Beghar: Partition through a gendered lens
It’s been 75 years of both India & Pakistan becoming independent nations, truly an occasion of triumph. However, what also marks 75 years is the horrific partition - the largest human migration in history, resulting in 2 million deaths and the displacement of more than 10 million people.
We already know how eventually both countries shaped up and made a name for themselves and play an active role in the global arena. But this article does not compare who did better than the other, we can leave that to the discretion of the mainstream media who always analyze the performance or situation of one country by comparing it with the other.
This piece rather focuses on the harrowing experiences of women during partition and their status since. Women during the partition were raped, abducted, sold, often many times over, forced to settle down to a new life with strangers in unknown circumstances. Scholars have shown how ideas of ‘preserving’ community honour came into play in this period of extreme physical and psychological danger. This notion of honour drew upon a conception of masculinity defined as ownership of zan (women) and zamin (land). Masculinity, it was believed, lay in the ability to protect your possessions. Often enough women internalized the same values. As a result of this patriarchal notion, when the men feared that ‘their’ women - wives, daughters, sisters - would be violated by the ‘enemy’, they killed the women themselves. Urvashi Butalia in her book, The Other Side of Silence, narrates one such gruesome incident in the village of Thoa Khalsa, Rawalpindi district. It is said that during the partition, ninety women had ‘voluntarily’ jumped into a well to escape falling into the hands of the ‘enemy’.
The migrant refugees from this village still commemorate the event at a gurudwara in Delhi, referring to the deaths as martyrdom, not suicide. They believe that men at that time had to courageously accept the decision of women and in some cases even persuade women to kill themselves. Women are exhorted to remember the sacrifice and bravery of their sisters and to cast themselves in the same mould. For the community of survivors, the remembrance ritual helps keep the memory alive. But what about selectively choosing not to remember the stories of all those who did not wish to die, but had to end their lives against their will? Many women even carried packets of poison while traveling to the other side of the border in the eventuality that they might be captured. And many committed suicide after they were released by their captors for having been thus ‘used’ or ‘polluted’ according to the norms. Threatening sexual violence to demean women is a catalyst of rape culture and takes place because the onus of being sexually objectified has been largely put on women.
Soon on December 6, 1947 an inter-dominion conference was held in Lahore at which both countries agreed upon steps to be taken for the implementation of recovery and restoration of women - hence special committees were set up led by Mridula Sarabhai, to bring back the lost women from both sides of the border, often by force. The narratives recorded, indicated strong refusal of many women on both sides of the border to conform to the demands of either their own families or their governments, to fall in line with their notions of what was legitimate and acceptable. Some women who resisted returning to their "own" countries resorted to hunger strikes and sometimes even refused to change out of clothes they had been wearing since they were recovered. One young recovered girl confronted Mridula Sarabhai and said - “You say abduction is immoral and so you are trying to save us. Well, now it is too late. One marries only once - willingly or by force. We are now married - what are you going to do with us? Ask us to marry again? Is that not immoral? And will people accept us with open arms? You may do your worst if you insist, but remember you can kill us, but we will not go.”
For those who were recovered against their wishes - and there were many - the choice was not only painful but bitter. Living their lives under one religion, abducted and married into another, then recovered as identifying to their initial religion but required to relinquish their children because they were born to fathers of a different faith, to ultimately being ‘disowned’ by their families in their homeland - making them ‘permanent refugees’- it is evident that society had no place for an agency exercising women. Whether they should cross the border, or end their lives before the enemies approached, or if they should be restored to their homelands/families and whether they should be accepted by their families after everything, was clearly not decided through any moral compass and was rather rendered at the mercy of the decision makers in this patriarchal institution- the men.
Approximately 30,000 women were recovered from each side of the border over an eight year period. On January 16, 1948, Jawaharlal Nehru made a public appeal through the newspaper, saying: “I am told that there is an unwillingness on the part of their relatives to accept those girls and women (who were abducted) back in their homes. This is the most objectionable and wrong attitude to take. These girls and women require our tender and loving care and their relatives should be proud to take them back and give them any help they need.” Such was the result of yet another hurried and improperly planned action-plan. And such was the status the purity of a woman held back then. While there have been some movies and documentaries about the partition of India & Pakistan, there has hardly been any retelling of it through a gendered lens.
The Pakistani drama Dastaan depicted the trauma faced by a woman refugee during partition where the protagonist played by Sanam Baloch faced physical and psychological trauma. After being reunited with her fiance’s family who weren’t completely welcoming of her, she felt like a burden on them and struggled with an inner turmoil constantly.
75 years later where are we with this obsession over women’s bodies? Do women exercise autonomy? Yes, there’s no doubt that the status of women has developed in these 75 years. However, the obsession with a woman’s body still exists and is most oftenly still viewed as a pawn in the game of power and politics.
Women are treated as sites of culture, tradition and everything pure - this idea serves the patriarchal structure as it idolizes virginal women as a standard of morality and in the process forces women to live up to it. In addition to this, the honour of a society is always associated with a woman’s vagina. 76% of Indian men in the arranged marriage circuit would refuse to marry a woman who is not virgin (India Today). In 2016 the brutal murder of a newly wed bride in Pakistan came in limelight, who was killed by her husband after discovering that she was not a virgin. It is still the women who bear the brunt of patriarchy on each side of the border, being treated as a possession of the society. Since we’ve made the life of a woman the business of her community, a woman doing anything that falls out of the established societal moral permissibility is considered dangerous, another strategy to keep her "in line". These standards erode a woman’s ownership over her own body and life. An agency exercising women is often slut shamed in the society and is often viewed as impure, dirty or unfit for marriage. On the other hand immense hypocrisy is at play when it comes to boys - the sexual morality of boys is never even discussed.
Which is why the institution of patriarchy is equally toxic for men as it restricts them in a cage of masculinity, the accepted behavioral norms for which are again decided by the society. As for women, we contain our family's and our own honour in our vaginas. Only authorised people have access to the vagina. So, the family must protect it - this is why honour killing is permitted when a woman marries a man from another clan. But raping your sister, daughter, or anyone else is not loss of honour!
As these 75 years passed by we’ve all realised something - culture does not make people. People make culture. If it is true that the full humanity of women is not yet embedded in our culture, then we can and must make it our culture. It is important to ensure that we introspect and reflect on our own intrinsic beliefs when it comes to the association of a woman’s ‘dishonour’ with sexual objectification and violence. As long as our private, familial, and socio-cultural circles keep associating an abstract notion of traditional honour with women’s sexualities, the living, breathing, physical manifestation of the women around us will continue to be sexually objectified and victimised in order for men to assert their sense of power. Let’s do it for the millions of women displaced during the partition, we owe it to them.
By Kuhu Srivastava
- Menon, Ritu, and Kamla Bhasin. “Recovery, Rupture, Resistance: Indian State and Abduction of Women during Partition.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 28, no. 17, 1993, pp. WS2–11. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4399640. Accessed 14 Aug. 2022.
- The Other Side of Silence by Urvashi Butalia.
- Themes in Indian History Part-III by National Council of Educational Research & Training