Tahmina Shafique The Complete Portfolio


The people’s war

Those who have lived through the war of independence in 1971, speak of it with tears of pride and inexplicable melancholy. Often, they struggle to fight back tears and find words that would perhaps justify the depths of the movement- the depth of the extraordinary power, resilence and belief of the people.

More often than not, they say, words fail to do justice- to the desperation, to the strength, to the struggles, the desperate cries, the haunting memories, the images, the bloodsheds and more.

True, words fail to justify even the bloodiest war of the twentieth century. And more often, words seem to die and with that a part of history seems to fade. So has the history of 1971 in so many ways. Even though the war stands till date as the worst genocide of World War II era - the number of deaths being well into seven figures, outstripping Rwanda (800,000 killed) and probably surpassing even Indonesia (1 million to 1.5 million killed in 1965-66), it remains to be a largely unacknowledged event in the history of the world.

The larger part of the world population seem to have very little knowledge and awareness concerning the campaign of violence on the part of the Pakistani army as the Bengali people of the then East Pakistan sought to achieve political sovereignty.

Thirty seven years on, the war remains to be a contested issue- those who had seen the war continue to fight to pass on the true stories to the next generation and at the same time fight between emotional and psychological intensity that the war left within them.

In the past 37 years, so much has been written, so much told, yet it is felt that none of it could bring to the life the true images of the war, none of it could justify what this people’s war meant.

Yet, amidst these, photographs speak the tale of the war that time may have forgotten. It is also true that war photographs remain to be powerful in history- because of the intensity – both emotional and physical that it portrays, but also perhaps the photographs of 1971 stand out for several other reasons. More than anything else, the photographers seem to stand out for the one fact that it was the people’s war- not the armies- but people- farmers, villagers, man, woman and child.

This month as an exhibition titled ‘Bangladesh 1971’ takes place at the Rivington Place public gallery in Shoreditch, East London, they retell the tale of the war visually, bringing back painful memories to Bangladeshis and leaving others in awe. These photographs of the war taken in 1971 bring to life the very images of the beginning of a dream- the movement of people and the birth of Bangladesh.

In this exhibition, most were amateur photographers at that time, men who just happened to hold a camera when they found themselves caught up in the war. For almost two decades, Shahidul Alam - director of the Drik, the photography Library in Dhaka and a curator of the current exhibition along with Mark Sealy, director of photographic agency Autograph ABP – went beyond the struggle to justify the war with words and collected these photos, visiting the photographers in their homes and saving their negatives.

These images taken by these accidental archivists, 37 years later have gone on to become an intimate, reflexive portrait of the war, ranging from photographs that are well known to others that have never been seen in public.

The exhibition consists of more than 100 images organised in loose chronology that begins with the first resistance of the Bengalis, to the Pakistani occupation. The exhibition portrays some powerful images. The spirit and resilience of 1969-70, when war was imminent is captured most powerfully by Rashid Talukdar’s image of a ten-year-old bare feet boy, leading a street march and shouting ecstatically and leading the group.

The collection includes many iconic images of war: Abdul Hamid Raihan’s image of two children staring into the distance, a carpet of missiles scattered at their feet; Mohammed Shafi’s portrait of a freedom fighter - a boy who could be from anywhere - reveals a young man’s fear despite his attempt at studied resolve. Other images depict the horror and the haunting night mares that many speak of till date.

On the night of December 14, knowing they were about to lose the war, the Pakistani army and its local paramilitary allies massacred the future doctors, teachers, lawyers, and writers of Bangladesh in an effort to cripple the new nation. The bodies were not found until after independence, when a mass grave was discovered in the city. The exhibition includes a powerful image of this massacre- a ghostlike face surrounded by submerged bricks and covered in a thin sheen of mud.

Bangladesh 1971 also showcases the many portraits of the slaughter. A photograph shows a uniformed man circled by a large crowd, stabbing a civilian with a bayonet; the caption tells us that it is not a Pakistani soldier but a Bengali one, attacking a local man who has collaborated with the army, is outstanding. According to reports, at Alam’s first exhibition of war photos in Bangladesh, the government had requested that he removed this image, in which the roles of victim and perpetrator are reversed. His refusal led to the exhibition being shown at a private gallery rather than at the National Museum.

It is here that Alam is most successful in bringing the untold tales of the war and the complexities of the many roles played. The exhibition in all, documents the political story, the landslide election victory of Sheikh Mujib, the betrayals by collaborators, the massacre of intellectuals two days before the surrender of the Pakistani forces – and at the same time it reveals other stories- some untold, some silent.

Walking out in the newly liberated town of Mymensingh, the photographer Naib Uddin Ahmed had come across woman who had been raped and tortured by the Pakistani army: his picture of a woman covering her face with her hair bears witness to the contradictory state policy regarding such women and the powerful image seems to speak louder than words.

Another powerful image that showcases women’s struggle and their actions in the war is the image of women preparing for battle prior to the crackdown of March 25, 1971. The exhibition includes many more photographs- idyllic image of two women wading through a pond with a basket of flowers, carrying grenades covered with water hyacinth- show the strong role played by women. The countless images, a visual testament to the trauma and hope of independence.

Some of the photographers were also of actual freedom fighters, like Mohammad Shafi, whose diaries, buried underground and recovered after the war, are the only non-photographic artefacts on display. Alam characterises these Bangladeshi photographers as freedom fighters for the huge personal risks they took to preserve the only ‘physical documentation of this war’.

As Bangladesh 1971, a visual journey into the birth of Bangladesh brings to life the memories to many and awes the rest, thousands of miles away from home, in many ways at an important political time such as this, important questions once again appear and linger on- have we as a nation paid respect to those who fought for independence? Are we still fighting another fight?

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Walking the talk on gender parity

There have been major turns of the table this past month. On the eve of International Women’s Day on March 8, when the military-controlled interim government tabled the National Women’s Development Policy (NWDP) 2008, it may have seemed to be a timely and appropriate step to some. But, the mention of the contents of the policy triggered a sequence of events which have had a counter-productive effect. For one, the legitimacy of the incumbents in introducing such a policy has been questioned. According to the constitution, an unelected interim government can not introduce any such policy, experts point out.

Moreover, important questions have been raised as to why the content of the policy had omissions and lacked clear and detailed issues that needed to be considered. Above that, the recent outrage of religious clerics and different Islamist radical groups, have given rise to suspicions of political machinations, say some women rights activists.

The state’s reaction to these objections raised by the Islamist factions on the top of that, especially the four advisers’ visit to the Islamic Foundation, to apologise and attempt to set up a ‘review committee’ have further raised questions about the credibility and focus of incumbents and the objective of such a policy.

In the past three weeks, the policy has been attacked in processions and protests by a section of the Islamist groups. Several thousand activists of different Islamist outfits staged demonstrations protesting the policy and demanding its immediate withdrawal. Last month, demanding rights of women as ordained by the Quran, the protesters demanded the interim government to do away with the policy or face tougher action, including rallies across the country. They also called upon ‘Muslims all over the country’ to prepare themselves for a civil war against the bid to implement the NWDP-2008.

‘The policy brings to life some of actions and beliefs of the State,’ points out Farida Akhter. ‘When we had protests on the streets by women, police chose to hit women and stop them. Yet when other groups, who are undoubtedly anti-women rights, came on the streets giving religious excuses, we saw the State defending itself, justifying its steps, giving explanations to anti-women rights groups. What does that reflect?’ asks Farida, a women’s rights activist and head of Nari Grantha Prabartana, a Dhaka-based NGO.

The Policy

‘The policy has been designed to ensure equal rights for women in all spheres of national life and also to ensure safety and security for women in the national, social and family environment,’ announced Fakhruddin Ahmed, chief adviser on March 8, this year.

The National Women’s Development Policy dates back to 1997, which was the result of long struggle of women’s movement in Bangladesh which indicated equal status and sharing of power for women in written document. ‘It was one of the major successes of our time, to introduce such a policy where major issues such as women’s reproductive rights and equal inheritance rights and more were included,’ points out Dipu Moni, Secretary, Women’s Affairs, Awami League and also a lawyer and public health expert.

Bangladesh, a country that is structured on and characterised by patriarchy till date, where despite all the progress of the past century, women continue to struggle for their basic minimum rights, a national policy is expected to look at some of the fundamental issues such as discriminatory laws, right to decision making, reproductive health rights and more. In the last one decade, there has been the constant struggle of women right’s groups to voice these very rights that are still confronted with the most medieval of customs, constraints and abuses.

Although the movement has made great strides in several ways, in adopting a global perspective on women’s issues, and translating and adapting that perspective into ground level reality, they continue to struggle on certain issues. Despite all that has been achieved, gender parity is still a distant milepost, because of a specific, political, anti-women agenda of the day—which is a narrow and regressive, say experts. An example of this very narrow agenda has been reflected yet again in the way that the latest debate on the women’s development policy has been handled, say women’s groups.

A good example can also be cited from the undemocratic manner in which the whole NPWD, 1997, was changed in 2004. ‘It points out very clearly the difference between government rhetoric on women’s’ empowerment and the actual practice,’ says Ayesha Khanam, general secretary, Bangladesh Mahila Parishad.

‘The omissions snatched away some of the fundamental rights of women, negating the role played by the movement,’ says Dipu Moni. ‘The same thing has been done this time and the fact that major issues such as inheritance rights have been omitted shows the political support of this caretaker for certain groups.’

‘We were not at all consulted,’ says Selima Rahman a former minister from the past BNP-Jamaat coalition government. ‘The policy needed to be prepared following discussions with the political parties and it reflects the many gaps in decision making. A sensitive issue such as this certainly required more detailed focus, consultation and engagement of everyone.’

The new policy has however, upgraded on issues such as education, a major tool through which patriarchy can be offset, says Ayesha Khanam. ‘We settle for less, because we cannot wait for the time when we will have a completely fair policy. We must settle with something. Moreover, the policy may not be radical as such, but it has shown significant progress and has been prepared in light of CEDAW (an international women’s rights treaty), of which Bangladesh is a signatory.’

The goals of the policy are social, political and economic empowerment of women who account for more than half of the country’s population. While much of the policy is similar to that of 1997 and 2004, the policy has a few highlights and also omissions on important phrases.

The latest policy suggests one-third representation of women in parliament- that is a proposal for a proportionate increase of the number of reserved seats and direct election to the seats reserved for women. ‘The parliament representation has been a major struggle for us and this provision for direct election of reserved seats for women is certainly a major improvement,’ says Ayesha.

‘What our policy had was the provision of monitoring and action,’ argues Dipu Moni. ‘Giving 33 per cent seats is putting a limit to women’s rights.’

The policy also states that the quota for women in entry level jobs in both government and private organisations would be increased. ‘Why did not we the see the employment of women this time when there was so much reshuffling and appointment of officials at the government level?’ questions Dipu Moni.

The preamble of the policy underscored the need for ensuring more involvement of the women in nation-building, especially facilitating them to contribute to policy matters. The objectives include ensuring equity between the men and women in every sphere of national life, women’s security at national, social and family level, and their empowerment in the political, social and economic fronts.

‘The policy also advocates the establishment of women’s human rights, elimination of discrimination against girls, ensuring adequate nutrition for them and providing enough support to help their aptitudes and talents to bloom,’ says Ayesha Khanam.

According to Sultana Kamal, former caretaker adviser and head of the Centre for Law and Arbitration, a legal aid NGO, the NWDP failed to mention anything about the UN CEDAW, the uniform family code, or the equal right of women to inherit property.

Unlike the 1997 policy, the present policy has omitted the word ‘inheritance’ completely. ‘This reflects the government’s standing and also justifies the fact that this policy is anti-women,’ says Farida. ‘The policy also overlooks the major issues concerning law, privacy of women and their minimum rights.’

‘Women in different religions get different shares of properties - equal in some religions and less in others. Our demand was to formulate a uniform family code giving women equal rights. The issue was not made clear in the policy,’ Sultana Kamal has said in press interviews.

Indeed, the policy also lacks clear specifications of the uniform family code- through which women have equal rights in decision making, marriage, divorce, guardianship, reproductive health and property. ‘We asked for a woman’s right as a citizen and it was not against any religion,’ says Ayesha. ‘We demanded an equal platform for women as much as men, which is the fundamental right of any citizen in a country.’

‘Eleven years later, you would expect a much more progressive policy that incorporates stronger issues and that has not been reflected in this policy,’ says Dipu Moni. ‘There is nothing new in the policy itself, and, in fact, these commitments had been made earlier in the Constitution, in CEDAW, in the Beijing Plan of Action, the MDG and NSRP. For one, this government had no authority to even introduce a policy, and when it did it failed to do any form of justice to women’s rights and movement of several years.’

The protests, the content and the reaction

In the wake of the recent protests, many continue to question how the religious clerics were threatening street action, even before the policy had been made public. ‘Their claim was that the policy provided equal rights to inheritance, and thus violated religious norms and codes, even though the policy has not mentioned it at all,’ says Farida.

In section 9.13 of the policy states that it shall ensure equal rights to and control over all moveable and immoveable property acquired through the market. ‘This is a statement of the constitution of Bangladesh is not a re-statement of it or any advance. The constitution of Bangladesh cannot be changed by anyone group that does not meet the legal requirement in parliament,’ says Ayesha.

‘What else does moveable and immoveable property or resources received through market even mean?’ questions Mohammad Kamaruzzaman, assistant general secretary, Jamaat-e-Islami. ‘The phrase “Bazar babosther maddomeh” is just a conspiracy against Islam. They just wanted to use a different phrase instead of equal inheritance right, the method to acquire wealth, which contradicts Islamic ideology and values. We are not going to stand any form of change in the inheritance laws stated by the Holy Quran.’

According to the constitution of Bangladesh, section 19, Equality of opportunity, subclause 2, it is stated clearly that ‘The State shall adopt effective measures to remove social and economic inequality between man and man and to ensure the equitable distribution of wealth among citizens, and of opportunities in order to attain a uniform level of economic development throughout the Republic’.

‘For one the policy does not even mention inheritance and even if it does, every religion supports equality. Personal values in religions are always applicable, but that does not mean that we cannot have a state policy that supports equality in all spheres,’ states Ayesha.

‘Through this new law they want to teach us what we know and practice before them,’ says Kamaruzzaman. ‘Is there equality between man to man in the society? Some men are rich and some have nothing, so where is equality? The idea of equality is vague, what we can do is to reduce the existing difference between man and woman. This step has been against Islam and all of the recent actions show that politically the state wants to show that we are not for women’s right but the truth is Islam does ensure women’s rights.’

According to some, such protests in the name of religion need to be ignored. Rasheda K Choudhury, the adviser on Women and Children’s Affairs, says such criticism was misplaced. ‘The new policy ensured equal rights of women only with regard to property they had earned themselves, not with regard to what they inherited,’ she said to the press, after protest. Legal experts had to consider not only Muslim women but also those of other religions, Choudhury said.

Why did the government even need to justify its actions, ask Farida, Dipu Moni and a host of other women groups, researchers, intellectuals and citizens. The four advisors visit to the Islamic Foundation, to apologise and attempt to set up a ‘review committee’ only raises further questions on the validity of decision-making of the government and more than anything else, it’s stand on women’s development. ‘We are to see what happens and when implementation of this policy does begin,’ says Selima. ‘We will immediately initiate implementation of the short-term steps while the next government will have to take strong measures to implement the long-term policies,’ said Choudhury to the press.

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