The Spectral Wound: Sexual Violence, Public Memories, and the Bangladesh War of 1971. Nayanika Mookherjee; Duke University Press, 2015.
What is the goal of studying the experiences of women in history? This is a unifying question for many women historians I think. How we come to terms with violence, war, and women’s histories has become something that I find myself more focused on this semester as the classes I have been taking are focused on the intersections of rupture, memory, and violence. Rape narratives are fundamental to the narrative of collective memory of the war, and in the case of the Bangladesh War of 1971, the struggle for independence. In The Spectral Wound, Nayanika Mookherjee tries to understand the memory of Bangladesh’s war of independence from Pakistan through the national recognition of rape victims by the Bengali government; not only has the government recognized the victims but they named them birangonas, or heroinesPublic memory or as Mookherjee calls it, the “pathological public sphere,” forces the deconstruction, reconstruction, and reinterpretation of the events of 1971 that results in shifting politics and a continual search for compensation and closure by the victims.
The mantel of birangona grants victims of rape during the war a status that absolves them of the shame that often accompanies sexual violence in Muslim cultures. At the same time, many of the birangonas are expected or coerced into sharing their accounts of rape publicly as a means of reinforcing the anti-Pakistan rhetoric. A point that Mookherjee emphasized throughout the book is the need to incorporate women as part of the new nation, that created the need to form the emblematic heroine as a way of not only incorporating women into the nation, but as protecting the future of the nation. Personal memories become public in the recollection of the war, and the victims are reliving their trauma in everyday life as other victims of violence do, but must also relive it on the public stage. In the foreword, Veena Das explains the dichotomy of expected behavior and reality, but also highlights the role of the expectations that the victims must navigate, “It was often alleged various people in Bangladesh that women from respectable families who were raped never told their stories and that stories of rape were a ruse for poor women to extract something from the government” (xii). It is these divisions that continue to keep this spectral wound open in Bangladesh.
These women serve as the wound that Bangladesh suffered during war and symbolize the wounds the Bangladeshi people suffered before independence. It is a difficult concept to understand how a woman can be heralded as birangonas and at the same time shamed because they are not adhering to the gendered expectations of society by remaining silent; though perhaps it is not too difficult to understand in the wake of so many high profile sexual assault charges in the news that women are both called heroines and expected to remain demure and silent. What bothers me about these accounts of rape is the way agency is stripped from the women, and though they are birangonas they remain a subject of derision.
The term spectral is an interesting choice, do we think this means that the women, their families, and the nation are haunted by the memories because they don’t know how to put the “ghosts” of the rupture to peace? Is there ever peace for the victims of violent sexual assault or do they have to learn to live with their ghost? It is the threat of continuous rupture that puts these women in a difficult space of belonging; political violence (which these rapes most certainly were) doesn’t end when the violence has ended, but echoes into the future.
Mookherjee provides a nuanced, and thoughtful exploration of the ways that Bangladesh honors victims of sexual violence even as they strip the “heroines” of agency through the commercialization of their memories. In addition to exploring the ways that state intervention in the rape of hundreds of thousands during the war for independence changes both the public and individual memories of that rape, Mookerhejee also examines the way that the loss of masculinity through sexual assault extends the trauma through time and across relationships. By refusing to focus solely on the female victims of the war, Mookherjee swings at the gendered dimensions of history and memory.
Even though Mookherjee’s work is focused across the globe and a century after my own research interests, I believe that her insights and her approach to the topic provide tools to navigating my own research and the ways that those wounds remain open. I found watching Mookherjee talk about her process and the lives that these individuals found outside of their role as birangonas shifted my perspective on the research that she did; this becomes a story with a glimmer of hope.
Talk Given by Mookherjee
This is an NPR story that I came across the morning that I finished this book on the legacy of sexual violence in Korea: https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2017/11/13/563838610/comfort-woman-memorial-statues-a-thorn-in-japans-side-now-sit-on-korean-buses?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=npr&utm_term=nprnews&utm_content=2041