Modern Asian Studies

Research Article

The absent piece of skin: Gendered, racialized and territorial inscriptions of sexual violence during the Bangladesh war  *


Department of Anthropology, Durham University, Lancaster DH1 3LE, UK Email:


This paper addresses how the wombs of women and the absent skin on the circumcised penises of men become the predominant sites on which racialized and gendered discourses operating during the Bangladesh War are inscribed. This is explored by examining instances of sexual violence by Pakistani soldiers and their local Bengali collaborators. The prevalence of these discourses in colonial documents about the Bengali Muslims underscores the role of history, the politics of identity and in the process, establishes its link with the rapes of Bangladeshi women and men. Through this, the relationship between sexual violence and historical contexts is highlighted. I locate the accounts of male violations by the West Pakistani army within the historical and colonial discourses relating to the construction of the Bengali Muslim and its intertextual, contemporary citational references in photographs and interviews.

I draw on Judith Butler's and Marilyn Strathern's work on gendering and performativity to address the citational role of various practices of discourses of gender and race within colonial documents and its application in a newer context of colonization and sexual violence of women and men during wars. The role of photographs and image-making is intrinsic to these practices. The open semiotic of the photographs allows an exploration of the territorial identities within these images and leads to traces of the silence relating to male violations. Through an examination of the silence surrounding male sexual violence vis-à-vis the emphasis on the rape of women in independent Bangladesh, it is argued that these racialized and gendered discourses are intricately associated to the link between sexuality and the state in relation to masculinity.

(Online publication January 04 2012)


*  This paper develops from my research on public memories of sexual violence of the Bangladesh war of 1971 (Mookherjee forthcoming) funded by the Wenner Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research (New York). I am grateful to Swapan Parekh for permission to use Kishor Parekh's photographs. Thanks to Veena Das for stressing that I analyze the photograph further; to Christopher Pinney, Jackie Stacey and Mark Lacy for their invaluable comments on earlier drafts. This paper was presented at the Centre for South Asian Studies seminar, Cambridge University, and the Religious Studies department seminar, Lancaster University. Thanks to the participants for their questions and comments.