Go to the protest venue, and they are everywhere.
Not to be outdone by the generations of women before them who have been at the forefront of the anti-British movement, Liberation War and the anti-autocratic movement, the young women of today have refused to take a backseat in the country's renewed struggle to redefine itself.
Perhaps it is only fitting that the movement has, at its inspiration, the great Bangalee writer and political activist, Shaheed Janani Jahanara Imam. Her larger-than-life portrait stands tall, as if presiding over the Shahbagh movement and inspiring the young generation to carry the torch she lit in her lifetime.
From day one of the mass movement, women have made their presence felt at Shahbagh -- as organisers, planners, volunteers, cultural activists, journalists and participants. Their strong, determined voice and spirited attendance have indeed invigorated the demonstrators at Projonmo Square and elsewhere in the country.
The fiery slogans of Lucky Akhtar have stirred hundreds of thousands of souls in chanting slogans in unison, day and night.
Already an icon of the protest, Lucky is a final-year student of English at Jagannath University and social welfare secretary of the leftist student group, Chhatra Union. Her active involvement has made her a target of Jamaat-Shibir and their allies, who have threatened her and her family repeatedly, opened offensive pages and produced derogatory propaganda to abuse her.
Lucky, however, maintains that nothing can keep her from Shahbagh. “They cannot scare me with their petty tactics.”
On the nonstop movement that began on February 5 demanding capital punishment to all the war criminals, she says: “It is really inspiring to see the spontaneous participation of women at Shahbagh. Even the women who used to run in the opposite direction when they saw rallies are now chanting slogans and staying day and night at Shahbagh.
“Young girls from remote areas are rising up, giving slogans and leading the movement in their own villages.”
Hundreds of women like Lucky have been the life-force of the movement and have been shaping it, giving it strength and sustenance.
Monti Bosnab, a cultural activist, has made Shahbagh intersection her home for the last two weeks, singing rebellious songs on the stage and motivating the protesters. Fellow organisers say she cannot be dragged out of Shahbagh even for a few minutes' rest.
Aninda Saha, another cultural activist, has fainted twice during the protest, but refused to go home. She is among those who have been leading the slogans.
"So why not take some rest?"
Monti smiles at the question, and says: "We will rest when our demand for justice is met.
“The mass awakening is not confined to Shahbagh alone. We are seeing that large numbers of women are taking a lead and speaking out. They are challenging oppression. We hope they will be able to raise their voices to demand and establish their own rights as well,” says Monti.
According to Joinab Binte Hossain, a blogger from Bloggers and Online Activists Network, mass awakening is not possible without the active participation of women. “Women like Pritilata, Begum Rokeya and Sufia Kamal have led the way for women's emancipation. We are only following in their footsteps.”
In a country where the public sphere is dominated by the male, women and girls at Shahbagh have found a safe space for themselves. Many have been staying all night on the streets, without having to face any problems.
“Except for a few stray incidents, we have not faced any threats or felt insecure,” says Sheuli Shaha, a student activist. “Our parents too, even the ones who are otherwise conservative, have supported our decisions to be here."
According to Lucky, it is an admirable feat that women are staying at Shahbagh till two or three in the morning.
“Their safety and security has not been threatened, and they have felt like they are an active part of this movement. This can go a long way towards ensuring women's emancipation,” she says.
Ridma Jahan, a protester, said, “I really want to thank the men who have been supportive and respectful towards women at Shahbagh. But at the same time, I want to address the handful of men who insult the spirit of Shahbagh by poking and staring at women and I tell them to learn to respect women."
Girls and young women in school and college uniforms have flocked to Shahbagh in their hundreds. “People used to say that the youth are apathetic, that we don't care about anything. The youths at Shahbagh have proved them wrong,” says Sima, a student of Viqarunnisa Noon School and College.
“I hope that the movement for a better Bangladesh doesn't stop at Shahbagh. I hope it continues till we build the country we all dream of,” she adds.