The Female Factor: Bangladesh Protests Break Boundaries

Hundreds of Thousands of Women Were raped in the 1971 War by Pakistani Soldiers. Image Credit: Washington Post
Hundreds of Thousands of Women Were raped in the 1971 War by Pakistani Soldiers. Image Credit: Washington Post

*This post of mine was also published in Forbes Woman.*

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?

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:

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.

Bloggers, hackers & other cyber ninjas going strong at #Shahbagh. These are the people who made #shahbag happen! Our digital revolution! Image Credit: CI
Bloggers, hackers & other cyber ninjas going strong at Shahbagh. Dhaka’s digital revolution? Image Credit: CI

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.

Bangladeshis Are United for the First Time in Twenty Years. Image Credit: Arif Hafiz
Bangladeshis Are United For the First Time in Twenty Years. Image Credit: Arif Hafiz

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.

“What revolution worth anything did not have gender nestled in its beating heart?” Image Credit: BD News

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.

*This post of mine was also published in Forbes Woman.


  1. আমরা একটা যুদ্ধে আছি, যুদ্ধে অস্ত্র দরকার। সামনে নির্বাচন, সুযোগ পেলেই ধর্মদস্যুরা বাংলাদেশকে পাকিস্তান বানিয়ে ফেলবে। একটা অস্ত্র আছে যা জামাতের মৃত্যুবাণ, ওই আঘাত ঠেকানোর ক্ষমতা ওদের নেই। এটা একটা আকর্ষণীয় বাংলা রোম্যান্টিক মুভি, জামাতের দলিল দিয়ে ঠাসা। দেখলে বুঝবেন কেন এশিয়া-ইউরোপ-আমেরিকা-ক্যানাডার ৫টি দেশের ১৪টি জামাত-বিরোধী ইসলামী সংগঠন এটাকে লিখিতভাবে সমর্থন করেছে, কেন জামাত-বিরোধী ইসলামিক সংগঠন ক্যানাডা’র টরন্টো, আমেরিকার ডালাস ও লন্ডনের অক্সফোর্ড বিশ্ববিদ্যালয় ক্যাম্পাসে এটা প্রদর্শন করেছে, কেন আন্তর্জাতিক নারী সংগঠন এটাকে অনেক দেশে দেশে দেখানোর প্ল্যান করছে। ইসলামকে ওরা কি ভয়ানকভাবে বিক্রিত ও বিকৃত করেছে তার দলিল দেখুন। এই অস্ত্র বিনামূল্যে সংগ্রহ করে জামাতকে মরণ-আঘাত করুন, আপনার এলাকা জামাত-মুক্ত করুন। এমন যেন না হয় যে অস্ত্র আছে কিন্তু আমরা সেটা ব্যবহার করলাম না এবং পরাজিত হলাম। ফোন, ঢাকায় (1) ডক্টর ইমরান:- 0171 132 3341 (2) Azizur Rahman, প্রেসিডেন্ট, প্রজন্ম একাত্তর – 0171 163 8638 (3) চিটাগং-এ ইশতিয়াক:- 0171 551 2211.
    যাঁরা বিদেশে আছেন এটা দেখুন ও চারিদিকে ছড়িয়ে দিন। শুভেচ্ছা –


    Hasan Mahmud

  2. thank u Anushey frm the core of my heart, for ur article ‘the female factor..’…. i was stunned to see Al jazeera coverage on shahbag protest on the 8th day of ongoing solidarity for justice. they’ve already decided not to learn bout the real fact and continue serve with biased coverage… international media reports needs to be based on real fact for the sake of a brighter image of bangladesh, can u suggest anything we cud do right now to make the international media feed the real fact relating to shahbag issue. thnks again ..

  3. দাবি একটাই…
    ফাসি চাই, ফাসি চাই ..রাজাকারের ফাসি চাই|

    জয় বাংলা জয় বাংলা জয় বাংলা !!!

  4. I saw the Al Jazeera coverage too. Felt really hearbroken and out of faith. It is now clear both western and islamic fundamentalist media have their own political agenda and alignment, no body’s interested to potray the truth on what is really going on in Shahbag and what is that the common people of Bangladesh really feel or want, which is way beyond politics and anarchy. Thanks a lot Anushay for shedding some lights which is closer to the truth. We need to put our trust on somebody to make our voice heard in the international media without distorting or hiding the facts, and you gained our trust. I would also urge you to write your comments on a recent post in the human rights watch website, wrongly interpreted the cause of Shahbag movement. Make me wonder if human rights watch is also a political organization?

    Also please watch the video. Where was human rights watch during 1971?!/photo.php?v=605912082759620

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