The Spectral Wound

Sexual Violence, Public Memories, and the Bangladesh War of 1971

The Spectral Wound

Book Pages: 352 Illustrations: 42 illustrations Published: October 2015

Author: Nayanika Mookherjee

Contributor: Veena Das

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Asian Studies > South Asia, Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies

Following the 1971 Bangladesh War, the Bangladesh government publicly designated the thousands of women raped by the Pakistani military and their local collaborators as birangonas, ("brave women”). Nayanika Mookherjee demonstrates that while this celebration of birangonas as heroes keeps them in the public memory, they exist in the public consciousness as what Mookherjee calls a spectral wound. Dominant representations of birangonas as dehumanized victims with disheveled hair, a vacant look, and rejected by their communities create this wound, the effects of which flatten the diversity of their experiences through which birangonas have lived with the violence of wartime rape. In critically examining the pervasiveness of the birangona construction, Mookherjee opens the possibility for a more politico-economic, ethical, and nuanced inquiry into the sexuality of war.


"The Spectral Wound is an exceptional book. It has thoroughly explored its subject from every conceivable angle in such a way as to give it a real intellectual richness." — Nardina Kaur, Economic and Political Weekly

"It is a pleasure to review books that offer an innovative reading of important areas of recent scholarship. Nayanika Mookherjee’s book throws an epistemic challenge to previous authors and interpretations on the subject." — Rachana Chakraborty, Social History

"Mookerjee's exemplary and closely argued The Spectral Wound highlights the central conundrum of making wartime rapes public: heroism, implied and acknowledged by the designation birangona, can only be acquired by making your shame public....[An] uncommonly complex and delicately observed study..." — Ritu Menon, Women's Review of Books

"[Mookherjee] asks, ‘What would it mean for the politics of identifying wartime rape if we were to highlight how the raped woman folds the experience of sexual violence into her daily socialities, rather than identifying her as a horrific wound?’ That is the central question of this powerful and perceptive book." — Michael Lambek, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

"I would recommend Spectral Wound if issues of women’s history, resilience and narrative are of interest. It is a fascinating (if challenging) read that provides a discerning exploration of a convoluted, tragic, and largely unheeded episode in South Asian history." — Margot Wilson, Pacific Affairs

"Critical, reflective, and transformative to our understanding of gender violence, memory, and recuperation, Mookherjee’s extraordinary ethnography is undoubtedly essential reading for scholars and students of feminist theory, anthropology, Bangladesh, and South Asia studies." — Elora Halim Chowdhury, Journal of Asian Studies

"Engaging and lucidly written, The Spectral Wound raises a host of theoretical and ethical considerations. How might we re-conceptualize the experience of wartime rape without reducing survivor subjectivities to their “wounds?” To whom is the feminist activist accountable? . . . This thoughtful and provocative text calls on the reader to revisit such dilemmas instead of taking the answers for granted." — Dina M. Siddiqi, International Feminist Journal of Politics

"Nayanika Mookherjee’s research is important as a testimonial, a guide, and as a recovery of the individual experiences of those raped in 1971." — Maitreyi, Dhaka Tribune

"Mookherjee’s approach to the sincere investigation of the lives of violated women of the 1971 war will help academia to find out many hidden truths in the lives of the rape victims." — Priyanka Tripathi, Postcolonial Studies Association Newsletter

"Nayanika Mookherjee has made visible a scene of gendered violence in the Bangladesh War of Liberation that travels beyond its specific context to historical, theoretical, and lived realities that are global in range and scope."  — Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, author of An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization

"Nayanika Mookherjee has produced a brilliant profile of a society grappling with the impact of war centered on rape and its memory. Dealing with rape in war is a political act and memories serve many causes, from the nationalist to the personal. Mookherjee looks at the issue through the lenses of class, culture, and politics, making it one of the most comprehensive and perceptive studies available, as she investigates from within what it means to become an outsider and the socio-political mechanisms that make it happen."  — Afsan Chowdhury, editor of Bangladesh 1971

"What happens when a moment of personal violation becomes appropriated as part of the narrative of a new collectivity? In a subtle and multifaceted analysis, Nayanika Mookherjee tracks the consequences, both personal and political, of acts of sexual violence that refuse to be forgotten four decades on from the war of independence."  — Jonathan Spencer, coauthor of Checkpoint, Temple, Church and Mosque: A Collaborative Ethnography of War and Peace


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Nayanika Mookherjee is Reader in Socio-Cultural Anthropology at Durham University.

Veena Das is Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Anthropology at the Johns Hopkins University. 

Table of Contents Back to Top
Foreword  ix

Preface: A Lot of History, a Severe History  xv

Acknowledgments  xxi

Introduction: The "Looking-Glass Border"  1

Part I

1. The Month of Mourning and the Languid Floodwaters: The Weave of National History  31

2. We Would Rather Have Shaak (Greens) Than Murgi (Chicken) Polao: The Archiving of the Birangona  47

3. Bringing Out the Snake: Khota (Scorn) and the Public Secrecy of Sexual Violence  67

4. A Mine of Thieves: Interrogting Local Politics  91

5. My Own Imagination in My Own Body: Embodied Transgressions in the Everyday  107

Part II

6. Mingling in Society: Rehabilitation Program and Re-membering the Raped Woman  129

7. The Absent Piece of Skin: Gendered, Racialized, and Territorial Inscriptions of Sexual Violence during the Bangladesh War  159

8. Imagining the War Heroine: Examination of State, Press, Literary, Visual, and Human Rights Accounts, 1971–2001  177

9. Subjectivities of War Heroines: Victim, Agent, Traitor?  228

Part III

Conclusion. The Truth is Tough: Human Rights and the Politics of Transforming Experiences of Wartime Rape "Trauma" into Public Memories  251

Postscript: From 2001 until 2013  264

Notes  277

Glossary  291

References  293

Index  309
Sales/Territorial Rights: World exc Maldives & S. Asia, incl. Myanmar

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Winner, BBC Radio 4's 2016 Thinking Aloud Award for Ethnography

Additional InformationBack to Top