Trigger warning: Mention of sexual violence.
Imagine you are living in the subcontinent in 1947 under British colonial rule. Imagine it is the last few months of India and Pakistan being one country. The Indian Independence Act declares the existence of the countries as two sovereign states. A border is about to be drawn through the center of your country. No one knows fully which city would fall on which side of the border. No one knows if the neighborhood they live in would be a part of Pakistan or India.
An atmosphere of anxiety and treachery pervades through the streets. Communities, once celebrating diversity where Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs lived in harmony are suddenly painfully and awkwardly silent. Everyone is unsure of their allegiances. Religious bigotry is palpable in the streets and in Parliament alike. And then amidst all that uncertainty, Cyril Radcliffe draws an arbitrary border. Chaos breaks out. Mayhem takes over. Neighbors turn on each other. Your once-loved class fellow or colleague is suddenly the Other. And an unprecedented moment of violence in history ensues.
And amidst all that, imagine if you are a woman. Or even a girl. Imagine your family telling you to hide in the darkest corner of the house in the middle of the night, every time they hear a mob of rioters with their swords clinging pass your home. Your father tells you you might have to commit suicide with the other women of the neighborhood before the Other reaches you and taints your “honor.” Your father has already received a set of bangles at your house, his temper swelling at the mockery of his masculinity. He fears his “pure” bloodline may be contaminated if the enemy lays hands on you. Though your family might be displaced any minute, losing their home and all their belongings, their “honor” and pride resides in preserving your shivering body.
“Hundreds of women jumped into wells in order to protect their honor. But sometimes when they jumped into wells, they did not die because the wells were already brimming with dead bodies. Many men, Sikh and Muslim, would kill their wives to prevent them from being raped by the enemy. If the “enemy” was spotted at a distance, mothers would hide their girls under opaque surfaces.” Shakeela Khan*, a resident of Dehli and 10 at the time of the partition recalled her own experiences from the time as I interviewed her. “A lot of dramas have been made and novels published such as Dastaan have been published about this topic.” She continued to say.
The mention of Dastaan struck a chord with me. The television series, adapted from Razia Butt’s fictional novel by the name of Bano, that aired during my teen years was my first exposure to this alternative, grass-root history of my own country. Of course, the module of partition was always taught in rigorous detail in school. We were taught about Quaid-e-Azam, Allama Iqbal’s prophetic dream, and Gandhi’s peace-loving resilience. We were taught about colonial Britain’s divide and conquer policy. However, all of this was done in the light of a certain kind of nationalistic romanticism. The founders of the nation were at once established as heroes, to whom we owed our “independence” and life. The human cost of their decisions was carefully left out. Dastaan, however, chronicled the life of a girl who on the eve of her engagement is abducted and subsequently raped by an enemy mob. She eventually returns to her family years later where she no longer feels welcome.
It was then that I realized that somehow the nationalistic agenda of history failed to mention these many millions of women. Eventually, their stories were silenced at the state level. Real people and their real stories were hushed and shoved under the rug of martyrdom. The sheer dissonance between official history and real histories inspired me to pursue my undergraduate thesis in the narrative of silenced women during partition years later.
“Many women had to sacrifice their honor for our independent homeland,” Khan emphasized, careful to not use the actual word, “rape”. In fact, most of the interviewees I encountered often used euphemisms, all revolving around the word “honor”. “Yet, when these women returned to their families, they were often not accepted and sometimes sent back to their abductors.” Khan’s observations made one thing clear: though women were elevated to the status of martyr, they were certainly not rehabilitated or celebrated as war heroes are.
Such conversations raised some important questions for me: why was mass abduction and rape (of an estimated 75, 000 to 100, 000 women on both sides of the border) a weapon of choice? Was it because the enemies knew to hit where it hurts a patriarchal society the most? And why is mass rape so popular in history? From the rape of Nanjing in 1937 to the Partition of West Bengal in 1971, there are multiple other dark moments in history where this is a disproportionate number of atrocities committed against women.
*The name of the interviewee has been changed.