Open Access Week 2022: A Conversation with Nayanika Mookherjee

On Monday 17th October, Nayanika Mookherjee, Anthropology met with Kelly Hetherington, Repository Officer, to talk about her research – shortly before heading to India for a research trip.  She talks to us in detail about her research and some of the Open Access Publications that have resulted… including an Open Access graphic novel and film.

From the Graphic novel and animation film Mookherjee, Nayanika and Najmunnahar Keya. (2019) Birangona: Towards Ethical Testimonies of Sexual Violence during Conflict. University of Durham. [Online] Freely Available in Bangla & English

Can you give us a brief outline of your research interests, and how these interests have developed and evolved over the course of your career? 

My research in political anthropology focusing on violence, ethics and aesthetics has always been interdisciplinary and drawn on debates in socio-cultural anthropology, feminist, political, philosophical and social theory to reflect on the following research areas: 

Public Memories of wartime sexual violence: 

By working closely with survivors voluntarily speaking out about their experiences, the research highlights the social aspects of violence – the various ways different women experience, endure and live through the experience of sexual violence during wars. The research interrogates the assumption of imagining the survivor as merely horrific. It shows how such stereotypes of survivors also impacts on how we judge them; the research has a long-term impact on how we understand the impacts of sexual violence within the continuum of wartime as well as non-wartime everyday violence. 

See: Open Access Publication: ‘Historicising the Birangona: Interrogating the Politics of Commemorating the Wartime Rape of 1971 in the Context of the 50th Anniversary of Bangladesh’:

Nayanika’s widely-aclaimed book: The Spectral Wound: Sexual Violence, Public Memories and the Bangladesh War (sample chapter in DRO:  

Graphic Ethnography 

My research has been used widely to teach students and train practitioners how to ethically document testimonies of sexual violence.  

These guidelines and graphic novel have fed into the Murad Code which was launched in the UN in April 2022 as an international code for those recording testimonies of wartime sexual violence. 

From the Graphic novel and animation film Mookherjee, Nayanika and Najmunnahar Keya. (2019) Birangona: Towards Ethical Testimonies of Sexual Violence during Conflict. University of Durham. [Online] Freely Available in Bangla & English

See: Nayanika’s widely-acclaimed open access graphic novel and animation film, co-authored by Bangladeshi visual artist, Najmunnahar Keya which was used to create these guidelines and won the 2019 Praxis Award. (The Praxis Award recognises ‘outstanding achievement in translating anthropological knowledge into action as reflected in a single project or specific endeavour’):  

State, power and digital surveillance 

The role of the state and the varied manifestation of power and the political has also emerged in my growing co-authored research on digital surveillance, work on bloggers and trolling (mentor for an IAS fellow in 2023-2024) and publications on mistrust (OA publication), surveillance and statelessness among Rohingya communities in camps in Bangladesh (in collaboration with PhD and Postdoctoral scholars). 

See Open Access Publications: 

‘Firing cannons to kill mosquitoes’: Controlling ‘virtual streets’ and the ‘image of the state’ in Bangladesh (

‘Medicine in Name Only’: Mistrust and COVID-19 Among the Crowded Rohingya Refugee Camps in Bangladesh (

Debates of reconciliation and what I have theorised as Irreconciliation 

See Open Access Publication: Introduction: On irreconciliation (, the introduction to a special edition of the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, which Nayanika edited.  

Memorialisation and focus on the histories of the enslaved  

Debates of memorialisation and focus on the histories of the enslaved through the absence/presence in our built structures as well as an Institute of Advanced Studies development project called ‘Absence/presence of Durham’s black history: Exploration of institutions, archives, students and pedagogies’. This has been made possible through a walking tour on slavery that I carry out with my students of the 3rd year undergraduate module in Anthropology called: Violence and Memory.

See Open Access publication: Irreconcilable times (

War babies and transnational adoption 

War babies and transnational adoption which is ongoing and draws from my research on wartime sexual violence.

Ethics as theory and research 

In 2003, I contributed an article on how to ethically record testimonies of sexual violence as part of an activist organisation and raised money for survivors. Thereafter, as the ethics officer of the Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and Commonwealth (ASA), I had, in consultation with the ASA members, updated the ASA ethics code to update it with the complexities of overt and covert research in the light of Human Terrain System where social scientists and psychologists were being hired by armies in Iraq and Afghanistan to give the occupied forces an insight into “cultures” to enable better compliance from local people. When The Spectral Wound was published in 2015, the interest in it and the kind of invitations I was receiving also made it imperative to develop a set of guidelines on how to ethically record testimonies of wartime sexual violence. These guidelines were central to my ethnography among the survivors.  Currently I am also the Chair of the Ethics Committee in Anthropology and often carry out ethics training for postgraduate students across the university. The role of ethics as theory and research runs through all my research projects. 

Are there any specific ways in which you’ve benefitted from publishing your research OA, and how would you define the benefits of OA more broadly? 

It has been fantastic to have Open Access publications as it has opened up publications to colleagues in academia and non-academia. At the same time, there is a problem, as we can have Open Access as the organisations we are in have the resources (money!)  to fund it. We need to make publication and OA more equitable globally so that this is possible for all academics and publication portals. 

Open Access Librarian says: As said here, there are clear benefits to researchers and wider society in the removal of barriers for access to research that comes with open access publishing. We agree with the concern surrounding any focus on the publishing business model that relies on the payment of Article Processing Charges (APCs) and the inequalities that can emerge from this for researchers without allocated funds for the payment of these. We are, admittedly, conflicted between doing what is best in terms of funder compliance, visibility of research outputs, maximising impact, increasing access and re-use of our own authors at Durham and the possible negative impact that this direction of travel for open access may be having on our colleagues elsewhere. The removal of a financial barrier for access is potentially being replaced for some authors with an introduction of a financial barrier to publishing in their journal of choice. While we can highlight diamond open access journals (with no author fees) and rights retention (which attempts to offer immediate open access with re-use rights for accepted manuscripts via repositories) we are also aware that these may not be the answer for everyone, and that there is still a way to go to find a sustainable solution that is equitable for all. We would like to encourage more researchers to come to us to discuss their views on open access (benefits and concerns) so that we can continue understand your views on this.

You were recently editor for a special edition for the ‘Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute’ which is currently ‘free access’ and there’s plenty of open access material in there – including your own articles which are available in our repository.  What is the experience of editing a journal like? 

This is the fourth journal special issue I have edited in the last decade and the openness of the material is fantastic. Editing a journal special issue is exciting and challenging as it involves painstaking work to bring the contributors together, keep to deadlines, adjust to life events – which happened as many of us lost loved ones during covid during the preparation of the journal volume.  

The position of irreconciliation among survivors who refuse to accept and compromise with the staging of the search for justice also involved a form of public anthropology in my aforementioned article ‘Irreconcilable Times’ which reflected on the last two years of the times we live in. If the open access allows more articles to be downloaded and helps the journal, then the entire discipline is helped if we can make disciplinary journals to gain revenues. Nonetheless, this kind of revenue generation needs to be across the globe for all academic journals and organisations. How we enable this is the tricky question. 

You have an Open Access film and graphic novel, ‘Birangona’, which is based on your ethnographic research on a range of testimonies of wartime rape in Bangladesh, 1971. Why did you decide to present your research in this way?   

One of the central findings of The Spectral Wound, which is also the focus of the graphic novel Birangona, is a critical understanding of the testimonial process. Interviews with survivors of wartime sexual violence show that with the focus on documentation of the experiences of wartime rape: (a) inadequate attention is paid to the conditions under which such testimonies are recorded; (b) as a result, ethical practices of documentation can be flouted by journalists, human rights activists, government officials, non-governmental organization (NGO) personnel, researchers in their pursuit of recording wartime rape, (c) hence, survivors can experience a double set of transgression in the very process of testifying to their violent experiences during wars, (d) hence, there can emerge a critical disconnection between survivors needs and transitional justice processes. The project of the graphic novel picks up on this central focus of how to ethically document testimonies of sexual violence in conflict and intertwines it with an intergenerational story through which accounts of these guidelines are narrated. The goal of this project was and is to contribute to the welfare of survivors by ensuring that their process of giving testimonies does not prove to be another source of transgression, along with past experiences of sexual violence. This can be possible by making academic work more accessible to non-academic individuals and organizations and by inviting them to implement the research findings of The Spectral Wound. Above all, graphic novels and films are able to catch what I refer to as ‘aurality of images’ whereby emotions of the ethnography and images can be conveyed through the silence of the images.

How would you like to see the open access landscape change or develop in the future? 

I think it would be important for us to co-author publications with colleagues whose organisations might not have the resources so as to enable accessibility for more people. Ideally the open access landscape needs to be equitable in the long run.  

Can you tell us about any plans you have for your future research? 

I would like to focus on my book Arts of Irreconciliation and also continue with my work on war babies and transnational adoption. 

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