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‘There is a political-economic context to stigma: It is important to ask when and how the stigma against birangonas is evoked’

  • Published at 05:21 pm December 6th, 2016
‘There is a political-economic context to stigma: It is important to ask when and how the stigma against birangonas is evoked’

Nayanika Mookherjee is the writer of The Spectral Wound: Sexual Violence, Public Memories, and the Bangladesh War of 1971 which traces the public memory of rape of 1971 in the forty years of independent Bangladesh. Her panel on Birangonas caused a stir at the Dhaka Literary Festival 2016, and delved into her understanding of our war history. During this talk, she highlighted how the experiences of wartime rape are folded for the birangonas in the minutae of everyday life. Excerpts:

How did you get drawn into researching the Birangonas?

In 1992, when I was an undergraduate student in Presidency College, one of the first formative political events for me was the attack on Babri Masjid. I remember the curfews and the rumours of inter-community sexual violence, and that brought forth the feminist question to me – why are men killed and women raped? It was also a time when violent conflicts were going on in Bosnia and Rwanda. Also, I knew that the government of Bangladesh named the raped victims of the 1971 war as Birangona. This is an unprecedented step taken by Bangladesh that has not been taken anywhere else in any other instance of wartime sexual violence.

Your critique of the visual narratives, in terms of stereotyping the Birangonas, is very original. How would you view their representation in the literature written after the Liberation War?

The literature of the 1970s had various instances where the Birangonas are referred to but in very black and white terms and there is a reemergence of this in the 1990s as well. But in the 1980s, we see the imagery of the Birangona with a much more critical and interrogative voice. After 2000, there is a much more critical shift in the literature such as Shaheen Akhtar’s Talash as well as Yasmine Kabir’s film A Certain Liberation.

Would you tell us a little more about the literature on wartime sexual violence?

It's coming up throughout in various kinds of literary accounts in various ways. For example, in Rudro Mohammad Shahidullah's poem, “Batashe Lasher Gondho,” he refers to the flag as being a bloodied sari – the superimposing of the nation as mother on the Birangona is happening constantly.

Do you think the ‘mother figure’ in the nationalistic discourse is problematic?

The mother figure as a mobilising trope does put lots of women in these boxes of “respectability.” So questions should arise if we can have a sex worker as a figure of the nation, or even a single woman who isn’t a mother? At the same time, the mother figure has been very mobilising - the very song Shonar Bangla exemplifies the nation as mother and is extremely moving.

Do you think the Birangonas are associated more with a sense of shame rather than their heroism?

As I argued in my book, on one level the heroic imagery of the Birangona is there, but there is also an ambiguity about her sexuality having been transgressed. Hence it is important to look at the post-war life trajectory of the women.

For example, one of the women I worked with had a brother who went off to war, leaving his young wife in his elder sister's care. When the Pakistani army came, the elder sister put herself forward to protect her sister-in-law. Her parents were crying knowing precisely what their daughter was risking and every night, the Pakistani army jeep came, and took her away. After the war she moved to Dhaka and one day on a bus, she heard people laughing as they went past the “Birangona office.” She however felt a quiet sense of recognition, even if people didn't understand what she had been through.

Another woman I know was married to her childhood sweetheart during the war, and was pregnant during 1971. When the army came, she had to watch her husband get killed and then they found her, but her narrative cuts off there, and jumps to after the war. She said, “Because of what happened to me, I had to marry my cousin whom I never respected, and I am not allowed to even have a picture of my first husband in the house.”

So for her, the real loss is that she can't evoke the memory of her first husband whom she loves so much, more than the 'shame' or 'heroism' – these terms need to be understood in the context in which they are being evoked.

How do you think we could address the problem of stereotyping the Birangonas that underlies the societal expectation that they should always feel shame?

For me the wider question that all this leads to is -- how can we talk about women who were raped without the wound? My research is about getting away from the idea that this woman has become “abnormal” after the war because of what happened to her. Many of these women's lives are carrying on. What happened next depended on the power structures that they were based in – if this woman was already poor, people would try and belittle them even more by reminding her of “the incident.”

The everydayness of the violence perpetuates existing hierarchies and inequalities on people, and it is important for us to ask when, why and how the stigma against them is being evoked. We need to understand the political economy in which the stigma is invoked rather than explain it through blanket statements that “they are religious, illiterate, rural and hence subject all birangonas to stigma and ostracise all of them.” That is not the case. I am not denying that did not happen but that is the only narrative that is repeated and that we know of the birangona. Instead, birangonas have lived their lives in various other complex ways which we need to know to understand the experience of wartime rape in 1971.