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Bangladeshis Remember Ferdousi Priyabhashini, Advocate for Women Raped During ’71 War

Sharif Khiam
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Sculptor Ferdousi  Priyabhashini sits by some of her artwork, in an undated photo taken in Dhaka.
Sculptor Ferdousi Priyabhashini sits by some of her artwork, in an undated photo taken in Dhaka.

Bangladeshis are mourning the death of sculptor Ferdousi Priyabhashini, one of the first women to go public about her experience of being raped during the 1971 independence war and who spoke out for thousands of victims of wartime sexual violence.

Priyabhashini is being remembered not only for her art but for lobbying Bangladesh’s government over the decades to prosecute war criminals and honor hundreds of thousands of women who were allegedly raped by Pakistani forces and local collaborators during what was known here as the Liberation War. In Priyabhashini’s case, she was gang-raped on a daily basis for more than seven months, according to her autobiography.

“Priyabhashini was the first one to publicly announce herself as a rape victim of the Liberation War in 1971. She broke the silence,” Shameema Binte Rahman, the content editor of Rotten Views, a local news website focusing, told BenarNews.

Priyabhashini died while being treated at a Dhaka hospital on Tuesday. The 71-year-old was suffering from heart and kidney problems and had injured her ankle a few months ago after slipping in the bathroom, her daughter, Phuleswari Priyanandini, said.

In 1972, Priyabhashini was among Bangladeshi women who were granted “Birangana” (heroic women’s status), a word coined by the nation’s founding leader, Sheikh Majibur Rahman, for the suffering they had endured as rape victims during the war.

Thirty-eight years later, in 2010, Priyabhashini received the nation’s highest state honor, the Independence Award, in recognition of her contributions to Bangladeshi society. In 2016, she was given another official honor, that of Freedom Fighter.

“She spoke regularly about losing her honor to … Pakistani soldiers while the war was going on,” Gonshai Pahlavi, a sculptor and writer, told BenarNews.

Yet many of those women who were victims of rape during the conflict were too afraid in the 1970s of becoming publically shamed if they took the step of sharing their stories. Many of those who went public received compensation from the government, but were ostracized in their social circles. Some turned to prostitution as a result of being cut off from society.

But Priyabhashini felt no shame in telling her story and she stood her ground, her admirers said.

“Priyabhashini is the artistic representation of our valor and fearlessness,” Ali R. Raji, an assistant professor at University of Chittagong, told BenarNews.

Art career

Priyabhashini was born in Khulna district in 1947.

At age 16, she married an artist. Their relationship lasted eight years, but she divorced him in 1971, according to her autobiography.

She was working at a jute mill to support her mother, siblings and her three children, when the war broke out and she was taken captive by Pakistani forces, when Bangladesh was then known as East Pakistan.

After the war ended, she married a friend, A.T. Ahmedullah Ahmed, but when she returned to work at the jute mill, she found herself shunned by co-workers and others who branded her as a collaborator for the pro-Pakistan side, according to her book.

“For our marriage, my husband had to sacrifice his share of his ancestral property and house as I was a Birangana and was alleged to be a collaborator,” Priyabhashini said in her autobiography.

She began her career as a sculptor in the mid-1980s. Since 1991, her sculptures were featured in at least 16 exhibits.

“Priyabhashi is a source of inspiration for all as she led her life through a valiant way amid various obstacles. Her courageous life is also an inspiration for the new generation and women,” Shahriar Kabir, president of the Ekattorer Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Committee, a Bangladeshi group that advocates  the prosecution of alleged war criminals and collaborators, told the Daily Star newspaper this week.

“Her sculptures tell us her pain she suffered during the 1971 independence war. Through her works, she gave a message to us why the war crimes trial is necessary for the nation.”

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