Book Review: The Spectral Wound: Sexual Violence, Public Memories, and the Bangladesh War of 1971 by Nayanika Mookherjee


As someone who is neither an academic nor a researcher, the idea of normalisation of our patriarchal attitudes towards women both interests and horrifies me. And indeed it is sometimes heartening to hear voices of protest against age old structures which have sought to define and limit women, but also infuriating when every time there’s a report of any form of violence against women, the narrative of whether ‘she asked for it’ is invariably conjured. These structures and attitudes are tied up intricately with the history of the nation as well.

Growing up, I always felt pride in the fact that the victims of rape during the Liberation War were accorded status as Birangonas (war heroines), that the post-liberation government had stepped in to rehabilitate them and give them national recognition. But for the Birangonas, the recognition itself came with a darker side. Nayanika Mookherjee’s ethnography of sexual violence during 1971 is a book which for me, in many ways, illuminated some of these ideological problems.

The book, The Spectral Wound: Sexual Violence, Public Memories, and the Bangladesh War of 1971 is vast in its scope. It traces the public memory of rape in 1971, and how that memory of war time rape has been invoked and changed in the years after independence. The title of the book itself is revealing; the celebration of the Birangona could only be kept alive when the individual experiences of the women were silenced, when the women disappeared into a homogenous whole. It is through this ‘spectre’ that the trauma is relived. In the meantime, the portrayal of those raped during 1971 was essentialised: the birangona became a figure defined by her shame, helplessness, dishevelled hair and vacant look. Their experiences were public secrets, known to all but not to be spoken of. Read more