The Performance of Public Secrets in The Spectral Wound

Focusing on the figure of the birangona (war heroine) Nayanika Mookherjee’s The Spectral Wound explores tensions inherent in national public efforts to acknowledge widespread sexual assault of Bangladeshi women by Pakistani soldiers during the war of 1971. The term birangona was bestowed on women to birth a national discourse that would openly honor, rather than shamefully hide away, these victims of sexual assault. It was adopted as an active state policy, supported by international and elite Bangladeshi feminists and humanitarians who believed that the majority of Bangladeshi society was too “traditional” to accept “defiled” women back into the family/in laws (kutumb). Presenting the birangona as a potent symbol of national suffering, the state and civil society made efforts to rehabilitate victims through an appeal to progressive national sentiment.

One thread of the ethnography traces the bureaucratic and bio-political mechanisms by which the figure of the birangona is identified from within a larger population wounded by war, then memorialized through political discourse and in visual and public culture. Through a series of instruments, such as identity forms, surveys, rehabilitation schemes, and vocational training centers, the paternalistic state provides rehabilitation for the victims. This image of rehabilitation is tied to a very specific subjectivity that has to be brought into being — an honorable/honored woman with marital prospects and a “normal” reproductive future. By enacting a relationship of kinship and paternalism with the birangonas [Sheikh Mujib’s “two hundred thousand mothers and sisters” (138)], the state is publicly “restoring honor and dignity” to independent Bangladesh. Marriages are made possible by the economic and ritual blessing of the state, but also legitimized through discourses of patriotism: men who marry birangonas are doing their duty by the nation, aiding the reabsorption of the raped woman into the social and national fabric, normalizing the reproduction of the next generation, suturing the wounds inflicted by (sexual) violence.

At the same time, the language in newspaper and government reports reveals the banal bureaucratic efforts of identifying, categorizing, and rehabilitating. These reports read like a typology of rape (132-33): detailing the number of raped, the state of the victims when recovered, victims’ social and class characteristics: a data set of raped women. Individual women are substitutable under the icon birangona: an obfuscation occurs between the figure that is iconized at the level of the national and the individual experiences of suffering that are being called upon to perform the national image. In the 1990s, selected birangonas are solicited to tell their stories out of the vast numbers of wartime rape victims. The icon is memorialized through the naming and photographing of a few whose stories are publicized, but they do not stand as authors of their own publicity. They experience a silencing, caught in the crosshairs of contradictory political efforts to shape the narrative of independent Bangladesh.

Artists, activists, and writers contribute to this performance of national honor and dignity restored through visual representations, oral history projects, and exhibitions. The “left-liberal community,” as Mookherjee identifies the progressive strand of Bangladeshi civil society, seeks to iconize the figure of the birangona to mythic proportions. Mookherjee writes, “The left-liberal community locates the ‘real’ experience of rape in the construction of a horrifying account such that the more detailed the accounts, the more true [sic] is the position of a birangona…” (65). For Mookherjee, the restitution of the birangona/Bangladesh and her national honor is “hinged on a pathological public sphere” (46), which publicly acknowledges and valorizes the raped woman as a war heroine but can only do so as a static icon of vulnerability and suffering.

Feminist scholarship focusing on sexual assault and gender-based violence has substantially critiqued the patriarchal foundations of the social contract and the public sphere, raising the question — what makes this national public pathological? Recent ethnographies across cultural contexts that have explored various and overlapping governmental interventions into sexual assault have argued how the law encourages the active cultivation of subjectivities (the “rapeable” woman; a “victim” not a “survivor” (Mulla 2014)) or ventriloquizes consent even where a rape victim is testifying to assault (Baxi 2014). Reading The Spectral Wound alongside these ethnographies, the question of pathology becomes an important one to problematize, particularly given that Mookherjee does not explicitly theorize her use of pathology in relation to publics or publicity. Further, to my reading, at the level of the local, it seems we are not dealing with a public, so much as the entangled web of sociality that characterizes everyday life.

In this second thread of the ethnography, Mookherjee undertakes a thoughtful exploration of the “…terrain of the social ramifications of testimony…” (68). She takes us through the intimate proximities that both allow widespread public knowledge of wartime rape to be absorbed within the community and also makes birangonas vulnerable to the (often) cruel dynamics of face-to-face intimacy. It is not that other residents of Enayatpur, where the birangonas live whose narratives form part 1 of the book, deny, ignore, or bury the fact of rape. Rather, it is the selective exposure and publicity foisted upon them by the state, humanitarian agencies, even academics that makes birangonas and their kin vulnerable to scorn (khota) and humiliation in the ebb and flow of everyday life. Yoked as it is to the promise (if not the delivery) of material, economic, and symbolic benefits for selective war heroines, the status of birangona forces them and their families into treacherous and degrading social terrain. For their neighbors, the willful exposure of that which should remain hidden even though it is well known (rape), that too for potential material gain, likens the act of testimony by birangonas to that of a business — specifically prostitution or selling [one’s] skin (76). The very act of exposure — allowing their words and images to be captured — through which birangona/Bangladeshi honor is imagined to be restored, becomes a source of scorn and humiliation amidst the villagers.

Mookherjee argues that the “public secret” of rape is used as an intersubjective social tool — in this case reinforcing local hierarchies by invoking notions of shame and honor through scorn. Whether it is relations between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law, between spouses, in conversations between men over boundary walls or when negotiating labor rates, everyday relations and interactions in Enayetpur are shot through with euphemisms that can turn routine disagreements into abject humiliation for those at the receiving end. Mookherjee writes, “Paradoxically, a community actively does not know a secret and yet discloses it… in order to deface the secret itself and the people involved, contributing thereby to a pathological public sphere” (69).

Setting aside the pathology of publics for a moment, here Mookherjee offers us a valuable structural intervention into the local dynamics of gender, violence, and sociality. She draws attention to differential apparatuses of honor at the level of the local, “through which weakness is constructed and inequality inscribed rather than being a ‘given’ structural state of existence” (69). Mookherjee’s attention to how scorn is wielded shows how we might take discourses of honor seriously when tracing how gender-based violence constitutes social relations and public cultures, while not also falling into the trap of cultural relativism. Recent scholarship has critiqued the appellation of “honor” to crimes against women, arguing that it privileges the patriarchal discourse relied upon by perpetrators and ascribes an essentialist cultural specificity to what are global patterns of domestic and intimate violence (Winegar 2016, Abu-Lughod 2011, Baxi et al 2006, Welchman and Hossain 2005). Mookherjee’s treatment of scorn traces the work that discourses of honor/shame do in absorbing the aftermath of sexual assault in the particular context of Bangladesh. Adding to ethnographies of institutions such as court rooms, police stations, and government offices where the performance of honor disciplines women’s bodies, here she describes a socially mediated apparatus where honor and shame become the means to absorb the knowledge of wartime rape into everyday life.

The “intersubjective domain of public secrecy based on oral circulation of rumor and judgment” (89) that Mookherjee highlights is one to which the state, NGOs, feminist activist groups, even scholars, cannot do justice. For instance, upon first arriving in the village, a volunteer with an oral history project tells Mookherjee that she would have a lot of trouble getting to the “real truth” of the rapes, because the women were all talking nonsense, “altu-faltu” (49). Mookherjee finds that people have already determined what stories she had come to capture in her recording devices — being familiar with the state’s efforts to gather the “truth” of rape. She writes that men invited her to their homes to take their wives’ testimony, interrupting the women’s narratives at times; at others, expressing dissatisfaction at how the stories have been told. We see gradually how the status of birangona, with the “assurances of a good life” (ashash, 73) made by humanitarians and politicians, violently solicits testimonies from the very women who it is meant to honor. In this sense, institutional interventions into sexual assault that are premised on a patriarchal understanding of it are bound to violate and victimize all over again. Further, the category birangona alienates the victims from others in the village — who may have suffered similar excesses during the war but are not signaled out as worthy of state attention and so see the ready performance of birangonas and their families as a form of prostitution, a sullying of whatever honor — individual and collective — might be left. They subject the women to scorn and humiliation even as they know what they suffered, not for having suffered it, but for breaking the fourth wall of that stage on which the public secret is enacted. The ethnographic challenges imposed by this stage and its public secret are not lost on Mookherjee, whose writing is suffused with the ethical implications of writing about that which must not be publicized.

Ultimately through her tracing of the national public icon of the birangona and its local life, what Mookherjee draws our attention to are two diametrically opposed assumptions and logics at work in the idea of publicity or exposure. In addition to adding to our understanding of the local life of national narratives, this is a much needed corrective to studies of public culture that gloss over the relations between the national and local in favor of the local and the global. Where a national public is drawn into global humanitarian ideologies of bearing witness to suffering and rights-based discourses of rehabilitation that require the archiving of birangona experience, local relationships and sociality hinge on obscuring (combing over is the image Mookherjee offers) this experience so as to absorb it into daily life in order to move on. While obscuring does not entirely mean a lack of acknowledgement, nor does absorption leave us with a picture of rehabilitation that softens the everyday triggers to an imminent sense of hurt. What Mookherjee shows us at the level of everyday life is an intimate and continuingly violent account of how life is lived in the aftermath of mass sexual assault.

As an investigation into the power of the public secret of sexual assault in South Asia, The Spectral Wound must be read alongside Pratiksha Baxi’s Public Secrets of Law: Rape Trials in India. Baxi deals with the theme of the public secret in relation to the law, arguing that “public secrecy finds specific revelation in rape trials in India, which does not bring justice to a rape survivor but addresses and reinforces deeply entrenched phallocentric notions of ‘justice’” (2014: xxiv). Mookherjee’s investigation shows the public secret is enacted in and through everyday life. Far from being pathological, intersecting (even if differently deployed) apparatuses of honor and shame structure national and local memories and discourses of sexual assault. If ethnography takes the relationship of violence, the body, and memory as one that is socially and materially constituted; as one that does not derive from a notion of trauma as a psychological universal, then we have to also question an understanding of the public sphere as universal, which is made pathological by particular manifestations of (gendered or ethnic) violence. The Spectral Wound is a valuable contribution to recent ethnographies of sexual assault that explore how processes of identification and investigation into sexual assault, its exposure or concealment, the combing over or through narratives of sexual assault and gendered violence exist not as ruptures of, but lie at the very heart of, law and social contracts.


Amrita Ibrahim is Adjunct Lecturer in Anthropology at Georgetown University, where she teaches courses on media, visual culture, social justice, and policing. She is working on her first book manuscript which explores the work of electronic journalism in India through the modality of surveillance and monitoring, particularly with respect to gender, sexuality, and the body.


Works Cited

Baxi, Pratiksha. 2014. Public Secrets of Law: Rape Trials in India. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Baxi, Pratiksha, et al. 2006. ‘Legacies of Common Law: ‘Crimes of Honour’ in India and Pakistan. Third World Quarterly, Vol. 27 (7): 1239-1253.

Mulla, Sameena. 2014. The Violence of Care: Rape Victims, Forensic Nurses, and Sexual Assault Intervention. New York: NYU Press.

Welchman, Lynn and Sara Hossain (eds.). 2005. ‘Honour’: Crimes, Paradigms, and Violence Against Women. London: Zed Books.

Winegar, Jessica. 2016. ‘Not So Far Away: Why U.S. Domestic Violence is Akin to Honor Crimes.’

One Response to The Performance of Public Secrets in The Spectral Wound

  1. Pingback: Book Forum — Nayanika Mookherjee’s The Spectral Wound: Sexual Violence, Public Memories, and the Bangladesh War of 1971 by Todd Meyers - Bioethics Research Library

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