Writers of the Bangladeshi diaspora reflect on liberation and identity.
March 26, 2021
March 26, 2021 marks the 50th anniversary of the day that Bangladesh declared independence, the day that began a nine-month Liberation War, encapsulating a history that includes the legacies of Partition and colonization before that, and making way to continue the legacies of nationhood and diaspora after it.
As a child of the deshi diaspora, I think often about being on the receiving end of this creation of a nation. What does its struggle for liberation mean to me? It is bound up with my sense of identity, no doubt, but also bound by it. Sometimes the deeper I search my history, the more unwieldy it becomes, and the more incapable I feel of developing a responsible connection to it. Geography does this, time does this, erasure by oppressive forces does this; if you’re kept at a distance from something, you’re less likely to give it the value it needs to be uplifted. Fifty years in diaspora-time may as well be 500 years.
So then, given the opportunity to gather a group of Bangladeshi writers and ask them to reflect on where their own understandings of identity and liberation do or don’t intersect, my mind races: There isn’t time. I don’t know enough. How to encapsulate every voice?
It takes some grounding to realize that there is no way that the space of just one set of borders, one set of lines that make a flag or a ratifying document, one set of pages in a folio or anthology, is enough to perfectly encompass them all. And it takes some imagination to realize that there is still more room, still more time out there. Instead, these borders and lines do what I think might be the true work of revolution and legacy—they branch out to make room for new lines, expanding what we know of Bangladesh, widening the scope through which see it, opening up the voices through which we hear it.
Considering 1971 in 2021, the writers in this folio ask: Can we both define an identity and still be free? What are the beauties of the struggles our forebears achieved, and at what cost did we inherit them? And, how can independence be re-visioned when we look at it through interdependence? How much more expansive might we be?
If one way to create identity is through boundaries and definitions, then these twelve pieces begin to pick at those boundaries and loosen them, let them breathe a bit, see what more might be incorporated into the fray.
In “Notes on Doves,” the piece from which this folio takes its title, Mahdi Chowdhury takes as his starting point a still from Zahir Raihan’s documentary Stop Genocide and offers us eight notes, like stills of his own, that encapsulate his reflection. Tanaïs’ excerpt from “Other Tongue” and Jennifer Chowdhury’s “Bangladesh still owes its women liberation” begin to name the shortcomings of the title birangona, or “war heroine,” and highlight the further trauma we invite in thinking that the proclamation of this title has put a stop to the shaming and devaluing of women. Mikail Khan’s “I Lived in the Future” confronts the “collective failure to reckon” with the wounds that transgender Bangladeshis have faced, and also makes space for the abundant future that we must be sure about reaching for. Ushshi Rahman’s epic poem “Genocide of the Heart” and Fariha Roísín’s poem “1971” ask their readers to hold the sheer scale and weight of the genocide, with Rahman’s poem challenging, “Cut down our bloom, or try,” and Roísín’s challenging that readers “remember us, like you’d remember white death.”
In “Independence Day,” Ayesha Islam unpacks an anecdote about an encounter with American supremacy in order to remind us that “Bangladeshis have a rich history of fighting for justice” and invite us to imagine more ways to center radical love and community. Tanzila Ahmed’s “Jangal” explores the connections between “the fierce wildness of nature in the origin of [her own] being” and navigating her father’s village via Google Maps. Samira Sadeque’s poem “No One Sings Lovesongs for My Countrymen” and Zubair Ahmed’s piece “To Be As Is” uplift the importance of language and utterance both in grieving those who have fought for freedom as well as in securing freedom for those to come. In “The Flag Bearer,” Abeer Hoque pens a tribute to her trailblazing Nanu, Meherunnessa Islam, weaving the warp and weft of this grandmother’s and granddaughter’s parallel explorations of their relationships to modesty. And in a similar intergenerational dialogue, in “Ideas of Liberation” we hear mother Zohora Begum and daughter Aaisha Bhuiyan compare experiences of shadhinota, matribhumi, and diaspora.
For every one of these writers, I know that there are three more—and three more for them, and three more for them. After all, liberation is not just freedom, but freedom plus the responsibility to pass it on to another.
“We must regard the revolution as unfinished.” Aasho. Let us keep writing it.
—Nadia Q. Ahmad
Content warning in the following pieces for rape, genocide, trauma, and war.
1. Zohora Begum and Aaisha Bhuiyan
3. Mahdi Chowdhury
4. Abeer Hoque
5. Samira Sadeque
6. Ushshi Rahman
7. Ayesha Islam
8. Zubair Ahmed
9. Jennifer Chowdhury
10. Tanzila Ahmed
11. Fariha Róisín
12. Mikail Khan
Ideas of Liberation: An open dialogue between a Ma and her Meye
by Zohora Begum and Aaisha Bhuiyan
I was not born in shackles
I savored the open air and the vast skies to the fullest
With every breath.
Oh, you who have not yet tasted independence, if only I could share this feeling with you
I am speaking today of the independence of my country
I am speaking today of the independence of self
I truly feel as though I’m swimming merrily on my way
I am fortunate
I did not encounter war
I’ve only read about it
But I’ve watched the stories of liberation come alive in their eyes
Who survived the events of 1971
History remembers how they sacrificed themselves, how much blood was shed,
the relentless courage, and nine months of war
To give my birthplace a name, land, the red and green of our flag
I am grateful
We will get independence
When we stand our ground.
—Zohora Begum, translated by Aaisha Bhuiyan
Oh, how I envy you Ma
The joy with which you write
of being liberated and swimming under open skies
But I can’t help but wonder–if you truly are
How can I claim independence
when I still have not learned to write the আ of my name
when I speak another language better than my own–
I lost mine when the girl from second grade made fun of my accent
I do not know war but I also do not know this liberation you speak of
I hear their stories of sacrifice and read about their bloodshed
and my heart is full, but how can I claim something I myself did not attain?
I feel lost in the unholy middle of our diaspora
The only times I see the fruit of your labor
are when I remember us dancing in the kalboishakhi rains
With you, I have felt free to do anything, without worry of the outside world:
pick little green mangoes and flaunt my Bengali roots
Yet how can we be liberated
when every time I walk in the streets of my city
I guise my femininity and walk more like a man
Perhaps if I am one of them, I am safe?
This is the independence we have, Ma
But yes, you are a fighter
You nurture and you shelter, I am safe
And only then, I am free
From “Other Tongue”
When I remember, my being shatters. What have I lost, what have I gained. I don’t like this. That Mozhair should’ve been caught. People should’ve seen how evil that bastard was. I’ve lost it all, he made me a widow, I lost my sindoor. Tie his hands behind him. Shoot him in front of me. Can you do it? If I don’t witness this, the burning within will never cease. He was a killer. He killed my children in front of me. What else?—Survivor Gurudashi Mondal to filmmaker Yasmine Kabir in the 2005 documentary A Certain Liberation
After a young Hindu woman, Gurudashi Mondal, witnessed the murder of her husband and children in 1971—including her nursing infant—by rajakars, she was kidnapped and kept in sexual bondage until neighbors finally were able to save her life. Her mind and heart were shattered after the experience. Her friends took her to the only mental health institution in Bangladesh—in Pabna, my father’s hometown—but she escaped so many times that she was released. In the first few minutes of the documentary A Certain Liberation, we witness her yelling at men, swinging her lathi, a long bamboo rod, at their asses. She loves all of the young children, even nurses infants whose mothers can’t. Most of her teeth have fallen out, stained red with paan residue, but her smile is sweet, mischievous. One of her close friends, a Muslim woman, notes how her own family stopped eating meat so Gurudashi could eat her vegetarian meals with them.
Call me Ma, Gurudashi says, weeping, or I’ll kill myself. She worships at the Kali temple, lays down blood-red hibiscus blooms as offerings to the goddess. She wants to be buried, not cremated, so that people can leave gifts and prayers upon her grave. Losing her identity as a wife and mother, losing the red vermillion mark on her forehead, stole her desire to live. The unhealable wound of the war.
I wept witnessing Gurudashi’s visceral pain, one that I had felt from my earliest memory hearing about the war. I wept, sensing her despair and madness as an intricate performance to survive the unimaginable. I wept for the deep love and ease these women in Khulna knew between themselves, how Hindu and Muslim were not fixed, masculine, separate identities but fluid, feminine and shared. And I wept for the part of me that knew violation.
Gurudashi is forbidden entry at a rally for the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, daughter of the slain Father of our people, Sheikh Mujib. She hasn’t done the paperwork, and so Gurudashi remains unrecognized by the State as a birangona. The moment endures in a newspaper photograph: she is crying, locked behind a gate, with a few of the details of her story—but not the details of what she endured in captivity. Her world ended as soon as her captors murdered her entire family, including her infant. She never says more. The State’s word birangona acknowledges that women were raped—by the Pakistani Army and rajakars—but the women become a mythic anonymous. Did a woman’s madness without public admission of rape make her a more authentic survivor? For the first time, I contemplated how a kept secret, withholding an utterance of rape, could feel—free. The hushed secret of Gurudashi’s history acknowledged her suffering, but without the naming and subsequent shaming that so many birangona faced in their villages. Gurudashi is tenderly protected and accepted as a Mother to all, Mother of Bengal, a woman utterly shadhin—free—to say and do whatever she pleases. Men cannot harm or control her. And yet, when she died in 2009, her village cremated her body, despite her wishes—no doubt the men decided cremation as the only acceptable rite for a born Hindu—they scattered her ashes into the river. Liberation.
Excerpted “OTHER TONGUE,” IN SENSORIUM (HMH BOOKS 2022)
Notes on Doves
by Mahdi Chowdhury
1. A still photograph of doves suspended in water. Their bodies are lifeless and embalmed in a celluloid resin; their memory is olive-hued and patinated with half a century’s worth of time. How do we interpret this image from Zahir Raihan’s Stop Genocide? A visual metaphor for the bodies of Bengali innocents and the animal genocide of peace? Or is this image, rather, the closest thing we have in Raihan’s documentary to a moment of breath, to a spiritual allegory? (An image of “peace” as much as it can be symbolized within the war-archive.) On the fiftieth anniversary of the War of Liberation, I think of other such doves.
2. The children were sent to the countryside. My mother was still young enough that she had to be carried. In the distance, a dog barked. The sudden noise startled my grandmother. In taking a step back, the rifle bullet soared past the baby in her arms.
3. In the providential course of that moment is the thin causal basis of my own life—but that does not bother me. What bothers me is imagining my mother as a child, the potential of her life reduced to a microphysical sequence of barks and stray bullets. It is difficult to parse out a meaning. Difficult still to imagine one’s mother so small and so mercilessly vulnerable.
4. This is the story of the War of Liberation: one of sheer contingency. That which is “contingent” is not destined or inevitable. The contingent has no ontological necessity. It is the space of the accidental, the earthly, the sum of all that happens and does not happen. It is history in its disenchanted light—it is the haunted structure of the War of Liberation.
5. These memories are neither mine nor my mother’s. Rather, it is a relationship to memory. Marianne Hirsch coined the term “postmemory” to theorize this contradictory and affective process of inheritance among descendents of Holocaust survivors “dominated by narratives that preceded one’s birth or one’s consciousness.” It is an inheritance that comes with the “risk [of] having one’s own life stories displaced [by] our ancestors.” In “postmemory,” we nevertheless still retain the power to be critical: critical about the redemptive promises of heritage and a nationalism founded on the commons of catastrophe.
6. The pull of “lost futures” is irresistible. Raihan began his documentary with a placard of Lenin—and, in A State is Born, the anthem of liberation is “The International.” In the Second Congress of the Communist Party in 1973, there is a short-lived sense that destiny had at last been seized: for “the toiling masses of Bangladesh [living] in subhuman conditions,” “two hundred years of British colonial rule” and its vampiric continuation in “the Pakistani era,” have come to an end. The path is illumined to the last frontier—and “only socialism can bring emancipation.” One wonders where our noble dreams now reside. One cannot omit from political reflection the black-sites of the technocratic state, the militarized hill tracts, the refugee colony in the Indian Ocean, the union-busted garment factory, the grainy video of corrugated tin-roofs torn off of Hindu homes by mobs of police-protected young men.
7. Fragments of that proletarian dream, that will to universal dignity, still exist. They exist even outside of Bangladesh, in the circulatory flows of global Bangladeshi labour. “Diaspora” seems too effete a term for where bittermelon and mustard oil is sold opposite to Shatila Refugee Camp, where the Mediterranean is darkness incarnate on the Libyan shore, and where the heart of a twenty-five year old stops beating under the beams of a skeletal Emirati football stadium. I think of other such doves. “What is a nation but a tangled, heaving mass? An exercise in performance?” asks Momtaza Mehri. She describes the fluttering array of North African flags and Algerian patriotic chants cast into the air by hyphenated youths in Paris after France’s World Cup victory. We, like them, are “bound to ambivalence,” an ironic ambivalence—our revolution and our discontents, our pride and our shame, the nightmare of history and the consolation prize that our freedom fighters will outlive Henry Kissinger. Mehri writes: “Do not blame the hungry for feasting on symbolism.”
8. If there is to be a noble dream, if we are to honor the War of Liberation, we must regard its revolution as unfinished. (Its time is open, its boundaries are global.)
The Flag Bearer
by Abeer Hoque
My maternal grandmother, Meherunessa Islam, was educated at Eden College in Dhaka and then at Victoria Institution in Calcutta. It was in Calcutta that her faithful burkah, which had clung to her all through school, was suddenly left aside.
In 1944, she joined Sakhawat Memorial Government Girls School in Calcutta as Assistant Mistress. Founded by the legendary women’s rights activist Begum Rokeya, the school allowed the emancipated Muslim community to send their daughters to school. Each morning, my grandmother reminded the bus drivers and the ayah to make sure the window screens were intact and properly hung, so that the students would not be visible to the prying eyes of men. Girls were considered to be hidden treasures, and this system of purdah was to avoid public criticism. When the girls reached school, my grandmother watched them throw their burkahs off and fly about the school compound like joyful free birds. Hers had been with her for as long as she had needed it. She found herself unafraid without one.
Sixty odd years later, in Dhaka, I liberated myself from the orna, the scarf traditionally worn with a shalwar kamis. Often bright and beautiful, the ornas I’d seen growing up were more of a gesture towards modesty than actually covering up any naughty bits. For example, some women would wear them over only one shoulder (leaving the other breast uncovered), or close around the neck with the ends falling toward the back (hiding nothing more than one’s throat).
It was my first time actually living in Bangladesh as an adult, after all the childhood summer vacations with my family. Unused to wearing traditional Bangladeshi dress other than at occasional weddings and dawats in the United States, I found the orna fussy and awkward, in addition to failing in its one alleged purpose—modesty. Still, I was bound to the idea that wearing an orna would prove my Bangladeshi identity, and at the same time, I was finding it difficult to follow through.
After the partition of India in 1947, my grandmother left Calcutta to return to Dhaka. The provincial capital city of East Bengal was a city of Nawabs (landowners) and Kuttis (locals), with hardly any middle class. Nawab women were captives in their own homes, and hardly allowed to see sunlight or moonshine. Poor Kutti working women fashioned long burkahs from old sharees to hide themselves while earning a livelihood. They were dubbed “moving tents” by onlookers.
Kutti men were deeply perturbed by the arrival of the liberated women from Calcutta. They raised a wall of resistance with marches, slogans, and even physical violence. Women were attacked with bricks and bats, warned to wear burkahs, and not to go out. Horse carriages carrying girl students were stoned, injuring and terrorising the girls inside. Abusive pamphlets and handbills were circulated that spoke vehemently against girls and women for their non-observance of purdah. Many girls stopped going to school and several schools shut down, including my grandmother’s alma mater, Eden College.
My grandmother was demoralized, but she also understood that she and her colleagues were the messengers of emancipation. As loyal disciples of Begum Rokeya, they could not back down. A group of them sought government help and received liberal support. Every horse carriage carrying girl students was escorted by armed police for their protection. Parents and guardians got letters of assurance as to the safety of their daughters. Schools started functioning again under the protection and care of both governmental and civic sectors.
I had been living in Dhaka for two years when I met a woman who had dispensed with the orna altogether. I was shocked and in awe. It would take me a year to follow suit, because I still desperately wanted to belong. Over time, I would come to understand that belonging, like modesty, takes place more in your mind than on your body. If you think you’re modest or you belong, then you’re modest and you belong. If you don’t, there’s no telling you otherwise.
There are more women wearing burkahs on the streets of Dhaka today than when my mother was growing up in the decades before. My loose dyed curly hair, my American Mary Janes, my lack of orna, none of it fits. To boot, I’m not as brave as I was when I was younger; now I shy away from street portraiture or skip wandering the markets at night. But I feel Bangladeshi, even if no one else sees it. And I know now there are a million ways to be Bangladeshi. 163 million to be exact.
I don’t know how Meherunessa Islam would feel about the burkahs or orna now, if she’d be disheartened or askance or outraged. But I know what she’d do. My grandmother was a flag bearer after all. The least I can do is follow.
Note: The sections about Meherunessa Islam are excerpted from her self-written memoir, Recollections, which Hoque is currently editing.
No One Sings Lovesongs for My Countrymen
by Samira Sadeque
“বাংলা আমার দৃপ্ত স্লোগান
ক্ষিপ্ত তীর ধনুক,
আমি একবার দেখি, বারবার দেখি,
দেখি বাংলার মুখ।”
“Bangla is my spirited chant––from “Ami Banglay Gaan Gai,” composed by Pratul Mukhopadhyay
my maddened bow and arrow,
I see her once, I see her everywhere,
I see my beloved Bangla’s presence.”
It was the month of February and there, again, was another corpse.
Mushtaq Ahmed, a writer who had been jailed for criticizing the Bangladeshi government’s response to the pandemic, died in prison last month. His death was in the making for years. He is one of many writers, journalists, photojournalists, and cartoonists that have been under attack from the state and/or terrorist entities in the country over the last two decades.
These attacks rarely make headlines in international news. If we’re lucky, a mere mention. While the international news cycle moves on to the next story, we remain reeling. No one cries for our countrymen––the fighters, the writers, those breaking their backs just to be able to live an ordinary life in a free country. No one sings love songs for them. After the dust settles, after each attack, each arrest, they remain in anticipation of the freedom that our ancestors fought for, the freedom we celebrate today.
As a Bangladeshi-born journalist in New York, I constantly find myself negotiating for that freedom too. My aspirations for telling the story of my community shuttles between a dream and a fear: that sometimes telling a story means shattering the sharpest of silences, but that many sharp edges will inevitably spill blood.
I wrote this poem in anticipation of a land, a lifetime, where freedom can come before bloodshed, not from it––one where the ordinary men and women of my country bask in the early morning glory of the winter sun, one where we can truly feel the freedom in our bones.
No One Sings Lovesongs For My Countrymen
No one sings lovesongs for
my countrymen. Dhaka is a bloodshed letter,
has always been;
in it mother says, child, listen
child, don’t bleed, child,
Dhaka is the lamp-rimmed
tea stalls behind the early hours of a dawn yawning
behind the men always standing by the storefronts, their hands
behind their backs, backs
behind their dreams
behind their eyes following the road into
in it, they wait
or sometimes, just the lottery.
No one sings lovesongs for
my countrymen. They are the heart still beating
in this city’s bullet-ridden body
their footsteps march
have always marched
since the month of March
for days, years, decades
as though it is the only language they have ever known,
Dhaka is a half-alive son, a half-done protest
like an unfinished orgasm,
maybe to give birth to freedom,
as though it is the only language they have ever known,
in it, the children
or on the wrong bus,
or while learning how to
curl their palms
in it, the children grow up,
for our countrymen.
Genocide of The Heart
by Ushshi Rahman
Bloodshed – a uterus gouged in imbalance,
the alchemy of sacrifice.
Of your life force
Of the human you were gifted with.
It rains down on us, this patina,
this halo of chlorophyll green
An Anthurium guised
as a Bleeding Heart
perennially in bloom
defying the Mother itself,
but only because She asked,
first – a murmuration
then in a flash – the Red Sun.
Faith – in the Unseen,
enough to abandon rank
and traverse back to land
from whence The Call commences
Enough to bear arms against an encroaching world
That will strip you bare
Esteem you worthless.
Into this soul, this dense soil
It charges chariot forward –
gushing in five regal currents
tilling criss cross –
the IV drip to your chrysalis.
Don’t you see?
Can’t you see?
That they come to extinguish the way that threatens,
The Path of the future
They live in abject terror
masked as a legion of righteous light.
Cold. Callous. Cruel.
Cut down our bloom, or try.
Machete yielding, draped in white muslin
no less Muslim
when all is gone,
this infinite ivy –
loyal to the Underworld
Judge of the Dead –
will need no might to charge forth
For it is all that is meant to remain.
We are the future. We will bear the answers.
We will save it All. Including you.
by Ayesha Islam
A few years ago, I found myself in a somewhat tense back-and-forth with a U.S. military veteran. It was the Fourth of July and we were in the Arabian Peninsula. If you know me, you know that I stiffen at overzealous American patriotism—an allegiance that can be so tied with white supremacy and imperialism that disentangling it into a separate entity becomes difficult. If you know me, you also know that I grew up with immigrant parents from Bangladesh–so while the Fourth of July may signify hot dogs and backyard barbecues for some, it was typically just another day at our home.
The veteran couldn’t wrap his head around my lack of vigor for celebrating America. He posed question after question, trying to understand how I could possibly not be enamored with the land of the free and the home of the brave. After an hour of discussing America’s successes (mostly him) and failures (mostly me), he finally said what I now believe was the core of his sentiment:
“But aren’t you grateful your parents immigrated here? Aren’t you glad you didn’t grow up in Bangladesh?”
He was falling into the same trap that I myself am not impervious to—the notion that America is God’s gift to man, that all other countries are “backwards” or wrapped in despair, and that life in non-Western countries like Bangladesh must be awful and bleak. What a disappointing and foolish view that my life couldn’t have been beautiful, autonomous, or meaningful had I grown up in Bangladesh.
In both my professional and personal life, I try centering my work around those harmed by oppressive systems. While I constantly refer to external communities for inspiration, I often forget that Bangladeshis themselves have a rich history of fighting for justice. And although I have only recently begun learning about some of the socialist and progressive histories rooted in Bangladesh’s liberation, they have already given me immense hope. They help me see that Bangladeshi struggles have paralleled that of anti-colonialist movements across the globe. From the economic exploitation of East Pakistan to the denial of basic civil and human rights for Bengali populations, these pains are universal.
Of course, hearing racist or misogynistic remarks from Bengali uncles and aunties always brings me back to reality. Our people have a long way to go. But finding ways to love and hold patience for others—while challenging their deeply flawed ways of thinking—is crucial to movement-building. Many Bangladeshis aren’t able to be the critical thinkers we want them to be because of the ways democracy and free thought were suppressed for generations, creating political and historical amnesia at a national scale.
Although watching our community harbor views that are so antithetical to liberation is frustrating, I believe the sooner we embrace that Bangladeshi liberation has been (and continues to be) tied to all liberation struggles, the sooner we can all be free–in the realest possible ways that transcend politics.
To Be As Is
by Zubair Ahmed
Rivers, rains, and bloodlines. Crowds, crows, and photos. My body rising from the earth, stitched together by five thousand years of ancestors. The great mountains in the deep north, the delta visible from space, a sculpture carved from thousands of veins of water—these, some hallmarks of the land now called Bangladesh.
My uncle shares a story.
He hides in a ditch with two others. They wait to hear the truck. It comes closer. He holds his breath, pulls the pin, hesitates for what feels like eternity. He throws the grenade and dashes through the nearby farmland, hoping for no survivors
—he feels naked among the rice. He runs furiously, finally stops to breathe, checks in with his fellow freedom fighters. They nod, breathing heavily. They stay crouching in the bushes, still as the moon.
The Liberation War of 1971 haunts my dreams as a child. I feel the dead limp across the screen of my mind. When my uncle shares his stories
—another one, lying between burnt and dying bodies, avoiding the soldiers —I imagine a great fire in the background, burning the soul of a people to a bright orange light.
The war was fought for a language. A country named after a language. Shonar Bangla. Bangla with its tones of gold. Hundreds of thousands violated, killed, laid into the soil. Millions of eyes pried open. Witnessing the void and the sorrows of the human condition. We live now liberated as Bangladesh. But is liberation an idea? Does liberation live within language? I feel the answer is no.
Where language ends, an essence begins whose nature is freedom. When put inside language, it becomes the phrase, “To be as is.”
—freedom. For this word, we fought until the mother’s last child walked into the night. The true space of this fight, in my view, is to exist as is, as we are, not influenced by forces that make us conform to ways dissonant to our souls. For me, this is why Bangladesh fought the Liberation War. Taking a step back, maybe this is why the oppressed fight all wars.
Affected by these horrors as a child, I see liberation and my Bangladeshi identity precipitate in my yearning to have real freedom arise in this world. My being longs for freedom not just for human beings, but for all species on this planet
—humans, trees, and our countless living kin.
Liberation and respect form two sides of the same understanding. I see the path ahead winding around community awareness, decolonization, women’s empowerment, difficult conversations, and a need for reflection both as individuals and as societies. We won what in the eyes of history shines as a significant but imbalanced liberation. We have yet to understand, as a species, the deep need for respecting all that exists.
These changes begin with us, in us. In how we relate to our minds, and how we relate to others. Freedom and respect begin at home. Home is where we can be as is.
Bangladesh still owes its women liberation
by Jennifer Chowdhury
An image has stuck with me for years: a now popular photo by Rashid Talukder from 1970, during the non-cooperation movement leading up to the Liberation War—a black and white shot of young women, most clad in white saris, rifles slung over their arms, marching in formation. Valiant warriors, Bangladeshi women took up arms to free the nation from oppressive forces.
The stereotype associated with Bengali women—across both halves of the border between India and Bangladesh in particular—is that we are intelligent, free-wheeling, liberated. But on the eastern side, now proudly proclaimed Bangladesh, women’s bodies have been castigated since the formation of our country. Historians estimate that hundreds of thousands of women were raped by the Pakistani army during the Liberation War. President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman declared they would be given the utmost respect, honored for their sacrifices so that Bangladeshis could rule their own land. They were granted the title “Birangona,” meaning ”brave woman” or “war heroine.” But our war heroines mostly lived a life of shame and subjugation—cast aside over the fifty-year timeline of the nation that formed from their scarred wombs. Bangladeshi society, over time, came to celebrate Biragonas as part of our history, proclaiming that nothing like this would ever be allowed to happen again.
But the country has learned nothing. Bangladesh still owes its women liberation.
It owes Nusrat Jahan Rafi, who was burned to death in 2019 for daring to fight a sexual harassment case against her teacher. It owes the four women on average (according to reported cases alone) that were raped every day during the pandemic. It owes the women survivors who are extorted and threatened with social media shaming. It owes acid attack survivors—overwhelmingly female.
Immigrant parents owe their baby girls in the U.S., U.K., Australia—wherever our families have brought us because their homeland was too fragile to hold us. They locked us behind prison bars of modesty and shame while routinely loading their emotional cargo onto us.
Bangladeshi diaspora men owe the women of the diaspora—who they bond with over belonging and identity, promising us liberation from our strict homes and foraging through our dreams, only to bring us crashing down, punishing us for loving them so recklessly.
Though Talukder’s photo is a foundational element of Bangladesh’s history—a promising visual of equality and equity—in reality, liberation for women still awaits.
by Tanzila Ahmed
How do you spell the “jungle” that the Jangalee Meye comes from? Google Maps doesn’t know, spitting out images of rainforests and jungles from all across the world. Jangal is the name of the small Bangladeshi village Abbu comes from, a place with rice paddy fields to the horizon and bamboo bridges crossing canals. When I was a child and Mom would tell me I was acting wildly, jungli, I thought I was simply being my Father’s Daughter, a daughter of the jungle. What else would someone from the village of Jangal be called?
Adults would ask, What village is your father from? And I would proudly respond, Jangal.
But what is the name of the Jungle?
A little more hesitant: Jangal is the name. “Who’s on First?” and on and on. To the point, I wondered if my Abbu lived in the Jungle like Mowgli, catching fish with his bare hands and whistling with reeds. And maybe, he just couldn’t spell. Anyway, which even came first, the Jangal or the Jungle?
The easiest way to find Jangal on Google Maps is west of Rajabari, the “King’s House”—south of Fatehpur, “Victorious Lands”–and along the banks of the Ader Khaal. The roads, you can see through the Satellite view, are brown dirt and the trees fiercely verdant; the squares of the farmed fields chartreuse stalks of rice and yellow-flowered mustard grass. These couldn’t have been taken during the wet monsoon season—these fields would have been flooded in blue. The only photo you can find on the map appears after clicking the red star marking the Jangal Cemetery—“1 review, 5 stars.”
Do you see the white brick wall around a grave? Abbu asks me excitedly. That is your Dada’s grave. The lush greenery around it in the graveyard is wildly overgrown.
Jungle comes from Jangal, from the ancient Indian language Prakrit, and pronounced /jaṁgala/, which means “rough, waterless place.” But Abbu’s Jangal was so green—with ponds and canals and paddy fields immersed in ankle-high waters. When the British came to colonize, they dismissively referred to the jungli as an insult—the uneducated, the lowest class, the people raised by wolves. But how can it be an insult to hold the fierce wildness of nature in the origin of your being?
My Abbu’s Jungli was full of hot-tempered rage. Mom would say, exasperated, You are hot headed just like your Abbu. I wondered if wild just came with the terrain, or if it was indeed, in my veins. This Jungli Meye is feisty; it’s a backhanded compliment to be worn proudly. This kind of wild won’t stand down for anything.
When Abbu was a child, he watched a non-Bengali politician who wanted to do away with the Bangla language get beat up by the villagers in the Jangal market. Abbu remembered that when the famines of the 1960s arrived in Jangal, his family would feed the poor leftover rice water. Later, from Los Angeles, he would watch as the 1971 Liberation War unfolded, and would cook at fundraisers at UCLA to raise money for medicine.
Is it possible that the liberation of this land that I can only touch through screens is the same jungli that courses through my veins? Jangal is a homeland I can only see through satellite images and maps through the internet. In the postscript to the survival narrative, the Jungli remains unshackled, the wildness of the Jangal unbounded by Borders.
by Fariha Róisín
(For my ancestors)
In the year 1971, the Pakistani army invaded Bangladesh, committing
genocide of three million Bangladeshis, in the space of less than a year.
Depression makes sense when you hear about the brutal
circus that would one day decay the land where your
parents were birthed—people born to lush green hills—
and that in the space of a decade and a half find it split,
spilled through with shrapnel.
In September 1971 my father, at sixteen, would witness
the aftermath of a bomb blast in a shopping center called
Baitul Muharram, the largest mosque complex in Dhaka.
When I would eventually write to ask him about the
details of his experience, he would write back: “It was
the first time I saw burnt human body parts from my
More than forty years later, he can detail things with such
straight lucidity. His fact-loving mind, monomaniacal,
the professor in him, has perhaps sublimated the
psychology of war, and that of his experience, diluting it
down to gritty facts, the mechanics of the situation. Not
the horrors or the emotional weight of the pain.
I forget that my parents have smelled death, but in an
impossible way. Their intolerable reality is that they have
lived with the cruel abstraction of what war does to your
body and what it does to your mind. How you have to
compartmentalize your traumas by reconciling that the
striking fecundity that once existed in a land you called
your own has been slowly displaced through acts of
That the plushness of the green palm trees that used to
calm you has now been overtaken by the excruciating
sounds of explosions, sprawling debris, and that after a
while you begin to wait for the objects shaped like death,
sedately, as the gibbous moon sits above you—the only
light that’s left in your darkness. That as you float on
the lonely rooftops, watching the rage beneath you, the
buildings that once stood before you have disappeared
like a shadow.
three million people dead in 1971, in one place, dead in the
space of less than a year. Did you even know that was a
possibility before i told you?
400,000 women raped as a result of the genocidal tactic
of war. say it with me again.
400,000 women raped.
but no history books, or sweet jeremiads about the
tragedy of human life, or “never again,” just an, “oh, that
really happened?” maybe a soft, soft gush, a momentary
pang. but soon the memory oozes out, and those bodies
remain nameless, cold and dead beneath the wretched
soil. forgotten. a terrible end.
they were not known and never will be known.
in a grave, on land, pillaged.
a land once known as the cultural epicenter, vanished
famished of its utility,
plundered with miles of skin, more than it knows what to
they were not known and never will be known.
and as i sit here, i mourn them, in this storm.
where did the 400,000 women go? where did they
are they just a dead memory?
remember us, like you’d remember white death. remember
us with no guilt. just remember that we lost so much
more than what you’ve afforded us to lose.
From HOW TO CURE A GHOST Poems by Fariha Róisín and Illustrations by Monica Ramos
Text © 2019 Fariha Róisín. Illustrations © 2019 Monica Ramos.
Used by permission of Abrams Image, an imprint of ABRAMS, New York. All rights reserved.
I Lived in the Future: Confronting the Wounds of War
by Mikail Khan
March 26, 1971 remains one of the most significant dates in the inception of Bangladesh. Our families are framed and bound by the Liberation War. Growing up, stories of the Mukti Bahini, “Freedom Fighters,” were the stories that raised and invigorated us.
Yet certain stories were missing from the narrative that the post-war generation was told, namely how transgender Bangladeshis were impacted by the war. Such non-disclosures affected me as I came into my transmasculine identity and queerness from a very young age. People often ask me what it was like growing up in Bangladesh. Truth is, I was made to maintain a cloak of silence for most of my time there. Because the present didn’t belong to me, I lived in the future. It was a strange feeling to wake up to each day: to mourn my own death while I was still alive.
I fell for the lie that was the gender binary for a large portion of my youth in Bangladesh. The lie seemed to work until it didn’t. I could not simply stop being trans. Now I largely attribute the sustained violence and the distorted cultural teachings I was forced to absorb, to our collective failure to reckon with our historical wounds.
For years, trans people have been marginalized within Bangladesh because of the idea that anything not accessible to mainstream society is damaging to the prospect of liberation. But we’ve learned from history that this gradual approach towards freedom has been a failure—because when not everyone has the same rights, the rights of everyone become incredibly delicate.
We have all witnessed the seismic shifts as a result of the Liberation War. Yet we have to meet this current moment with a more critical visioning of what’s at stake. We must step into a radical re-imagination of ourselves and our worlds as Bangladeshis. And we must wrestle with what is possibly the most essential question: What are we going to gift to future Bangladeshi generations? What traumas and harms are we going to render obsolete for our younger counterparts? How will we set them up to embrace vulnerability over isolation so that our spaces are saturated with multiple liberatory ways of being and relating with one another?
Maybe someday we will live in a Bangladesh where, as trans people, we can be celebrated for being ourselves, and that too, in a non-patronizing way. Maybe someday we can enjoy the riches of life outside of the margins of life, outside of the marginalization that we faced, outside of the low wages and dehumanizing labor that we’re expected to be excited for. Maybe someday we will reach a point where saying someone is trans wouldn’t cause a rupture—or, if it did, maybe it would still be alright. Liberation might elude us now but tomorrow, we can choose to run faster and stretch our arms farther. I am certain of it.