The Spectral Wound: Sexual Violence, Public Memories and the Bangladesh War of 1971

Mookherjee, Nayanika . 2015. The Spectral Wound: Sexual Violence, Public Memories and the Bangladesh War of 1971. Foreword by Veena Das. Durham N. C.: Duke University Press. 352 pages, 42 illustrations. Cover photograph © Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. https://www.dukeupress.edu/the-spectral-wound

This text is copyrighted to the author and no one should replicate this text in any Bangladeshi newspaper or any where else without author’s permission.

Nayanika Mookherjee*

Durham, November 13, 2015 (Alochonaa):In this ethnography of sexual violence during the 1971 Bangladesh War for Independence, I show how the public celebration of women raped during the war and called ‘birangonas’ by the state – works to homogenize the experiences of these women. Following the 1971 Bangladesh War, the Bangladesh government publicly designated the thousands of women raped by the Pakistani military and their local collaborators as birangonas, (“brave women”). I demonstrate that while this celebration of birangonas as heroes keeps them in the public memory, they exist in the public consciousness as what I call a spectral wound. Dominant representations of birangonas as dehumanized victims with disheveled hair, a vacant look, and rejected by their communities create this wound, the effects of which flatten the diversity of their experiences through which birangonas have lived with the violence of wartime rape. In critically examining the pervasiveness of the birangona construction, I hope to open the possibility for a more politico-economic, ethical, and nuanced inquiry into the sexuality of war.

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This study aims to map out what I refer to as the public memories of sexual violence of the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. Situated within the context of anthropology of gender, violence, body, the state and South Asia this is rooted in the paradigm of historical and social anthropology. The approach of the study is discursive, grounded on a qualitative methodology and is based on long-term fieldwork in Dhaka and Enayetpur, a village in Bangladesh.

In Bangladesh the end of the nine-month long war in 1971 found hundreds of thousands of women raped. After the war, in an attempt to rehabilitate the women raped during the war by the Pakistani army and the local collaborators, the state eulogised them as birangonas (war-heroines). I seek to map out the representation of birangonas since 1971 till the present by the state, civil society and the women themselves. Within the context of a transnational global language of human rights, genocide and rape as a war crime, in Bangladesh the histories of rape exist on one hand in the realms of the conceptual, rhetorical, valorised, national imaginary among the state and civil society through the processes of documentation of narratives of rape.

On the other hand, the empirical, lived-in experience of the war-heroines provides a reconceptualisation about the ‘trauma’ involved in the violence of rape vis-à-vis the national documentation of their history. Their nuanced, embodied, affective narrative emphasises the social significance and layered connotations of their experience of rape. This is manifested differently on the basis of varying subjectivities like class, age, social status and religion. This conceptualised and empirical corpo(reality) of the war-heroine is connected to the national imaginary of the birangona. This highlights the inter-linkages between various locals and nationals, and examines the operation of memories in various ‘publics’.


The study concludes that these public memories of rape based on political, historical and social contingency, suppress the experiences and needs of birangonas. Hence there is a need to avoid appropriation and exacerbation of their sufferings. The focus on intersubjective lived experiences of the raped women can alone ensure an ethical exploration of the sexuality of war, its processes of gendering and its effect on the individuals affected by sexual violence.

Spectral Wound is the result of a multi-sited fieldwork. Addressing how the experiences of 71 manifests today among women themselves and their families, this book triangulates the narratives with various representations (state, visual, and literary) as well as contemporary human rights testimonies. The book thereby examines the circulation of press articles, a range of oral accounts (interviews, discussion, observation, rumours and gossip), images, literary representations, and testimonies of rape among survivors of sexual violence, their families, and communities, the left-liberal civil society, different governments and state actors. Spectral Wound also reflects on the silence relating to the violation of men and juxtaposes it with the public memory of the rape of women.

In Chapter One, through the lens of the historical trajectory of Bangladesh since 1947 to the present, I have explored the dynamics of identity construction, history-making and its relationship with the state and civil society. It addresses the dynamics of public secrecy in relation to 1947 and Partition through an examination of state historiography of the 1947/partition of the subcontinent in Bangladesh alongside the predominance of 71. It is within these shifting sands of identity construction that I frame the ethnography of the raped women from Chapter Two to chapter five. Chapter Two shows how activists used the dynamics of combing (both searching and hiding) and absence-presence in documenting the women’s narratives of 71 and the narratives of appropriation in the 90s (the talkable history of the women). It documents the ‘talkable history’ of the birangonas and the experience of the documentation of their narratives. Chapter three explores how villagers make the history of rape absent-present, combing (hiding and searching) it through khota (scornful discussion) and maintain public secrecy about local events of rape. It identifies the role of scorn in villages coping with the history of rape during 1971. Chapter four identifies the national and local politics of appropriation, how it combs (hide and search for) various instances of complicity and of patronage. Chapter five explores the embodied transgressions of the women, their inter-relationship with their husbands, and the conceptualisation of their masculinity. The embodied narratives discussed in chapter five comb (both search for and hide) the experiences of 71 by focusing on fragments as well combing/hiding the intricacies of demasculanisation of the husbands of the birangonas. These first five chapters constitute the ethnography in Enayetpur.

The public secrecies, absence presence and ‘combing’ inherent in this history making is explored in the historical, visual and discursive contexts in the second and third part of the book through an examination of rehabilitation, violation of men, literary and visual representations, perception of birangona as traitor and human rights testimonies. The chapter on rehabilitation policies (chapter six), show how women were re-membered and in the process combed/hidden within approved heterosexual relations. Chapter seven explores how the public memory of rape of women does not address the violation of men, which in turn combs/hides the link between sexuality and the nation. Instead through captions of photographs the violation of men can be combed/searched. Chapter eight examines how the human rights enactments, literary and visual representations from 1971 till the present comb/search women’s narratives for the horrific, ambiguous figure of the raped woman. It addresses the politics of human rights frameworks and how narratives of wartime rape are transformed into public memories in contemporary Bangladesh. Chapter nine, examines their subjectivity as victim, agent and traitor. In the process we find that raped women’s claims to the category of birangona get interrogated based on their various subjectivities.

The postscript of the book addresses changes in these dynamics since 2001, particularly changes in portrayals of wartime rape, with a final reflection on the Shahbagh movement and the Bangladesh war crimes tribunal. Spectral Wound explores the effects of sexual violence during conflicts in everyday life. It provides a nuanced, complex understanding of how women and men negotiate and live with the violence of wartime rape.

*The Writer is a Reader in Socio-Cultural Anthropology in the Department of Anthropology, University of Durham.

** Alochonaa.com is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of Alochonaa.com’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on Bengal history. Please send us your submission at alochonaa@gmail.com

Categories: 1971, Bangladesh

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