Borders and Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition
by Ritu Menon & Kamla Bhasin
Borders and Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition is a timely book for all of South Asia. For the chilling stories of violence perpetrated during the partition of India and Pakistan in the name of religion, nation, property and territory, and how women, their lives and bodies became objects on which this violence and claiming were played out, have lessons for countries negotiating their own partitions and futures.
The authors document and analyse the testimonies of Hindu and Muslim women who were victims of partition violence as well as of those who worked at refugee homes and repatriation services. Women´s experiences have hitherto been marginal, used in the official histories of the period. While the issues surrounding partition violence against women were widely discussed in the Indian parliament before the Abducted Person´s Act in 1949, the authors make clear that the Indian State was acting in this instance not so much for the welfare of the women themselves but as a benevolent state rescuing its citizens from the enemy ´Other´- Muslim Pakistan. Women were pawns in the construction of each nation and state.
Documenting and analysing the experiences of women of that period is therefore a particularly significant project: the testimonies of the women who bore the brunt of rape, displacement, destitution and who sacrificed themselves as symbols of their families´ honour challenge the rhetoric of nationalism and statehood. They affirm that men and women are constructed as citizens of the nation state in very different ways.
In the context of the Indian recovery of abducted women and children, women were unable to pass on Indian citizenship rights to their children if they had been fathered by Pakistanis. An ordinance passed at that time decreed that babies born in Pakistan had to be left behind if the mothers returned to India. These women, faced with the dilemma of abandoning children and husbands, never could participate fully in their citizenship. Their challenge to the social workers who went to ´rescue´ them—”Who are you to meddle in our lives?”was, as the authors point out, a challenge to the State itself. To assurances that they were India´s and Pandit Nehru´s daughters they had retorted “Is this the freedom that Jawaharlal gained? Better that he died as soon as he was born.our men have been killed, our homes destroyed.”
What we note is how the women consistently subvert and go against the grain of official history and of nationalist rhetoric that idolise the ´fathers of the nation´. There is an understanding here that the women are merely objects that ´belong´ to a community, which is why it was so easy to use them as sexual objects marking the honour or dishonour of a community, particularly on their bodies. Many of them were raped, sexually molested and/or had their breasts and genitalia amputated or imprinted with symbols of the crescent moon or trident as the case may be. Many of them had to sacrifice their lives, jumping into wells, stabbing themselves, swallowing poison or setting themselves on fire to circumvent the molestation in order to maintain the honour of their families and communities.
In one of their best analytical sections, the writers show the ambivalence surrounding the transgressions of the men in families where women were made to sacrifice themselves. The ambivalence lies where fathers and uncles encouraged wives, daughters and nieces to commit suicide in order to protect them from the enemy. But it was a protection that also involved a transgression on human life and, more significantly, of the lives of their loved ones. How males negotiate the narratives of such sacrifice and their role in women´s deaths are scrutinised. “The story is told in the heroic mode,” write Menon and Bhasin, “the singular and extraordinary instance of doing a kinswoman to death is elevated to supreme and glorious sacrifice.” A moment of horrific violence is then recounted with pride in the virtue and courage of the women.
Often the men insist it was the women´s decision to commit suicide before the enemy raped them. Men are thus off the hook, but their testimony should be seen as a negotiation in narrative that is borne out of guilt, ambivalence, anxiety, and above all, the pressure the men themselves were under to act. That in reality they acted on behalf of “a collectivity of men” is the crux of this book, a fact which says much about the South Asian cultures we live in. Where patriarchy comes undone are in the instances in which the women defied orders from the men to kill themselves, recognising the command as a means of silencing women, using them as symbols and objects to protect above all, male honour and identity.
The forms that these stories take in the words, idioms, syntax and tone employed by both women and men are noted by the authors. Although a close reading (following the methodology of deconstruction) of these testimonies is not provided, the authors note that the recalling is often nonlinear, with past and present constantly interwoven, the tone sometimes hesitant and/or defiant, and filled with grief. These narratives are in contrast therefore to the fixity of official versions of the Partition. Borders and Boundaries is commendable for the balance it maintains between the personal element in documenting the traumas retold by the victims themselves and its analytical discourse.
It is courageous too in insisting that the Partition was also not all bad, and going beyond stressing on the victimhood of women that some feminist scholarship is still stuck on. For Partition also transformed women´s lives in a positive way by enabling them, as new heads of households, to enter the workforce and become relatively economically independent. Education for girls too enjoyed an unexpected spurt as part of the modernising process of both India and Pakistan.
Some time ago, a story from Batticoloa in the Eastern province of Sri Lanka came to light: a Tamil mother and a midwife were charged with poisoning while the mother was carrying a non-Tamil´s child. At that time the ethnicity of the father, or the circumstances under which the young woman had become pregnant were not clear. What was certain was that the father was not a Tamil. The mother and the midwife were not trying to kill the pregnant daughter, only the unborn child. Since the daughter was in the seventh month of her pregnancy, the child survived but its mother did not.
This is a partition story if ever there was one. But the perpetrators this time were women, not men. As Menon and Bhasin show throughout their book, women too have so much internalised the notions of honour and purity of the community, etc, that they enact what has traditionally been the man´s prerogative. Once again, the actions of these women revealed not so much their responses as women per se (although as individuals they have to be held accountable for their actions if found guilty), as the workings of patriarchy in collusion with ethnic and religious chauvinism which propel both men and women towards violence. The lessons to be learnt from Borders and Boundaries about South Asian cultures, violence and the role of women within it have never been more pertinent to us than today.
N. de Mel teaches English at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.