Born on Jan 15, 1938, in Gerda, Faridpur, Begum Mushtari Shafi’s life is an extraordinary journey of determination and survival. Orphaned at the age of 10, she became involved with the left political movement in the late 1950s. She found her passion in the women’s liberation movement and founded ‘Bandhobi Shangha’ in Chittagong in the early 1960s, which later led to the birth of the women’s monthly magazine ‘Bandhobi’ in 1964, which she successfully ran as editor for the next 11 years.
She also authored both fiction and non-fiction novels, short stories, children’s stories and plays, many of which are based on the Liberation War. Her tireless work has earned her many awards and recognitions over the years, such as the Begum Rokeya Award in 1989, the Chittagong Authors Association Award in 1991, Ibsen Award oin 2007, Birkonna Pritilota Award in 2006, Bangladesh Mahila Parishad Award in 2011, and most recently, the Ananya Literary Award.
This week, we talk to this prolific writer and feminist about her experiences during the war, which inspired her book Shwadhinota Amar Rokto Jhora Din and other writings, such as Muktijuddhe Chottogramer Nari.
Were you able to run your magazine during such turbulent times?
By 1968, my magazine was being published from its own printing press, run fully by women. It was set up at the ground floor of my residence in Enayet Bazar. But the women’s printing press was completely ransacked and looted by Pakistani forces, along with the rest of the residence in the war in 1971.
How were you and your family involved in the liberation struggle?
The first planning for Shadhin Bangla Betar Kendra was initiated at our house by Belal Mohammad Abdullah Al-Faruk, Abul Kashem Shondip, Kazi Habibur Rahman and Rezaul Karim on March 26. Work for the radio, which included preparing material such as news bulletins relating to the Liberation War, was carried out in secret (until March 30, 1971) from the residence by the founder members. My younger brother Ehsan (then a student of Chittagong University), my husband Shaheed Dr Shafi and I were all involved in these efforts. On March 27, a large chest of ammunition was hidden at our house for safekeeping, to be collected later by members of the Mukhtibahini.
On April 7, we had been found out. Pakistani soldiers arrived at the residence and arrested my husband and my brother under suspicions of aiding the Muktibahini. They searched the whole building and found the hidden chest of ammunition. They were taken to the Chittagong Circuit House under false pretenses of being returned after questioning, and I never saw them again.
Soon after, I fled with my seven young children and over the course of the next month, after seeking sanctuary wherever possible, I managed to reach the Indian border on foot and found shelter at the Agartola Refugee Camp.
What did you do at the camp?
I acquired first-aid training and started providing nursing support at the camp hospital. I also helped with accounts-keeping and distribution of relief items among the refugees. I did my best to keep up the morale of injured freedom fighters and camp inhabitants.
In August, I moved to Kolkata with my children and began working with the Shadhin Bangla Betar Kendra. Under the pseudonym Umme Kulsum, I lent my voice to a number of radio dramas and recitations. I also worked for Akashbani, where I regularly did recitations of short stories based on the Liberation War. I remained in Kolkata till the end of 1971, and I returned to a newly liberated country as a 33 year old widow with seven children, the eldest of whom was 13.
What did you do after the war?
I joined Bangladesh Betar in 1972, and got engaged in various social and cultural activities. All of us hoped of building a bright future for our war-ravaged nation. In 1992, I was appointed the Convenor for the Chittagong branch of the Ghatok Dalal Nirmul Committee, because I wanted to demand justice for the war crimes that had been inflicted on us.