Gendered Violence and the Horrors of Partition: The Price Paid by Women

Partition violence situated women as objects of possession and vehicles of communication of reprisal between opposed groups of men.

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Reminiscing the pains of Partition, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on Saturday that August 14 would be remembered as Partition Horrors Remembrance Day in memory of people’s struggles and sacrifices.

August 14, the eve of India’s independence and the day Pakistan officially came into being in 1947, is associated with the memories of millions of people who suffered during the traumatic episode; the fallout of which has lasted decades. Women, in particular, dealt with brutal violence. The Partition brought with it many uncertainties, where violence, pain, distress, tumultuousness, disarray and mayhem seemed to be the only certainties.

This period in history witnessed gendered violence inflicted on women either by the males of their families or by members of other religious communities. Women were kidnapped, raped, publicly humiliated and had their genitalia mutilated. Women were also killed in the name of honour by their families, and many were forced to die by suicide in an attempt to protect their chastity.

Kamla Bhasin and Ritu Menon, in their book Borders & Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition revealed that the official number of the number of women who were abducted while on their way to Pakistan stands at 50,000, while 33,000 women were abducted as they attempted to migrate to India. In her book The Other Side of Silence, Urvashi Butalia provided similar statistics and claimed that 75,000 women were abducted from both sides of the border. However, it is presumed that the actual numbers may vary as many incidents went unnoticed and unrecorded because of the tumultuousness of the times.

Also read: We Best Remember Partition When We Connect the Dots from 1947 to 1984 and 2002

The violence against women did not end here. Their bodies were subjected to torture, mutilation and psychological trauma. Jisha Menon, in her book The Performance of Nationalism: India, Pakistan, and the Memory of Partition, narrated that the female body served as the terrain through which to exchange dramatic acts of violence. The gendered violence of Partition thus positioned women between symbolic abstraction and embodiment. Their breasts were branded, and their bodies and genitalia were tattooed with triumphal slogans or religious symbols.

The abducted women were forced to become domestic servants and sex slaves, and many were forced into prostitution. At the time of Partition, this traumatic violence meted out to many women demolished all sense of self – social or existential – granted to them by the established patriarchal system. The issue of abducted women was so widespread that both the Indian and Pakistani governments accorded the Inter-Dominion Agreement in November 1947 to recover abducted women from both sides of the border. With this move, as many as 9,000 women from India and over 5,500 women from Pakistan were rescued during the first year of the Recovery Act, 1949.

Many of the recovered women across the borders had to face humiliation and trauma all over again. The children borne by these women were not recognised as legitimate, and many were separated from their children. Pregnant women either had to give their children up for adoption or get abortions. Consequently, thousands of destitute children were separated from their mothers and adopted by the two new states. Many children were adopted by people simply for the purpose of domestic labour.

The Partition triggered one of the bloodiest upheavals and horrendous chapters in history. These uncouth acts reflected the mindset of the patriarchal community wherein women were considered objects of honour. Partition violence situated women as objects of possession and vehicles of communication of reprisal between opposed groups of men. Across the borders, while villages were plundered and burnt, women were mutilated and sexually tortured, and trains of migrants crossing in opposite directions were found full of dismembered bodies.

As the illustrious poet Nida Fazli wrote after his first visit to Pakistan;

Insaan mein haiwaan yahan bhi hai wahan bhi
Allah nigehbaan yahan bhi hai wahan bhi
Khoonkhaar darindon ke faqat naam alag hain
Shehron mein bayabaan yahan bhi hai wahan bhi.

(The beast within the human is at both places,
Allah is the protector at both places,
Only the names of barbarous monsters are different
Wastelands within cities exist at both places).

Faisal Fareed and Shah Alam are associated with Aligarh Muslim University.