Gender and violence during and after India/Pakistan Partition 1947

In a recent post, I made reference to a fascinating and very informative BBC documentary that deals with the final days of British rule on the Indian subcontinent and the eventual partition of that territory in 1947 into a Muslim-dominated Pakistan (east and west) and a Hindu-dominated India.  In part four of the documentary an elderly Sikh gentleman from the Punjab region tells the harrowing tale of how his female relatives were the victims of brutal violence. Many scholars have argued that the ethnicization of the violence that accompanied the Partition obscure the fact that women bore the brunt of the violence.  In a recent paper, Richard Lee writes about the gendered nature of the violence:

Women were arguably the worst victims of the Partition of India in 1947 and endured displacement, violence, abduction, prostitution, mutilation, and rape. However, on reading histories of the division of India, one finds that the life-stories of women are often elided, and that there is an unwillingness to address the atrocities of 1947. This reticence results partly from the desires of the Indian and Pakistani governments to portray the events as freak occurrences with no place in their modern nations. Literature can play an important role in interrupting state-managed histories, and ‘The Rebirth of Inherited Memories’ focuses upon the manner in which Shauna Singh Baldwin’s What the Body Remembers (2001) unsettles official versions of Partition. It examines how the novel acts as a counterpoint to ‘national’ accounts of 1947 through its depiction of the gendered nature of much of the violence, and it explores Baldwin’s representation of the elusive concept of ‘body memory’. The possibility of remembrances being passed on physically, or born within people, has found support in the eschatologies of Eastern religions, in Western psychological theories, and in recent scientific investigations into the ‘mind-body’ problem. The transmission of ‘body memories’ between generations serves to disrupt accounts that downplay the brutalities at the splitting of India. This paper draws upon a chapter of my doctoral thesis that investigates issues of memory and the enduring influence of Partition in South Asia.

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One thought on “Gender and violence during and after India/Pakistan Partition 1947

  1. Lee’s emphasis on the suffering endured by women as a separate group is intriguing, but identifying women as separate can be as liberating as it can be contentious and even misplaced within a disciplines that examine ethnicity. To suggest that the suffering endured by ethnic Sikh women in the Punjab region is different from the suffering endured by a male of the same attributed ethnic identity seems ill-fitting on a macro-scale, in the grand sweep of social sciences. Personally, I do believe that these nuances are extremely important for, even within the literature we have examined within our IS 309 course, any mention of gender has always come in way of differentiating males. The banal, blood-thirsty hooligans were males (Mueller) — these are the perptrators of ethnic violence, as the media arguably portrays them. Verwimp’s article does give some proof to the heavily male participation within ethnic violence, showing that “conscripts” to the cause were a son or husband from each household. Forging a role for women within ethnic conflict, given their veiled non-appearance within the dominant literature on the subject, is important, and this could effectively be explored on a micro-scale. Ethnicity, which is ever-changing, is just as ephemeral and fluctuating as gender itself, I would argue, and so the relations between ethnicity and gender provide for some fascinating insight on the psychology of victims and/or perpetrators (but this does delve into a portion of ethnic conflict studies which has lost steam in the past few decades, following a cultural and psychological strain that lends itself more easily to anthropology).

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