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Breaking the glass ceiling

  • Published at 01:12 pm April 18th, 2019

Unique graphic novel teaches about ethical guidelines in reporting sexual violence during war

“Thud Thud Thud,” a horrific sound approaches the door. An overwhelming sense of fright spreads as the door opens into a dark room. Rehana gets jolted awake. It was a nightmare, recounting of an incident that happened to her in 1971. She’s been having these nightmares ever since. The passing years took her away from the event, but memories seem to have remained, etched deeper into her consciousness. 

This is from a scene as told in the graphics novel“’Birangona’ Towards Ethical Testimonies of Sexual Violence During Conflict”. The story of the novel develops as Rehana’s curious little grand-daughter asks her what she saw in her dream and seeks to find out the source of her grandmother’s deep seeded terror. 

Based on Nayanika Mookherjee’s research findings from ‘The Spectral Wound: Sexual Violence, Public Memories and the Bangladesh War of 1971’ and illustration by Najmun Nahar Keya, the novel sheds light on the serious subject guidelines in working with public memories and integrating the historical context. “In a way it is a historical document about ‘Birangona’ along with the an intergenerational account of the history,” said Nayanika. 

A professor of anthropology at Durham University, Nayanika took up the work to preserve the stories of Birangona (war heroine) of the 1971 Liberation War, and to bring attention to guidelines of ethical testimonies of sexual violence during conflicts. “Through this graphic novel we tried to bring forth the historical trajectory of  ‘Birangona’ in the context of Bangladesh by providing the guidelines,” she said.

It was no mean feat to translate an academic book into a visual work. “It was difficult to bring out the graphic novel from dense text work in ‘The Spectral Wound: Sexual Violence, Public Memories and the Bangladesh War of 1971.’ To me It was easier to write the 250 page book. From text to picture is challenging,” Nayanika said. 

In the graphic book, the context is often conveyed with minimal conversation. The book presents 10 guidelines and places them into easily understandable context through examples from the story.

There are also stories about other women survivors of sexual violence and trauma in the war. They include Ferdousi Priyabhashini, Moyna Karim, Chaya Rani Dutta and Shireen Ahmed. 

Nayanika and illustrator Najmun Nahar Keya have been cautious about depicting the victims and presenting sensitive cultural subtexts. “For illustrating Chaya Rani Dutta, a sex worker, Keya asked me whether we should portray her in Hijab. We never saw her without hijab. So, we decided to retain that since sex workers have their own sense of representation. We have to deal the issue of representation delicately,” Nayanik said. 

The novel contains archival photos and news clippings. “Besides illustration we added pictures of different times related to the respective Birangona, which I couldn’t put in the main book,” Nayanika said. 

The authors hopes the book will guide journalists, researchers, filmmakers and anyone else working or interested in working on sexual violence during conflict and inform them about the do’s and don’ts from a scholarly and academic perspective. 

The elements in the stories draw heavily from Nayanika’s own experiences of recording accounts from women survivors of war. 

“I am not a believer of the paradigm where we are only giving them voice through breaking the silence,” she said. Staying with them, sharing daily life brought her closer to them. “I talked to them in the dead of the night, sometimes until 4am in cowsheds so that we can speak privately and peacefully. Because there were too many people during the day and they could not speak freely about the incidents,” Nayanika said.     

Sheikh MujiMahmud Hossain Opubur Rahman created the honorific after the war to honour the survivors. Even though originally coined to honour the victims of sexual violence, the word ‘Birangona’ sometimes attracted more stigma than prestige. Identifying as a Birangona could mean facing social discrimination. 

Despite its less than transformative effect on society, the recognition through the title Birangona has been cited as a unique effort to honour victims of sexual violence in war. There are no precedence of recognition by the state of sexual violence victims of war. 

“In this regard the case of Bangladesh is unique in the world, but unfortunately its example is not very widely known internationally. One of the main objectives of the novel is to reaffirm this unique recognition and uphold the honour betowed through this title,” Nayanika said. 

Nayanika thinks that the book can play an important role toward that objective and hopes that it will be made accessible for academic purposes and to fulfil individual interest.

The guidelines and the graphic novel have been co-produced through five workshops, two London School of Economics (LSE)’s Women, one with Peace and Security and three with Research Initiatives Bangladesh (RIB) in collaboration with various stakeholders. 

The graphics novel’s launching event in Bangladesh took place on 10th April at CIRDAP. Minister of Liberation War Affairs AKM Mozammel Haque was present during the launch. The minister praised the initiative and said that Bangladeshi people should be committed to uphold the spirit of liberation war. 

Mahmud Hossain Opu

Shundori, daughter of a Birangona resented that journalists often interviewed her mother with no apparent reverence and empathy towards her feelings. “Nayanika was the only one who was sensitive tto their feelings. And it important for these women to be able to let the agony out by sharing their experiences of trauma, which they carried with them for decades,” she said while speaking at the launching event. 

Both the Bangla and English version of the graphic novel can be freely downloaded from: www.ethical-testimonies-svc.org.uks

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