ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Bangla Rape Victims of 1971

The Spectral Wound: Sexual Violence, Public Memories, and the Bangladesh War of 1971 by Nayanika Mookherjee, Durham/London: Duke University Press, 2015; pp xxiv + 325, $26.95.

Nayanika Mookherjee’s The Spectral Wound is a very sustained and multidimensional study of how Bangladeshi society has remembered and dealt with the extensive incidents of rape that took place during the 1971 War of Liberation. There is a specific tone to this remembrance because there is a quality of feminised victimhood in the Bangladeshi national consciousness, not totally different to that of France after World War II, although this has been supplemented by a strong desire for justice, especially on the part of intellectuals, activists and feminists, which are part of what Mookherjee characterises as a left–liberal urban élite. Much of her book involves a very subtle critique of how this élite represents and conceptualises the rape victims or the birangonas—a name that has been given to them in Bangladesh—in particular, the poorer ones. This critique never questions their sincerity or the value of their work, but it does see a real gap between how the birangona is perceived by them and the presence of the experience of rape as it is folded into the ongoing lives of the victims themselves. There are a number of reasons for this gap.

Poor village peasants may not express trauma or the intense emotions connected with it in the way that urban middle-class people do, which means the latter may not be able to “read” the former or may indeed dismiss them as inauthentic. They may conceive of the “authentic” birangona as expressing herself in the way that they do or that this “authentic” expression has been silenced by a repressive society. The left–liberal élite is also deeply involved in post-independence Bangladeshi politics, where power has swung between the secularising, “Bengali” Awami League—this is the side they are on—and the more Islamic Bangladesh Nationalist Party, often associated with military rule and allied with the more extreme, downright Islamicist Jamaat-e-Islami.

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