Lifestyle: New play explores the legacy of women raped in Bangladesh war


Birangona - Credit: Archant

A powerful new play debuting in the East End tells the little-known story of the women who were raped and tortured during Bangladesh’s liberation war.

Leesa Gazi

Leesa Gazi - Credit: Archant

Birangona: Women of War, at Wilton’s Music Hall in Shadwell, uses actors and documentary footage to bring to life the Birangona, or “heroic women”, who still live with the stigma of what happened to them more than 40 years ago.

The performances last week were part of A Season of Bangla Drama, presented by Tower Hamlets Council, giving East Enders a chance to see the play before its national tour next year.

Leesa Gazi, of the arts company Komola Collective, who co-wrote and stars in the piece, says she wanted to explore the lives of the women who had to fight a personal war in the struggle for their country’s liberation.

She said: “We talk about the freedom fighters and we’re proud of them, but we don’t hear about the Birangona women.

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“We’re so grateful that the season of Bangla has given us the opportunity to do this.”

The Komola Collective is a London-based arts company dedicated to telling stories from women’s perspectives that often go untold.

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Estimates of 200,000 to 400,000 are given for the number of women who were raped and tortured by the Pakistani army and Bangladeshi collaborators during the war in 1971.

These women were named Birangona by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s founding father, as a title of honour.

But after he was killed in a coup in 1975 the women were ostracised and left to look after themselves.

Mrs Gazi said: “We wanted to see behind this label. They are not only numbers.

“They had their lives before, some of them had children.”

The name Birangona has since become a term of abuse – even children are taunted about their grandmothers’ ordeals, and the women still experience prejudice.

Mrs Gazi and co-writer Samina Luthfa visited rape camps in Bangladesh to research the play and spoke to survivors about their terrible experiences.

“We went there and we found them at a centre near Dhaka,” she said.

“We interviewed 21 Birangona women, and later one of them died.

“This was very sad. When a Birangona woman dies, her story dies with her.”

Birangona: Women of War played at Wilton’s Music Hall, Graces Alley, off Ensign Street.

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