DhakaTribune
Tuesday October 17, 2017 02:03 PM

Rethinking the Birangona

  • Published at 03:11 PM November 11, 2016
Rethinking the Birangona

The Spectral Wound: Sexual Violence, Public Memories, and the Bangladesh War of 1971 traces the public memory of rape in 1971, and how that memory of war time rape has been invoked and changed in the years after independence

As someone who is neither an academic nor a researcher, the idea of normalisation of our patriarchal attitudes towards women both interests and horrifies me. And indeed it is sometimes heartening to hear voices of protest against age old structures which have sought to define and limit women, but also infuriating when every time there’s a report of any form of violence against women, the narrative of whether ‘she asked for it’ is invariably conjured. These structures and attitudes are tied up intricately with the history of the nation as well.

Growing up, I always felt pride in the fact that the victims of rape during the Liberation War were accorded status as Birangonas (war heroines), that the post-liberation government had stepped in to rehabilitate them and give them national recognition. But for the Birangonas, the recognition itself came with a darker side. Nayanika Mookherjee’s ethnography of sexual violence during 1971 is a book which for me, in many ways, illuminated some of these ideological problems.

The book, The Spectral Wound: Sexual Violence, Public Memories, and the Bangladesh War of 1971 is vast in its scope. It traces the public memory of rape in 1971, and how that memory of war time rape has been invoked and changed in the years after independence. The title of the book itself is revealing; the celebration of the Birangona could only be kept alive when the individual experiences of the women were silenced, when the women disappeared into a homogenous whole. It is through this ‘spectre’ that the trauma is relived. In the meantime, the portrayal of those raped during 1971 was essentialised: the birangona became a figure defined by her shame, helplessness, dishevelled hair and vacant look. Their experiences were public secrets, known to all but not to be spoken of.

The most illuminating part of Nayanika Mookherjee’s book is her ethnographic experience of living with rape survivors in Enayetpur and their testimonies, stories and the ‘talkable history’ of the incidents. Contrary to popular belief about the victims, these women re-integrated into society. The villagers told the author that since the women had no agency in the incidence of rape, they should not be blamed for it. However, when in 1990 the women were brought to Dhaka to give visual evidence of the torture perpetrated on them, the villagers’ social sanctions began: by talking about the rape, the women were seen to be exploiting their shame. It is only through keeping silent about the trauma that these women could go back to their lives. As the author writes in an article in Himal: “The complexities through which these women have lived, given the violence of wartime rape and its innumerable renarrations, remain consigned to oblivion.”

The book explores a host of other issues, from the eroticised portrayal of rape during 71 in films or the imagery of a ruined woman in post 71 literature. Spectral Wound is a work of extensive research beyond the appropriating nationalist narrative on the experiences of those who were raped. It gives insights into the politics and social aspects that are intertwined in the narrative of the birangona, and seeks to “tell these narratives not as a horrific, ‘traumatic’ account, and instead communicate how people fold the violence of wartime rape into everyday social lives.” Nayanika Mookherjee’s research is important as a testimonial, a guide, and as a recovery of the individual experiences of those raped in 1971.

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