Partition: From the eyes of women

Author- Karishma Khatri

We are well aware of the turmoil resulting from the partition, the months preceding and succeeding August 1947 saw the displacement and death of millions of people. Families and properties were destroyed along with entire villages and communities. However, the worst faith fell upon the women living in those times. They were abducted, raped and murdered by not only the people of the opposite religion but by their own families and communities as well. Yet, narratives available to us today focus mainly on the political struggles, events that led to partition and the lives and thoughts of those in power. The stories of struggle and pain, of loss and abandonment, of hatred and barbarism are completely ignored in the pages of history. This paper aims at exploring the theme of sexual violence, abandonment, emotional trauma, death of women and one of the major issues i.e. their lost sense of belongingness and identity crisis during major political and communal conflicts of partition (1947) and to further explore the ideologies that guide such extreme actions.


Urvashi Butalia’s book “The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India” is set in the backdrop of one of the biggest human convulsions in the history of time – the partition of India and Pakistan, in order to compile this book, she has conducted interviews with people involved in the struggle for partition over a period of a decade along with examining literary sources like newspapers, diaries, memoirs, gazettes, letters etc. In her text Butalia talks extensively about the suicides and familial murders of women that were carried out in the name of protecting “honour”. Men felt that they are strong enough to protect themselves from conversion and if the need arises they would be able to fight or die as well as use their wits to escape the situation. They were convinced that women being weak and vulnerable would end up being impregnated with the seed of the other religion, and in this way, not only will they be rendered impure individually but through them the entire community would become “impure”. Women were no longer seen as individuals but as agents of purity and honour. Movies like ‘Khamosh Pani’, directed by Sabiha Sumar, who is a Pakistani film maker and ‘Pinjar’, directed by Chandra Prakash Dwivedi, showcase the plight of women and the kind of physical and emotional torture they had to go through. Veero (protagonist of Khamosh Pani) is shown as a young girl who was too scared to accept the honour over life ideology of her father and therefore she runs away instead of sacrificing her life in the name of community honour like the other women of her community did, she is abducted by Muslim men, the movie expresses her misery as a widowed, abducted woman. The movie also deals with the major theme of how patriarchy reflects in the notions of nationalism and religion, and constructs the opinions of young men like Salim ( Ayesha’s teenage son) who in the movie is starting to adopt the extremist Islamic ideologies, ideologies that encourage men to confine women to the four walls of home, restrict their education, dividing women in categories and labeling them as wives or whores and how society tricks such young men into believing that they are the protectors of the nation, religion etc.


Both the movies ‘Pinjar’ and ‘Khamosh Pani’ showcase the brutal reality of forceful abduction and its long term effects. Puro (Protagonist of Pinjar) is a young girl, born in a Hindu family. She is soon to be married to Ramchand, but an unfortunate incident changes her life forever, she is kidnapped by Rashid, a Muslim man in order to take revenge for an ancestral family dispute. Puro and Veero both are victims of the patriarchy and have to adopt new identities i.e. Hamida and Ayesha respectively, in order to ensure their survival. Chapter four of Butalia’s work deals extensively with the recovery efforts that were carried out by both the governments post-partition in order to return the abducted women back to their country, homes and families. The degree of violence that was faced by women was unimaginable. They were marched naked on the road, many had their breasts cut off, their bodies were tattooed by the symbol of the other religion as a mark of that woman’s impurity, they were raped and impregnated and later their children were snatched from them and in extreme cases they were even traded for freedom by their own people. Older women were abducted and their sons were killed so that their property could easily be acquired. The worst fate that fell upon men was that of death but the atrocities that women faced were far worse than death.


On December 6, it was decided that both the governments would start a relief program that would recover the abducted women of both the states and any woman found to be married or to be living in the company of a man who is of the opposite religion since after march 1947 would automatically be considered abducted. The standards of recovery set by the state stripped women of any choice about their own movements and they were exclusively and merely defined by their religious identities. Many women were married and had children and family with their abductors and hence did not wish to leave but according to the government, the religion of the woman defined the state and the family they should live in. A Sikh or Hindu woman could not live in Pakistan even if she wanted to. Butalia gives many instances to show how women became the major victims of the ‘rescue operation’. Women were not ready to be rescued also due to the fear of being raped and sold again. The women who got ‘rescued’ were faced with the problem of rejection. The families, which had initially urged the government to recover their women, were now not ready to take them back as they were now the symbols of “impurity”. Such ideology of the society is well reflected in the scene when Puro manages to escape back to her house one night where her hopes are shattered. It is an extremely emotional sight as her own parents tell her it is best if she returns else the Muslims would reside to slaughtering their whole family. Puro realizes that her family will never accept her and henceforth she will always remain an outcast. This lost sense of belongingness also comes across through Ayesha when her long lost brother comes to look for her and she says, “He (her father)  wanted to kill me for his peace, what will he do if sees me alive and Muslim? How will he go to his Sikh heaven? And what heaven is there for me? A Sikh heaven or a Muslim heaven? You were happy to think i was dead but i’m alive. I made my own life, without you. Now this is my life and my home.”  The climax of ‘Pinjar’ shows Puro being offered acceptance back to her family which she rejects. As to why she did so, that has been left a semi mystery for the viewer. We may assume that that Puro renders essentially feminine behaviour, eventually learning to love her husband. She knows where she belongs and her life at this point is beyond repair, she is incapable of further upheavals in her life. On the other hand, the domination in the name of honour that Ayesha had escaped long back never really left her, it came back to her, this time the carriers were her son and the society, and as a result she ends her life by jumping into the silent water of the well.


National leaders like Gandhi and Nehru had to reportedly assure the people that the abducted women were still “pure”. The Ramayan was evoked to compare the abducted women of India to Sita, who remained “pure” despite being abducted by the evil Ravan. The government to house the abandoned and abducted women in India opened Aashrams and rescue canters. These aashrams lacked adequate funding and women were provided neither with education nor with adequate training in crafts. They were left with no money and no skill.
It wouldn’t be wrong to say that women are mostly victims in such situations while the men are also subjected to physical violence; the violence against women transcends all boundaries. They are exploited in each step and used as tools and inanimate objects. They are left with no choice or say in the matters of their own lives.  How is it that the male members of the society get to decide the fate of the women? Why do the women accept the fate decided for them? We need to expose the society to its own barbarism, to make the women understand that they are not the guardians of honour and men are not protectors, as they are made to believe. We need to spread awareness so that people can constitute their own sense of judgment rather than following the dominant ideology blindly. Only then we can expect the society to be what we call fair and equal.


Butalia,Urvashi.The Other side of Silence: Voices from Partition of India;1998,Print.
Khamosh Pani. Sabiha Sumar.2003. Film.
Pinjar.Chandra Prakash Dwivedi.2003.Film.


One Comment Add yours

  1. Shruti Gupta says:

    Amazing article!


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