Tahmina Shafique The Complete Portfolio


‘History needs to be rewritten’

‘WHATEVER I am today is because of those days,’ she says and remains silent for a long moment. Her silence seems to take her back in time. Thirty-seven years on, the memory of the guerrilla war, the moments of desperation, the struggles, the joys of believing in a liberated Bangladesh and finally being independent are still fresh in Naila Zaman Khan’s memory.
‘It was while caring for those who were injured in the war along with my mother Sultana Zaman and sister Lubna Marium that I realised I want to be a doctor. Because that meant no one could send me back from a battle field, that meant I could be within any combat to fight for my country,’ she says, seated in her office at Dhaka Shishu Hospital. ‘I was a first-year economics student at Dhaka University back then and I had never known I would move to medicine and become a doctor – but the war certainly paved my way.’
Today Naila is not just one of the leading professors of child neurology in the country but also one of the pioneers of child development centres and a campaigner for access to health for women and children.
But more than anything else, Naila remains one of the countless war heroes. ‘From the war, I also brought back strength,’ she says. ‘The war had brought men, women, children – everyone – together, irrespective of social status, background or anything. And in many ways, women were the true heroes because we had come to realise that none of the patriarchal forces could possibly protect us – we were the most vulnerable in the war and constantly targeted and brutalised, and suddenly found that we were on our own.’
In 1971, when the war broke out, the war heroes also included countless women like Naila. In many ways, in the mainstream history, the role of women is largely ignored, denied and misconstrued, she says. ‘Our history needs to be rewritten with the role played by women recognised and recalled – every battle, every guerrilla action, every escape, every heroic act. The recognition of all those unsung heroes is still due.’
‘Perhaps we should write it,’ she says. ‘Many of our women authors have written in the guise of fiction but facts in this case would be even more brutal, barbaric and dehumanising. We need to revisit those demons, i.e. the Pakistani army and their razakar collaborators, resurrect them from our nightmares into paper.’
Naila says she cannot control her emotions when she speaks of those days, yet she travels through those moments and speaks of stories of strength, of determination and dreams of a Bangladesh. She struggles to keep her smile, and fights back tears – often of pride and inexplicable melancholy.
‘As soon as the war began, we had to leave home – my father Colonel Zaman was a sector commander and joined the troops immediately. My brother had also left for the war. My mother along with me and Lubna, had to go into hiding,’ she remembers.
Throughout April, they hid in a remote rural area in Tangail. ‘We were constantly on the run – villages would be burnt or bombed one after another, and we would have to be prepared to escape.’
At night, while still in hiding, they would listen to Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra. ‘By June we got a letter from my father asking us to come to Dhaka,’ says Naila. ‘The next week, we wore burka and travelled by bus to Dhaka and reached my uncle Siddiqur Zaman’s house. Crossing the border, by then, was an intricate work and Waheedul Huq organised the crossing.’
The war was becoming only more intense by then. ‘My mother and sister would assist the refugees near the Jessore border in the Kalyani orphanage,’ she remembers.
It was then that Naila joined the young troupe of musicians, called Bangladesh Mukti Sangrami Shilpi Shangstha, who were travelling through refugee camps and ultimately crossing the border zones into the liberated part of Bangladesh at that time.
‘We sang patriotic songs to keep up the morale of people. Through that camp we had been to Delhi to speak of our work where Bangladesh was first recognised,’ she says.
By mid-October they left Kalyani and went to Sona Masjid where Naila encountered the fiercest operations to take place.
‘We saw brutal deaths including that of Captain Jahangir’s. We brought back bodies and buried them,’ she says. Naila, along with Dr Moazzem and her mother, set up an advanced dressing station, where they treated thousands.
On the Women Development Policy, Naila says, ‘We yet again face the same struggle for equal rights. In the inheritance law, for example, women are not entitled to equal property.’
For a woman who had contributed equally as a man in bringing to life this country, how does it feel? ‘It’s a fight yet again,’ she says. ‘We must get together and ensure that we receive equity in formulation of policies, in parliament, in local governance.’

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