When the Youth of 2004 met Women of 1971

Inside an Indian restaurant called “Curry in a Hurry” in Manhattan, New York, fifteen excited South Asians gathered for dinner and discuss their plans for an upcoming event they are organizing. Mona Rahman works for a public relations firm. She has been born and brought up in this country. Labiba Ali has moved from Bangladesh a few years ago and is studying undergraduate. Anita Rahman left Bangladesh when she was one and is now working as a Graphics designer at a local nonprofit. Cal Jahan left when he was 12 and is doing his post graduate studies in Columbia University. Arif, an IT professional, left Bangladesh after his Intermediate exam. Novita s family got OP 1 visa and left the country when she was sixteen. A Software Engineer, she now works at the top investment bank Morgan Stanley. All of them were at early to late twenties. However, all of these young folks were not meeting for social networking on a Friday night; but believe it or not, they were there to plan for an event to honor the women victims of the liberation war of 1971.

A lot of people in Bangladesh do not know this, but this week (the week of March 25th) across major cities in America, the Bangladeshi community is set to formally recognize the role of women in the liberation war of Bangladesh. Along with the recognition, they will offer new hope to seven of these women by giving money to a trust fund set up by Liberation War Museum for a campaign by Bangladesh focused human rights organization called Drishtipat.

Those who have been online and are frequent visitors to Bangladesh based newsgroups are quite familiar with Drishtipat s work. However, outside the internet world, Drishtipat s presence has been rather limited. With the influx of internet edition of Bangladesh based newspapers and due to Bangalees insatiable hunger for Bangladesh based news on current affairs, a more pronounced link between Bangladesh and expatriates has been created. Although not known for their charities, Bangladeshis abroad have limited their donation previously to helping families in their village town and their relatives in need. Bangladeshi NGOs have almost all the time also depended on foreign donors for help. However, with a growing class of affluent professional Bangladeshis and a new generation of Bangladeshi Americans abroad, suddenly there was a space where they wanted to make a difference against social injustice and gross human rights abuse of Bangladeshis. That s where Drishtipat came in and was formed to serve as a base to raise awareness on critical human rights issues and also to do something tangible and concrete, even if it is symbolic.

It was an initially a hard decision to break away from our norm and pick women of 71 as Drishtipat s annual campaign theme. Drishtipat’s focus mostly has tended towards present day problems. From fundamental rights issues like Arsenic crisis and warm clothes drive to charged subjects of communal repressions and journalist beatings, our issues have been of a wider scope that impacts a current crisis. However, after first being notified in the Daily Star Weekend Magazine about the state of the women victims of 1971 and having read some of the desperate stories about them, it became clear to us that by doing this campaign; we can serve multiple purposes in the present Bangladeshi context. Firstly, we can revive some part the glorious history which is being distorted for political purposes by successive governments. Secondly, we can recognize the role of women in the war which has often been much understated. However, we realized just that just giving a simple symbolic recognition was not enough. Some of these women, who are our heroes, were not getting two meals a day. Some of them were working as maids at other people’s houses. So we brought out the third aspect — raise funds for them so that they can live a life of dignity.

So who are these women? Some of them were freedom fighters. They fought hand in hand with the men. Some of them lost all of their family members being victims of indiscriminate shooting at the innocent civilians by the Pakistani Army. Some were captured and were victims of sexual torture for months. While doing our research with the help of Ain O shalish Kendro, we ran into many such women. Ideally we would want to help them all. But our resources are limited. The hope is starting with 7 women will make it possible to have a permanent trust fund for such women in the future. Liberation War Museum has lent Drishtipat help in creating the trust fund and will make sure that they have a permanent source of income so that they can live a life of dignity.

33 years after George Harrison raised funds for the refugees of Bangladesh in 1971 in New York, a young group from of Drishtipat is doing the same, albeit at a much smaller scale, in the same city for those whose lives have changed for the worse after the war. Unlike other Bangladeshi organizations, Drishtipat depends heavily on internet to operate and as a result, its membership base of 250 spans all across the globe. Naturally, the members tend to be young and comfortable with technology. It also is very horizontal in nature in its structure. The conscious decision to stay away from a vertical one was taken to avoid squabbles that often mar the typical Bangladeshi organizations abroad. Drishtipat s focus remains social injustice and government ignored human rights abuses. Ignoring the rhetorics on issues, Drishtipat believes in objective documentation of facts, proper reporting on projects implementations and to take up a project of small scale to highlight a problem of a much larger scope. As a result, its first few projects have attracted a much wider appreciation from people of all political spectrums. Similarly, for the women of 1971 project (titled Bangla Mayer Bir Meyera ), they spent about six months for creating a portal website for these women with papers and research works from noted historians. Whether it is for protest statement against an abuse or for helping a needy, the collective voice of Bangladeshi expatriates can now be heard to make a difference.

Like New York, similar minded young folks of local chapters of Drishtipat were planning their own events for the women of 1971 in their own cities that ranges from Washington DC, Chicago, Boston to San Jose in the West coast. Suddenly the world is a lot smaller place. Ishita in DC, Tahsin in Boston, Kanta in San Jose and Jewel in Chicago were working round the clock with their groups to help the Ameerjan Bewas from remote villages in Bangladesh. These young folks from the post 1971 generation of the distant American land were working to give some dignity back to the lives of the women of 1971 lives that were robbed off them 30 years ago. After the dinner in Curry in a hurry that night, Labiba, Mona, Chitra, Cal, Arif, Shima, Arefeen, Mashrieb, Minhaz and others started to prepare for their next stop. They were going to the Shahid Minar that was built in the United Nations and pay their respect to the fallen at the stroke of midnight of Ekushey. Suddenly the spirit of Ekushey (Ekusher chetona) has a new meaning all over again.


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