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What The Body Remembers:
The Invisible Women

Rape as a Weapon in Partitions  

The South Asian sub-continent has experienced two very violent and bloody partitions – the Partition of India in 1947, and the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. At least 300,000 women were abducted and raped during the 1947 communal violence, on both sides of the border. And at least 200,000 – 400,000 Bangladeshi women were raped in the War of 1971.

Rape was used as a weapon to varying extents, in all the partitions memorialized in the Partition Memorial Project. The Partition of Bosnia and Herzegovina received the most attention internationally for the widespread use of rape. However mass rape was perpetrated in the partitions of Cyprus, Palestine, Ireland, Vietnam and Korea, albeit on a lesser scale. Or rather, lesser instances have come to light, due to the silence and taboo of rape.

Rape as a Weapon of War

Rape and sexual violence have been used in civil and military wars, globally, for example the World Wars I and II (Smith-Spark 2004).  

Rape as a Weapon of Genocide

Rape and sexual violence have been used in genocides as a way of punishing, forcing depopulation, and crushing the spirit of a minority group, for example, in Darfur, Congo, Rohingya, and Uyghur  (Amnesty International, 2018).  

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Close-up of lower half of the female body on a swing, What The Body Remembers, by Pritika Chowdhry.

Feminist Memorializing

This anti-memorial seeks to raise consciousness about the wide-spread use of rape as a weapon of war, particularly in ethno-religious conflicts. In historical narratives the large-scale rapes are either not mentioned or if they are, they are alluded to euphemistically. This erasure of women's experience of rape and sexual violence from national discourse and monuments is troubling, at many levels. 

Feminist Memory Studies

It silences women victims and denies them any opportunity of resolution and catharsis. The perpetrators of sexual violence go unpunished which means that rape continues to be used as a weapon of war. "What the Body Remembers" anti-memorial seeks to provide a dignified memorialization for victims of mass rapes, that unflinchingly acknowledges the truth of their experience.    

The field of feminist memory studies posits that the ways in which we memorialize, is a form of activism. Effective memorialization can potentially prevent the reoccurrence of the very thing being memorialized, i.e., mass rapes in ethno-religious and military conflicts.

Lower half of the female body playing hopscotch, What The Body Remembers, by Pritika Chowdhry, anti-memorial to rape as a weapon of war.

UN Resolution 798

United Nations Security Council resolution 798, adopted unanimously on 18 December 1992, condemned reports of the massive, organized, and systematic detention and rape of women, in particular Muslim women, in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the Bosnian War.

 

Resolution 798 was the first time the United Nations condemned the rape of women in wartime (UN Resolution 798 1992). Additional resolutions have been passed since then.

Close-up of lower half of the female body playing hopscotch, What The Body Remembers, by Pritika Chowdhry.

Counter - Memories of the Partitions

The widespread use of rapes and sexual violence as weapons is the counter-memory of the Partitions of 1947 and 1971, and that is elided from the popular memory culture of the Partitions. There is a sense of subterranean shame, a sense of unease, that prevents the acknowledgment of the widespread use of rapes and sexual violence in the Partition riots in 1947, and the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971.

Not surprisingly, reports of rapes and sexual violence are now coming out about the other partitions memorialized in the Partition Memorial Project. As feminist scholars and historians excavate the counter-memories of these Partitions, we find more instances of the systematic use of mass rapes in Cyprus, Palestine, Ireland, Germany, Vietnam, and Korea. The mass rapes perpetrated in Bosnia and Herzegovina are better documented, than in the other partitions. Read more about it in this post on my blog.

Counter-Memory by Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault coined the term, “Counter-Memory” to describe a modality of history that opposes history as knowledge or history as truth. For Foucault, counter-memory was an act of resistance in which one critically examines the history and excavates the narratives that have been subjugated (Foucault 1977).

Lower halves of the female body playing hopscotch and jump rope, What The Body Remembers, by Pritika Chowdhry, anti-memorial to rape as a weapon of war.

Twice-life-sized of lower halves of the female body playing hopscotch and jump rope, What The Body Remembers, by Pritika Chowdhry

The Anti-Memorial

When a memory is unbearable, how do you memorialize it? Traditional rituals and forms of memorialization would not have worked to memorialize these grim events. I felt that what is needed is an anti-memorial that will not let people forget the occurrence of mass rapes in 1947 and 1971 (Young Fall 1997).

James E Young describes an anti-memorial as, “Anti-memorials aim not to console but to provoke, not to remain fixed but to change, not to be everlasting but to disappear, not to be ignored by passers-by but to demand interaction, not to remain pristine but to invite their own violation and not to accept graciously the burden of memory but to drop it at the public’s feet.” (Young Fall 1997).

Lower half of the female body on a swing, What The Body Remembers, by Pritika Chowdhry, anti-memorial to rape as a weapon of war.

Lower half of the female body on a swing, What The Body Remembers, by Pritika Chowdhry.

What the Body Remembers deploys the twice-life-sized, fragmented body to function as an anti-memorial to reveal the counter-memories buried in the collective narratives of trauma, in the partitions of 1947 and 1971. Realizing the close relationship of trauma and counter-memory, I am striving to create a visual language that can reveal suppressed memories of trauma through archetypes and iconic bodies.

Through the racialized and sexualized female body, I hope to shine a light on the resistant ways in which women respond to violence. When the female body becomes a site of nationalist and patriarchal aspirations, what options are available to women to reclaim their humanity and their agency? Not many, it would seem. But perhaps, artwork can create avenues that mainstream culture is not able to or outright denies.

Close-up of lower half of the female body playing hopscotch, What The Body Remembers, by Pritika Chowdhry, anti-memorial to rape as a weapon of war.

​Close-up of  lower halves of the female body, What The Body Remembers, by Pritika Chowdhry

What the Body Remembers, by Pritika Chowdhry

​Close-up of  lower halves of the female body, What The Body Remembers, by Pritika Chowdhry

These sculptures are comprised of lower halves of the female body. The sculptures are caught in moments of play such as swing, hopscotch, or jump rope. These childhood games engage the body in the pleasure of a physical nature and simultaneously function as screen memory. There is an un-narratable element in memories of violence, and the viewer is asked to understand what is left unsaid through these sculptures placed in a playground environment.

The half-figures range in height from 5’ to 6’ and they are rendered in a deliberately anti-classical manner. The material presence of these sculptures is corporeal, and I hope they convey a visceral embodiment of vulnerability as well as strength. The naked half-bodies are of generous proportions, and their genitalia is clearly articulated. While erotic power is apparent in these sculptures it is presented as a sublimated, underlying thread rather than a direct representation.

Using play as a screen memory 

Using the metaphor of childhood play, such as swinging on a swing, playing hopscotch, and jumping rope, enables the viewers to enter the experiential installation. The motif of play is relatable and safe, which is important given that the sensitive issue of rape and sexual assault can be triggering for many viewers.

Freud coined the term, "screen memory" which in psychoanalytic theory, is "a memory of a childhood experience, usually trivial in nature, that unconsciously serves the purpose of concealing or screening out, or is a conflation of, an associated experience of a more significant and perhaps traumatic nature. Also called cover memory or replacement memory." (APA, 2021)

In this anti-memorial, I utilize "screen memory" as a framework to organize the traumatic memories of rape as a weapon in ethnographic-religious conflict. Most of us can remember playing these innocent childhood games when we were children. The references to the sexual trauma are very subtle and understated, but enough to help viewers empathize with what the victims might have gone through.

 

The visual marker of the trauma is the fragmented female body, expanded to twice life-size, with the genitalia clearly articulated. At almost 6' tall, the pubic area of the female bodies is at about eye level for most adult viewers.

Soundscape

There is a soundscape that animates the installation space. It comprises of the sound of a steam engine train approaching from a distance and then leaving. In the Partition of India, trains were a site of horrific violence. People on both sides of the border crowded into trains going to India or Pakistan, but the trains would arrive on the other side of the border filled with dead bodies that had been brutally massacred (Singh, 1956). 

But instead of trying to depict that visually and have it be potentially triggering for viewers, I refer to it in a very understated way with the soundscape.

Lower halves of the female body playing hopscotch, What The Body Remembers, by Pritika Chowdhry, anti-memorial to rape as a weapon of war.

Twice life-sized lower halves of the female body playing hopscotch, What The Body Remembers, by Pritika Chowdhry

Monuments and their Failures

The women’s trauma is still missing from the few monuments and museums that exist in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh for the Partition. Perhaps it is because the memorials and museums are state actors invested in the nationalist project of nation-building. But once again, the women have been rendered invisible. While I understand the cultural weight of these memories of abduction and rape, I am saddened to see this elision 75 years on for India, and 50 years on for Bangladesh.

Twice life-size lower halves of the female body playing jump rope, What The Body Remembers, by Pritika Chowdhry, anti-memorial to rape as a weapon of war.

Twice-life-sized lower halves of the female body playing  jump rope, What The Body Remembers, by Pritika Chowdhry

Urvashi Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence 

I often mine literary sources to articulate and cite specific theses in my work. Intertextuality is a literary device that creates an 'interrelationship between texts' and generates related understanding in separate works. In this case, I am creating an interrelationship between a visual work and a work of historical fiction. (Intertextuality n.d.)

The title of this exhibit is inspired in part from a feminist novel about the Partition written by Shauna Singh Baldwin titled “What the Body Remembers”.

The feminist historiography on the Partition in Urvashi Butalia’s “The Other Side of Silence,” and Kamla Bhasin and Ritu Menon’s “Borders and Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition,” has been absolutely invaluable in creating the conceptual thesis of this anti-memorial.

“The Other Side of Silence” by Urvashi Butalia is absolutely remarkable in its path-breaking feminist historiography of the Partition. I want to mention just one passage here, that to me is the most poetic description of counter-memory.

She is narrating one of her many interviews with survivors of the Partition, with a family that had lost many family members and two of their sisters had been abducted. Throughout the interview, they did not mention the sisters. And Butalia describes it thus,

 

“…it struck me that that awkward silence, that hesitant phrase was perhaps where the disappearance of the two sisters lay hidden: in a small crack, covered over by silence.”  

(Butalia 2000)

And this is why I make this work. It is that small crack, covered over by silence. It is very important not to fill it with words because they would be so very inadequate. But with art, we can gently enter that crack and softly illuminate it, so that we may feel it in the cracks of our hearts.

Lower halves of the female body playing jump rope, What The Body Remembers, by Pritika Chowdhry, anti-memorial to rape as a weapon of war.

Lower halves of the female body playing jump rope, What The Body Remembers, by Pritika Chowdhry.

Bibliography

Butalia, Urvashi. 2000. In The Other Side of Silence, 106. Duke University Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1977. "Nietzche, Genealogy, History." In Language, Counter-Memory,

Practice, by Donald F. Bouchard, 160. Cornell University Press.

n.d. Intertextuality. Accessed November 11, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intertextuality.

Smith-Spark, Laura. 2004. BBC News. December 8. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/4078677.stm.

1992. UN Resolution 798. December 18.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Nations_Security_Council_Resolution_798.

Young, James E. Fall 1997. "Germany’s Memorial Question: Memory, CounterMemory, and the End of the Monument."

The South Atlantic Quarterly, vol 96, no 4 855.