'Remembering to Forget': Public Secrecy and Memory of Sexual Violence in the Bangladesh War of 1971./«penser a Oublier»: Secret Public et Souvenirs Des Violences Sexuelles Pendant la Guerre De 1971 Au Bangladesh

By Mookherjee, Nayanika | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, June 2006 | Go to article overview

'Remembering to Forget': Public Secrecy and Memory of Sexual Violence in the Bangladesh War of 1971./«penser a Oublier»: Secret Public et Souvenirs Des Violences Sexuelles Pendant la Guerre De 1971 Au Bangladesh


Mookherjee, Nayanika, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


On 28 March 1992, a photograph of Kajoli, Moyna, and Rohima--three poor, landless women from Enayetpur, a village in western Bangladesh--was printed on the front page of national newspapers with the caption: 'Birangonas [war heroines] from Kushtia demand trial of Gholam Azum [a well-known collaborator of the war of 1971]'. Birangonas was a term given by the Bangladesh government in 1972 to all women who were raped during the Bangladesh war the previous year. (1) Kajoli, Moyna, and Rohima were among those raped, and they and their home village (2) were the primary focus of my fieldwork between 1997 and 1998.

On the same day, Enayetpur received its daily edition of the national Bengali newspaper Doinik Jonokontho, which was read in the library and in the marketplace teashop. Kajoli's husband Rafique was called over to the teashop when he came to the market to buy daily provisions of rice, oil, and salt. He recalled that the men were reading the newspaper aloud and laughing sneeringly about the fact that his wife had given testimony against Gholam Azum, the collaborator. They told Rafique that by publicly acknowledging that they had been raped by 'the military' (the term used to refer to the Pakistani soldiers of 1971), the news had spread deshe bideshe (all over the country and the world). Accordingly, on their return to Enayetpur the 'war heroines' were confronted by sanctions and constant khota (sarcastic/censorious remarks evoking the unpleasant events which I refer to as scorn).

This article explores how Enayetpur remembers and negotiates its history of rape during the war through the discourse of khota/scorn towards the three birangonas. I argue that scorn provides the framework within which the memory of rape exists in Enayetpur, but that this rape is a public secret and thus the framework is subject to ambiguities of revelation and concealment that are indispensable to the operations of power. This framework allows an exploration of the relationship between secrecy and memory and provides methodological tools with which to engage with narratives of the past relating to wartime violence. This argument of revelation and concealment is hinged on the perception that experiences of sexual violence are often shrouded in silence. While, on the one hand, this is the case in Enayetpur, on the other, scorn towards the raped women keeps alive the memories of this violent encounter and also reveals the silence surrounding wartime rape. Consequently the process also sets up sanctions against the overt narration of the experience of rape, ensuring that it remains concealed as a secret, a public secret, only to be invoked at specific moments in the context of intersubjective dynamics. The revelation and concealment in the process highlight the ambiguity of the villagers towards the exposure of the local history of the war and the transgressed sexuality of the raped woman. In fact, the very shunning of the raped woman because of the public secrecy of rape ensures her representation through scorn.

In his classic essay' The secret and the secret society', Georg Simmel analyses secrecy through his discussion of lying (1950: 312), the latter being at the root of all social interactions and affecting reciprocal knowledge. To him, the secret is a consciously desired concealment (1950: 317) which enables an individual or a 'secret society' to retain power, brag about a moral misconduct, or fashion themselves in response to the judgements made by others. Secrecy thus ensures group cohesion through the restriction of the social distribution of knowledge over time. Ultimately it is woven into the system of power and control in society. Following Simmel, (3) Michael Gilsenan, in his explication of kizb (an Arabic word translated as 'lying') in Lebanon, refers to judgements made by others as 'attributions' (1976: 192). This is based on a 'status honour code'--'situations of ultimate reference within which men transact their socially significant selves' (1976: 211). …

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