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Writing Women into Silences Experiences of Women during Partition

Updated: Jul 11


Image credits: The Heritage Lab


Last year in August, Delhi saw the inauguration of a Partition museum. The Museum is evidently a people’s museum documenting stories both interesting and tragic from the survivors themselves. While the entire museum raptures its visitors, one segment that focuses on women’s experiences is of particular interest to this essay. Through the length of this essay, an attempt has been made to revisit and analyse how the aspect of gender plays a crucial role in the experiences of women in an event that Ashish Nandy compares to the Holocaust. (pp. 305-306)


Nandy has worked extensively on the impact Partition had on the psyche of the individuals who experienced it. What becomes interesting is the ‘eerie silence’ (Nandy, 308), the collective amnesia that forces people to not speak of the trauma they survived. While he proposes several reasons for this mass suppression of memories, one which is heavily associated with the women who survived partition are unique to them and their experiences. Scholars such as Butalia, Bhasin, and Menon have made an attempt to explore the undocumented stories of these women and question why for the longest time they have chosen to stay silent.


Bhasin and Menon have expressed concerns about a lack of feminist historiography of partition and how women have only been spoken about in terms of their relationship to prominent leaders who were largely men, in the independence struggle (pp. 8-14). The segment of Partition Museum which documents women's struggle and the preceding works of feminist scholars on partition resonates with a deeper need to restore women to history, make them active agents, and establish them as individual entities with a unique history rather than homogenising it with that of men. 


The state makeup is inherently patriarchal which makes not just the history a male-dominated arena but also the forerunners of widespread movements and violence during 1947 unsympathetic and hostile to the conditions of women. Butalia has recorded thorough accounts of the different forms of violence they have been subjected to during and post-independence in her project to recover stories from women who did not think their experiences were worth recounting much, rather recorded for the purpose of history. She records sexual savagery, rapes, maiming, forced displacement, abductions, and then forced recovery of these women in her project titled The Other Side of Silence.


Women are most commonly perceived as repositories of familial honour with their bodies being protected, surveilled, and immured within the bounds of home by men. When questions of religion are considered when studying the violence of partition, men who emerge as the most active agents are seen to be motivated to establish their community and by that virtue, themselves, superior to men of the other community. Butalia has recorded instances where women were abducted from Kaafilas (large groups of men, women, and children travelling to the other end of the freshly etched border) of the warring community, raped, and sometimes even murdered to exact revenge for being of the other faith. Nandy comments on the barbaric idea of drawing even as men decided to kill as many men on their side of the border as were killed on the other side from their own group. The idea was not restricted to killings and expanded its reach to the bodies of women procured and defiled to ‘draw even’. Manto writes Ghaate ka Sauda (Bad Bargain) under the larger corpus of Siyah Hashiye (Black Margins) which follows two friends who procure a girl for sexual gratification and the next morning find out that she is of their own community as the men express their horror on being tricked. The title is supposed to shed light on the transactional nature of treating women’s bodies as objects to defile the honour of the ‘other’ (p. 119). Krishna Chander’s Peshawar Express depicts an even grimmer picture of the mass violence as women are ‘paraded naked’ and stolen from their families to be raped in the deserted forests. 


Nandy observes how people preferred to die at the hands of their own kin rather than have their daughters and wives fall into the hands of the enemy. He documents several instances where men took matters into their own hands and killed their own womenfolk to protect their honour and die with the satisfaction that they were untouched by the polluted ‘other’. Women chose to jump into pits and wells committing mass suicide for the same reason. Manik Bandhopadhyay’s The Final Solution depicts the problem of the rise in female prostitution as women found themselves with no means but prostitution to feed their ‘skeleton-like’ children. 


While these are the most obvious kinds of violence, Bhutali documents the difficulties that rehabilitation, which initially seems like a ray of hope in the dark tunnel of being left behind on the ‘wrong side’, brings to the lives of women seemingly getting used to their new identities. Through Damyanti Sahgal’s story, she sheds light on the sheer lack of autonomy given to women who have already survived immense physical and psychological trauma as they are forcefully uprooted from their new homes back to the ‘right side’. Butalia writes the story of Zainab who first survives trafficking and ends up in Buta Singh’s household assuming the status of the wife. The ill-planned mission to recover women seems to fail as Zainab is uprooted from her new life just as she is settling into the new normal after giving birth to two children with Buta Singh and coming close to establishing the closest thing to a family. She is taken back by the government officials prompted by her family and coerced into marriage with a cousin for property (pp. 215-220). This along with many such instances is a testament to how a patriarchal state is incapable of taking women’s conditions into account while making decisions. The only people who bear the brunt of these ill-calculated decisions, be it partition or the recovery mission, are women. 


These women seldom realise how significant these experiences are for the purpose of historiography and further analysis. Bhasin and Menon claim to have met with questions of ‘How is it relevant now?’ ‘What are you going to do with this information?’ ‘What difference does it make?’ thinking their experiences to be futile, too painful, or too shameful to write or talk about (pp. 17- 20). By foregrounding these narratives, we challenge the patriarchal contours of historiography. Integrating women's experiences into our collective understanding of the Partition has a transformative potential. Such an approach not only honours the complexity of their experiences but also contributes to a broader project of historical reconciliation and healing.  As Helene Cixous implies, however, it is significant to bring women’s bodies and their experiences to writing to ensure that their voices are heard and that their history is not dwarfed by that of men because of the patriarchal stakeholders in place. So to do away with the obscurity that surrounds women’s experiences of the dark times, we need more scholarship, research, and discussion of the dark times itself. 


 

By: Manasvi James

Manasvi James is a Literature and Political Science student recently graduated from St. Stephen’s. Her academic interests lie in gender narratives and intersectional identities.

 

References

Bandopadhyay, M. (2018). The Final Solution. In Partition Literature: An Anthology (pp. 

24-30). Worldview Publications.

Bhasin, K., & Menon, R. (1998). Borders & boundaries : women in India's partition. Rutgers 

University Press.

Butalia, U. (1998). The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. Penguin 

Books

Chander, K. Peshawar Express. Rekhta. Retrieved June 29, 2023, from 

Cixous,Hellen. Laugh of the Medusa.1975

Kelly, J. (1984). Women, History, and Theory: The Essays of Joan Kelly. University of 

Chicago Press

Manto, S. H. (2001). Black Margins. In For Freedom's Sake (p. 119). Oxford University Press

Nandy, A. (199). The invisible holocaust and the journey as an exodus: the poisoned village 

and the stranger city. In Postcolonial Studies (3rd ed., Vol. 2, pp. 305-329). The 

Institute of Postcolonial Studies



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