The ethics of documenting sexual violence | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, August 26, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:08 PM, August 26, 2018

The ethics of documenting sexual violence

"These women are carrying on with their lives. The injury of what happened is coming up in different ways—it need not be something sensational like the understanding we have of the birangona. Otherwise we would never understand what happened to the birangonas in terms of their experiences of the war."

—Prof Nayanika Mookherjee, in an interview with The Daily Star, 2016

On August 13, in a programme jointly organised by Research Initiatives Bangladesh (RIB) and Durham University, a set of guidelines for ethical documentation of birangonas was launched and submitted to the Liberation War Ministry for formal adoption. These guidelines were the result of multiple meetings, initiated by Dr Meghna Guhathakurta of RIB and Prof Nayanika Mookherjee of Durham University, over the last one year with researchers, professors, filmmakers, NGO workers and journalists, with input from women who had been raped during the Liberation War in 1971, to identify the ethical issues that have cropped up over the last four decades in portraying and documenting war-heroines. Over the course of the discussions, drawn from the findings of Nayanika Mookherjee's book The Spectral Wound, one thing was absolutely clear: this was an issue which had not received much attention and priority institutionally, be it from research institutes or from the media.

That the process of documentation, the questions that are asked, the environment in which this takes place, and ultimately the way the birangona is represented through preconceived, stereotyped notions can not only make these survivors go through another round of violation but also make them socially and economically vulnerable, has been lost on many who have worked with them.

Ferdousi Priyabhashini, who was present during the first meeting, shared her experiences with the press come every December, with those present. In one instance, a TV reporter, when they had come to interview her, went as far as to ask her to look sad and dim the lights of the room, because that is what the image of a birangona was in his mind—a broken woman in a dark place. Another had simply walked in and blurted out: “Tell us what happened in '71.”

A little history, from The Spectral Wound, of how public memories of war-time rape have been shaped since 1971 may be of help to illustrate the point. In a historically unprecedented move, when the Liberation War ended in 1971, the government of Bangladesh termed the women who were raped during the nine months of war as birangonas—war heroines—not only acknowledging the sexual violence that these women faced, but it was also an effort to tackle the ostracism that was inevitably to follow. Efforts were made to rehabilitate these women and reduce the social ostracism they faced. Media reports abounded, identifying them and documenting their experiences. However, after 1975 the birangonas disappeared from the state discourse, although they remained alive in literature and films.

In the 1990s, during the Gono Adalat (People's Tribunal) trial of Ghulam Azam, the focus on birangonas resurfaced. During the symbolic hearing, some of these women were present and their narratives were read out as testimony. Professor Nayanika Mookherjee's book, The Spectral Wound, traces how the lives of these women were affected from their presence in commemorative events and in the media coverage which followed. On one hand, the post-war lives of the women were affected, as many in their villages saw their coming forth with their narratives as a means of using their “shame” for material benefit. At the same, in many instances, promises of reparation that were made to them never materialised. Their testimonies were homogenised, and the cultural portrayals of birangonas as women who had lost their “dignity”, with hair dishevelled, gave rise to the stereotyped birangona figure. This stereotyped birangona is defined by “what happened in 1971”, with no care for their post-war lives, and a figure rejected by their communities. Of course, the individual experiences of the women were not cared for. At the same time, when it comes to cultural representations of the birangona, it is her “shame” which is stressed, but ironically, the violation has also been eroticised in many instances.

For a long time, and even today in mass media, our understanding of birangonas has remained confined to the event of rape. That explains the instances Priyabhashini mentioned. But as The Spectral Wound shows, many of these women did not want to talk about the “trauma” of '71—they “themselves wanted to talk about how their lives have been after the war. As a result, what came out was how the violent experiences of these women emerged in all kinds of ways, which exist on an everyday basis, but which are not articulated in that kind of stark, 'traumatic' way,” Prof Mookherjee explained in a 2016 interview.

The ethical guidelines presented in the programme took these experiences into consideration and propose that anyone who wants to carry out research on or interview birangonas must go through a contextual understanding of how their work could affect these women. It sets out that only women who have voluntarily identified themselves should be interviewed and this process should not be done in haste. This was arrived at from past instances where journalists or researchers had gone to villages, hastily asked a few questions, and left—making the whole process sorely visible to the community.

Another important issue which the guidelines try to address is the sensationalisation of the birangonas' narratives or changing the narratives to fit preconceived moulds. Language, as always, has always been a tricky issue when talking about sexual violence, and this is noted in the guidelines. This point, relevant for researchers and journalists, will hopefully be more elaborately discussed if the guidelines are adopted.

The issue of continuous consent has been given priority too, as has the point of not making unjustified assurances of reparations. Most importantly, the guidelines stress on the need for respecting what these women want to share and establishing a relationship with the women beyond the interview. The guidelines also try to explain that how these women were affected after the war, and how they folded their experiences into their everyday lives, is important for the documentation and understanding of sexual violence—it is important to respect the boundaries of what they want to talk about.

Today, government efforts to honour and support birangonas are considerable. As more and more names of survivors of sexual violence of 1971 are being collected and gazetted and as survivors receive stipends, the issues mentioned in the guidelines have become all the more crucial. Names and addresses can easily be looked up and the potential for documentation and research work has increased, as has the risk of pushing these women into further vulnerabilities. Hopefully, these guidelines will be formally adopted by the ministry soon.

But a guideline is not something that can be legally enforced, and doing so could give rise to further complications which could actually restrict independent research. What is needed is institutionalisation of these ethical guidelines, something which is missing in our country. A pertinent point was made during the launching programme by one university teacher: most universities in Bangladesh have no ethics committees to oversee and guide researchers in their work and hold them accountable. The same remains the case with the media. Adoption of these guidelines by research institutions and universities would be a good start in not only ensuring that survivors are not harmed in any way in the process of documentation, but also in establishing a culture of prioritising ethics in research in our country. This is just as relevant for mass media, and these guidelines provide an excellent basis, not only for documenting and reporting on birangonas, but for all victims of sexual violence.


Moyukh Mahtab is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.


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