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The Spectral Wound and New Lines of Flight: A Reply

One late October morning in 2015, my phone rang and I got a “missed call” (a call where the caller hangs up before the receiver can answer as a way of establishing a pre-agreed decision, in my case being that I needed to call back) from Moyna’s daughter. The Spectral Wound had just been published. I rang back right away and was greeted by the ecstatic response:

“It is up, it is up. Their names are in the government gazette and they would get monthly bhata/compensation. But they are being referred to as liberation fighters. I don’t know why.”

The inclusion of the names of the birangonas in a government gazette is not an overnight process. Two decades of appeals and petitions to the government by the birangonas were required to give recognition to their demands. It is precisely the “long time” and “thought struggle” that Naeem Mohaiemen starts his essay with in this collection (when describing the context of the writing and reading of the book) that has in turn resulted in the Bangladeshi government to respond to the recurrent requests of the birangonas. The names of the birangonas who are publicly known, the identities of the husbands/fathers and the details of their addresses is all available online as part of the government gazette. As we speak, this is a growing, online, public list in Bangladesh and birangonas receive a regular bhata/compensation which goes straight to their bank accounts. And yet the discontent about being called liberation fighters is also not surprising. Once they have gone public, the women would prefer to be known as birangonas rather than the euphemism of liberation fighters. Here all the directives we receive as postgraduate students to maintain anonymity and confidentiality flies in the face of these everyday realities within which the birangonas, their families and communities live. Rather than being anonymised, they enquired why their real names were not in my book. And liberation fighters also do not consider them to be fighters as birangonas have “only” been raped as a result of the war. So as Naveeda Khan reminds us in her essay, the reality of the birangonas “confounds the early and also current nationalist effort to make ‘muktijoddhos’ (liberation fighters) and ‘birangonas’ historically coeval and equal for the purposes of commemoration and compensation.”

The process of commemoration and compensation has also become further complicated since this government announcement in 2015. Scholars talk of how this process has become a “racket” as one is promised the names of 50 birangonas to be made part of the government’s list in return for sharing the compensation money. Government officials bemoaned how those seeking to harass the birangonas would wait outside the banks and ask the women to pay them half of their compensation payment. I refer to this as the “respect economy” and “expectation economy” in the book:

The tactics among the birangonas emerge in response to the state rhetoric of a “respect economy,” linked to the honor that the national actors would like to bestow on the women and their testimonies. Referring to this rhetoric of honor in terms of economy allows us to account for the social relationships, inequality, and power, as well as shared meanings generated by this semantics of respect. Along the same lines, the rhetoric of respect has generated an “expectation economy” in Enayetpur whereby the tactics of the birangonas’ families is linked to the way they evaluate the legitimacy of the respect they come across and gauge what they might fairly expect from this rhetoric of honor. (Mookherjee 2015:92)

The inclusion of their names in the gazette and the subsequent distribution of compensation has led to further contestations among these women in Enayetpur. I realised this aspect of their relationships when I was visiting them in January 2016 after Spectral Wound was published. Initially, while all their names were part of the gazette, Rohima’s name was left out by mistake (this has now been included and she is also receiving her compensation). Hence at a commemoration ceremony in Bhashkhal where they were being given these compensation cheques by the local liberation fighters, all the other women’s names were called and Rohima’s wasn’t. She recalls how she sat there in humiliation — kuttir moto — like a dog waiting for the crumbs to be thrown at her. She got angry with the other women and said that they should have not accepted their compensation cheque when they realised that she had been left out. After all she said:

“we have gone through everything together: nirjaton, ashash, khota (the violation, the false promises, the scorn). So we have to receive our bhata (compensation) also together.”

Within the call for togetherness also lies the complexity and competitiveness of victimhood among the birangonas where the other women could not turn down the compensation offer in case it is never offered to them again in the future and if, as a result of their refusal, “it gets lost in the pockets” (appropriated) of the Liberation fighters. This demand for solidarity by Rohima has also been intrinsic to the relationship among the women. In the face of scornful sister in laws (in the case of Kajoli and Rashida), husbands with mixed emotions, jealous neighbours, a community in relative poverty these women have provided succour for each other. Solidarity here exists not because of an essentialised gendered feminine attribute which views all female relationships to be friendly without any contestation existing among them. Demand for friendship and solidarity among women does not play out as smoothly in practice and sisters in law (are not “stock figures” as readers might assume) of Kajoli and Rashidahave been a source of constant emotional injury. Among the birangonas a critical solidarity has often existed in the form of a collective dark humour towards their husbands. I provide here an extract from the book (Mookherjee 2015: 119):

Rohima said that Imarot accepted her. He did not say anything about the rape to her but just sat and cried. But he did not return home after he heard of the rape and instead stayed next door at the home of Shajeeda Bibi (an elderly woman) for a month and a half, eating his rice there. Shajeeda remembered Imarot crying while eating his rice, and she recalled trying to explain that what happened to his wife was due to force. Imarot ate rice from Rohima only after spending this period at his neighbor’s house. However, soon after, in anger and sadness, he disappeared for eight months to do “business” selling wheat and rice. Rohima agonized about not getting any news from him, thinking that he was dead. She was already suffering from bleeding and the effects of rape soon after having given birth, and with three children to look after, including three-month-old Karim, her physical health suffered. She sold everything to sustain her family. She and her children worked as domestic servants at Bhulen’s, for which they received just “stomach payment” (i.e., food). Moyna, poignantly reflecting on Rohima’s condition, said that she struggled a lot. In her outspoken style, Moyna also reasoned that Imarot left due to scorn by neighbors and only came back because of the talk of compensation for women raped during Muktijuddho.

One afternoon, when all of us, including Moyna and Kajoli, were joking and chatting at Rohima’s house, Moyna mentioned that Imarot had left his wife after the war because of her “event.” Imarot, usually very articulate, stuttered that he had gone away for business. Rohima and Moyna laughed together at his answer, and Rohima and I exchanged a long look.

The solidarity reflected among the women reminds me of the solidarity of Rena and Danka Kornreich the two sisters. Danka’s family supported the book symposium at JHU where these essays were presented. Writing on Holocaust Memorial Day I am reminded how in the face of dehumanising horrors of starvation, beatings, forced labor, and the constant threat of death at Auschwitz the Kornreich sisters provided fortitude to each other to survive the camp and fulfil their promise of taking care of each other.[1] Almost animated by their spirit themes that emerged in these responses were not written in an adversarial genre. Rather, they were richer for having extended the debates in the book. Here I want to particularly address Swayam Bagaria’s idea of the lingual memory; Veena Das’s position on thinking as experience; Andrew Brandel on the point of refusing criteria, Jennifer Culbert’s engagement with responsibility and trauma, Amrita Ibrahim on the pathological public, Naeem Mohaiemen on the questions of contexts and end with responding to Naveeda Khan’s questions on enumeration.

The role of language and the birangona is central to the book and is astutely addressed in all the comments. As Ibrahim points out the paradox of my ethical implications of writing about that which must not be publicized is visible across the book; that we are implicated in the very act of talking about sexual violence (Jennifer Culbert) and that “one of the lessons of this nuanced account is that it becomes impossible to speak publicly about such matters without using language that is freighted in one way or another” (Lambek 2016).[2] Swayam Bagaria’s introduction of a peculiar variation of lingual memory — that implicates the history of the language, rather than institutions and people, in the sedimentation of memory — is particularly instructive. He is right to point out that when Kajoli and Sufia refer to the storm and the boat they are not merely recycling the reservoirs of linguistic frameworks. Instead they “made the language complicit in bearing a part of their memory even and especially because ultimately there can be no neat or straightforward communication of it.” This is a powerful description as it also allows me to insist, following Rokhshana, about the women’s right to be silent and to not speak. As a result, the deliberate withholding is not about an absence of lingual memory but “a refusal of its occasion.” In asserting that a memory in language emerges between the new usage of a word and the recycling of its past usages, I am eager to explore these linguistic concepts in the light of the following extract from the book:

Rohima remembered that in Dhaka they were taken by car to a crowded room and were asked to talk about the ghotona. The women described their experiences sketchily because according to Rohima “it was a feeling of intense shorom [shame] in front of so many people. I felt the ground under my feet was splitting.” This vivid image is similar to the account in the Hindu epic Ramayana when Sita asks for Mother Earth to split so that she can disappear when her husband, the Hindu god Ram, becomes suspicious of her chastity and asks her to go through a second ogniporikkha (a mythical test by walking through fire).[i] For Rohima, this phrase connotes the intense desire to make oneself physically disappear from the gaze of being named a birangona due to humiliation and shame. Shame made her the agent of her own desubjectivation, her own oblivion as a subject. Also, was Rohima employing the idiom of chastity and the political trope of purity with which Sita is associated in the Hindu pantheon (whose stories are narrated among rural women in Bangladesh) in an attempt to recover her honor in the face of this exposure? Their visual testimony in the photograph frames the women in the midst of people — Moyna is squatting, Kajoli and Rohima are sitting, huddled together, and Rohima seems to be cowering. Moyna and Rohima are also looking down but seem to be aware of the gaze of the crowds around them; a vacant expression clouds their faces, while Kajoli, frowning, looks sideways, away from the camera. (Mookherjee 2015: 58)

I am rethinking how I have read Rohima’s phrase —I felt the ground under my feet was splitting” — following Bagaria’s idea of lingual memory in conjunction with Veena Das’s powerful formulation of thinking as experience. This powerful, poignant phrase of “feeling the ground under my feet was splitting” is not just a metaphor from the Ramayana. In fact this concept which emerges in its field of force as an experiential concept, embedded in the grains of experiences of violence is not only registering various facts of the world, but also creates the subjective as an aspect of this facticity. The thought of splitting the ground under one’s feet is also the poignant experience of humiliation and the wish to defy and embarrass those responsible for these moments of violation and exposure. Rather than a conceptual and non-conceptual binary, here the humiliation of the exposure is apprehended through the thickness of the relational experience such that one can only humiliate the others through disappearing into the split ground. Hence as part of the everyday present, rape for these birangonas and its repercussions are worked out as Jennifer Culbert beautifully puts it:

“as a thread in piece of a woven cloth worn every day. Hiding in plain sight in the fabric, this thread is obvious in the stitches that make up the material but is obscured by being presented (and used) in such a mundane fashion. Nevertheless, the thread touches everyone who brushes against the piece in which it is essentially intertwined, unexpectedly hurting them and disturbing their routines.”

Rather than the transnational empty word of trauma, I show how the memories of the “event” is triggered through the world external to the birangonas which provides what Das refers to as “the shared genre for expression.” Hence the conceptual content of the toofan/storm is not only aesthetically rendered, but as Veena Das has poignantly put it: “what she does with this experience finds a footing in the world through an imagery that she can evoke.” Hence Rohima’s conceptual experience “of the ground splitting under her feet” also draws on the world through literal and symbolic visualisations that she can conjure.

The genealogical connections that the term birangona has emerged from (as pointed out by Das) are literary as well as religious tropes. Along with the various North and Eastern Indian texts it also draws from the book Muslim birangonas, who according to the theological author Moinuddin, were the “eminent historical and religious Muslim women who fought gallantly in the battlefields alongside their husbands for the sake of defending Islam” (1978, 5).[ii] In the Dhaka University library, two copies of the book Muslim Birangona (Moinuddin 1978) bear different cover images (See Figures 1 and 2). These were not part of the Spectral Wound as their artistic parameters did not fulfil all of the publisher’s criteria. One image depicts a woman on a horse heading for the battlefield with an open sword. This image has resonance with illustrations of Queen Razia and the Hindu queen Rani Jhansi. First published in 1920 in Pune by Chitrashala Press as a chromolithograph,[iii] it has circulated widely in South Asia since then. The woman in the other image looks more like a Mughal queen either in court or on horseback, clothed in war armor. The term birangona has also historically referred to Ila Mitra, the revolutionary activist of the Nachol peasant revolt (Doinik Bangla, April 11, 1972). When a Bangladeshi minister proposed that the government formally mourn the death of renowned mp Bodrunnessa Ahmed in May 1974, he called her a birangona (Shaheen. Akhtar et al. 2001b, 18) in parliament. I elaborate further in the book (chapter two) on the contradictory aspects of the virangana in Kathryn Hansen’s discussion.

Fig 7A Muslim birangona 1

Figure 1 – Cover of Muslim Birangona (Moinuddin 1978).

Fig 7B Muslim Birangona 2

Figure 2 – Cover of Muslim Birangona (Moinuddin 1978).

All the panellists note that the “form of criticism” in the book aims to refuse criteria that can take recourse to understanding languages, so that experience is not typified and there is no normativity about what counts as authentic in the experiences of the raped woman. It is this criticism which enables the book to open up the “local dynamics of gender, violence, and sociality” as noted by Ibrahim — through attention to how the modes of scorn and honor are deployed not as structural existences, but in the work of inscribing inequality. Yet even when the book argues against such structural concepts through ingrained ethnography one wonders what the stakes are in referring to such illustrations as battikrom/exceptional by some in Bangladesh? This is where I argue that narrative closure and narrative license plays a significant role in upholding the given state of existence. Even in the contemporary references cited by Mohaiemen these kinds of narrative closures continue. At the same time, while showing how the discourses of honor/shame absorb the aftermath of sexual assault in the particular context of Bangladesh, these narratives are being constantly restaged and re-narrated by the women themselves. As Brandel clearly notes: “This language of being combed or scraped over returns again and again in talk about the experiences of wartime rape, and captures this movement between covering up and making visible that structures the experiences of the birangona.”

Ibrahim is right to interrogate the implication of the pathological public which seem to operate primarily at the national level. In Enayetpur, what exists are not only entangled webs of sociality in the everyday. There also entails a detailed discussion of ideas of justice, intentionality, rationalities and socialities on the part of the women and their communities made possible through a veritable world of computation. Khan’s intervention and call for the enumerative precisely brings into play how these numbers, files, visiting cards has affective value among the women and their families. For the women the enumerative and the computational has come full circle with the inclusion in the gazette and the granting of the compensation. Does this acknowledgement help the women? Yes they do, even though it comes with its own complexities related to what I refer to as the “expectation economy” and “respect economy.” At this point of the commentary where I myself have come full circle, may I take the opportunity to profusely thank all the reviewers for their fascinating and affective engagement with The Spectral Wound. To Andrew Brandel and the family of Danka Kornreich, I offer my appreciation for getting us together for the symposium in the first place. And finally my utmost thanks to Veena Das for staying with the book, its conversations, with such scholarly affection and warmth.


Nayanika Mookherjee is a Reader/Associate Professor of Socio-Cultural Anthropology in Durham University. She has published extensively on anthropology of violence, ethics and aesthetics. As a British Academy mid-career fellow she is carrying out new research on transnational adoption. Her book The Spectral Wound: Sexual Violence, Public Memories and the Bangladesh War (2015, Duke University Press, 2016, Zubaan, Foreword by Prof. Veena Das) was among the top two shortlists of BBC Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed BBC/BSA Best Ethnography Award (online here — the book is discussed by judges from 16-24 mins). She was also interviewed on the book on the same programme by Laurie Taylor (online here — from 14 minutes).



[1] Berlin, Jeremy, et al. 2015.

[2] Journal of Royal Anthropological Institute, 2016: Review by Prof. Michael Lambek. Volume 22, Issue 4: 1001-1002.



[i] Rohima’s organizing metaphor might not necessarily be this epic account (though it could be, given the popularity of Ramayana in the public culture of Bangladesh [Roy 1983]).

[ii] Amin (1996) shows that in 1915–17 the Bengali journal Al-Eslam ran a series titled “Moslem Birangona,” written by Eslamabadi. The series was aimed at introducing young women to the great deeds of the various wives of the Prophet.

[iii] I thank Christopher Pinney for this point. Also see Harlan’s (1991) critical analysis of Rani Jhansi, who was constructed as the gendered site par excellence of a progressive Indian modernity with deep roots in tradition. For further reflection on the relationship between women and martial culture in Bengal, see T. Sarkar (1984) and P. Bose (1996).


Works Cited

Akhtar, S., S. Begum, H. Hossein, S. Kamal, and M. Guhathakurta, eds. 2001b. Narir Ekattor O Juddhoporoborti Koththo Kahini [Oral history accounts of women’s experiences during 1971 and after the war]. Dhaka: Ain-O-Shalish-Kendro.

Amin, S. 1996. The World of Muslim Women in Colonial Bengal, 1876–1939. Leiden: Brill.

Berlin, Jeremy, et al. “How Two Sisters’ Love Helped Them Survive Auschwitz.” National Geographic News, 15 Apr. 2015,

Bose, Purnina. 1996. “Engendering the Armed Struggle: Women, Writing and the Bengali ‘Terrorist’ Movement.” In Bodies of Writing, Bodies in Performance, edited by Thomas Foster, Carol Siegel, and Ellen E. Berry, 145–83. New York: New York University Press.

Doinik Bangla, April 11, 1972.

Hansen, Kathryn. 1988. “The Virangana in North Indian History: Myth and Popular Culture.” Economic and Political Weekly 23 (18): ws25–ws33.

Harlan, Lindsey. 1991. Religion and Rajput Women: The Ethic of Protection in Contemporary Narratives. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Lambek, Michael. 2016., The Spectral Wound: Sexual Violence, Public Memories and the Bangladesh War of 1971. Review by Prof. Michael Lambek. Journal of Royal Anthropological Institute Volume 22, Issue 4: 1001-1002.

Mookherjee, Nayanika. 2015. The Spectral Wound. Sexual Violence, Public Memories and the Bangladesh War of 1971. (2015 Duke University Press; 2016 Zubaan).

Roy, A. 1983. The Islamic Syncretic Tradition in Bengal. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Sarkar, Tanika. 1984. “Politics and Women in Bengal: The Conditions and Meaning of Participation.” Indian Economic Social History Review 21(1):91-101.