This year marks the 40th anniversary of the birth of Bangladesh, a nation that emerged from a bloody fight for independence from Pakistan. The story of Bangladesh’s liberation struggle is one that is well told and well remembered by the nation; the official narratives are retold and exchanged often — and often by heart. Stories of the origins of the movement, of its key players and events, of its Freedom Fighters, or mukti juddha, who came together to fight for Bangladeshi independence and emerged victorious in December 1971 after nine months of intense guerrilla warfare, are recounted in schoolbooks and events across the country, month after month, year after year.
But the individual stories stray from these official narratives. They begin long before the start of the war in March 1971, and continue far beyond its conclusion. They are the stories of women who grew up during the heart of the Language Movement, who attended college amidst intense political and social upheaval. Who found themselves in the middle of a war-torn country — and at the frontlines of the battle for its independence.
A woman’s war is distinct. She not only has to be a fighter, but also is expected to maintain and eventually return to her traditional role as a mother, wife, and anchor of the family at the end of the conflict. Bangladeshi women played key roles during and after the 1971 war, serving as combatants, informants, nurses, weapons smugglers, and more. They also suffered its consequences: trauma, physical debilitation, displacement, widowhood, and mass rape. At the war’s end, they were faced with the dual burden of confronting the conflict’s scars, while also attempting to reconstruct their own and their families’ lives. Perhaps most egregiously, their contributions remain absent from history books, with official narratives only emphasizing women as victims. Yet, even though official narratives fail to recognize their histories, these women cope with the war’s consequences daily.
“A Woman’s War” seeks to provide another narrative of the Liberation War, as told through the words of women actively involved in the struggle. To tell their stories, I focus on three visual themes: (1) portraits of the women, (2) images of important sites for these women during the war, where individual histories were made and personal traumas defined, and (3) photographs that act as a ‘vehicle for the imagination,’ evoking the intangible memories of the conflict and subsequent search for peace expressed by the women — the dreams they hold for themselves and their children. In visualizing these three ways in which the liberation war defined the women who fought, and in coupling the images with the women’s testimonies, “A Woman’s War” examines how war affects not only those who experienced it firsthand, but also those they nurture and raise — the next generation — and how, in that way, their struggles live on.
Elizabeth Herman is a Boston-born freelance photographer and researcher currently based in Brooklyn, New York. She recently returned from a year in Bangladesh as a Fulbright Fellow, researching how politics influence the writing of national histories in textbooks. While there, she continued work on a long-term documentary project entitled “A Woman’s War,” exploring the experiences of female combatants and the impact that war has had on them, both during and after conflict.
In addition to Bangladesh, she has completed chapters of the work on female members of the North Vietnamese Army in Hue, Vietnam, female revolutionaries in Cairo, Egypt, and is currently working in the United States on American female veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The work was named a 2011 Finalist of The Aftermath Project, a 2011 Top Finalist of the Fotovisura Spotlight Grant, a 2011 Top Photography Project on Photoshelter, and shortlisted for the 2011 Lucie Foundation Scholarship. Elizabeth was also recently granted the 2012 Tim Hetherington Award to continue the project on women of the Bosnian War this spring.