• Pritika Chowdhry

Remembering the "Birangona": the Spectral Wound of the Bangladesh War of 1971

Updated: Aug 10

50th Anniversary of 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War

Today is The 50th Anniversary of the end of the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, which started on March 25th in Dhaka with Operation Search Light, and finally ended on December 16, 1971. In this brutal war, now widely recognized as genocide, over 3 million people were killed, and 20 million were displaced internally and as refugees. The Pakistani Army surrendered on December 16th, 1971, and this day is officially celebrated as Victory Day or Bijoy Dibas, in Bangladesh.


The "Birangona" playing on a swing, What the Body Remembers exhibition, by Pritika Chowdhry
The "Birangona" playing on a swing, What the Body Remembers exhibition, by Pritika Chowdhry

Rape as a Weapon of War


The Partition Memorial Project is joining the festivities of Victory Day with two controversial art installations. The Partition Memorial Project aims to raise consciousness about the systematic rape of over 200,000 to 400,000 Bangladeshi women during the Bangladesh Liberation War. Rape was extensively used as a weapon of war in this genocide to wound and humiliate the people of Bangladesh.


The "Birangonas" playing hopscotch and jumprope, What the Body Remembers exhibition, by Pritika Chowdhry
The "Birangonas" playing hopscotch and jumprope, What the Body Remembers exhibition, by Pritika Chowdhry

Birangona: The Spectral Wound

The use of rape as a weapon of war in 1971 is a complicated issue. The widespread use of rape against women is the counter-memory of the Bangladesh Liberation War. While wartime rape in 1971 has been kept in the public memory, it has been done by using the trope of the "Birangona". This framing is problematic because it erases the lived experience of the women themselves.


... While the celebration of "Birangonas" as heroes keeps the wartime rape victims in the public memory, they exist in the public consciousness as a "Spectral Wound."

Nayanika Mookherjee, author of The Spectral Wound: Sexual Violence, Public Memories, and the Bangladesh War of 1971.


The women victims of wartime rape in Bangladesh are referred to as "Birangonas," or brave women. However, state actors use this term as propaganda to create a narrative of victim nationalism that leaves the actual "Birangonas" in an impossible situation of national eulogization but ostracization in their villages and families.


Latex panel from Martyred Intellectuals Monument in Rayer Bazar, Dhaka, Bangladesh in the Broken Column exhibition, by Pritika Chowdhry
Latex panel from Martyred Intellectuals Monument in Rayer Bazar, Dhaka, Bangladesh in the Broken Column exhibition, by Pritika Chowdhry

"When a memory is unbearable, how do you memorialize it?"

Artist Residency in Dhaka

To try to answer this impossible question in the context of the Birangonas of Bangladesh, I did an artist residency in Dhaka at the Britto Arts Trust in 2013 and did research on three national monuments in Dhaka - the Martyred Intellectuals Memorial, the Liberation War Museum, and the Jalladkhana Killing Fields Museum.


Pritika creating a latex cast of the mural on the back wall in the Jalladkhana Killing Fields Museum, in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Pritika creating a latex cast of the mural on the back wall in the Jalladkhana Killing Fields Museum, in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Monuments of Forgetting


The "Birangona" and her trauma was absent from these national monuments. Traditional monuments and memorials seem inadequate to memorialize such an inexpressible issue. I felt that what is needed is an anti-memorial that will help people understand the trauma of the "Birangona" in a deep way.


Latex panel from Martyred Intellectuals Monument, in Rayer Bazar, Dhaka, Bangladesh in the Broken Column exhibition, by Pritika Chowdhry
Latex panel from Martyred Intellectuals Monument, in Rayer Bazar, Dhaka, Bangladesh in the Broken Column exhibition, by Pritika Chowdhry

In these anti-memorials, I also draw parallels with the use of rape as a weapon of war in the 1947 Partition of India, by examining monuments in Pakistan and India. My anti-memorials also expose the ongoing use of rape as a weapon in ethnic conflicts and communal riots in the South Asian sub-continent.


Latex panel of Jalladkhana Killing Field Museum, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in the Broken Column exhibition, by Pritika Chowdhry.
Latex panels of Jalladkhana Killing Field Museum, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in the Broken Column exhibition, by Pritika Chowdhry.

ABOUT THE PARTITION MEMORIAL PROJECT


The Partition Memorial Project comprises seven anti-memorials that examine various aspects of the Partition of India in 1947, and the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971, and the ongoing communal riots and ethnic conflicts in the South Asian sub-continent. In addition, it also examines partitions of other countries and raises awareness about rape as a weapon of war in partitions and civil and military wars.


For more information, visit The Partition Memorial Project on Facebook and Instagram. For additional information, please visit https://www.partitionmemorialproject.org.