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Dhaka Tribune

‘Care of survivors is essential to testimonial processes’

In an interview with the Dhaka Tribune’s Afrose Jahan Chaity, Prof Nayanika Mookherjee, author of the book ‘The Spectral Wound: Sexual Violence, Public Memories, and the Bangladesh War of 1971,’ discusses how the graphic novel ‘Birangona’ came to be

Update : 12 Apr 2019, 12:40 AM

Nayanika Mookherjee is a professor in the department of anthropology at Durham University in UK, whose work primarily focuses on exploring public memories of violent pasts. Her book “The Spectral Wound: Sexual Violence, Public Memories, and the Bangladesh War of 1971,” first published in 2015, traces the public memory of sexual violence committed during the Bangladesh Liberation War and the prevalence of it in the 40 years thereafter. The book served as the basis for a guideline relating to the collection of ethical testimonies of sexual violence during conflicts and treatment of survivors. These guidelines were launched by the Ministry of Liberation War Affairs in  2018, and in 2019 they also launched the graphic novel “Birangona,” in both Bangla and English. It is is aimed for 12-year-old children and also those who record testimonies of sexual violence in conflict. The graphic novel, created in collaboration with the Dhaka-based freelance artist Nazmunnahar Keya, was launched on Wednesday. 

Why and how did you start working on the graphic novel?

The idea behind the graphic novel was to make the book “The Spectral Wound” more accessible. The book is quite a theoretical and ethnographically dense work, which might not be accessible to someone who is not an academic. However, the work needs to be translated for non-academic audiences. 

Before developing the graphic novel, we had developed the ethical guideline, which is based on direct findings from “The Spectral Wound.” Once we collaboratively formulated  the guidelines, the idea of the graphic novel came about organically, as the guidelines can look quite boring as a list of bullet points. The graphic novel allows us to visualize these guidelines in a much more accessible way for everyone. The illustrations make it easier to understand examples, and this helps the entire process.

After meeting Keya, who is a fantastic graphic artist, I decided to translate my ideas to her and she drew it beautifully, as you have seen.

How long did you work on the graphic novel?

We started doing the picture boards from around the time of Dhaka Lit Fest, in November 2016. Through five workshops held in collaboration with Research Intiatives Bangladesh and hosted by London School of Economics, we got feedback from researchers, human rights activists, feminists, lawyers, film-makers, photographers, journalists, writers working on sexual violence during conflict – both in Bangladesh and UK. In the last six months, we worked intensively across a six-hour time difference between UK and Bangladesh triangulated between Nokta Publications, Keya, and myself along with receiving advice and feedback from various participants of the aforementioned workshops.

Why are the guidelines so important?

The guidelines are very important because I found in my own research that the Birangonas were on various occasions interviewed unethically, sometimes inadvertently and at other times people not so unconsciously. Interviews with survivors show that with the focus on documentation of the experiences of wartime rape: (a) inadequate attention is paid to the conditions under which such testimonies are recorded; (b) As a result, ethical practices of documentation can be flouted by journalists, human rights activists, government officials, NGO personnel, researchers in their pursuit of recording wartime rape; (c) Hence, survivors can experience a double set of transgression in the very process of testifying to their violent experiences during wars; (d) Hence there can emerge a critical disconnect between survivors needs and transitional justice processes. 

During field work, the women were saying things like I don’t want to talk about this, what is the point of talking about this, what will this bring to me. The demand for reparation was inherent in the very idea of what they were saying. I never asked them about 1971. It was more about what they were willing to talk about or what they wanted to talk about, which was their experience of giving testimonies which was pretty horrific. As a result, we need the guidelines to ensure we can document narratives about sexual violence ethically.

You have been critical of journalists and film-makers for their presentation of the Birangonas. What changes are needed in their approach?

It is not just about journalists and film-makers, but also academics, researchers, photographers and anyone who works on the process of addressing testimonies of sexual violence . All of us are researchers for different mediums, brought together by the embedded idea of the Birangonas. As a result, we end up seeing the things we want to see, and search for the things we are told. We are told that the Birangonas’ lives are horrific, so we look for horrific narratives. The embeddedness of who is a Birangona makes us look for similar things.  That is the issue concerning all of us, but I think it has changed a lot in the last 10-15 years. There have been an amazing number of Bangladeshi films and literature that have reversed the narratives of of the Birangonas as someone with a horrific experience who is waiting to be “saved.”

How did you feel when you were around the Birangonas?

There was a lot of care and nurturance from them towards me, as well as trying to understand why they were angry. They were very angry when I went there, and then I was not even asking them about 1971. At that point, the husbands came up to me and asked: “how come you are not asking about ’71?” But, you have to build a relationship of trust first. There was lot of anger among them beacause of their experiences. Then when I went to the women, they would not talk to me. I realized what was going on, they were defying their husbands, and took on board what they were saying, and that is what the book became concerned with. And this is what lead to the guidelines, which I address theoretically and methodologically in the book. I try to do the same but visually in the graphic novel which is a historically informed account of how to ethically record testimonies of sexual violence. It is the history of the Birangona married with social science methods presented visually. And hence it is widely applicable beyond the specificity of the history of wartime rape during the war of 1971 while being deeply embedded in that history. 

Where can the guidelines be used?

In August 2018, a group of survivors of wartime sexual violence and the Ministry of Liberation War Affairs of the Bangladesh government launched these guidelines in Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, survivors of wartime sexual violence are referred to as liberation fighters and have been receiving government pensions. These guidelines are thereby essential for the state to record testimonies and include survivors on the government pension register.  These guidelines would also enable war babies to seek recognition – and could be used in other contemporary instances of sexual violence in conflict like that of the Rohingyas. The guidelines are already being used by a group to record testimonies among Rohingyas for the purpose of performing the testimonies through theatre. Further, these guidelines might be relevant for those attempting to collect testimonies of sexual violence in an everyday context which as you know has been rampant. In November 2018, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s PSVI (Prevent Sexual Violence Initiative) team has proposed the Murad Code - the development of international standards for those working in this field. These guidelines would feed into that consultation process. 

Why did you name the graphic novel ‘Birangona’ even though there is some controversy over the term?

I precisely named it Birangona because the history of the Birangona, which is unique to Bangladesh, needs to be known. This is the only country in the world that has attempted to honour women (albeit with intended and unintended consequences) who were raped as Birangona. The term is specific to Bangladesh’s history, which needs to be known globally, even as we critique the term. While it can make women termed Birangona visible in terms of being only raped, others want to claim that title to show that they have been victims and not be hidden away under the umbrella term of liberation fighters. There are divergent ways in which people want to reject or claim the title Birangona.

 It was not an easy choice, as Maleka Khan, who I worked with closely, is against the term and wants to use the term women freedom fighter. I agree with her, but I decided to use the term while knowing its problems and contradictions because of the historical specificity of Bangladesh and considering the many women who I came across and who want to claim the title Birangona to highlight their violent encounters. The graphic novel precisely upholds those contradictions and dilemmas and paradoxes. I hope it is widely read along with the book to understand the multiplicity of experiences of wartime rape during Bangladesh’s war of independence and also similar other encounters of sexual violence in the everyday and other contexts of conflict. Hard Copies of the Graphic novel (in both Bangla and English) are freely available from Research Initiatives Bangladesh (House : 07, Road : 17, Block-C, Banani, Dhaka-1213, Bangladesh) and  the guideline and graphic novel is also freely downloadable in Bangla and English from:



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