The Female Factor: Bangladesh Protests Break Boundaries

Anushay Hossain

Bangladeshi Women Are Front & Center in the Historic Shahbagh Protests. Image Credit: BDNews
Bangladeshi Women Are Front & Center in the Historic Shahbagh Protests. Image Credit: BDNews

It is over a week now that crowds refuse to die down in Shahbagh Square in the heart of Dhaka, Bangladesh.

While most of the “western media” has either ignored the swelling numbers of ordinary Bangladeshis joining the movement, others have wrongly labeled it as a mass demand for capital punishment.

This is perhaps the biggest misconception about what is happening in Bangladesh right now, that these historic protests are somehow a stamp of the public’s thirst just for capital punishment. Could anything be more incorrect or insulting?

Earlier this week, I wrote about how Bangladeshis joined in rare solidarity to demand the death penalty for the leader of the country’s largest Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami, well-known war-criminal, Abdul Quader Mollah. His sentencing to life in prison triggered Bangladeshis to put aside their political differences, and unite against Mollah.

Why were so many people coming out in droves in Dhaka, gathering in this square in peaceful protests, holding signs of the hangman’s knot? The scary slogans made the people holding them look like savages, instead of the man pictured, who Bangladeshis believe escaped the real sentencing he deserved.

What we are seeing in Bangladesh right now is not about capital punishment. The world needs to understand that. It is wrongly labeling all Bangladeshis as bloodthirsty people. I do not support capital punishment and yes, we all know the War Crimes Tribunal in Bangladesh is heavily flawed. It even has been accused of being nothing but a political tool for Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina.

But the Shahbagh movement goes beyond both these points. I resent people dismissing this as a movement for capital punishment when what is happening in Bangladesh right now is much more complex. Why is the fate of Shahbagh linked to the destiny of every single Bangladeshi? Bangladeshi writer, Tahmima Anam explains:

…The call for Mollah’s death is about more than revenge. He committed his crimes during Bangladesh’s nine-month struggle for independence from Pakistan in 1971. In addition to the perceived inadequacy of the sentence is an abiding anxiety about the way it will be carried out. It is ingrained in the public imagination that justice always takes second place to political expediency. Mollah knows that if his party or its allies were to come to power again, he would almost certainly be freed. That is why the protesters at Shahbag are calling for his death: it is the only way they can be sure the episode will come to an end.

In my life, I have never seen an on-going protest of this magnitude in Bangladesh ever that was not partisan. I have never witnessed people spill onto the streets for anything not somehow related to Awami League or Bangladesh National Party-led demonstrations or strikes.

The non-partisan nature of Shahbagh is not the only thing that makes it different, but the role technology is playing is revolutionary as well. It was Bangladeshi online activists and bloggers who first protested Mollah’s verdict, demanding the death sentence. They used social media to spread the word, and staged sit-ins. The “Shahbagh” Facebook page has over 6,000 Likes, and is being used as a weapon of ”cyber war against war crimes.”

The participation of youth and women also make Shahbagh unique. The protests’ female factor- students, wives, working professionals, activists, and mothers with their children all gave their voice to the Shahbag protests.

I find this electrifying. Although Bangladeshi women play a huge role in our country’s government and civil society, they also played a huge role in the 1971 Liberation War, not only as fighters and supporters of the war, but as the people who perhaps paid the greatest price as Bangladesh seceded from then West Pakistan.

Many academics state that the first time rape was consciously applied as a weapon of war was during the Bangladesh War of Independence, and although the official numbers of the women raped are 200-250,000 many experts put that number closer to 400,000 women and girls who were raped, mass-raped, imprisoned for months in notorious rape-camps.

It is only fitting that today, almost forty-three years after Independence, that the mothers, daughters and sisters of our martyrs make sure the memory and spirit of those who freed Bangladesh is honored. They are organizing in the streets with their children, because at the end of the day, as Egyptian feminist author Mona Eltahawy states, what revolution worth anything did not have “gender nestled in its beating heart”?

Will Shahbagh succeed or will it fade? Will it bloom like the water lotus, or wither with time? One thing is for sure, the nation’s largest movement in twenty years has already changed the political landscape of Bangladesh forever.

Anushay Hossain is a Bangladeshi journalist & policy analyst based in Washington, DC. She is the author of the blog, Anushay’s Point, and her work is regularly featured in Forbes Woman, Huffington Post, and Ms. Magazine Blog.

Source: Forbes


  1. No matter which was you like to explain it; this show has the full support and cooperation of the ruling party coalition. BNP has not come out with anything better and therefore, may lose out. If AL comes to power again, Bangladesh will change forever. That does not mean I want BNP. I would like to see will of majority of the people win at last. Shahbagh square show is not such a movement.

  2. 1971 was a grand slam for India. Bangladeshi freedom fighters under their army wing did a great job of liberating Bangladesh and make them win what Nehru always wanted; i.e. distegrate and nuter Pakistan. After the crackdown by the Pakistani army on 25th March 1971, almost 10 million visitors went to India as the Indian border crossings were all open. Indian intelligence and the civil service trained the Bangladeshis to make plays, write poems and songs to depict Pakistanis as horrible and less than human. These were sung in a nicely choreographed set up. Not that the Paki army was good. They did horrendous acts. But the propaganda machinery in India created a phenomenal culture within these expats in Calcutta and Mujibnagar. When these artists came back to Bangladesh; they kept singing the same songs till today; and kept on adding more and more. Like 3 million people killed. CIA had the figures at 200,000. The higher figure off course; was Indian generated propaganda and fed to the Bangladeshi expats who loved this figure. It made a monster out of Pakistani soldiers and bid well for the Indians. What Bangladeshis are doing today is dancing the same tune; writing more and more poems, composing thousands of songs, stories and books after books based on questionable facts. Not that Pakis were good. But I have not seen any leaders courageous enough to come out and fix the story right and stand tall as a nationalist. They are scared to write facts as they know they will be called Razakars or sympathizers of the people who opposed independence; carrying stigma that will stink or lose his/her life. The emotions have been charged up so much that no one would dare to write anything that will oppose the myth. Bangladeshis would prefer to live in the wonderland of myths. They even do not write or talk about the thousands of families and unarmed Biharis who were murdered ruthlessly by the Mukti Joddhas. Bangladesh government even does not recognize this carnage. So when you see these kids in Shahbagh, you should curse yourself and say why were they never told the true history? Once again; the Indians came to play. They wrote the script and we are dancing to their tune and choreography. We Bangladeshis like to think we are independent. Actually we are not. We have been engulfed by the Indians from within and outside. Yes sir; I am talking about the present situation. If you have some brains, you will know it immediately when you come and stay in Dhaka for 3 to 4 weeks. You will hear about fraud stories of Mukti Joddha bravery even from people who were not even born in 1971. Indians would like to colonize Bangladesh without owning it as it is cheaper and better; Chanakya diplomacy in full action. Meanwhile we should eat the carrots and be happy while they screw us. Perhaps we should practice to enjoy it as you will not be able cross over to your friendly brother anymore as they made those impenetrable fences all throughout your boundaries almost 2500 kilo meters of it. Their border guards have been ordered to shoot to kill. If BJP comes to power you will again get rejuvenated as they will screw you more. My advice; get your stories right; demand India to provide you with the true history from their archives of 1971 war and before. Also you should do the same with the United States. Ask them to give the Nixon and Kissinger papers. You may write thousands of books and display them at Boi Mela; you will have learned nothing. Bangladeshis are not aware of their true history as their text books in the schools are fudged with made up history by the politicians who are out to sell their country to India.

  3. I am afraid that Anushay Hossain does not make a convincing case at all that the motives of the movement is anything but a one dimensional and thoughtless demand for revenge. It is frightening that there is an inability to introspect and see that this demand for blood makes the protestors seem just another side of the same coin of the object of the protest i.e. Qadr Mollah and other war criminals. Ms Hossain’s arguments shows a fairly immature thought process, where she states that she is opposed to capital punishment and yet can demand for death by hanging in the same breath. Obviously she is not a person of very strong or well thought out convictions. Her quoting the particularly juvenile justification made by Tahmima Anam highlights this even further. Ms Anam’s contention misses the point completely, it is a classic case of not seeing the forest because of the trees. It’s the system that would allow a convicted criminal freedom under a new government that needs to be addressed, hanging Qadr Mollah will not achieve this. Extending this logic, Ms Hossain and Ms Anam would find it acceptable to cut off a pick pockets hands to prevent him from doing it again! They wonder why the Shahbag protests have not captured the interest of the international media the way the protests at Tahrir Square have done. Well I think the answer is obvious, a bloodthirsty cry for revenge is hardly something that will pique anyone’s interest. The spirit of the Shahbag protests are genuine and need to be harnessed to bring about change in our country. The People’s Power needs to give voice to the silent majority and demonstrate to the politicians that the path that they have taken this country down is not the path we want to go on. For beginners, how about demanding justice for the killing of Biswajit who was hacked down in cold blood in front of cameras for all the world to see? What about the Sonali Bank scam, the Destiny scam? There is much that ails this country and the hanging of a Qadr Mollah will not make an iota of difference. The example being set to the school children who come to Shahbag with idealism in their hearts, is a very damaging one, when they are being taught that “phashi chai” is an acceptable solution to any problem.

  4. For once the country should get its history right. This task cannot be handled by these robotic poets and singers who got their choreography tuned to the Indian generated “anti- Pakistani” themes from 1971. These people should realize Pakistanis have been defeated. They are no longer in our life. Let’s move on. That is what the founding fathers of the nation wanted. That is what reasonable people want. The young generation has been incited with incendiary rhetoric which is well-funded and well- well organized. The reporter and news media abroad still could not make out the theme of this Shahbagh mela. They are still grasping to identify the drama behind the show.

    Anushey gave this a female twist which is popular with the American women’s movements. Very attractive title but very manipulative.


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