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Sexual Violence, Public Memories, and the Bangladesh War of 1971

F o r e wo r d by V e e n a Da s



Sexual Violence, Public Memories, and the Bangladesh War of 1971
nayanika mookherjee * foreword by veena das

Duke University Press Durham and London 2015

2015 Duke University Press

All rights reserved
Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper
Designed by Courtney Leigh Baker
Typeset in Arno Pro by Westchester Publishing Services
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Mookherjee, Nayanika, [date] author.
The spectral wound : sexual violence, public memories and
the Bangladesh war of 1971 / Nayanika Mookherjee ;
foreword by Veena Das.
pages cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
isbn 978-0-8223-5949-4 (hardcover : alk. paper)
isbn 978-0-8223-5968-5 (pbk. : alk. paper)
isbn 978-0-8223-7522-7 (e-book)
1. BangladeshHistoryRevolution, 1971. 2. Rape as a
weapon of warBangladesh. 3. WomenCrimes against
Bangladesh. I. Title.
ds395.5.m65 2015
Duke University Press gratefully acknowledges the support
of Durham University (UK), Department of Anthropology,
which provided funds toward the publication of this book.
Cover art: Rehabilitation Centre, Dhaka, 1972. Gayatri
Chakravorty Spivak

to all the war heroines,

for their fortitude and affection
to ma and chordadan,
for letting me fly and for their love and strength
to tareque masud (19562011),
for his spirit of critical interrogation and friendship


Foreword * ix
Preface: A Lot of History, a Severe History * xv
Acknowledgments * xxi
Introduction: The Looking-Glass Border * 1


one. The Month of Mourning and the Languid Floodwaters:

The Weave of National History * 31
two. We Would Rather Have Shaak (Greens) Than Murgi
(Chicken) Polao: The Archiving of the Birangona * 47
three. Bringing Out the Snake: Khota (Scorn) and the
Public Secrecy of Sexual Violence * 67
four. A Mine of Thieves: Interrogating Local Politics * 91
five. My Own Imagination in My Own Body:
Embodied Transgressions in the Everyday * 107


six. Mingling in Society: Rehabilitation Program and

Re-membering the Raped Woman * 129
seven. The Absent Piece of Skin: Gendered, Racialized,
and Territorial Inscriptions of Sexual Violence during the
Bangladesh War * 159
eight. Imaging the War Heroine: Examination of State, Press,
Literary, Visual, and Human Rights Accounts, 19712001 * 177
nine. Subjectivities of War Heroines: Victim, Agent,
Traitor? * 228


conclusion. The Truth Is Tough: Human Rights

and the Politics of Transforming Experiences of Wartime Rape
Trauma into Public Memories * 251
Postscript: From 2001 until 2013 * 264

Notes * 277 Glossary * 291 References * 293 Index * 309

viii contents

foreword * veena das

When I asked the women directly whether I should anonymize their names
in my writings, they said that I should use their own names because it is our
own kotha (words), mela itihash (a lot of history), ja ma tomare ditesi [what
mother we are giving to you (referring to me as mother, which is an affectionate term used for younger women by older women)]. Nayanika Mookherjee
receives the gift of this mela itihash, and the question that animates the book
before us is, how is she going to bear this knowledge? The gift of knowledge
has been bestowed upon her with the contradictory injunctionsthe imperative to tell the story and also to not tell the story. Such dilemmas are not
new for anthropologists studying sexual violence in situations of war or riots,
in the streets, or at home. How to navigate the delicate terrain between public
knowledge and public secret in which sexual violence lies? Yet every time one
touches the subject, one encounters it as a fresh problem, for no general solutions or abstract advice will do.
Mookherjee understands well that writing this history is like touching
madness. She writes an account, weaving her experiences with the birangonas
who were subjected to sexual and physical violence during the war of independence in Bangladesh in 1971 and later declared as war heroines into a
text that never loses sight of the concreteness of these women as flesh-andblood creaturesnot some idealized victims whose stories will serve a
larger purpose in the name of this or that ideology. The achieved depth of this
book and the theoretical humility with which concepts are drawn from the

everyday make it a profound workone that will linger in the readers mind
as the significance of the words used, the stories told, the lists provided, or the
orphan phrases that appear here and there, will only reveal themselves in slow
motion. There is no direct access to the experiences of the women through
such routes as sentimental empathyor through analogies with ones own
experiencesfor each woman appears in the singular, and it is in their singularity that the confluence of forces that are at once social (e.g., politics in
Bangladesh) and existential (the ability or inability to bear the child of the
rapist) is revealed. Though I cannot do full justice to the themes that emerge
in the book in this short foreword, I hope the points I touch on will serve as
an invitation for deeper reflection on the sexual economies of war and their
dispersal into other forms of violence with which we all live now in one way
or another.
Unlike the stories of rape and sexual violation told within a judicial
framework as in truth and reconciliation commissions or in court trials, the
stories of the four women birangonas (war heroines) did not come out in
one go. The contradictory affects with which the term comes to be infused in the
local contextwar heroines to be honored or soiled women to be shunned
serve as a warning to wait and learn what questions to ask. Thus Mookherjee
waited, immersing herself in the daily talks and the everyday socialities of
the village. She was sometimes invited by one of the womens husbands to
visit and hear their storysometimes others pointed out to her a family they
felt she should visit and hear about their suffering. After all, a long time had
passed between the time of the ghotona (event, incident) and the time of the
telling. The story had gathered in on itself not only the memory of the original
event but also how it was unearthed, combedthe expression Mookherjee
uses repeatedlyby different kinds of actors and traded for the different
values it carried. Mookherjees delicacy of touch is visible in the subtle ways
she wards off pressure on the women from husbands or friends to narrate
what happened. She allows the experiences of different kinds of violations
(and not by the soldiers of the Pakistani army alone) to seep through the
ordinary expressions they use, sometimes by listening to what they want her
to overhear and at other times by her attentiveness to expressions that arise
unbidden and evoke the sorrow or the terror of being brutally violated.
For the linguist anthropologist used to capturing the precise speech
through the use of tape recorders and then analyzing it in terms of an elaborate
semiotic apparatus, this mode of collecting stories might seem suspect. But to
the women who were subjected to the glare of media in the commemorative
events in 1992 of the Muktijuddho (the war of 1971) without fully understandx foreword

ing why they had been brought to these events or what their presence was
testifying to, it was the tape recorder and a foreigner wishing to record their
testimony that would have been threatening. Mookherjee traces with great
patience the manner in which media attention, including the pictures of the
birangonas in newspapers, circulated back to the village and became a major
source of shame for the women, who were seen to violate the local codes of
modesty and protection through silence. The ethics of storytelling here is not
easy to discern, for the stories that might seem to perform the task of criticism
in one domain (say, that of national publicity) might become lethal for the
impact they have on the one whose story is being toldhere the bearer of
the story is not a generic raped woman but a woman with this kind of family
history, this kind of local politics, and it is her singularity that is at issue, not
her place in the general scheme of things.
What, then, is to tell ones story? Is it the same as being able to author it? In
my own work on sexual violence, I have found it useful to think of the difference between speech and voicefor one does not always find ones voice in
ones speech. Thus, Mookherjee shows how one of the women, Kajoli, tries to
narrate what happened to her when she was raped but was interrupted again
and again by her husband, who wanted to correct her on what really took
placefor him, she did not know the events of the war well enough to be
able to narrate them correctly. All this time, Rafique was prompting her to
speak louder and talk about the ghotona. Kajoli at this point told him that she
should finish her work or she would not get paid. Rafique became quite annoyed, but I saw that Kajoli was reluctant to talk. I said I was tired myself, and
we sat for some time in the courtyard chatting, and then I left. The power dynamics within the domestic are of a different order than the power dynamics
through which national memory of the war was sought to be created through
a visual archive of the photographs of birangonas or through the stories they
were urged to tell. Yet in many instances, as in the case of the four women
from Enayetpur who were taken to Dhaka without being given any explanation and thus found themselves unable to speak, it was the voice-over of the
organizers through which their suffering was publicly told and displayed and
their demands for justice were articulated. What happens to these women
who are displayed as figures of abjection and desire, as they struggle to take
back authorship that was wrested away from them, is rarely tracked into their
everyday lives. In Mookherjees analysis we see how the publicity strikes back
at the women through the everyday evocation of khota (scorn) in the village as
they and their families are stigmatized for having made their sexual violation
foreword xi

The story, then, is not a constant even when no one doubts that a rape
occurred. It gathers other facts, gains weight or becomes frayed, waxes and
wanes in intensity. In some cases women and their families want to trade the
story of rape for material goodsmoney, government jobs, free education
for their children. At other times the same families might heap scorn on the
meager compensation they received or at promises of rehabilitation that are
routinely broken. Other families might wish to hide the facts of sexual violation to avoid being expelled from the sphere of village sociality.
It was often alleged by 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. There were rumors about sexual violation of more powerful women
even the leader of the opposition and ex-Prime Minister, Khaleda Zia, was
rumored to have been raped, or it was alleged that she had formed an alliance
with a powerful general, putting her into the category of a collaborator. The
nomadic lives of the stories that circulated were invariably accompanied by
rumors, suspicion, doubtsthere is an intensification of what I have elsewhere called the tempo of skepticism. But if the story was not constant, neither was the context.
First, there was the changing milieu of democratic politics and especially
the opposition between the Awami League and the Bangladesh National
Party, the two main parties whose rivalry gathered multiple meanings at the
national and local levels. Ranging from such issues as what kind of Muslim
country Bangladesh aspired to become, to claims over who was to be regarded as the true leader of the war of liberation, to issues that seeped down
to the local level in terms of whose pictures were displayed in the house
or what kind of patronage one was entitled to receive as a member of one or
the other party, we see the astonishing reach of politics in every corner of
life in Enayetpur and in the country in general. Second, there were multiple
actors who emerged, each trying to place the specific issue of sexual and reproductive violence within the intense conflicts over identityBengali and
Muslimthat kept changing shape. Thus the context was itself dynamic.
One might have access to the context of ones life one day and lose it entirely
another day. Thus women were able to read the politics of the family and of the
villagethe jealousy of a co-wife, the grief of a husband who had no other way
to express himself except to refuse to sleep at home even though he did not
abandon his wife after her rapeand all this affected the most quotidian
matters such as the food one cooked and the most profound anxieties such
as the possibility of being abandoned.
xii foreword

When it came to the ghotonathe event, incident of the rapewomen

struggled to understand what had made them so vulnerable. What role did
their husbands allegiance to Sheikh Mujib or to the muktijoddhas (liberation fighters) play in making them vulnerable to rape? As much as the sexual
violence wounded them, the everyday politics of the village and the khota
that burst out in everyday squabbles, in petty forms of revenge or insult,
made the distant violence of the rape contiguous to everyday forms of violence. Mookherjees masterful descriptions of village life lead us to ask: Do the
slights, bitterness, betrayal, and perverseness that pervade intimate relations
as well as lines of known enmity in the village give us a clue to how dramatic enactments of violence might be born out of the ordinary? How else
to explain the sudden opportunities used by men to rape the daughter of a
neighbor (a Hindu neighbors daughter in one case) or to understand how
razakars (collaborators who supported the Pakistani army) became the suppliers of women to the Pakistani soldiers? No general appeal to our humanity
or to humanitarian reason will provide a therapy for such disasters here
but Wittgensteins remark that the whole planet can suffer no greater torment
than a single soul might help to orient us in this devastated landscape.
Perhaps the torment of this single soul is what makes Mookherjee trudge
to other villages, to the offices of human rights organizations, and to the
Muktijuddho Council or to search the massive literary and visual archive on
the war to see how the story of sexual violation becomes also the story of the
nation. Her analysis of the literary and visual archives blocks any sentimental,
compassionate, or empathetic reading that can create a false sense of connection to the women or to the meaning of sexual violation for them. Mookherjee
shows that a cultivation of suspicion toward the visual archive is not unwarranted, as in the example of the famous image of a soldier peering inside a
loosened lungi (sarong) of a Bengali-looking man, which was read as a Pakistani soldier looking at the mans penis to see if he was circumcised and thus
properly Muslimthough it turned out that the soldier was from the Indian
army and was searching for hidden weapons carried by suspected collaborators.
She does not, however, equate the mere cultivation of suspicion with criticism, as if that provided the resting point of the analysisas if, once you have
shown the misreading of a photograph or discerned its voyeuristic impulse,
your task as a critic is over. Instead, Mookherjee lays out the full geography
of the contradictions in the left-liberal secular intellectual discourse, in the
practices of human rights organizations, in the obsessive politics of party rivalries, and in the hurts that families and villagers inflict on each other even
as she documents efforts to provide succor, to impart justice, or to enshrine
foreword xiii

the experience of the women as heroic in the national narrative of independence. This is one reason the book is fascinating in the details it unravels and
also deeply disturbing, since it refuses to yield to our desire for criteria that
would help us to unequivocally determine those who are virtuous and those
we might detest. The form of criticism here is much more subtle than a simple
search for the good. The obligation to respond to the violation that women
suffered is an existential one, but the space it opens up is one in which we
are encouraged to think of the birangona not as the haunted specter that
would feed the imaginary of the nation but as one who has to make her
life in the world in a mode of ordinary realism. Such realism is what we sense
in the evocation of everyday forms of sustenance such as rice and cloth that
women fear they might lose if their violation becomes public. But everyday
life also nurtures aspirations that perhaps someone will open herself to ones
pain. There is a poignant moment in the book when the four birangonas from
the village give an account of their visit to the prime ministers house. They
were given saris and money, but Sheikher Beti (Sheikh Mujibs daughter)
did not have any time to talk with them. As Moyna, one of the birangonas
mused, If I had talked a bit with her about my sorrows, I would have kept
it in my heart and remembered it again and again. The main thing was to cry
with her and feel a bit light in the heart. In this movement between aspiration and disappointment, Mookherjee gives us a sign of what it is to inhabit life
again. The mela itihash, chorom itihash (lot of history, severe history) is what
Mookherjee was givenand it is that to which she has given her anthropological labor to produce this thoughtful account that is before us now and for
which I am most grateful.

xiv foreword

A Lot of History, a Severe History

In late 1971, Bangladeshi photographer Naibuddin Ahmed took a photograph

of a woman who had been raped by the Pakistani army during the Bangladesh
war of 1971 (often referred to as Ekattor [1971]).1 This photograph depicted
the woman with her disheveled hair and her crossed, bangle-clad fists covering her face. Smuggled out of Bangladesh (M. Masud 1998), the photograph
drew international attention to the Bangladesh war, through which East Pakistan became the independent nation of Bangladesh, and in which rape was
common. Faced with a huge population of rape survivors, the new Bangladeshi
government in December 1971 publicly designated any woman raped in the war
a birangona (meaning brave or courageous woman; the Bangladeshi state uses
the term to mean war heroine; see chapter6 for various connotations of birangona). Even today, the Bangladeshi governments bold, public effort to refer to
the women raped during 1971 as birangonas is internationally unprecedented,
yet it remains unknown to many besides Bangladeshis. In 1994, the imam of
Sarajevo of the Islamic Association in Bosnia made a similar (yet little known)
fatwa (proclamation) that women who were raped in the war should have the
position of a soldier, of a fighter (Skjelsbk 2012, 9899). Among many other
images, Ahmeds photograph is iconic, symbolizing the horrors of 1971 and
connoting the supposed shame and anonymity of the raped woman.2 It is also
one of the most oft-cited and widely circulated visual representations of the
birangona. This image has been used on the cover of an English translation
of a Bengali book on womens oral history of 1971 (Shaheen Akhtar etal.

2001b). In the spring of 2008, a photographic exhibition titled Bangladesh 1971

displayed this picture at the Rivington Place Gallery in Shoreditch, East London, as the visual trace of the raped woman of 1971. In 20132014, a Londonbased theatre company Komola Collective3 announced its intention to stage a
play on the Birangona: Women of War, in the United Kingdom and Bangladesh
based on the testimonies collected from a group of poor birangonas in Sirajganj. It included Ahmeds photograph on its poster to announce the play.
Unlike Ahmeds photograph, where the raped woman uses her hair (as well
as her fists) to cover her identity, the theater group altered this photograph
to portray the birangona as looking out through her disheveled hair. In this
version, she holds up her fists in protest above her mouth while revolutionary
women emerge out of the folds of her sari. The connotations of shame and
anonymity in Ahmeds image have been replaced by the birangonas demands
for justice for the killings and rapes of 1971 (see figs. P.1, P.2, P.3).
The circulation of this photograph and of other visual portrayals of the
raped women of the Bangladesh war of 1971 underlines the presence of a public memory of wartime rape. It also suggests the importance in Bangladesh
of visually identifying the raped woman. In fact, on a number of occasions
during my fieldwork, people narrating encounters with the raped women
would refer to the photograph: Have you seen the famous hair photograph?
The raped woman covering her face with her fist and hair? The women we saw
looked very much like that. They had become abnormal (mentally unstable)
as a result of the rape. This comment also suggests that in the public memory
of rape there exist visual ways of identifying the raped woman as abnormal.
Here real-life encounters with the abnormal birangona intertwine with
similar portrayals of the raped woman in the existing literary and visual representations to arrive at a sedimented image of who a birangona is.
Images of the birangona are also complemented in contemporary Bangladesh by various testimonies of war time rape by the women survivors
themselves. Mosammad Rohima Nesa, Kajoli Khatoon, Moyna Karim, and
Rashida Khatoon,4 like many other women, were raped by West Pakistani
soldiers in their homes during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. When
attempting to narrate their experiences of 1971in the 1990s, they would say to
me, Ha, amader mela itihash, chorom itihash ache (Yes, we have a lot of history, a severe history). They would refer to the poison of the 1971 history
that they carry, the spillages and excesses of their experiences from the
1970s to the 1990s.
Four poor, landless women, they have lived since 1971 with their husbands and children in villages (Enayetpur and its neighbor) in a western disxvi preface

FigureP.1. The birangona hair photograph. Courtesy: Naibuddin Ahmed.

FigureP.2. Autograph abp

exhibition: Ahmeds photograph
in Bangladesh 1971, a major
documentary photography
exhibition at Rivington Place
Gallery, London, April-June
2008. Courtesy: Autograph abp.
FigureP.3. Ahmeds photograph as part of the poster
for the play Birangona: Brave
Woman, staged in the United
Kingdom and Bangladesh in
201314. Courtesy: Caitlin

trict in Bangladesh where I spent eight months of my year-long multisited

fieldwork. During my fieldwork, when I would return to Dhaka from Enayetpur, peoplengo activists, human rights lawyers, intellectuals, writers, journalists, academics, feminists who knew about my researchwould invariably
ask the following questions about the war heroines: Are they married? Do
they have a family, children, kutumb (in laws)? Did their husband know of the
incident of rape? My answer to these questions would amaze them: the poor,
rural, and illiterate women continue to be married to their landless husbands
with whom they were married even before 1971, in spite of the rape. These frequently occurring, repetitive questions point to a sedimented imaginary of the
war heroine among the activist community. Just as the image in the hair photograph gives an idea of the birangona as abnormal, various literary and visual
representations have contributed to the perception that the war heroines kin
networks have abandoned her and her family has not accepted her as a result
of the rape.
The phrase of the Enayetpur womena lot of history, a severe history
further resonates with Shiromoni Bhaskars representation and articulation
of her experience of the Bangladesh war of 71. In 1998, Shiromoni, a famous
Bangladeshi artist, acknowledged publicly that she had been raped during the
war by Pakistani officials and Bengali collaborators. As a raped woman from a
middle-class background, her testimonies and photographs have been central
to various national commemoration programs on 1971. As a middle-class birangona, Shiromoni dismantled the prevalent stereotype that all birangonas
are ashamed and invisible as a result of their rape.
This public memory contradicts the prevalent assumption that there is silence regarding wartime rape. It is incorrectly assumed by many that because
Bangladesh is a Muslim country, the traditions and practices of Islam
and its assumed association with ideologies of gender, patriarchy, honor, and
shameensure the preservation of silence about war time rape (see, e.g.,
Brownmiller 1975, 1994; and chapter6 on orientalizing rape). My ethnography highlights the various socioeconomic dynamics within which the
ideologies of gender, honor, and shame are practiced among the birangonas.
It shows that the public memory of wartime rape manifests in Bangladesh in
three ways: first, the state category that designates the raped women as birangonas; second, an extensive archive of visual and literary representations dating back to 1971; and third, human rights testimonies of poor and middle-class
birangonas since the 1990s.
To date around thirty to forty war heroines have publicly acknowledged
their history of rape during 1971, including the previously mentioned four
preface xix

women from western Bangladesh, whose testimonies and photographs have

been part of a number of national commemorative programs. These testimonies started being collected by the Bangladeshi left-liberal activist community
in the 1990s as evidence of the injustices and what many would consider to be
genocide committed through the rapes and killings of 1971.5 Within human
rights narratives, there is a predetermined focus on documenting and presenting the birangonas account as only a horrific one; inadequate attention
is given to the way in which the war heroines themselves want to articulate
their experience not only of 1971 but of the trajectory of their subsequent
postconflict lives. In contrast, I show that focusing on the postconflict lives
of the women not only gives us an in-depth account of the impact of wartime
rape but also highlights the complex ways in which women and their families
have dealt with the violence of rape over time. By giving due emphasis to the
concerns of birangonas, one can also attempt to ethically document and care
for the informants whose violent narratives and experiences are possible evidence of the occurrence of genocide in 1971. If we open up questions about
the complex realities of experiences of wartime rape among the women and
their families, we could locate their accounts within the local politics of wartime
rape and the political economy of the womens postwar appropriation in the
public sphere of Bangladesh.

xx preface

ac know ledg ments

This book has been difficult to write for various reasons and has taken a
long time. Indeed, my debts are endless. Primarily, this study would have
been inconceivable without the love, warmth, and hospitality that I received in
Enayetpur. My sincere gratitude to the people in Enayetpur and particularly to
Moyna, Kajoli, Rohima, Rashida, and their families and other birangonas with
whom I worked. This is only a small attempt on my part to mirror their varied
experiences. My thanks to Khokon Hossein for ably helping me as a research
The Richard Carley Hunt Fellowship of the Wenner Gren Foundation for
Anthropological Research, New York, helped me to complete this book. I am
also thankful for the award of the Felix Scholarship for funding my dissertation from which this book draws. Fieldwork was supported by the Central
Research Fund of the University of London, the Emslie Horniman Scholarship from the Royal Anthropological Institute, and the soas (School of
Oriental and African Studies, University of London) Additional Fieldwork
Fund. Funding from Durham University has also been significant for the book.
I am grateful to Naibuddin Ahmed, Roshid Talukdar, Maleka Khan, Swapan
Parekh, abp Autograph, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Jill (Durrance) Sabella,
Joanna Kirkpatrick, Geraldine Forbes, and Paul Greenough for granting
permission to use their photographs and other documents from their personal archives. Sadly, Naibuddin Ahmed and Roshid Talukdar died in 2009
and2011, respectively.

An earlier version of a section of chapter3 appeared, in a different form,

as Remembering to Forget: Public Secrecy and Memory of Sexual Violence
in Bangladesh, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 12, no. 2 (2006):
43350. An earlier version of a section of chapter5 appeared, in a different
form, as My Man (Honour) Is Lost but I Still Have My Iman (Principle):
Sexual Violence and Articulations of Masculinity, in South Asian Masculinities,
edited byR. Chopra,C. Osella, andF. Osella (New Delhi: Kali for Women,
2004, 13159). An earlier version of chapter 7, in a different form, appeared
as The Absent Piece of Skin: Sexual Violence in the Bangladesh War and Its
Gendered and Racialised Inscriptions, Modern Asian Studies 46, no. 6 (2012):
An earlier version of a section of the conclusion appeared, in a different
form, as Friendships and Ethnographic Encounters within Left-Liberal
Politics in Bangladesh, in Taking Sides: Politics and Ethnography (A Nancy
Lindisfarne Festschrift), edited byH. Armbruster andA. Laerke (Oxford:
Berghahn, 2008, 6587).
I am grateful to Modern Asian Studies, Journal of the Royal Anthropological
Institute, Berghahn Books, and Women Unlimited (earlier Kali for Women) for
publishing these earlier versions; the versions that appear in this book are
significantly revised.
The scholarly roots of the book took shape from discussions with
Prof.Prasanta Ray of Presidency College, Calcutta University, and Prof.T.K.
Oomen, Prof.Avijit Pathak, and Prof.R.K. Jain of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. In soas, Prof.Christopher Pinney and Dr.Caroline Osella not
only were supportive supervisors but also have become important intellectual
interlocutors and friends. Dr.Nancy Lindisfarne has also continued to provide invaluable succor and motivation throughout. Prof.Veena Das has been
a huge support for the book, and I am grateful for her warmth and intellectual inspiration. Prof.Jonathan Spencer has encouraged me with discussions
related to anthropology of politics. In Lancaster University, discussions with
Prof. Jackie Stacey, Dr. Anne-Marie Fortier, Dr. Bulent Diken, Prof. Cindy
Weber, Prof.Paolo Palladino, Prof.Michael Dillon, and students of various
undergraduate and postgraduate courses have enriched the book further. My
sincere thanks to the Anthropology Department in soas and Sussex for giving
me the opportunities to teach and for various scholarly engagements.
I am also thankful for the feedback received for my presentations at the annual conferences of the American Anthropological Association and the Association of Social Anthropology, the Brick Lane Study Circle, the South Asian
Anthropological Group, Ain-O-Shalish-Kendra, Bangladesh Rural Advancexxii ac know ledg ments

ment Committee University in Dhaka, Centre for Research in the Arts, Social
Sciences and Humanities (crassh) and South Asian studies seminar in
Cambridge University, Madison Preconference on 1971, Rape in Wartime conference in Paris, Workshop on State and Self-making, soas and the anthropology department seminars in Jahangirnagar University (Dhaka), University of
Manchester, Warwick, soas, University College London and Sussex.
The warmth I received in Bangladesh was overwhelming. The comforts of my
stay in Enayetpur were ensured by the hospitality of my hosts in Enayetpur
the Chowdhurys and in DhakaUrmi Rahman, Shireen Hossein (Tonudi),
Sharmima Rahman (Soma), Deedar Hossein, and Khaleda Khatoon, my hoststurned-friends, provided me a home away from home. Particularly, the love
and support of the employees of the NGO Nijera Kori, in Bhashkhal, gave me
many new friends, precious among them being Shikha Saha. I value the academic discussions with and friendships of Dr.Meghna Guhathakurta, Suraiya
Begum, Hasina Ahmed, and Dr.Sukumar Biswas of Bangla Academy. They,
along with Rahnuma Ahmad, Shahidul Alam, Khushi Kobir, Akku Chowdhury, Mofidul Huq, Afsan Choudhuri, Hameeda Hossein, Shaheen Akhtar,
Sara Hossein, Tareque and Catherine Masud, Tahmima Anam, Manosh
Chowdhury, Ryan Good, David Bergman, Naila Zaman Khan, Dina Siddiqi,
Naeem Mohaiemen, Bina DCosta, Shahidul Alam Tuku, Taslima Mirza, Sayeed Ferdous, and Zobaida Nasreen, enabled the continuation of my fieldwork
outside Bangladesh by sending me frequent packages, taking time to answer
my innumerable queries, and above all strengthening our friendship.
Various individuals in different organizations also helped me in numerous ways. These organizations include Ain-O-Shalish-Kendra (ask), Bangla Academy, Bangladesh Womens Health Coalition, Bangladesh National
Women Lawyers Association, Community Development Library, Bangladesh National Archives, Environment and gis Support Project (egis), the
Bengali newspaper Prothom Alo, and University of Dhaka Library. I acknowledge the support given by students of Jahangirnagar University and drik
Picture Library: Khandaker Tanvir Murad Topu, Debasish Shome, and Nurunnahar Nargish, in finding and photographing various visual illustrations
and following up on references to various literary works. Stephen Thomas of
the Photographic Unit, Lancaster University, helped me to finalize these images. The music of Jazz fms Late Lounge provided a productive ambience for
thought struggle in the early hours of the morning.
The long process of writing this book has been made considerably easier
and enjoyable by the support of friends and family. My thanks to Shruti Kapila, Greg Cameron, Jisha Menon, Lindi Todd, Andrew Irving, Nigel Eltringham,
ac know ledg ments xxiii

Irfan Ahmed, Anuradha Chakravarty, Radha Roy, Ruben Andersson, akshay

khanna, Anoshua Choudhuri, Anupam Banerjee, Binod Mukherjee, Swarnali
Banerjee-Cochrane, and Ester Gallo. I lost two friends during the process of
writing this book: Justine Lucas, who died of a terminal illness, and Tareque
Masud, who died as a result of a tragic road accident. Their indomitable spirit
and quest for life served as an example to all around them. The constant faith
of my dearest sister, Abantika and brother-in-law, Saradindu, the love of my
niece, Meghna, and the warmth of Ed and Ann Lacy have been invaluable.
Given the theme and the nature of the material, as well as the multiplicity of
sources that this book draws upon, I have found concluding it, challenging
for various reasons. My moner manush, Mark Lacy, has endured patiently the
completion of this book through engaging, encouraging, critical discussions,
editing and by cooking me innumerable meals and giving me the space to
finish it. His companionship, love, laughter, humor, and support are precious.
The birth of our sons, Nikhil and Milon, made me realize the significance of
all three babiesthe book and our sons. Nothing would have been possible
without the blessing, warmth, sacrifice, support, unstinting faith, and encouragement of Ma, who let me fly when I wanted to. This book is a testament to
her love, strength, and spirit.
Thanks to Ken Wissoker, the editor at Duke University Press who took on
this project. Thanks also to the anonymous readers for their comments and to
Laura Helper-Ferris, Jade Brooks and Sara Leone for all the editorial help.
To all these individuals, my warmest, heartfelt gratitude. Needless to say, I
alone am responsible for any shortcomings that remain in this study. All efforts have been made to secure permissions. For further clarifications, please
contact the author by email. I will donate all royalties received from sales of
this book to the birangonas in Bangladesh.

xxiv ac know ledg ments

The Looking-Glass Border
There never had been a moment in the four thousand year old history
of that map when the places we know as Dhaka and Calcutta were more closely bound
to each other after they had drawn their linesso closely that I, in Calcutta, had
only to look into the mirror to be in Dhaka; a moment when each city was the
inverted image of the other, locked into an irreversible symmetry by the line that
was to set us freeour looking-glass border. amitav ghosh 1988, 233

Bangladesh is a country symbolized by its lack and excess. A prevalent stereotype of Bangladesh in India and in the West is that it is an Islamic country
ruled by military governments and dominated by ngos. Alongside the prevailing international image of grinding poverty, floods, and cyclones, studies
have often linked Bangladesh to policies of population control, development,
outsourced garment production, and now climate change. In 1972, reflecting on
the bizarre donation of a shipment of used ski clothing sent by well-meaning
residents of a Scandinavian country as part of the relief efforts after the 1971
war, a Bangladeshi relief worker in Dhaka rightly said, I guess that for many
people Bangladesh is a place of shadow geographyone of those countries
you think is in the Himalayas but on the other hand might be Thailands neighbor to the south (Ellis 1972, 298).

Prior to 1947, the Hindu Bengalis constituted the dominant landowners in East Bengal, while Muslim Bengalis primarily worked as munshis (accountants) and landless peasants. After the formation of East Pakistan on the
basis of religious identity, many Hindus moved to West Bengal in India and
Muslim Bengalis to East Pakistan. Over the years, numerous Hindu Bengalis have also moved from Bangladesh to West Bengal as refugees; they have
many stories about losing property. The attachment and distance between the
two Bengals are aptly captured in Amitav Ghoshs looking-glass border
each place became an inverted image of the other. The writings of the Bangladeshi feminist writer Taslima Nasreen contributed to this image and further
strengthened already existing negative stereotypes in West Bengal and India
about the Muslims of Bangladesh. In 1993 she published Lojja (Shame),
portraying the backlash of the majority Muslim population against minority Hindu communities in Bangladesh. This was in response to the right-wing
Indian Hindu communalists demolition of Babri Masjid at Ayodhya on December 6, 1992, and the subsequent massacre of minority Muslim communities
in Mumbai in India.
In conjunction with this idea of lack, Indian Bengalis contradictorily identify Bangladesh as a place of excessof hospitality, warmth, beautiful jamdani saris, and good food (especially of varieties of river fish, particularly the
favorite Bengali fish, hilsa/ilish, delicious kebabs, and biriyanis). The shadowy
lines between Bangladesh and West Bengal (India) not only separated the
countries but created a yet undiscovered irony (Amitav Ghosh 1988, 233)
highlighted by the paradoxical, yet inarticulable, undiscovered relationship
of intimacy and distance, lack and excess between the two divided Bengals.
Doing this research in Bangladesh as an Indian Bengali from Calcutta, West
Bengal (the Indian part of Bengal), I often thought of Ghoshs looking-glass
border: this work made me relearn our own cross-border histories.

Crossing Borders
This research was triggered in 1992 by my outrage and despair as an undergraduate student in Calcutta, India, over the unfolding of intercommunal violence after the demolition of Babri Masjid, by Hindu communalists. Being
confined at home during the imposition of curfew and depending on Doordarshan (the government tv channel) for news, I became aware of the power
of political rumors as I heard of widespread instances of sexual violence in
Gujarat during 1992, that of Hindu men raping Muslim women and Muslim
men raping Hindu women (Agarwal 1995). These circulating accounts spoke
2 introduction

to me of how a womans body becomes the territory on which men inscribe

their political programs, a point that the violence against Muslims in Gujarat
in 2002 reconfirmed.1 Also, news throughout the 1990s of the Japanese comfort women, the rapes in Bosnia and Rwanda, and the United Nations declaration of rape as a war crime in the 1995 Beijing sessionall these feminist
concerns triggered and informed my research in Bangladesh.
In the first year of my doctoral work, I heard from a Bangladeshi student in
London how women in Bangladesh were publicly talking about their experience of wartime rape. Drawing on various feminist theorizations of wartime
rape (Brownmiller 1975, 1994; Stiglmayer 1994), I assumed that there would
be silence about this issue at the Bangladeshi national level. I decided to visit
Bangladesh for the first time in March1997 to coincide with its twenty-fifth
anniversary of the liberation war as part of a pre-fieldwork trip. On a warm,
sunny morning, I landed in the smart Zia International Airport, named after
one of the nations muktijoddhas (liberation fighters), later the military president, Ziaur Rehman (197581), carrying a photograph of my host. Murals of
the war could even be seen from the plane. Soon I found myself being driven
through the streets of Dhaka to the upmarket diplomatic residential enclave
of Bonani. On the way, I watched with curiosity and amusement as colorfully painted rickshaws, baby-taxis, and expensive foreign cars vied for road
space. The stretch from the airport was also interspersed with large cutouts
of Sheikh Mujib, Sheikh Hasina, Yasser Arafat, Nelson Mandela, and Suleiman Demeriel (the Turkish prime minister). Huge banners welcomed these
international guests coming to celebrate March26, Independence Day, which
would also mark the end of the yearlong celebrations of Bangladeshs twentyfifth birth anniversary.
On the following morning, March26 itself, I headed for a public meeting
in the grounds of the Shaheed Suhrawardy Udyan (Martyred Suhrawardy
Park), where newly elected prime minister and Awami League leader Sheikh
Hasina would share the stage with Arafat, Mandela, and Demeriel. Hasinas
observation of Independence Day would be particularly significant, for she
was also the daughter of the charismatic leader and the assassinated first
prime minister of independent Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman. Earlier,
I had watched on television as Hasina, along with the three foreign dignitaries,
placed a wreath at the Savar Smritisoudho (Memorial of Memories) just
outside Dhaka, where the government first takes all international guests.
Hasina showed them the mass graves to the beat of a military guard of
honor; then the tune of the national anthem, Amar Sonar Bangla ami tomai
bhalobashi (My golden Bengal, I love you), written by Rabindranath Tagore,
introduction 3

a non-Muslim (Brahmo), Bengali Nobel laureate, filled the air. Now, at

Suhrawardy Udyan, in the presence of the international guests, Hasina lit the
Shikha Chironton (Eternal Flame) at the site of her fathers historic speech
given on March7, 1971.2 Here Sheikh Mujib had called Bengalis to struggle
for national liberation through a movement of noncooperation. March7 is
deemed by the Awami League to be the trigger for the liberation war. Hasina
declared that the flame of Muktijuddher Chetona (spirit of Muktijuddho)
would burn forever so as to bring to fruition her fathers dream of Sonar Bangla (Golden Bengal). Sonar Bangla is a romantic and nostalgic visualization of
mother Bengal, with her prosperous lands and rivers inhabited by a peaceful,
harmonious, agrarian community, a timeless and an apparently classless imagery. Sheikh Mujib himself had developed this scene of eternal tranquillity
which evokes sorrowful longing and emotion for ones homelandas a political project to infuse pathos into Muktijuddho (Bangladesh Liberation war of
1971) and a passion for post1971 nation-building. As I stood on the fringes of
this crowded meeting, everyone around me cheered as Mandela, Demeriel,
and Arafat acknowledged Bangladeshs liberation struggle. It was a momentous
I next visited the Muktijuddho Museum, where the air reverberated with
the revolutionary songs of Tagore and Nazrul Islam (the national poet of
Bangladesh). The atmosphere was festive, with children accompanying adults,
young women dressed beautifully in saris, and men in punjabis.3 Here exhibits decentered the Sheikh Mujibfocused celebrations and emphasized the role
of common people in the liberation of 1971. The museum housed belongings
of muktijoddhas and exhibited gruesome photographs of those who were
killed and women who had been raped. In the museum caf I met a mix of
young and middle-aged people, many of whom expressed their hatred for
Pakistan, saying that they refrained from buying clothes or fruit juices made
there.4 One of them added, So what if we hate Pakistan because of 1971?
Hasina might talk of Muktijuddho, but she has just returned from the Organization of Islamic Countries Conference in Pakistan. Also have you seen her
wearing the headband hijab [veil] just before the June 1996 elections? She
cannot seem to decide what Bangladesh should beBengali or Muslim! At
the same time, Pakistan, especially its cricket team and players, is, however,
much more popular among the younger generation in Bangladesh. So, in my
first few days I witnessed vivid examples of the inherent contestations in the
national celebrations of independence earned as a result of the Bangladesh
war of 1971.
4 introduction

In the week following the Independence Day celebrations, the leading

newspaper dailies I perused all featured the Awami League and Bangladesh
National Party (bnp) leadership debate between Sheikh Mujib and General
Ziaur Rehman (see chapter1). Each newspaper proclaimed that its favorite
had led the 1971 war. It was evident that the Sheikh Mujibcentric state celebrations were meant to offset the preceding bnp governments militarized
commemorations. The celebrations featured Bengali songs and poets in order
to emphasize a Bengali identity. The ethos of Bengali identity and the spirit
of the war of 1971of which the left-liberal communities considered Hasina
to be the repositorycentered on principles of secularism, democracy, and
Bengali nationalism, as opposed to the emphasis on Islam and Bangladeshi
nationalism of the bnp and Jamaat-e-Islami (jmi). But the celebration and
symbolism did not convince everyone: those with a fierce hatred for Pakistans role in Bangladesh in 1971 strongly questioned the states flirtation with
Islamic and Bengali identity.
The research center with which I was affiliated employed leading Bangladeshi scholars from the different social science disciplines. Ranging from the
lower middle class to the middle class, the scholars were not homogeneous,
and tensions existed between the women feminists and other male intellectuals. But at the beginning of my fieldwork, everyone welcomed me warmly,
referring to me as the girl from Calcutta working on our 71, and I established
long-lasting friendships with some of the feminist scholars, activists, and
I was also increasingly unlearning my initial presumptionthat the history of rape was absent from the metanarrative of the Bangladesh war. Instead,
I found it continually invoked, especially in the state speeches and policies
eulogizing the women as birangonas. I came across testimonies of rape in
documents from after the war (from 1972 and1973) and as the subject of
museum exhibitions and voluntary narratives of birangonas in newspapers
from the 1990s. I later found my way to the village of Enayetpur to conduct
more in-depth fieldwork, specifically to talk to birangonas in their everyday
lives today. Apart from the four women of Enayetpur (mentioned in the preface), I also worked with seven other women (from different parts of Bangladesh) who were raped in 1971: Chaya, Rukhshana, Afroza, Morjina, Bokul,
Shiromoni, and Shireen. In Enayetpur, I was helped by Khokon Hossein, a
young journalist who worked for a local newspaper. Wittily referred to in the
village as the shanghatik shangbadik (ferocious journalist) for his keen journalistic aspirations, he facilitated my access to muktijoddhas in and around
introduction 5

Enayetpur for the purpose of interviews. At various local and national sites, I
also interviewed and observed feminist and human rights activists and organizations, state officials, filmmakers, writers, and other producers of various
literary and visual representations of the birangonas of 1971.
Spectral Wound is the result of this multisited fieldwork. It documents and
analyzes the public memory of wartime rape perpetrated by the West Pakistani army and local Bengali men in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) during
the Bangladesh war of 1971. It seeks to explore the following questions: How
is the raped woman invoked in the public memory of 1971? What is the
relationship between this public memory and the experiences of women who
were raped in 1971? The book tries to counter the limited and orientalized
understanding of the impacts of wartime rape whereby the raped woman is
only understood to be an abnormal, horrific, dehumanized victim, abandoned by her kin. It ethnographically analyzes the social life of testimonies,
examining how the stories and experiences of raped women of the 1971 war
became part of a broader set of national discourses and debates, bringing together testimonies and visual representations. It examines how these visual
and literary representations of the raped woman create a public culture of
knowing and remembering her that in turn informs the processes of testifying and human rights. The book argues that identifying raped women only
through their suffering not only creates a homogeneous understanding of gendered victimhood but also suggests that wartime rape is experienced in the same
way by all victims. Spectral Wound instead utilizes a political and historical
analysis to highlight the varied experiences of wartime rape during 1971.
Addressing how the experiences of 1971 manifest 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, rumors,
and gossip),5 images, literary representations, and testimonies of rape among
survivors of sexual violence, their families and communities, the left-liberal
civil society, and different governments and state actors. Spectral Wound also
reflects on the silence relating to the violation and rape of men and juxtaposes
it with the public memory of the rape of women. This allows a theorization of
the relationship between the nation, sexuality, and masculinity and identifies
issues of demasculinization in the husbands of raped women.

6 introduction

Razakars and Birangonas: The Past in the Present

Worldwide, the dominant understanding is that communities and nations
consign sexual violence during conflict to oblivion and silence. It is understood to be a cost of war. In response to the assumed silence about wartime
rape, feminists and activists have found it imperative to testify, to witness, to
speak out, to recover, to give voice to raped womens narratives. This witnessing is both a methodology and a politics, and feminists and activists characterize it as empowering, therapeutic, and liberating to those being given or
finding their voice. Such activism has publicized the rapes of comfort women
in Japan during World War II, the rapes in Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s,
and sexual violence in Darfur and Congo.6
But wartime rape was already part of public conversation in Bangladesh in
the 1970s, immediately after the Bangladesh war, and it has continued to be
part of public discussion since the 1990s. Along with designating the raped
women as birangonas, the Bangladeshi government also set up various rehabilitation programs and centers for the women in 1972, organized marriages
for them, and helped them enter the labor market to guarantee that they were
not socially ostracized.7 Whether successful or not, the effort by the new Bangladeshi government to publicly present women raped during 1971 as war
heroines remains almost unparalleled. It is important to note that the Bangladeshi press did fall silent on the birangonas between 1973 and the 1990s,
as did the government. The issue of wartime rape has, however, remained on
the public stage, as a topic of literary and visual media (films, plays, photographs) since 1971, thereby ensuring that the raped woman has endured as an
iconic figure. Real-life encounters with the birangona after the war have also
contributed to the knowing of the birangona, as is evident in the following
When I started my fieldwork in 1997, many personal accounts of war among
a large number of people in cities, suburban towns, and villages featured knowing a woman who had been raped in 1971, who lived next door, in the same
road, or in the neighboring locality/village. The woman in question would
always be remembered through her disheveled hair, her loud laughter,
or her quietness or muteness, or as the one who stares into space with
deadened-eyes. Ratanlal Chakraborty of Dhaka University said that he saw
many women roaming different parts of Dhaka city like vagrants after the
war, from December 1971 until February 1972: Their dress and movements
were proof for many of us who were definite that they were victims of the war
and that they had nowhere to go (S.B. Rahman 2002). In various personal
introduction 7

communications during my research, individuals from different class backgrounds would remember returning after the war and encountering a raped
woman. I cite here responses of three individuals:
We were in Babur Road when we returned to Dhaka and there was a
house across the road where we saw many women with their unkempt
hair, coming out on the road, purposelessly. We could hear their laughter at night.
When we returned after the war, there was a woman next door who
looked unstable. . . . her hair was all over her face and she was always
quietwe knew she was raped.
After the war, my father saw thousands of raped women standing still,
back to back, against a truck. Not a hair moved among them and there
was no sign of life in their eyes. They were mute, with deadened eyes
like Qurbani, sacrificial cattle. Whenever I utter the word birangona I
invariably think of that image. (Gazi 2014)
These postwar encounters with the raped women resonate powerfully with
the famous hair photograph and the way various people referred to it to make
sense of their own war time encounter. It is telling that while the staging of
the play Birangona draws upon the memory of the directors father (as mentioned earlier in the Preface), the theater company also chose the hair photograph on its poster to stand in for this memory of the birangona.
Alongside the figure of the birangona in these narratives is the figure of the
razakar, a male collaborator. Local Bengalis and Bihari Muslims collaborated
with the Pakistani army in the rapes and killings during 1971. Bangladeshis
refer to them as razakars, which means volunteers or helpers in Persian and
Urdu, but they use the term pejoratively, as the name Judas might be used
in Europe or Mirjafar in West Bengal, Indiainsults based on historical
figures of betrayal. Numbering around fifty thousand, razakars are deemed
to be those who spoke Urdu, came to East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) during
the 1947 partition, and were members of the religious reactionary parties like
jmi (Salek 1977), Al Badr, and Al Shams (which formed peace committees
during the 1971 war). Their collaboration with the Pakistani army resulted in the
death of anywhere from 300,000 to 3 million civilians (these numbers are contested numbers, depending on who is articulating them), the death of around
18 to 50 intellectuals,8 the rape of hundreds of thousands of women (these
numbers also are contested, varying between 100,000 and400,000), and25,000
to 195,000 forced pregnancies.
8 introduction

The left-liberal activist community stereotypically represents the razakar with a beard and a cap, as signifiers of Islamic identity.9 Since 2009, the
government has tried many of these collaborators at the controversial war
crimes tribunal in Dhaka and has sentenced six to death. On December12,
2013, one of those being tried for these war crimes was executed in the midst
of jubilation as well as anger. Nonetheless, in independent Bangladesh,
powerful razakars have gained political power. Some were cabinet ministers
in the government led by Khaleda Zia and the bnp, in 2001. Some of them are
Islamicists who belong toor are politically closer tojmi, the right-wing
Islamic party.
The razakar and the birangona are iconic figures in the public memory of
1971: male and female, perpetrator and survivor, both public and both secret,
both being memories of that past which are erupting and shaping the present.
That in contemporary Bangladesh there is need for the razakar to be punished
is powerfully shown through the following vignette. Heard in nearly all parts
of Bangladesh, it establishes a direct relationship between the raped woman
and the collaborator.
A razakar who once provided women to the Pakistani army falls prey to
his own deeds. On a day when there are no women to provide, the Pakistani
general rapes the razakars own daughter. The daughter commits suicide after
disclosing her fathers betrayal to the villagers. I found this story in books
published in the 1990s documenting the narratives of torture and violation of
1971. Syed Shamsul Haqs famous play, Payer Aoaj Paoa Jai (Footsteps can be
heard; [1976] 1991), focuses on this account of rape, which I also found to be
the content of various dramatized stage plays and televised serials. The ubiquity and consistency of this account of rape through its circulation through
literary, press, and media accounts might suggest that this narrative enables
people to imagine how a collaborator might have been punished, seemingly
possible only by the rape of his daughter! The punishment meted out to the
razakar through his daughters rape also alerts us to the prevailing discomfort
toward the birangonas transgressed sexuality. The reactions to the hair photograph typify this discomfort.
The ceaseless exchange across national and cultural boundaries of this
visual economy of the birangona in this public, and its intertextuality (the
intertwined, circulatory traces of discourses, symbols, and images that crossreference each other in different texts, contexts, and times) with witness accounts have significantly contributed to the efficacy of this representation of
the raped woman as a horrific wound. It is important for me to clarify my
use of wound, a psychoanalytically loaded term that has been all too easily
introduction 9

invoked to mean something painful that bears witness to a forgotten trauma

and past injustice. This definition allows a seamless, ahistorical sliding of individual trauma into collective trauma. Instead, I use wound literally to refer to
the physical and social injuries through which different Bangladeshi publics
identify and thereafter circulate, know, and imagine the iconic figure of the
birangona. This hair image has brought the horrific events of 1971 to the
attention of an international public, the image standing in for the continual
wounded history of Bangladesh.

Feminist Oral Historiography and Public Memory

My focus on the gendered narratives of sexual violence occurring during
times of conflict builds on the theoretical, methodological, and ethical concerns emerging from the scholarship of feminist oral historiography relating
to the partition of 1947 (Butalia 1998;R. Menon and Bhasin 1998; Das 1995)
and womens experience in 1971 (DCosta 2011; Saikia 2011). Drawing on testimonies and documents, these works alert us to the ethical pitfalls of uncovering these narratives. This is a concern of contemporary significance given
the continuation of sexual violence during conflicts, including the current
rapes perpetrated by the Indian army in its attempts to suppress resistance to
its authority in Kashmir, in the northeastern states, and in Sri Lanka during
the civil war. In fact, unconfirmed reports alleged that soldiers of the Indian
Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka raped Rajiv Gandhis suicide bomber assassin (Dhanu or Thenmozhi Rajaratnam).10
The history of partition is the poignant account of deep mental and physical violation of women, as is made clear by the rich scholarship on partition violence that was published in the 1990s: The Other Side of Silence (Butalia 1998),
Borders and Boundaries (R. Menon and Bhasin 1998), and Critical Events (Das
1995). These works show how non-actors are shaped by an epochal event and
how their response enables a critique of political history (R. Menon and
Bhasin 1998, 16). Throughout this book, I draw extensively on Veena Dass
(1995) theorization of the relation between language, body, pain, and the
state via the lens of women affected by the anti- Sikh riots of 1984 and the
partition of 1947. Through oral history narratives, Butalia highlights how partition divided families, how they rebuilt lives, what resources they drew upon,
how the trauma of displacement and losing ones home shaped their lives,
and the indispensability of low-caste and low-status jobs in the context of
conflict. Butalia, Das, and Menon and Bhasin were the first to focus on the
role of family violence and honor killings (as a mark of masculine honor)
10 introduction

of women during partition, Telling the stories of women who had resorted to
violence by killing themselves, and how their families could only recall them
as heroic martyrs (e.g., Butalia 1998, 62), their work shows how scholars and
others usually conceptualize violence as male and patriarchal.
My work on the testimonial cultures of the public memory of wartime
rape also engages with two academic books on the gendered account of the
Bangladesh war that have provided a timely framework for debates relating to
womens experiences of 1971: Bina DCostas Nationbuilding, Gender and War
Crimes in South Asia (2011) and Yasmin Saikias Women, War and the Making of
Bangladesh: Remembering 1971 (2011). From a feminist approach based in the
disciplinary paradigms of international relations, DCosta (2011) tracks in detail the trajectory of nationalism in Bangladesh, the sequence of events from
1947 to 1971, and the impact of the war on Hindu victims. Drawing on the
hope of insaniyat or manushyata (the capacity to recognize the shared human
condition), Saikia (2011) attempts to map out a transformative, empowering,
responsible space in response to the violent narratives of 1971. Many of her
respondents show an inner capacity for humanity in the midst of violence
and war. Saikia includes the narratives of five women raped during the war,
referring to them as victims and distinguishing them from liberation fighters. Saikia mentions other narratives and describes three women who were
involved in providing various ser vices during the war, two female liberation
fighters, and two mena Bengali liberation fighter who had also committed
rape and a Pakistani soldierwho were the perpetrators of violence during
1971. Her work is important for its focus on the experiences of a Bihari woman,
a war babyBeautywho struggles with her mother for a true account of the
events of her birth and its focus on perpetrators.
I agree that as a supplement to existing womens history, oral histories can
give a texture and quality to womens lives. Also, just as the anti-Sikh riots of
1984 became a trigger for an exploration of the violent, undocumented events
of the partition of 1947 (Das 1995), similarly, in Bangladesh in the 1990s, feminists and human rights activists sought to document womens oral histories of
their rape of 1971 and try the collaborators of the Bangladesh war. This created
the conditions that enabled various women to narrate their violent histories
of 1971 and their post1971 life trajectories.
While drawing on oral histories and narratives of the women affected,
following work by Das, Butalia, and Menon and Bhasin, I also draw on government speeches, documents, and interviews with social workers and other
authorities who worked among these women. These invaluable archives of
social memory have allowed me to think through how the state, when seeking
introduction 11

to implement rules for the supposed best interests of its citizens, actually
exercises violence covertly. In the case of partition, Das (1995) examined at
length the intervention of the Pakistani and Indian states in bureaucratically
recovering Hindu and Muslim women abducted into Muslim and Hindu
communities to police the sexuality of women in the name of securing their
well-being. DCostas work also examines the state processes regarding children
born during 1971, homeless widows, and the role of various leaders, doctors,
missionaries (respondent M and Geoffrey Davis in DCosta 2002), and social
While drawing on oral history, this book also identifies the limitations of
depending solely on it. I am particularly cautious of how oral history, testimony, and memory are often invoked uncritically in retrieving untold stories of a real past, an approach that has been critiqued by historians and
anthropologists: Popular memory, has come to be increasingly important as
an alternative, oppositional archive that allows access to untold stories of
a real past that can presumably be tapped into by simply posing the right
questions (M. Sarkar 2006, 140).
I am wary of the attempt to recover and give voice and here borrow
the words of Veena Das: It is often considered the task of historiography to
break the silence that announces the zones of taboo. There is even something
heroic in the image of empowering women to speak and to give voice to the
voiceless. I have myself found this a very complicated task, for when we use
such imagery as breaking the silence we may end up using our capacity to
unearth hidden facts as a weapon (2006, 57). I agree with Sarkar and Das
and instead focus on testimonial cultures (S. Ahmed and Stacey 2001) to
examine the dominant narrative through which sexual violence during the
Bangladesh war is described in the public memory. I follow the ethnographic
and historiographical work of scholars who have all focused on a post-event
trajectory among their informants.11 In the process, they have engaged critically with the prevalent idea that speaking/having a voice can alone be healing. Further, they explore the social life of these testimonies to examine how
narratives can be appropriated in various contexts.
My argument and emphasis on examining wartime rape within its postconflict dynamics and political framework have also gained succor from two
works: Skjelsbks (2012) book on the political psychology of war rape in
Bosnia, and Baaz and Sterns (2013) unpacking of the power dynamics of rape
as a war crime in Congo. Skjelsbk argues against a unified experience
of ostracization of the raped woman. Similar to Bangladesh, Commentaries
12 introduction

and academic publications on the war rape tragedy in Bosnia have argued
almost with one voice that raped Bosniak women would be stigmatized and
ostracized by their families (2012, 46). She shows through her case studies
that the postconflict experience is not so homogeneous, and that women
continue to live with their families and husbands in spite of their articulated
experience of wartime rape. Skjelsbk argues that femininity, masculinity,
and violent political power struggles interact in constructing the meaning of
sexual violence in armed conflict in Bosnia. In fact, positioning oneself as an
ethnic victim of wartime rape makes possible the construction of a survivor
identity and creates solidaritya solidarity that supersedes the patriarchal
relationships in the family. Baaz and Stern (2013) explore the power relations
in feminist engagements relating to rape as a war crime in Congodeemed
the rape capital of the world. They show how a generalized story of rape in
war limits our abilities to analyse and redress instances of sexual violence in
specific warscapes as well as to attend to those people whose lives are circumscribed by such violence (Bazz and Stern 2013, 5).
While drawing extensively from this scholarship on the birangonas, feminist oral history, and ethnography, Spectral Wound adds to and reframes this
literature in three ways. First, it contextualizes these narratives within their
complex representational postconflict politics and locates them within visual, literary, and national representations. In this book the small, individual
voices not only are connected to the national narratives but also address
events of 1971 and the 1990s. Given the presence of a substantial visual representation of the birangonas, I contextualize most of the images through discussions with their photographers and various audiences. This multisited
view is absent from any of the existing work on birangonas, where images
are often cited without analysis and sometimes without acknowledgment of
the photographers. Saikia, in describing her book as womens memories as
told by women (2011, 15), has also suggested that womens memories cannot
be subsumed within categories and reduced to analytical frames (11) because
they are the sites of an embedded past. However, if womens testimonies are
deemed to be sacred, both without and above politics, how could we map
the hierarchies in the representational, discursive, and testimonial politics
that we find in the public memory of wartime rape of the Bangladesh war of
1971? In highlighting the political and representational complexity of the issues surrounding the subject of public memory of wartime rape in 1971, Spectral Wound connects the complex ethnographic social relations among the
birangonas to discourses at the level of local politics and to the representational
introduction 13

overlay in state-sponsored ceremonies, film, and oral history and documentary projects, as well as to the emergence of the birangona in popular culture
such as magazine advertisements, poetry, and short stories.
Second, the book also argues for the existence of both public memory and
public secrecy, in contrast to the prevalent understanding that there has simply
been silence about wartime rape and that we need to give voice to these narratives.12 I found a public invocation of wartime rape in Bangladesh in instances
of government speeches, in the state reference to women as birangonas, and
in literary and visual representations. Again, I acknowledge that this public
memory of the representation of the birangona was not complemented by
narratives of the experiences of real birangonas (apart from two testimonies
in Rahmana [198285, Vol. 8: 236, 398]) until the 1990s, when oral history
projects on war time rape were being carried out.
A focus on breaking the silence is unable to capture dual aspects of the
history of rape of 1971in contemporary Bangladesh and the interesting questions they lead us to. On the one hand, the very presence of the public memory of the birangona in Bangladesh is exceptional for most global instances of
wartime rape. On the other hand, in my ethnographic research I found that,
juxtaposed with this public memory, there exists a public secrecy of the histories of wartime rape. For example, I found that in rural areas, families and
communities knew about the rape of the woman during 1971. They explain
that the women haush kore jai nai, jor purbok oi kaaj hoise (the woman did
not go on their own, but that work [rape] happened as a result of force). They
would, however, prefer to not talk about it today for various socioeconomic
reasons (as explored in chapter3). At the same time, they would remember
what not to forget and repeat it as a secret, a public secret. Public memory
and public secrecy thereby complement each other throughout this book.
The public secrecy also exists in what I refer to as the talkable history for
the birangonas, that is, the stories of their post1971 trajectories. This is not
addressed by oral history projects, which focus predominantly on the experience of rape of 1971 (chapter2). This book addresses the dynamics of public
secrecy in relation to 1947 and partition (chapter1); the role of scorn in villages coping with the history of rape during 1971 (chapter3); the local politics
of appropriation and hidden transcripts (chapter4); testimonial cultures and
the presence of a wound rather than trauma (chapter5 and conclusion); the
fragmented experiences of men, demasculinization, and silence about the violation of men compared with the public memory of the rape of women during 1971 (chapters5 and7); and the way in which the birangona is portrayed
14 introduction

as a traitor (chapter9). An examination of public secrecy captures the social

nuances of life trajectories after wartime rape, which the paradigm of voice/
silence, darkness/light is unable to address.
Third, while focusing on gendered narratives, Spectral Wound not only
examines the experiences of women but also brings to the surface mens
relationships to sexual violence, and sexualitys link to the nation (similar to
Zarkovs [2001] work in the case of Croatia). I also examine the role of men,
masculinity, and the vulnerabilities of patriarchal men linked to the public
memory of wartime rape during 1971.
Overall, then, the book draws from existing scholarship on feminist oral
historiography but also restructures it considerably. It focuses not only on the
experiences of women but also on those of men; examines public memory
and public secrecy of war time rape rather than seeking to highlight silent
narratives; and finally contextualizes the narratives within wider political,
literary, and visual discourses. The book shows how the accounts of rape
survivors manifest various national policies and narratives, and it also interrogates them. It explores the political functions and the social ramifications
of testimonial witnessing within national processes, as women sought redress
for violent pasts. As a result, the book not only focuses on the power and
limits of representation of the figure of the war heroine but also connects discourse with institutions at several levels. The book thus stands in a complex
relationship to the Bangladeshi nationalist narrative, highlighting its ambiguities and tensions with everyday lives and imaginaries relating to wartime rape
during 1971.

How to Do Ethnography of Memory, History, and Violence?

How to conduct ethnography of violence is an important ethical and methodological question. I sought to avoid making the women conspicuous, to
prevent exacerbation of their varied social situations, and to contextualize
their experiences within local politics and history. As a result, my work explores the circulation,13 dialectics, and social context of the testimonies of
rape, rather than mirroring the prevalent practice of providing a linear, voyeuristic description of accounts of sexual violence. In the following section, I
explore specific ethical and methodological issues of memory, positioning,
and authority.

introduction 15

memorializing history
The historical trajectory of Bangladesh contains many ruptured pasts, in which
one identity has prevailed over another at different times. Today the history
of the war is a festering, unreconciled one. What are the roles of history
and memory? Academics and nonacademics within and beyond Bangladesh situate them in a hierarchy of credibility. Talking about my research,
I would often be asked: Memory! How would you know it is true? People
distinguish memory from history through a series of oppositions: whereas
memory is subjective, authentic, and individualized, history is objective, reconstructed, and collective.14 Rather than valorizing and romanticizing either
history or memory as distinctive authentic tools, my work focuses on the discursive, circulatory, intertextual, and dialogical account of public memories.15
Both history and memory draw from dominant narratives that can also supply the very terms of recall. As Antze and Lambek have argued: Memories
are never simply records of the past, but are interpretive reconstructions that
bear the imprint of local narrative conventions, cultural assumptions, discursive formations and practices and social contexts of recall and commemoration (1996, vii). An ethnographic perspective on the public memories of wartime rape of 1971 allows us to explore the multiple voices and their individual
and social aspects of remembering (as well as forgetting) within political and
historical contexts.
Exploring the public memories of wartime rape of 1971 within the context
of the institutionalized memory16 of an Awami League government was
bound to have an impact not only on what of 1971 people remembered but
also on how they recalled and transmitted those memories to others, including me. So rather than a search for the core of knowledge, through which
informants may be dressing up differently in different genres (Vansina 1985,
32), I try to examine the form that peoples retelling takes and the reasons this
form seemed more suitable for the birangonas to narrate their experiences.
In particular, it is important to understand how people repeated rumors to
negotiate uncertain situations, and I was careful to explore how people began
and closed their retellings.
Interviews, discussions, oral histories, and testimonies also cannot be
understood outside the constitutive social relationships and framework of exchange (Tonkin, Macdonald and Chapman 1989, 90) between the narrator
and the interviewer. Following Shahid Amin, I have not used oral history
asa seasoning to enliven documentary evidence (1995, 194). My attempt has
been to arrive at an enmeshed, intertwined, and imbricated web of narratives
16 introduction

from every available source. It is the exposition of the framework of exchange

between the narrator and the interviewer and the conditions under which
the testimony is produced that can alone provide an ethical and subjectiveobjective understanding of the narrative.
frameworks of exchange and ethics
Although I stayed with one of the powerful families in the village (they felt
they had to host the foreign researcher), I started my fieldwork by interviewing various liberation fighters in the village and the surrounding areas.
My research assistant, Khokhon, helped me connect with people. In due
course, the women invited me to visit them and talk to them about their experiences. In the midst of the discussions about the 1990s, the women started
talking to me in fragments about their experiences of 1971. My in-depth participant observation in the villagetalking with the women in their homes,
accompanying them to visit their relatives homes, and meeting with local
council leaders and liberation fightersgave me multifaceted insights into
their daily interactions. It also helped me map their claims on and encounters with the state at the local and national levels. At the same time, my interviews and discussions with local liberation fighters and villagers contextualized
the womens rape during 1971 within the local politics and history of 1971 and
the 1990s.
I have predominantly worked with the four women in western Bangladesh,
as well as seven other women in other parts of Bangladesh. Various interpersonal connections and public testimonies in newspapers led me to work
with these women in particular. My multiple subjectivitiesa single, young,
middle-class, Bengali Indian woman with an upper-caste Hindu surname,
based in Calcutta and studying in Londonwere interrogated by various
Bangladeshis. I was an insider-outsider, which both enabled and hindered
ethnographic connections,17 as well as manifested in novel ethnographic maya
(attachments), dilemmas, and encounters. This was fieldwork at home,18 to
a certain extent, enabling me to relearn our common and different histories.
Though I would reiterate that I was from India and not from Bangladesh,
people would rationalize that, since I was working on the Muktijuddho and
since I am Hindu (as is apparent from my surname), I had to be sympathetic
to the Awami League because of its pro-Hindu and pro-India policies.
My upper-caste Hindu identity proved to be a hindrance in establishing
the authenticity of my personhood. I was living in a Muslim household, and
people considered this inconsistent with my Hindu norms. Was I actually
Muslim and hence Pakistani (as I was considered fair-skinned)? A photograph
introduction 17

showing my mother tall and fair-skinned, stereotypical physiological markers of the militarythe term used in Enayetpur to refer to the Pakistani
armyonly exacerbated their uncertainties. News spread of my present location in London, that I have a white moner manush (person of ones own
heart), and that I consumed beefall of which made me a Christian. Specifically regarding narratives of rape in Enayetpur, people would tell me that
being unmarried and changra (a colloquial term to mean young), I would not
understand the bodily processes of a sexual relationship and hence could
not discern the violence of rape.
I picked up Bengali Muslim practices relating to language and food, which
helped me connect with various communities. Choice of words and language
is a significant indicator of the speakers Hindu or Muslim identity in Bangladesh. When I was in Bangladesh, I got into the habit of using the word pani
for water, like my Muslim interlocutors.19 But minority Hindus in Enayetpur
continuously criticized me for doing so (they used the word jol; Mookherjee
2008a). I realized that my position of privilege allowed me to engage with
Muslims in a way that the Hindus in Enayetpur might not. Then, on further reflection, it occurred to me that my crossing over was blurring the authenticity of my personhood. For the Hindus, my adoption of what they perceived as
Muslim practices suggested something about my bad family background
and upbringing; it was also a threat to the practices themselves that were important to them in upholding their identity as a minority Hindu community,
which they already perceived to be under threat.
Given the sensitive and difficult nature of the topic of wartime rape and
the involvement of the lives of individuals affected by it, I have felt discomfort in carrying out this research and am troubled by issues of authorship and
representation. I negotiated a complex terrain of power dynamics with informants among the local village elites and also among left-liberal intellectuals in Dhaka. This showed me how configuring power as emanating only
from the anthropologist toward the informants is limited in the context of
the dilemmas relating to my multisited research, and which George Marcus
(1998, 121) has cautioned us against (see chapter9). In this world of multisited ethnography, multiple actors from weak, ambiguous, and strong positions
of power all manage ethnographic engagement. I straddle two boats: Spivak
(1993) cautions that research and representation are irreducibly intertwined
with politics, power, and privilege. Taussig (1987) challenges anthropologists
to be self-critical of their historical and contextual positions and to speak out
against the injustices they encounter in their research habitus. Although
the women were hostile to me initially, over time their trust and friendship
18 introduction

emerged in response to my role as an advocate of their causes (I was very

careful in this role and did not make any false promises). They instead worried about my vulnerability when traveling alone as a foreigner and a changra
(young) woman. As a result, my role was not necessarily always endowed
with power: they chose to ignore me when they wanted and narrated their
accounts in their own way and their own time.20
Over the years and before my fieldwork, the women had written various
letters to the prime minister requesting a meeting to allow them to narrate
their experiences of injustice (see chapter 4). They sent these letters via
various individuals who were notable, national figures in the field of human
rights with access to the head of state. An inherent tension exists between
the researcher and those she works with given the imbalance between the
attempt to uncover problems and the ability to solve them. There was a moral
imperative for me to communicate to the national actors the birangonas
need to highlight their lot of history, a severe history. I was, however, careful to avoid the delusions of political activist grandeur (Scheper-Hughes
and Bourgois 2004, 26). I took advantage of my foreign researcher status and
brought the womens letters again to some of these individuals. I did not expect my efforts to be any more successful than others similar interventions,
but the prime ministers office called the women in early April 1998, soon after
I delivered the letters. My status in Enayetpur changed. No longer did the
women and the villagers consider me a young, foreign woman of no use. Now
they were sure I had direct access to the prime minister, which was certainly
not the case. Much as I tried to correct this misconception, the idea was not
easily dislodged. At the end of my fieldwork, I also established contact between the birangonas children, who were looking for jobs, and a liberation
fighter turned industrialist in Dhaka. This muktijoddha hired them (and they
continue to work for him). After my fieldwork, my research on sexual violence has been successfully used by the activist network Drishtipat to raise
$15,000 for the purpose of seeking compensation for thirteen war-affected
women.21 So this post-fieldwork situation could be seen to bestow power on
me in terms of my continuing relationships with these women. Nonetheless,
power was not always linearly inflected in every aspect of our relationships
and friendships.
Central to this book are ethical concerns relating to the narratives of sexual
violence, and the conflicts and contradictions of working with confidential
accounts, on the one hand, and public secrecy, on the other. When I asked the
women directly whether I should anonymize their names in my writings, they
said that I should use their own names because it is our own kotha (words),
introduction 19

mela itihash (a lot of history), ja ma tomare ditesi (what mother we are giving to you [referring to me as mother, which is an affectionate term used
for younger women by older women]). Yet at other moments, the women
would ask me to erase their names whenever I found them on the pages of any
other book. Given the sensitivity of the material and the understandably contradictory positions of the women, I have used pseudonyms in all instances.
The women had publicly acknowledged their history of rape in newspapers
and within a civil society movement in the 1990s, which seemed to nullify
ethical concerns about doing research with them. But the experiences of the
women during 1971 were a public secret in Enayetpur (see chapters4 and5).
All the villagers knew that I was studying the history of 1971in and around
Enayetpur. The women and their families were aware that I was specifically
exploring the history of rape during the war. Maybe the villagers who were
interrogating the reason for my presence in the village realized that I knew
of the womens history (having read about it previously in newspapers), but
they could not easily articulate that suspicion. The layers of collusion and
misapprehension in our relationships can be best described as partial fictions
( . . . not falsehoods) that lie at the heart of anthropological field research
(Geertz 2000, 34).
Maybe we all knew what not to know. The powerful regulative ideal of rapport with the women, their families, and the villagers undoubtedly enabled
my research. However, it sits here with complicitywhat Geertz refers to as
the key rapport-defining act, an anthropological irony of fictions that each
side accepts.22 When I lived with the women for eight months, I found it unthinkable to ask them direct questions about what happened to them in 1971
during the war. Instead, I listened to how the women and their families spoke
and what they wanted to narratenamely, the events in the 1990swhich I
have referred to as talkable history. Though the women did not talk about
their experience of the war, they instead showed how they folded this violence (Das etal. 2000) into their lives through various everyday gestures, narrative fragments, and embodied narratives. These became powerful modes of
conveying what of 1971 the women wanted to communicate. By focusing on
these fragments, and eschewing linear and testimonial and formal narratives,
I have tried to refer to sexual violence without making it inauthentic of the
experiences of birangonas or pornography of violence (Daniel 1996, 4).
Much has been written by feminist oral history scholars about the ethical dilemmas of representing the voices of women, which ends up being the
researchers interpretation and representation. Butalia, Saikia, DCosta, and
Menon and Bhasin rightly point out the contradiction between feminism and
20 introduction

ethnography and the competing goals of enabling change among the people
we work with and yet appropriating voices for the purpose of publications,
job prospects, and career enhancement. While all of this is true, I do not consider birangonas to be victims and instead see these women as negotiating
complex terrains of sociality and history. Because they were narrating their
account publicly, I have not broken their silence irresponsibly and unproblematically. A focus on fragments of their narratives and on their everyday
sociality also highlights the dark humor through which they astutely engage
with their experiences of 1971 and post1971 socialities alongside their husbands, communities, and the national activists. Heeding the caution of various feminist scholars about the extractive nature of ethnography, I definitely
do not view the women and their families as faded subjects, and I value above
anything the affectionate and strong ties of contact that they maintain with
me. Throughout this book I try to raise various questions about the political,
experiential, and representational complexity of the issues surrounding the
subject that are perhaps by nature irresolvable and cannot be untangled.
Whenever I have explained my research, a common response has been how
hard it must have been for me to carry out this project. The horror and pain of
sexual violence that saturate the materials have weighed me down emotionally. Academic analysis of these materials often seemed banal. The despair,
frustration, and inarticulability of the pain and suffering of the birangonas of
Enayetpur often left me numb. I took sides when communicating the distressing situation of the women against the intellectuals and their appropriation
of the womens narratives. Yet I tried to identify the emotions and interests of
members of the activist community, the injustice of their own unreconciled
war experiences that they grappled with and their personal traumas of having
lost loved ones through violent deaths. My friendships with the women and
their families in Enayetpur, other friends in the village, my hosts turned family friends, and some of the feminists, filmmakers, and human rights lawyers
in Dhaka persist today and enabled the continuation of my fieldwork outside
My knowledge of the historical narratives by the political Right (such as
the bnp and jmi) is largely based on press reports and history textbooks from
1975 to 1995. The Pakistani account of 1971 is absent in this study. I am cognizant that as an Indian, Hindu outsider, my work critiques Bangladeshi
nationalist narratives, political parties, and movements that are deemed to
be progressive by the left-liberal networks. I feel trepidation at the thought
that, like the Bharatiya Janata Partys (bjps) appropriation of Taslima Nasrins work in India, my criticisms could be appropriated for the purpose of
introduction 21

Bangladeshi partisan politics and could be used to demonize Pakistan and

strengthen the age-old India-Pakistan enmity. Such potential misinterpretations of this study are far from my intention. My critique of the politics of testimonies and memory could be easily misappropriated by recent revisionist
accounts to say that nothing happened in Bangladesh and it was all Bangladeshi propaganda.23 There is no doubt that East Pakistani women were raped
by the Pakistani army and their local collaborators, as evidenced through the
long-term fieldwork I and others have done. Significantly, the book also highlights how war itself results in various kinds of complicities: the acts of sexual
violence undertaken by East Pakistani Bengali men on Bengali women within
the context of opportunities thrown up by war, and the appropriation of land
and resources by the powerful (both liberation fighters and collaborators)
after the war. So the stories that emerge here are as much about complicities
of the wartime situation itself as they are about the memories of the postwar
I must add an important note relating to the controversial issue of numbers, lack of documents, and various debates relating to the visual archive.
Various sources have cited the number of dead during the Bangladesh war
as between 300,000 and3 million.24 Similarly, the number of women raped
varies from between 100,000 and 200,000 (Brownmiller 1975) to 400,000
(the number stated by an Australian doctor, Geoffrey Davis, in the special
issue on genocide of Banglar Bani, December 1972; Hasan 2002). The historiography of these numbers is unclear. I am more interested in the role of
these official, contested numbers that have canonized and come to stand in
for the ravages of Muktijuddho.25 The numbers have transformed the martyrs
and raped women into a faceless, essentialized, and enumerative community
(Kaviraj 1992, 20).26 At the same time, the rape and killing of Bihari women
and men by Bengali muktijoddhas has remained unaccounted for. Only recently have many feminist scholars and filmmakers within and beyond Bangladesh begun to address this issue, rupturing the nationalist narrative.27 They
describe, as I have, how wars and conflicts are rife with instances of violence,
kindness, cowardice, complicity, and contradictions by the same individuals.
By means of testimonies, they show the multiple, contradictory subjectivities
of the Bangladesh war experience and the violence inflicted upon the poor,
women, Biharis, and adivasis (indigenous communities). My work starts
where these testimonial forms end in order to explore how the private pain
of wartime rape is made part of the public memory. This does not negate the
horrific historical events that generated these injuries.
22 introduction

Achriye bar korlo (Scraped/Combed

and Brought Us Out): The Combing of History
One day, when I sat talking with Moyna (one of the war heroines in western Bangladesh), a stray dog, which had come for food, started scraping the
ground with its paws. Pointing to the dog, Moyna said, Je bhabe ei kuttata
achraiche, shei bhabe amader achraye bar korlo [Like the way this dog is scraping
the ground, we were also scraped/combed and brought out]. The poignancy
in Moynas voice in this comment reflects her experience of being found, made
visible, by achraye (being searched for and scraped out) in the 1990s. This
experience of becoming a nationally known birangona along with her experience of rape in 1971 is intrinsic to her everyday life. Differently spelled, the
verb achraye/achrano can mean scraping, scratching, or searching, as well as
the act of combing haircombing through hair (or testimonies) to find information, and also combing hair over to hide the face or a wound on the head
(Cohen 1994). David Cohen (1994, xvii) develops the combing metaphor
through American historian Herb Gutmans narration in 1980 of the story of
Camella Teoli, a figure who was injured during the 1912 strike of Lawrence
mill workers and as a result had a scar on her head. Her daughter combed her
mothers hair to cover the history of this scar on her head. The metaphor of
combing (Cohen 1994, 246) expresses the processes of both remembering
and occlusionthat both the war heroines and the documenters of their history undertake public memory and public secrecy alike. The comb represents
simultaneously the power to reveal and search for knowledge and attempts to
cover and veil knowledge from inspection.
We can also juxtapose Moynas achrano with the uncombed, disheveled
hair of the birangona in Ahmeds famous hair photograph (see fig.P.1). Many
consider this image to be the horrific sign of shame, of the abnormality of
being a birangona and the anonymity resulting from it. But the face covered
with hair can also be read as the means through which the birangona is able
to hide, the way in which her wound is combed over.
Here is the central dynamic of the testimonial culture prevalent in Bangladesh, which also brings out the central arguments of the book in relation
to public secrecy and contextualization of testimonies within historical and
political dynamics: the left-liberal community documents the birangonas
history of 1971, combing through and searching for information about her
horrific wound; at the same time, the left-liberal community combs over, hides,
and keeps out of human rights narratives the intricacies of the long-term and
introduction 23

in-depth impact of rape on the birangona and her family. In documenting the
narratives of these public birangonas, human rights activists combed (searched
for) the birangonas horrific wound as well as combed (hid) the intricacies of
her life after the rape.
The important questions to pose, then, are these: What makes the raped
woman visible and audible at certain historical junctures? And what makes
her invisible and inaudible at that same moment? The 1990s narratives of
womens wartime rape did not emerge because of the sudden end of censorship, because the women broke their silence, or because society came to
terms with its traumatic past overnight ( James 2005, 145). Rather, the publication of a photograph of the Enayetpur birangonas and their mute testimony
reignited the question of the role of the collaborators in the sexual violence
of 1971. In the 1990s an organization in Dhaka brought together a number
of raped women to testify about their experiences. This was part of a movement undertaken by the left-liberal civil society (see chapter1 for a detailed
discussion) to demand the trial of Gholam Azam, a razakar who had been
reinstated in the political landscape of Bangladesh. When the photograph
of the three women (from western Bangladesh) at this event was published
on the front page of all leading Bangladeshi newspapers, it became a visual
testimony of how women raped during 1971 were seeking justice in the 1990s
against the collaborators. Although the women did not speak at the event,
the photograph brought the topic of wartime rape back into the Bangladeshi
press in the 1990s.
We need to frame this photograph within Bangladeshi and international
politics. First, memories of 1971 were increasingly important in Bangladeshi
politics of the 1990s, particularly in the trial of collaborators (like Gholam
Azam) who had been politically reinstated during the fifteen years of military rule (197590). Second, the events of 1971 remain unacknowledged as
genocide within international law because the Bangladesh war occurred in
the context of Cold War politics, with the United States and China supporting Pakistan, and the Soviet Union supporting India and Bangladesh.28 It is
indeed a war that time forgot (Anam 2008). This nonrecognition of the
Bangladesh war as genocide, combined with the United Nations declaration
of rape as a war crime in 1995 and the offer of apology by the Japanese government to the comfort women, led various Bangladeshi feminist and human
rights activists to document histories of sexual violation committed during the 1971 war so as to provide supporting evidence to enable the trial
of the collaborators.29 It was imperative for manyespecially those whose
family members, friends, and loved ones were killed during the 1971 war (par24 introduction

ticularly the families of the martyred intellectuals)to seek justice for these
deaths by demanding the trial of collaborators. This process entailed a search
for grassroots, subaltern war heroines and resulted in the recording
of their testimonies of rape by various left-liberal journalists, feminists, ngo
activists, and human rights lawyers.
Rather than a focus on silence and giving voice, Spectral Wound explores
how the birangona is searched for and then hidden within the public memory
of wartime rape of 1971. It illustrates how the war heroine is represented and
viewed through the coupling of heroism and ambiguity, which ensures that
only her horrific history of rape is told, not forgotten or silenced, even as
the complexities of her life story are occluded from the prevalent discourse
of the war.
Along with using the metaphor of combing to ethnographically examine
the birangonas narration of the testimonial culture, I draw on Jacques Derridas Specters of Marx (1994) to deconstruct the visual and state narratives of
the birangona as sites of enunciation or effaced invocation through the analytical tools of absent presence of the spectral war heroine. I am not using the
word spectral to refer to a presence that hints at past injustices and is a resistive figure.30 Rather, in the various documents of the history of rape, the sign
of the war heroineher narratives, her testimonies (in photographs, books,
and newspapers)is inhabited by a play of absence and presence of the effaced but legible trace (Derrida 1976, xvii). The frequency with which the
birangona is evoked, brought into existence so that she can be effaced and exited, inscribes her with the logic of a specter. Thereby she can be subjected to a
double sense of calling into presence in her absence and made safely available
for the nation. Spectral Wound shows how various literary, visual, and testimonial representations put forward by left-liberal activists make the birangona
disappear even while affectively invoking her, bringing into play at the same
juncture both of the connotations of combing oversearching for and hiding. In the nations positive conceptual formulation of the raped woman,31 she
can only be exemplified in the absence of her presence, through horrific enactment and representation as a wound, which ensures a greater invocation of
her trauma. It is these wounds that allow Bangladeshi citizens to affectively
feel the birangona so as to mobilize younger generations against the collaborators. At the same time, many Bangladeshis perceive her as a threatening figure
because of her transgressed sexuality. The emphasis on the wound of the war
heroine creates a pathological public sphere whereby the raped woman can
only be perceived as a horrific alterity. Mark Seltzer (1997, 3) defines this as a
public sphere that is mesmerized by stories of suffering and the spectacle of
introduction 25

the wounded and dismembered bodies. Lindsay French (1994) has shown
how the spectacle of the bodies of land mine amputees in the Thai-Cambodia
border becomes an important means for the mobilization of values to enable
a visceral identification with these injured bodies, as well as a simultaneous
repulsion of these bodies. The affective knowing of the birangona thereby
transforms what constitutes a public sphere: to feel for the violent history of
rape becomes the cornerstone of participation in Bangladeshi public life.32
At the same time, even in the imaginary, the raped women are not homogeneous. As a symbol of the illegitimate presence of the other, various
Bangladeshis also call her claim to the legitimate inheritance of the independent nation into question by interrogating her subjectivity. This interrogation
is visible in the process of combing and the absent presence of the spectral
wound of the birangona, in the violence exemplary of testimonial cultures.
The book thus offers methodological prescriptions for how to avoid exacerbating the conditions of those whose testimonies are being employed by
various activist movements. It suggests tools to activists who might be combing
(searching), recovering voices of those they consider victims but also combing/
hiding (effacing) aspects of the narratives of victims that do not fit into a predetermined construction of victimhood.
The tropes of combing over and absence-presence emerge in three interconnected spheres in Bangladesh: social relations and lives of war heroines who
have been the subjects of state-sponsored memory projects; institutions and
practices of left-liberal, activist, feminist, and human rights communities; and
the imaginary of the raped woman in various commodity forms. Even though
the birangona is present in state speeches, oral history documentation, and
literary and visual texts, those texts construct her specific subjectivity by
ejecting and transvaluing her into a defiling, horrific otherness; they keep
her alive as a wound. Meanwhile, what constitutes a lot of history, a severe
history for the birangona, her life history, remains unaddressed.
chapter outline
Spectral Wound makes these interconnected arguments about public memory
and public secrecy, absence-presence, and combing (searching and hiding)
inherent in this history-making and effaced invocation of the birangona first
through an examination, in chapter1, of state historiography of the partition
of the subcontinent in Bangladesh alongside the predominance of 1971. Chapter2 shows how activists used the dynamics of combing (both searching and
hiding) and absence-presence in documenting the womens narratives of 1971
and the narratives of appropriation in the 1990s (the talkable history of the
26 introduction

women). Chapter3 explores how villagers make the history of rape absentpresent, combing (hiding and searching) it through khota (scornful remarks
which reminds one of an unpleasant event) and maintaining public secrecy
about local events of rape. The local politics described in chapter4 comb
(hide and search for) various instances of complicity and patronage. This
chapter also shows how the state acknowledgment of the birangonas combs/
hides their primary concerns. The embodied narratives discussed in chapter5
comb (both search for and hide) the experiences of 1971 by focusing on fragments, as well as combing/hiding the intricacies of demasculinization 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 are explored in the historical, visual, and discursive contexts in the second part of the book through an examination of rehabilitation, violation of men, literary and visual representations, perceptions of the
birangona as traitor, and human rights testimonies. Chapter6, on rehabilitation policies, shows how women were re-membered and in the process
combed/hidden within approved heterosexual relations. Chapter7 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. Chapter8 examines how human rights enactments and
literary and visual representations comb/search womens narratives for the
horrific, ambiguous figure of the raped woman. The public secrecy of this
ambiguity of birangonas can be found in chapter 9, which examines their
subjectivity as victim, agent, and traitor. In the process, we find that raped
womens claims to the category of birangona get interrogated based on their
various subjectivities.
The third part addresses the politics of human rights frameworks and how
narratives of wartime rape are transformed into public memories in contemporary Bangladesh. The book concludes by asking the broader question:
What would it mean for activist politics to address sexual violence without
configuring the raped woman as a wound? This has wider implications for
laws relating to sexual violence, the issue of consent, and the way that the
public makes sense of sexual violence in the everyday and in its omnipresent
global occurrence during times of conflict. A conceptualization of the raped
woman as wounded provides us only a narrow idea of the long-term consequences of sexual violence. If we focus on woundedness, we remain unable
to see how violence is folded into the everyday lives of those who were raped
introduction 27

during the war. The persistent presence of the raped woman as a wound has
also precipitated the assumption that there must be silence about wartime
rape. In following and connecting the social lives, contexts of testimonies, and
claims made by the war heroines on the state within the framework of local and
national politics, 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 postscript to 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. This opens out
the questions I am asking in this book and allows them to intervene in the unfolding contemporary history of the public memory of wartime rape of 1971.

28 introduction