Silenced Histories

Dina M. Siddiqi

dahan

The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), in force since July 2002, formally recognized rape or “any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity,” when committed in a widespread or systematic way, as a crime against humanity. A significant victory for its feminist advocates, wartime atrocities in the former Yugoslavia had provided fresh impetus for pushing through the statute. It took more than a decade for the ICC to issue its first ruling on a case of sexual violence as a weapon of war. In March 2016, the Court convicted a senior Congolese military official on five charges of crimes against humanity, including rape, committed by his forces in the Central African Republic. By the time of this historic ruling, the UN Secretary General’s office had established the position of Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict. In short, feminist efforts to draw the international community’s attention to sexual violence during conflict and put in place legal mechanisms to hold perpetrators accountable have yielded impressive results in the last two decades.

Yet, such institutional successes rarely signal closure or resolution for survivors themselves. Official measures at the national/international level and quotidian complexities “on the ground” are two distinct, if related, parts of the afterlife of wartime sexual violence. It is this, the ambivalent space between law and what one might call situated justice, between “private pain and public memory” that Nayanika Mookherjee’s ethnography The Spectral Wound: Sexual Violence, Public Memories and the Bangladesh War of 1971 strives to illuminate.

Silenced Histories? Troubling the Honor/Shame Lens

Long before Rwanda and Bosnia, rape was used as a weapon of terror in the “forgotten” war –some would say genocide – that led to Bangladesh’s emergence in 1971.3 Notably, within a week of independence, the new government conferred the title of birangona (war heroine) on all raped women and girls. Official public acknowledgement of this kind – naming and owning the sexually transgressed female body – was an extraordinary and unprecedented gesture.4 The move ensured that the sexual histories of war would not be easily erased in national narratives.

Acutely aware of the methodological and ethical quandaries of attempts to recover or give voice to survivors, Mookherjee offers instead ethnographic accounts of her birangona interlocutors’ everyday worlds as she encountered them. She juxtaposes these to a reading of testimonial cultures that have developed around the figure of the birangona; critical analysis of visual and literary representations; and conversations with a range of activists, including those responsible for “rehabilitating” so-called war-affected women and girls. This is multi-sited ethnography at its best.

The raped woman is the “horrific” wound of the book’s title, a figure of abjection, desire, or heroism but almost never the author of her own story. The wound is quite literally “the physical and social injuries through which different Bangladeshi publics identify, thereafter circulate, know, and imagine the iconic figure of the Birangona.” Mookherjee seeks to unpack the many meanings of this wound, both for those who live it and for others who seek to understand, appropriate, or alleviate its effects. She does so by contextualizing birangona narratives within the complex and shifting post-conflict politics of the 1990s. Early in her fieldwork, Mookherjee discovered that the subject of wartime rape is not the zone of taboo, silence, and stigma she had anticipated. Rather, rape narratives were fundamental to public memorializations of the war in ways that were deeply problematic for the women themselves. A time of considerable political ferment and one that coincided with Mookherjee’s fieldwork, the 1990s were a time in which calls for formal trials of wartime collaborators were publicly voiced in the political sphere. Ownership over the birangona story took on a new significance in this environment.

Mookherjee undoes received understandings of the reception and meanings of sexual violence. The ethnography, set primarily in a village in western Bangladesh, makes clear that the “event” of rape did not translate automatically into ostracism or stigma. Throughout the book one encounters birangona who are incorporated into family and community, with no compulsion to hide or lie about their past. Such liberal accommodation in what is today marked as a “traditional” Muslim society may come as a surprise to contemporary readers. It apparently confounded the expectations of some of the author’s urban feminist friends. Mookherjee contends that knowledge of wartime rapes operate as a public secret, one that is invoked at particular moments of tension or social friction. Here, honor and shame operate as idioms through which weakness is constructed and inequality inscribed in specific social relations, rather than being a “given” structural state of existence.

By refusing to take the meanings and effects of sexual violence as universal or self-evident – stripped of context and history – Mookherjee avoids what she calls narrative closure. This allows her to illustrate a deeply textured world in which “sexual violence means neither one moment of violation nor a lifetime as a pariah.” Rather, the violence is folded into everyday life, irrupting at times, disappearing at others but always an absent presence.

Beyond Conceptual and Other Gaps

In her conclusion, Mookherjee points to the contradictory effects of feminist efforts in the 1990s to foreground the voices and histories of women raped in 1971. She suggests that the need to fit birangona accounts into the human rights language of accountability – with the larger aim of bringing wartime criminals to book – effects a kind of epistemic violence (she does not use this term) on the actual subjectivities of raped women. For legibility within a global human rights regime demands reconfiguration of birangona reality into “something neat and story shaped.” The implicit instrumentalization of wartime rapes also increased the gap between the legal and the experiential. Activist dismissal as nonsense those details that did not contribute to a legally legible storyline, or active erasure of experiences that blurred distinctions between friend and enemy, offer stark reminders of this disjunction. Here the author grapples with a dilemma familiar to anthropologists and others: how to present survivor experiences in a form that is legible in the world of human rights without sacrificing interpretation or social context. This general problem is complicated by the specificity of the context. Mookherjee highlights a troubling consequence of searching out war heroines and collecting traumatic testimony to further the war crimes trial agenda: raped women as subjects simply disappear. Instead, the experts who document such testimony take narrative license to give voice and agency to survivors. As the author notes, the elisions and erasures that ensue are determined by the conditions under which knowledge about the birangona was constructed – the dominance of international rights discourse, new understandings of rape as a war crime, and most significantly fear of “Islamic fundamentalism” in the 1990s and beyond.

It is on the question of Islam that I have a methodological quibble with the author. The assertion that declaring raped women as war heroines allowed Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) to position itself as a different kind of Muslim nation, one that valued its women, strikes me as a presentist interpretation. Bangladesh’s self-presentation as a modern Muslim state is a much more contemporary phenomenon. At the time of the war, (West) Pakistan was not known for its “sharia-driven” modes of dealing with rape or reproductive justice, despite the implication in the text. Nor was the relationship between Islam and the treatment of women a globally fraught subject. Finally, it is misleading to say that under sharia rape is “often seen to be akin to jena [sic] (adultery) for married women and fornication for unmarried women.”

Engaging and lucidly writ, The Spectral Wound raises a host of theoretical and ethical considerations. How might we re-conceptualize the experience of wartime rape without reducing survivor subjectivities to their “wounds”? To whom is the feminist activist accountable? Is the instrumentalization of testimony justified if it results in the successful prosecution of perpetrators? What constitutes healing and closure in such contexts? There are no simple or singular answers. This thoughtful and provocative text calls on the reader to consider such dilemmas instead of taking the answers for granted.

Nayanika Mookherjee, The Spectral Wound: Sexual Violence, Public Memories and the Bangladesh War of 1971, 2015. Duke University Press, ISBN: 978-0-8223-5968-5.

Ed Note: An abridged version of this review will appear in the International Feminist Journal of Politics.

[Image Credit: Krishna Chattapadhaya. Dahan (Inflammation), 2008. Courtesy: Artist]

 

  1. The numbers are notoriously slippery and the subject of another kind of politics. Estimates range from 25,000 to 200,000 women and girls raped.
  2. Compare, for instance, Indian and Pakistani state silence on sexual violence during the 1947 partition in their respective “recovery” operations of abducted women.
  3. The numbers are notoriously slippery and the subject of another kind of politics. Estimates range from 25,000 to 200,000 women and girls raped.
  4. Compare, for instance, Indian and Pakistani state silence on sexual violence during the 1947 partition in their respective “recovery” operations of abducted women.
  5. The numbers are notoriously slippery and the subject of another kind of politics. Estimates range from 25,000 to 200,000 women and girls raped.
  6. Compare, for instance, Indian and Pakistani state silence on sexual violence during the 1947 partition in their respective “recovery” operations of abducted women.