in the political upheaval that followed, the centres were shut and the women’s ordeal was hidden from view. They had to endure decades of shaming and isolation, discrimination that affected the next generation too.
Many of the women are poor and frail. Most lost their livelihoods, their children, parents or husbands, but for Gazi, that does not define them. Her concern is that they are dying out and with them their rich stories, and so she returned with a camera.
Gazi argues that if we ignore or dismiss historic sexual violence, then it will never stop. “We need to pay attention and listen to survivors’ stories,” she says.
“We could dismiss their accounts as isolated incidents 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 in armed conflicts continues to be used today,” she says, referencing events in Myanmar and South Sudan.
Society was often “not there”, for the women affected, Gazi argues, but she celebrates the fact that “women were there for each other”.
Uncovering the women’s stories has left Gazi with big questions. “Sometimes I ask myself, how can a woman’s body instigate so much hatred and so much violence?”
Again, she sees a pattern. “If we need to shame a family, we go after their daughters, if we need to shame a community, we go after their daughters, if we need to shame a country, we go after their daughters. That’s the same mindset that’s transcending in war and conflicts and we must stop it.”
Gazi insists the film is not about rape. “It is about the strength of women who have picked themselves up after facing brutal physical and emotional abuse.” Instead it shows “their will to survive, and their fighting spirit in the face of rejection and stigma, for the sin of having been raped”.
Since 2015, the Bangladeshi government has begun giving pensions to the Birangona in recognition of what the women contributed to the birth of the nation.
Mukhlesa Begum shows Gazi the Khuniya pond in Thakurgaon district, explaining how it turned red during the war. The bodies of more than 2,000 freedom fighters are believed to have been dumped here. “People piled on people,” she says.
“We saved four people from there. People were disappearing from Bangladesh. We had to save them – Hindu, Muslim, or Santal [indigenous people]. We had to free our country.”