August is a time of celebration and reflection in Pakistan. While the state gears up for a celebration, many of us pause and reflect on what Azadi means for each of us. In locating oneself in history, we are reminded that it is his story after all. The mainstream narrative of history—of politicians, institutions, regions and communities—erases the experience of women. We eulogise the ‘horrors’ and ‘sacrifices’ of Partition, but our collective trauma causes us to bury its lived experience in the past.
So great is the pain and trauma of Partition that our collective recollection of it stops at the abductions of women. It glazes over rapes, mutilations, pregnancies and abortions. In some villages in Punjab, women were stripped and paraded naked. In others, they chose to commit suicide or were murdered by their patriarchs rather than fall into the hands of the other community. Understandably, these details are harder to talk about. Thanks to the work of mainly Indian researchers like Urvashi Butalia, Kamla Bhasin and Ritu Menon and memoirs of prominent Muslim women and activists like Anis Kidwai, we have some chronicles of the experience of Partition and its aftermath for women. Manto’s and Quratulain Hyder’s riveting fiction have brought these experiences to life in ways we can’t escape.
When we do mention these painful experiences, we speak of them as happening over there, away from our families and communities. Yet they are very much part of our identity and heritage. In her interviews with families who lived through Partition, Butalia found the stories of women in the silences and gaps of Partition recollections. Refugee families would, for example, speak of a certain number of family members leaving their hometown, and a lesser number reaching their destination in India. When pressed about the loss of life, they could talk about the deaths, but not the abductions. The shame was too great.
Further, our collective trauma forces us to talk about the Partition as past and closed episodes. But as the work of Kidwai and others who worked with refugee women tells us, the trauma lingered. As late as 1955, legislatures of both countries were discussing how many abducted women were repatriated back to the parent country. This repatriation was happening in mechanical ways: Muslim women abducted to India belonged in Pakistan, and Hindu and Sikh women belonged in India. There was no room for the will and consent of the women who were being forcefully repatriated. The ‘Inter-Dominion Treaty Regarding the Security and Rights of Minorities,’ concluded in April 1950, labelled all religious conversions during the period of “communal disturbance” as forced conversions. It dealt with the question of refugee women in a mere fifty-four words. No wonder then, it could not account for women who by now had accepted their fate and settled into their new families, perhaps had children as well. Their lives may have been upended by the violence of Partition, but memoirs like Kidwai’s highlight that many recognised that they were unlikely to be accepted back by their families now. They did not want to undergo further violence. But the choice to stay and legal process was denied to them: they and their husbands did not have recourse to the writ of habeas corpus, which allows for recovery of abducted persons to challenge this repatriation by the two states. Both states and the law saw them only as parts of their community, not individuals with agency.
Once ‘recovered,’ many women found themselves as pariahs. Their maternal families and communities would not accept them. Their children were taken away from them. On this side of the border, women like Ranaa Liaqat, an activist in the freedom struggle and later first lady of the country and Governor of Sindh, spearheaded efforts to rehabilitate these women. The All Pakistan Women’s Association (APWA) was set up to home, train and rehabilitate such women. Neighbourhood imams however, labelled these abandoned women and women like Liaqat as besmirched filth at best, and prostitutes at worst.
These are far from isolated chapters in our history. It is understandable that the collective trauma and pain of Partition keeps us from talking about these experiences fully. But without a collective mourning over it, the trauma continues, and we are bound to blindly repeat these mistakes. The events of 1971, and the recent trend of abduction and forced religious conversion of women from minority communities in Pakistan is a symptom of this festering wound. After Partition, we failed to overcome our shame and fear, and did not do the necessary work of seeing women as individuals with free will. Women are still seen as honour for their families and communities. As a result, abduction and conversion of women are being weaponised as ways to hurt and humiliate their community.
Women in public life, to this day face abuse, rape threats and character assassinations for taking public or unpopular stances. The recent revelations of harassment women journalists face online is an example of this. The vitriol targeted at participants of the Aurat March is another example. The treatment they face is not very different from the treatment Ranaa Liaqat and her compatriots faced for their work. A recognition of APWA’s radical history, of Rana Liaqat’s place in history beyond just Liaqat Ali Khan’s wife, and research into other women leaders of the time would alleviate this, if we are willing to take an uncomfortable look at history.
The generation of Pakistanis who experienced it in 1947 is dying out. When they speak of ’47, they never spoke of ‘independence’ but of ‘Partition.’ This is the gravity of their pain, a pain that they silently carried and passed on to us today. Revisiting the painful chapters of Partition is necessary to free ourselves from this collective bind.
The writer is a faculty member at the Shaikh Ahmad Hassan School of Law, LUMS.