My name is Fatema. I was the oldest of five children. I had three brothers—now only two—because the third one is gone. And I have a young sister. Do you know why my parents named me Fatema? Of course you do! They named me after our prophet’s daughter, hoping to see me grown into a pious and devoted daughter, sister, wife, and mother. Hope, huh! What an erratic word! Hope is not meant for poor people like us. Hope belongs to the rich people, just like everything else. Even God belongs to them, along with power, property, education, and dream—everything!
I was a restless teenager back in 1970. I played with the boys and ran free like a wild deer. I ran with my brothers to participate in the mass protests and parades for freedom. I spent countless sleepless nights praying for Sheikh Mujib to win the Parliament Election of 1970. He could have become the Prime Minister of the whole Pakistan! Can you believe it? Ours was a tiny village named Shonadanga in the city of Khalishpur of Khulna district. Khulna was a place of historic importance. It was a birthplace of many leaders and political activists who fought for Indian swaraj back in the 1940s. The same tradition of political spirit continued in Khulna in 1970. We had political leaders and workers always dreaming for federal autonomy and always working for the betterment of East Pakistan. I was a student of 10th grade the year Sheikh Mujib got arrested for committing treason. I am talking about the Agarhtala Conspiracy lawsuit—schemed by the conniving government of West Pakistan—in order to suppress the movement he started in support of East Pakistan’s right to autonomy. Every one of us became shocked when Sheikh Mujib and many of his followers were charged with treason. What if they hang him to death just so they could kill the movement? We lived in fear, always expecting to hear some bad news about his. Dhaka, on the other hand, was bursting with protests and rallies and procession in demand of Sheikh Mujib’s release from jail. Khulna also shared the excitement the moment we heard the news of Sheikh Mujib’s release. We celebrated by organizing rallies and parades. I ran around the city with my brothers and other boys of the town, chanting for Sheikh Mujib’s victory. My parents did not object to my free-spirited activities, but a few elderly gentlemen of the town mildly rebuked me on many occasions, asking me to behave like a girl and abide by social custom. A woman should not run around with boys like that, they said. Something—anything bad might happen! ‘What if the Police or the Army intervened and arrested you?’ They said. But their reproofs did not slow me down. ‘Won’t you guys protect me from danger, if something does happen?’ I used to say, laughingly, ‘nothing will happen, if you guys will look after us, uncles!’ I used to tease them. Even though I pestered them every time they try to warn me, I could somehow detect the reason behind their concerning words. They were afraid that the Bihari community might do something to harm us. Khulna had a big Bihari population. The Bihari community always considered itself better than the Bengalis and pledged allegiance to the Pakistani government, despite the fact that the Pakistani government did not want them to repatriate to West Pakistan. The Biharis considered us as lower breed, Bengali dogs, as they used to call us. Nasir Ali, a young man of twenty, always called me Bengali bitch every time he saw me. I will come back to Nasir Ali later, but let me tell you this, sister Nilima, I saw Bangabondhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman! In 1970, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman came to give a speech in a public gathering in Khulna. I have never seen a human ocean before that day! Hundreds of thousands of people filled the big venue and stood like long leaves of grass undisturbed by wind! There was not a single empty spot. I was this sixteen years old restless girl, running from one place to another in my failing attempt to sneak into the crowd. After making a few hopeless attempts to find any spot, I decided to go monkey! Didn’t I tell you I was a wild girl? So, I jumped on a branch of a nearby tree and climbed to its top branch. I heard people screaming at me from below, “Hey crazy girl, watch out! You will fall down!” But I had no time to pay attention to those useless warnings. I had to see my leader, my hero, the great Sheikh Mujibur Rahman! And I saw him from the top of that tree. People screamed from below, “Hey, silly girl, come down, come down! Come down before you fall!” I did not pay attention to them. How would I see him if I come down? Besides, how much would it hurt if the branch on which I was standing breaks down? There was a bellowing ocean of people underneath my feet, and if I fell, I was sure I would softly land on that ocean! So I was not scared of the fall at all. I sat there and listened to the fiery speech delivered by Sheikh Mujib. After I came home that day, I was so elated that I could not eat or do anything. Mother said, “Fatema, why aren’t you eating your dinner?” And you know what I told her? I said, “I am not hungry, Mother! I will never be hungry! I am so happy to see my leader that it has filled my stomach up!” “Oh, Mother!” I screamed, “ I wish you could see him! What a magnanimous voice he had! What a shiny pair of eyes! He envisioned the birth of a country with those eyes!” My mother just smiled affectionately and listened to my rant as I tried to recreate my magnanimous experience through my exciting words.
When Sheikh Mujib won the Parliamentary Election, we burst out in excitement again. Bangabondhu Sheikh Mujib will be our Prime Minister! But very soon situation started to deteriorate. Bhutto started playing tricks and postponed the Parliament. Sheikh Mujib called for strike and started a movement of non-cooperation. Bangabondhu asked his people to close down all schools, colleges, offices, factories and industries. Hospitals, banks, water supply, and electric plants were exempt from this noncompliance. Bhutto came to East Pakistan and had a few meetings with Bangabondhu and then left without resolving the issues. The Pakistani Army started its butchery in Dhaka on the night of March 25th. We heard things were bad, but we did not know how bad it was. We cringed hearing General Yahya Khan’s hateful speech broadcasted on the radio. We were worried for Bangabondhu’s safety when he was arrested for treason and taken to West Pakistan. We heard rumours on the 26th of March that Sheikh Mujib had declared Bangladesh a free country before he was arrested. We also heard that the Pakistani army had killed tens of thousands of innocent civilians in Dhaka.
Within a week, the impact of those horrendous incidents in Dhaka started to unfold in our village. The Biharis of Khalispur got united and formed a militia force in support of the Pakistani government. They publicly announced that they would slaughter every Bengali dog in town. The College hostel became empty as students fled in fear. Men and women boys and girls, old people and young, everyone started running away to escape the wrath of the Bihari militants. My parents and my siblings ran too. I grabbed my six years old brother Pona and joined them. Pona was too weak and could not keep pace. So I picked him up and kept running. But Nasir Ali and his gang were quicker than me. They chased me and pinned me down. Nasir Ali snatched my little brother from me and thrashed him on the street. I heard Pona crying for help, and then I saw his skull breaking into pieces. My brother’s brain jumped out of his tiny head and fell like a lump of blood on the pavement. Nasir and his team dragged me toward their housing. The militants had established their headquarter in their own housing complex.
Sister Nilima, what can I say, but at sixteen, I had seen perversion that shuddered my very core values about family and relationships. I lay on the ground like a slaughtered animal when Nasir Ali and his father took turns in raping me, and then handed me over to other men of their community. I saw another girl of my age and her mother lying only a yard away from me. Nasir Ali and his father took their turns in raping that girl and her mother. They laughed and hissed as they called us Bengali bitches. I clearly remember women’s voices cheering from somewhere as their men raped us. I don’t think you have witnessed any such incidents in your life, sister Nilima; well, how can you? You belong to the privileged class!
As a War Heroine, I Speak
Nilima Ibrahim, Fayeza Hasanat
Bangla Academy, forthcoming (February 2017)
Nilima Ibrahim was a career academic. She taught in respectively the Khulna Coronation Girls’ School, Loreto House, the Victoria Institution, and finally at the University of Dhaka, where she was appointed as a lecturer in 1956, and as a professor of Bengali in 1972. She also served as the chairperson of the Bangla Academy, and as the Vice Chairperson of the World Women’s Federation’s South Asian Zone
Fayeza Hasanat is a lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Central Florida. Among her other research interests, the experiences of Muslim women figure prominently, and she is the translator of Nawab Faizunnesa’s Rupjalal (Brill, 2008).