“The rapists are [like] beasts” is a phrase we often hear from authorities in response to incidences of sexual violence. It is a phrase which allows authorities to disassociate themselves from the structures that enable such violations in the first place. Above all, such disassociations also seek to invisibilise the ‘continuum of violence’ that is intrinsic to such acts of contemporary and historical trajectories of sexual violence. I draw from Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Philippe Bourgois’ (2004) formulation where they ‘rightly speak of chains, spirals, and mirrors of violence – or as we prefer – a continuum of violence’. This continuum of violence is particularly significant to think with in the ways in which it reduces the socially vulnerable into expendable nonpersons. In this essay I want to highlight this continuum of violence by mapping the trajectory of the body politics of the birangonas (meaning brave women and the name given by the Bangladesh government to honour women raped by the Pakistani army and Bengali collaborators during the Bangladesh war of 1971 and ensure they are not treated prejudicially in post-independence Bangladesh) and of some recent instances of sexual violence in Bangladesh. This would also allow us to reflect on the popular currency of the horrific account of those subjected to sexual violence.
In October 2020, Bangladeshi authorities similarly referred to rapists as beasts. The spate of rapes carried out in Bangladesh during this period were against women who were indigenous (Chittagong Hill Tracks), a woman who did not live with her husband (Noakhali), and a woman who was raped in front of her husband (Sylhet). As widespread protests unfolded in Bangladesh, I was closely following the events and the publications of various Bangladeshi feminist friends and anthropologists in October 2020. Notable among them was Rahnuma Ahmed who along with various other feminists visited the survivor in Noakhali who was annonymised as ‘Shahoshika’ (the brave one) by Shipra Bose of the visiting group. Rahnuma shared with us by email an account of the meeting with the survivor. Shahoshika’s gang-rape video was made viral in early October and had shocked the nation. Seuty Sabur rightly interrogated the scopophilia – the voyeurism – that was central to the collective rage against this video which had ignored all the statistics being published over a long time by women’s organisations. Mirza Taslima Sultana powerfully cautioned against piecemeal solutions of a death penalty when the hegemonic masculine culture ‘patronises thugs, goons and perpetrators of sexual violence’ and ensures their continuous impunity. Elora Halim Chowdhury referred to the prevalence of routine and spectacular in this instance of gendered violence. 
The anti-rape protests in 2020 took me right back to the anti-rape protests in August 1998 in Jahangirnagar University located just outside Dhaka. I was doing my fieldwork among various birangona survivors then and was invited to present my work in the Anthropology department of Jahangirnagar University. At that juncture, the movement against the campus rapes in JU was very much in the news. I remember travelling to the University on the bus from Dhaka as we travelled through the flood waters. The Awami League government had been in power since 1996, and August had been declared a month of mourning. As I note in my book Spectral Wound: Sexual Violence, Public Memories and the Bangladesh war of 1971 (Mookherjee 2015), newspapers had headlines like: ‘shoker mashe plabon mlan’ (in the month of mourning the flood waters have become languid) to point out that the government was concentrating on the events related to mourning and was yet to provide adequate relief for the devastating floods. In the case of the JU campus rapes, it was well known that the Awami League student wing were involved in the campus rapes and that they were being protected. As I gave a presentation on my research with the birangona survivors, the tension and fear on campus was palpable. Colleagues and students informed me that in the midst of various intrigues, threats, and intimidations, when the JU anti-rape student movement protested against the complicity of the authorities with rapists and demanded action against those involved, many pro-government intellectuals went to the JU campus to address the students. They enraged the students further by attempting to depoliticise the event by saying that rapists were all animals and did not belong to any political party. The attempts in 1998 and over twenty years later in 2020 to refer to the perpetrators as animals highlights the attempts by authorities to disassociate themselves from them while not addressing the culture of impunity that has enabled such ‘continuum of violence’, such incidences of sexual violence, to continue.
Having worked with various birangona survivors (Mookherjee 2015), I want to dwell on the popular prevalence of the horrific account of sexual violence, which links the body politics of the birangonas with the contemporary instances of gender-based violence in Bangladesh. I also draw on the illustrations I co-developed with graphic artist Najmunnahar Keya (Mookherjee & Keya 2019) in our graphic novel and animation film Birangona: Towards Ethical Testimonies of Sexual Violence during Conflict.
In a globally unprecedented move till now, the Bangladesh government attempted to reduce social ostracisation of the women raped through a public policy of referring to them as birangonas (war-heroines) as early as 23rd December 1971. Rehabilitation Centres were set up for the women by the government, and this overt government policy had various intended and unintended consequences (Mookherjee 2015). Women went through abortion, their children were adopted to western countries by the government, some were married off by the state, and others demanded jobs, which the state provided. In fact, as I show in Spectral Wound, there exists a striking public memory of this history of rape through government announcements, photographs, advertisements, rickshaw art, films, rehabilitation centre photographs, and government documents. My research is based on two decades of ethnographic exploration of the public memories of sexual violence during the Bangladesh war of 1971. In conversations throughout my fieldwork, people pointed me to poems and novels, television serials, plays, and movies that were all in some way about birangonas. What emerges from these various texts is an insight into the presence of an embedded image of thebirangona as someone either physically (mute, ‘abnormal’) or socially (ostracised by family and outside the webs of nurture and kinship) wounded. Birangonas, it seems, can only be imagined as figures of horror. As a result, sensational stories of shame and stigma about the birangona always seems to have much currency even today. Hence the famous sculptor Ferdousy Priyobhashini, who acknowledged that she is a birangona in 1999, was asked by a journalist to switch off the lights in her beautifully decorated room so that she can be represented as a ‘real birangona’ in a dark room (Figure 1).
People also find it incredible that many of the birangonas I worked with continue to live with their husbands with whom they were when they got raped in 1971. Moyna (Figure 2) was captured by the army when she was cutting fish, and as a result, she was unable to cut fish after the war. This gendered job was taken up by her husband and later by her daughter-in-law. That birangonas live through their experience of 1971 through innumerable, ordinary instances seems difficult to imagine.
This prevalent horrific image of the birangona led me to ask where these perceptions of the war heroine came from. The significant theoretical point is to track the circulatory transmission of these images and to trace their intertextual links with other depictions. Hence these illustrations become, as the visual anthropologist Elizabeth Edwards says, “accessible and comprehensible to the mind informing and informed by a whole hidden corpus of knowledge that is called on through the signifiers of the image” (1992, 8). In short, I am attempting to track the reality of the imaginary of the birangona, how literary and visual representations “crystallise” (Deleuze 1995, 66) such that these illustrations seamlessly and indiscernibly influence the way a birangona is imagined (Edwards 1992; Deleuze 1995).
The crystallisation of this horrific imagery of the birangona also makes the virality of the horrific video of Shahoshika possible. The extensive reactions of shock to the video again reinstitute the continuum of violence in independent Bangladesh of the raped woman as a figure of horror. It shocks the nation more than the innumerable reports, presented by women’s organisations, of the rising rate of gendered violence and sexual violence in Bangladesh. In this continuum of violence, not only is the birangona reduced to an expendable person, Shahoshika is also similarly reduced into an image of horror. Alongside the attempt of authorities to dissociate themselves from the rapists, referring to them as beasts also marks them out as expendable non-humans to be punished by the death penalty. This also allows a lack of interrogation as to the systems which enabled such acts of violence to be perpetrated without impunity.
I ended Spectral Wound by asking, what would it mean for the politics of identifying wartime rape if we were to highlight how the experience of sexual violence is folded in the daily socialities of the raped woman, rather than to identify her as a horrific wound? That sexual violence – rather than being one moment of violation – becomes folded into the everyday lives of those raped is evident in life trajectories of birangonas. This does not negate their everyday, personal negotiations with their violent experience of 1971. A nuanced account of women’s experience of sexual violence enables decentring the idea of the wound – both physical and social – as evidence and as a site of authenticity of the raped woman. This argument has further implications for comprehending the subjectivity of the raped woman – and not figuring her as a site of alterity and ‘abnormality’.
A momentary interaction between our feminist friends and Shahoshika is worth noting from the document shared by Rahnuma to show how we can go beyond this horrific image of the raped woman through codes of nurturance. These socialities of care are central to resist the expendable otherness which perpetrators, authorities, and horrific imaginaries can confine the raped woman to. I cite the brief excerpt here:
Lima: Apanar baba ma ache to? (Do you have parents?)
Shahoshika: Baba ache, ma nai. (Have a father, no mother)
Lima’s question keeps in mind Shahoshika’s account that she lives alone and does not live with her husband for 12 years – a point she reiterates in her conversation with feminist friends. Lima’s ‘ache to’ and Shahoshika’s ‘ma nai’ is a gesture of nurturance in a group of women whose solidarity Shahoshika is seeking in asserting that what happened to her is something that impacts all women. This resonated with birangona and sex worker Chaya Rani Dutta’s loss during the war (Mookherjee 2015; 2019). During the war, Chaya’s mother died, and Chaya became alone and vulnerable. That is when Chaya feels that her jibon sesh hoye gelo, her life was over. Taking advantage of this vulnerability, local collarators in her village gang raped her. Chaya feels sad when thinking of her mother as she feels her mother would have protected her, and she wouldnt have been raped.Chaya’s attachment to her mother and the pain of losing her was evident as she started crying when talking about her mother. The loss of a space of nurturance is also reflected in Shahoshika’s ‘ma nai’ response. Her extensive account in her narration to our feminist friends repeatedly emphasise how her everyday is located outside socialities and how she is an outsider.
Chaya and Shahoshika faced the same vulnerabilities within which they get attacked by the politically and socially powerful and then become consumed as a figure of horror. Lost in this body politics is the power, complicity, and impunity that enables this continuum and pornography of violence.
Ahmed, R. 2020. Bon shahoshikar boyan (Testimony of sister ‘the brave one’). Unpublished document.
Chowdhury, E. H. 2020. Gendered violence: The paradox of the routine and the spectacular | The Daily Star 27/11/20.
Deleuze, G. 1995, Negotiations 1972–1990, translated by Martin Joughin, Columbia UP.
Edwards, E. (ed.) 1992, Anthropology and Photography, Yale University Press.
Mookherjee, Nayanika and Najmunnahar Keya. (2019) Birangona: Towards Ethical Testimonies of Sexual Violence during Conflict. Durham: University of Durham. Freely available in Bangla and English from: www.ethical-testimonies-svc.org.uk/how-to-cite/
Mookherjee, N. 2015, The Spectral Wound: Sexual Violence, Public Memories and the Bangladesh War of 1971, Duke University Press, Durham.
Sabur, S.2020. Rape, scopophilia and our collective rage | The Daily Star 7/10/20
Scheper-Hughes, N & Bourgois, P (eds) 2004. Violence in War and Peace: An Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell.
Sultana, M. S. 2020. ধর্ষণের সামাজিক রাজনৈতিক ও ধর্মীয় পরিপ্রেক্ষিত: ইসলামে নারী-পুরুষ সম্পর্ক অনুসন্ধান – সর্বজনকথা (sarbojonkotha.info) (Context of Rape’s social, political and religious context: an examination of male female relationship in Islam).
 sarbojonkotha.info/sk-25-rape-context/?fbclid=IwAR2uqiooOCB9qq-U3MQK49i7P9pVsDgVU7TlnazBf6MYUILcKa3dk1_Dzoo The English version of this article came out in New Age but was blocked and made inaccessible in an hour. www.thedailystar.net/opinion/news/gendered-violence-the-paradox-the-routine-and-the-spectacular-2001633?amp
Nayanika Mookherjee is a Professor of Political Anthropology in Durham University and her research concerns an ethnographic exploration of public memories of violent pasts and aesthetic practices of reparative futures. She explores this through debates and engagement with gendered violence in conflicts, memorialisation, and transnational adoption. Based on her book [The Spectral Wound. Sexual Violence, Public Memories and the Bangladesh War of 1971 (2015 Duke University Press; 2016 Zubaan)], in 2019 she co-authored/directed a survivor-led guideline, graphic novel, and animation film on ethical testimonies of sexual violence during conflict in Bangla and English, which can be freely downloaded from www.ethical-testimonies-svc.org.uk/how-to-cite/ and which is being used for teaching research methods by academics as well as by governmental and non-governmental organisations working with survivors of sexual violence during conflict. She has published extensively on anthropology of violence, ethics and aesthetics.
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