Midwife to a Bloody Birth
Keeping the door ajar, so she wouldn't get accidentally locked out,
Amma stood waving at the doorstep of 1, Birkdale Road, long after the
taxi was out of her view. I didn't bring it up then, but as I headed
for Heathrow, I remembered the stories about Jahanara Khala that Amma
used to tell us. It was almost exactly nine years earlier, on our
arrival in London, that Georgie had given us the news. Khala had been
ill for a while, but her death was still sudden, and a blow to us
all. This obituary was written for the Guardian.
Midwife to a bloody birth
It was a simple diary, tender, scary, wistful memories from a woman
who had lost her husband and her elder son in nine months of bloody
war. Many books have been written about the birth of Bangladesh but
Jahanara Imam's diary, like nothing else, touched a chord amongst
Bangladeshis who in fear, anger and hope had survived that bloody
The life of Imam who has died aged 65 epitomised the determination
that characterised Bangladesh's freedom fighters. And her struggle
didn't stop with the nation's birth. She campaigned relentlessly
against those nineties fundamentalists whom she charged had been
seventies collaborators with the Pakistani Army.
On March 25, 1971. the west Pakistan-based military regime cracked
down on what was then east Pakistan. Jahanara Imam, her son Rumi and
her husband Sharif – a hitherto apolitical engineer – were hurled
into the ensuing liberation struggle. Rumi joined the freedom
fighters and his parents' home became a base for clandestine
In the nine months that followed. Jahanara was a cook, driver fund-
raiser and mother to the guerrillas who infiltrated Dhaka, the highly
guarded capital, and confronted the Pakistani Army. Then her son and
husband were arrested. She never saw them again.
Post-independence, the gradual rehabilitation of razakars -
collaborators – into Bangladeshi politics was watched with horror by
many. Imam was particularly incensed by the emergence of Golam Azam
as Bangladesh's most prominent Islamic fundamentalist. She accused
him of complicity in the Pakistani Army's campaign of rape and
murder, and fought for suspected war criminals to be tried.
She received death threats, faced arrest for treason, and dying of
cancer, was beaten by the police. But public support and her own
determination were too great for the government to restrain her. In
March 1992, almost a million people assembled at the site of
liberation 20 years before, for a denunciation of war criminals.
In a political climate where fundamentalists are emerging with
increased political clout the loss of Jahanara Imam, writer, activist
and one of Bangladesh's best loved and most revered woman, will have a
political impact far beyond the fact of her death.
Thu Jun 26, 2003
Jahanara Imam, born May 3, 1929; died June 26, 1994.