DAY ELEVEN: No it wasn’t different back then #2 -Tracing Rape Myths in Medieval Court Records

Challenging the notion of ‘it was different back then’, Mara Schmueckle draws attention to medieval Scottish notarial record on Janet Lausoun, who was abducted and forced into marriage. Lausoun’s story highlights the burden placed on women where their credibility is measured against expectations of the behaviour of “real victims.” 

Mara Schmueckle

Featured Image: “A lawyer speaking to an assembly” The British Library, Harley 947, f. 107.  

The prosecution of gendered violence remains a difficult topic.  One particular challenge faced by victims remains the existence of “rape myths” – the idea that a victim of assault would behave in a certain way, and that victims who do not behave in this manner may have invented their allegation. 

The recent report by the Lord Justice Clerk’s Review Commission, which examined the management of sexual offence cases within the Scottish court system, explicitly recognised the existence of social expectations and their effect on the prosecution of sexual offence cases. Common myths include the suggestion that those subject to assault would resist or call for help (implying that assault without violence is consensual), that truthful allegations are reported immediately, and that false accusations are common. The Review Commission highlighted the ongoing, important line of judgments which forbids questioning designed to utilise these myths to undermine the credibility of the witness. Acknowledging the ongoing challenge in enforcing these rules, the review group nonetheless stressed the importance of restricting questioning to avoid re-traumatising witnesses. The Review Commission also warns that the outcome of cases can be affected by jury members who continue to apply these myths about rape.  It recommends increased training and instruction for jury members to ensure that common (but usually inaccurate) understandings of sexual violence are not used to determine the truth of an allegation.

As a medieval historian, the parallel between the expectations placed on medieval women reporting sexual violence, and those still affecting the modern system, are striking. 

A few months ago, while searching Scottish notarial records for details of the legal process surrounding marriages, I came across a notarial record written in Scots.  Many medieval historians experience moments when the experience of the people we study, who lived centuries ago, can feel enormously relevant to our own society, and this was one of those moments for me.  The record, which details the abduction and forced marriage of Janet Lausoun highlights the burden placed on women where their credibility is measured against expectations of the behaviour of “real victims.” 

In February 1515 Janet Lausoun visited the home of a notary, accompanied by her (male) family members.  The manuscript image featured in this post might help us to imagine this legal scene: a woman predominantly surrounded by men. She presented the notary with a pre-written statement, in which her abduction and forced marriage are described, and which details her formal renunciation of that marriage and any activities she undertook during this time. It is important to stress that while we do not know anything else about Janet Lausoun or whether there were any consequences for her abductor, her presence before the notary indicates that she must have been believed.

Janet met the burden of credibility. Her statement, however, also highlights the difficulty other women must have had in doing so. 

One of the challenges about medieval statements is that we have no insight into the process by which they were created.  However, Janet Lausoun’s statement so closely mirrors the legal language of the time that it seems likely she had assistance in preparing it. This, combined with her status as an heiress and the presence of male family members to defend her honour, allowed her case to be recorded. The statement explains that, a few weeks before Christmas the year before, she was walking home from Edinburgh to Leith [a journey of about 2 miles] with her mother.  En route, the statement goes on to say, she was violently abducted and forced into marriage.  She states that she entered into this marriage in fear of her life. There are no details of the three months she spent with her abductor, but she is careful to stress the date and difficulty of her escape, the day before she gave her statement. 

In Janet’s case, reference to the violence of the abduction and to the speed with which she reported the case may have been necessary  to meet relevant legal tests, and thereby allow her to renounce the marriage which had been forced on her. 

But a comparison between the requirements placed on her and those placed on victims of sexual assault today suggests that long-standing legal ideas about how gendered violence looks and how a victim of gendered violence behaves did not simply disappear.  They have evolved and continue to affect public understanding of gendered violence in the present. 

Cases like Janet Lausoun’s remind us of the burden placed on women if we expect them to demonstrate that they are “a wholly blameless victim.”[1]

References

Final report from the Lord Justice Clerk’s Review Group, Improving the Management of Sexual Offence Cases, March 2021, available at https://www.scotcourts.gov.uk/docs/default-source/default-document-library/reports-and-data/Improving-the-management-of-Sexual-Offence-Cases.pdf?sfvrsn=6

Gordon Donaldson ed, Protocol Book of James Young, Scottish Record Society OS Volume 74, entry 2081, in manuscript B22/22/15 f. 121r-v. 

Author’s Bio:

Mara Schmueckle is a PhD student in History at the University of Edinburgh.  She also obtained her undergraduate and postgraduate degrees at Edinburgh, before qualifying as a solicitor. Her research focuses on women and marriage in Pre-Reformation Scotland.


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/sep/30/details-of-sarah-everard-case-heighten-womens-sense-of-despair

DAY ELEVEN: No it wasn’t different back then #1 – Researching rape in 20th century US

‘It wasn’t different back then’ Mara Keire illuminates how this ahistorical rhetoric enables justification of men’s sexually predatory behaviour. Her research on rape in 20th century US shows clearly the falsity of that excuse.

Mara Keire

Featured image: ‘The Little Butterfly’, credit: Library of Congress, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Defenders of men like movie producer Harvey Weinstein, architect Stanford White, actor Clark Gable, and director Roman Polanski rely on the argument that it was “different back then.”[1]  They use this specious ahistorical reasoning to justify predation. 

Studying the history of sexual violence serves three important purposes for me.  First, it provides the crucial evidence that “no, it was not different back then.”  Second, it illuminates the politics of power and networks of complicity that enable the ongoing oppression of women and children through sexual violence.  And finally, it allows historians to advocate for the victims they study. 

Learning about what people thought about rape at the time, seeing how victims and their supporters responded to attacks, and reading the commentary about legal cases large and small, provides a stark contrast to the representation of a sexually laissez-faire world where anything men did met with social acceptance. 

My work on sexual violence in early 20th century New York provides concrete evidence refuting the assertion that it was “different back then.” I hope that it will help anti-violence activists change this narrative exonerating predators for assaults that were not acceptable then and are not justifiable now. Studying the history of sexual violence also serves to obliterate the idea that rapists are solitary “bad apples.” Instead, researchers can uncover the networks of complicity that reinforce male power. 

Most recently, we’ve heard Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, McKayla Maroney, and Maggie Nichols testify how they reported Larry Nasser to everyone who they hoped would listen from US Gymnastics to the FBI, but no one acted.  Larry Nasser continued his predation because authorities thought a quack medical doctor was more important than elite young gymnasts.[2] 

While in the present day we need to unravel these networks of power in real time, as historians we can show them whole cloth.

For example, when Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson kidnapped and raped Madge Olberholtzer in 1925, the Ku Klux Klan had already known about his predatory behaviour toward women for years, but they had done nothing to stop him because he was a popular leader and useful to the organisation.  After Olberholtzer died from her injuries, the Klan repudiated him. But Stephenson’s trial for murder and the subsequent revelations illustrated to a chilling degree how male sexual entitlement worked and the degree to which the people around him catered to and covered up his violence toward women. [3] Exposing the networks of complicity in the past shatters the myth of individual bad actors in present day cases.

Refuting the contradictory myths that rapists are either misguided men of their time or solitary monsters makes studying the history of sexual violence a necessary venture. However, I find that advocating for the once discredited victims is the most fulfilling part when writing this history. I chose to research rape because of my present-day activism fighting women’s oppression. I am not objective. I am emotionally involved. I care deeply about the girls and women about whom I write. I am one of them. As a survivor, I have the unparalleled opportunity to believe my ancestors in trauma. 

Author’s Bio:

Mara Keire is a Senior Research Fellow at the Rothermere American Institute, University of Oxford.  She is currently writing a book called Under the Boardwalk: Rape in New York City, 1900-1930.  You can find her far too often on twitter at @MaraKeire


[1] Weinstein – Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, “Harvey Weinstein Paid Off Sexual Harassment Accusers for Decades,” The New York Times (5 October 2017): https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/05/us/harvey-weinstein-harassment-allegations.html

Stanford White – Paul R. Baker, Stanny: The Gilded Life of Stanford White (London: Collier Macmillan Publishers, 1989), ix-xi.

Clark Gable – Lou Lumenick, “We’ll never really know if Clark Gable actually date-raped Loretta Young,” New York Post (13 July 2015): https://nypost.com/2015/07/13/well-never-really-know-if-clark-gable-actually-date-raped-loretta-young/

Polanski – Michael Cieply, “In Polanski Case, ‘70s Culture Collides With Today,” (10 October 2009): https://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/11/movies/11polanski.html

All accessed 26 October 2021

[2] McKenzie Jean-Philippe, “Simone Biles, Aly Raisman Bravely Testify Against the FBI’s Handling of the Larry Nassar Case,” Oprah Daily, 15 September 2021: https://www.oprahdaily.com/entertainment/a37610818/simone-biles-aly-raisman-testify-larry-nassar-hearing/ (accessed 25 October 2021).

[3] Mara Keire, “#MeToo, Networks of Complicity, and the 1920s Klan,” Process: a blog for American history (24 January 2019): http://www.processhistory.org/keire-networks/ (accessed 26 October 2021).

DAY TEN: Gender-based violence in the archives: Curating the past without perpetuating harm

Kirsty Stewart writes about the role of the archivist and the problems of taking a neutral voice in curation when many stories are underpinned by gendered violence and silencing womens’ voices.

Kirsty M Stewart

Featured image: “The old style archives” by ʎɔ. is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

It has long been a part of archival training that archivists bear a neutral voice in describing records in catalogues for their users. Recently, that notion has been actively dispelled as the predominantly white, middle-class profession realises that it brings to bear a white, middle-class perspective on describing, arranging and even collecting archives.

Two examples of this are the following accounts relating to the Gaelic community in the Outer Hebrides in the 1800s in which gender-based violence has been perpetuated or altered, perhaps even sanitised, as they make their way through history. Women have had their names erased (sometimes thankfully) but also their voices – their dissent or distress ignored in favour of a good story or song.

The accounts come from the notebooks of the nineteenth-century Scottish folklorist and antiquarian Dr Alexander Archibald Carmichael (1832 – 1912), which are inscribed in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register. Held at the University of Edinburgh, this archive contains priceless pieces of Scottish folklore and oral tradition. Perhaps even more precious are the accompanying notes detailing the individuals who recounted or were recounted in charms, songs and stories.

“Màiri Bhòidheach” [Beautiful Mary]: ‘…she could never bear to hear the song’ One jarring example concerns the song “Màiri Bhoidheach”, a highly regarded example of a Gaelic song about unrequited love between a man and a woman. In a notebook from 1877, Carmichael reveals the real story behind the song, which heard in North Uist in the Outer Hebrides. It was written by the local schoolmaster, Alexander Stewart (1764-1821), in the 1890s about Mary MacQueen (1783-1860), the minister’s daughter.

(Archives reference GB 237 Coll-97/CW108/47)

“Mairi Bhoidheach”
was the daught[er] of Rev. Alan MacCuinn
son of Rev. Donul MacCuinn, Taigh
earry. Song composed by Alexander
Stewart a schoolmaster. Kept the
school at Baileanloch – the only one
in N. Uist at the time. Stewart was
alleged to have used some familiarity
with some of his female pupils which
whether founded or unfounded caused
a feeling against him & he left. The
children of the best people in N. Uist at-
tended his school Miss Mary MacCuinn
(Nic Cuinn) was one in his school, and she
took sl such a dislike to the man that
she could never bear to hear the song. She
died some some [sic] 15 years ago or so – aged
She was a very tall handsome portly
woman of mild benevolent disposition.
   Stewart left Uist about the year 1800.

Stewart had a reputation for ‘familiarity with some of his female pupils’. He had moved on because of ill-feeling against him, ‘whether founded or unfounded’, Carmichael’s informant had added. Mary’s physical appearance and character are noted as if to validate the song. It had entered local lore that Mary ‘took such a dislike to the man that she could never bear to hear the song’. Yet this did not stop the performance of Màiri Bhòidheach in her own community and many others for decades to come. How many other pupils might have squirmed or felt relieved that the song was not about them?

This example raises uncomfortable questions for those of us who curate records. Songs and stories about the abuse of vulnerable girls can be preserved as entertainment but to erase them might falsify history.

Alexander Stewart has been remembered as the composer of a beautiful love-song. Mary MacQueen’s story, her hatred of the song and what it truly meant, is little more than a quiet note in the archives.[1]

 “…with much quiet humour”

In another entry ‘Eòlas na Budha’ (charm for jaundice), this time from 1883, another young woman’s distress became the object of derision.

Carmichael noted down a long-standing story from South Uist. Angus MacEachen (c.1810-1890), a  herd, was called to treat the daughter of Roderick MacMillan ([fl. c.1850]), a neighbouring farmer. Aged 18 or 19, the girl in this story was, Carmichael noted, ‘a stout portly good looking girl’. Angus made a great show of heating a red hot poker, asked her mother to bare the girl’s back and then had everyone leave the girl’s room. He led her to believe that he was going to put the hot poker on her bare back. But at the moment she expected it, he placed a cold piece of iron on her back instead, to her great distress. ‘She roared and roared and screamed causing her mother and all the people in the house to rush into the room’.[2] (Archives reference GB 237 Coll-97/CW87/11)

In the published version[3], Carmichael writes that the young woman’s “mother and sisters burst open the door, calling on Mary Mother to rescue the maltreated girl, and on Calumcille[4] to redress her wrongs”. Yet the last word belonged to Angus MacEachen himself, who “told of this and similar cases with much humour, but without a smile on his lips, though his eyes sparked, and his countenance glowed with evident appreciation of the scenes.”

Once again, this young woman is identifiable, if not by name in either the notebook or publication by her relatives. That this is how she was ‘cured’ would be known in the community and with Angus’s reputation for curing may have been used as a dramatic example of his abilities. It also has the air of a cautionary tale for other girls/women. This young woman’s lack of choice or control, the indignity and cruel humour embedded in the tale (‘the cure’) would probably have been felt by her for many years.

Curation

So, what can the archivist do about these stories and the ways they have been preserved?

We cannot shy away from the wrongs perpetrated on Mary MacQueen or on Nic Ille Mhaoil [MacMillan’s daughter] but we can bear witness to them and change how they are represented.

In addressing concerns regarding bias or material which could be upsetting to others, we are starting to develop trigger warnings for catalogued material. We are trying to identify the unnamed if it seems possible –in the case of the young woman from South Uist, through her relations. We are trying to use language which is less biased and more empowering, whether it is through using the language the people represented would use themselves or whether it is considering what, as in this instance, the young women involved would think. The perpetuation of acts of violence on women and girls through their re-telling can be de-sanitised by less ‘neutral’ catalogue descriptions giving these women and girls a voice their history should have had all along.

Author’s Bio

Kirsty M Stewart is the New College Collections Curator and School of Scottish Studies Archivist, Centre for Research Collections, University of Edinburgh. Her undergraduate degrees is in Gaelic Studies from the University of Aberdeen and her postgraduate qualification is in Archival Studies from University College Dublin. She has been an archivist for nearly 25 years.


[1] Read the original notebook entry: https://images.is.ed.ac.uk/luna/servlet/s/fpxnm9 ; catalogue entry (ref. Coll-97/CW108/47, University of Edinburgh): https://archives.collections.ed.ac.uk/repositories/2/archival_objects/142484

[2]Read the original notebook entry: https://images.is.ed.ac.uk/luna/servlet/s/t65tfp https://images.is.ed.ac.uk/luna/servlet/s/1ose88 and https://images.is.ed.ac.uk/luna/servlet/s/yca30v ; Catalogue entry reference: https://archives.collections.ed.ac.uk/repositories/2/archival_objects/141706

[3] Carmichael, Alexander Archibald, Carmina Gadelica Ortha nan Gàidheal, volume II, Edinburgh (1900), pp 12-13.

[4] Calumcille is also known as Colm Cille or St Columba: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Columba

DAY TEN: Storytelling for Social Justice: The Story of Antigua and the Masked Serial Rapist

Stories have power. Stories shape how we understand our realities. Janeille Matthews offers a critical perspective into the story of the ‘masked serial rapist’ in Antigua and how it frames gender-based violence.

Janeille Zorina Matthews

Featured image: “there is something about facing the sea” by chamko rani is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

If you spend enough time in Antigua, you are bound to encounter talk about crime.  And, when you do, you will likely hear claims that crime has increased significantly over the past 20 years and continues to do so largely unabated.  You may hear people lamenting the way in which criminals have become so bold – daring to commit armed robbery in ‘broad daylight’ or you may hear whose dogs are about to have pups and who may be interested in taking those pups because everyone knows that dogs are the best security system, ‘Black people tend to be afraid of dogs’ Antiguans say. 

You may even hear people recounting the tale of the elusive ‘serial rapist’ who once wreaked havoc in the country disappearing just as mysteriously as he arrived and discussions about how much people have had to adjust their daily routine and behaviour because of crime.  In all of this crime talk, you may hear people calling for stiffer penalties including castration, or you may hear people lament that as a result of increased crime, life in Antigua is not like it was generations ago, or as Antiguans simply say, not like ‘before time’.   

If you read the local newspaper, headlines like ‘2007 Crime Stats Confirm Public Opinion’ and ‘One Raped, Another Attacked,’ would confirm that all you have heard is accurate. But, when you look at official police records from 1970 to 2020, you will realise that much of what you’ve heard is not borne out by the data.  For example, the rate of violent crime has remained relatively stable since 1970 and the rate of property crime is continuing to decline from its peak in 1995. 

More pointedly, while it is true that the rate of rape and indecent assault nearly doubled between 2007 and 2009 when it was alleged that the serial rapist was at large, a longer view of the data shows persistently high incidence of these sexual offences with rates nearly tripling in 2000 and at times accounting for as much as 20 per cent of the country’s violent crime. Despite newspaper reports describing the serial rapist as a masked man who would break into the homes of young women living either with small children or alone to rape them at gun point, over time, professional profilers hired by the government would find that the rapes were likely committed by more than one person and not a single ‘serial rapist’. Yet, like most other inaccurate stories about crime in Antigua, the narrative of the serial rapist persists.  

In a country born of state violence and structural oppression—in which high levels of sexual violence characterised the eras of slavery, colonialism and independence—it is the narrative of the serial rapist that heightened awareness and anxieties leading to a flurry of grassroots activism like “Take Back the Night” community events, more formal measures like the creation of a sexual offences unit in the police force and the creation of a high-level governmental taskforce, and promises of duty concessions and tax abatement on home security alarms

It is this narrative that recharacterised sexual violence in Antigua as a relatively recent phenomenon spiralling out of control and perpetrated by men with individual pathologies. By framing sexual violence in this way, the normalised everyday violence against women has gone unscrutinised. 

The masked stranger wielding a gun, invading homes and raping women in front of their children, became the quintessential enemy while innocent unsuspecting women, who could be anyone’s daughter, sister, aunt, wife or friend, became the quintessential victim.  This narrative is an important example of how stories permeate our lived realities and why we need to be hyper vigilant about the stories that we tell ourselves and each other. 

Stories have power.  They engage us, they persuade us, they change us, and they move us to action. Stories affect what people are able to see as real and as possible.  In more structural ways, stories help to shape how we understand and respond to problems, including matters of law and policy. As Jack Zipes explains, stories enable listeners and readers to envision possible solutions to their own problems so that they can survive and adapt to their own environments.   

The alleged rapist—this bogeyman—for me, then, is a spectral figure.  He is the ghost, or the jumbie as Antiguans call it, of a post-emancipation past that Natasha Lightfoot and Diana Paton describe in painstaking detail. He is the embodiment of a range of anxieties around the perceived influx of Guyanese and Jamaican nationals, a threat to middle class respectability, the fear of sex, sexuality and Black masculinity, and the justification for increased government expenditure and promises to increase the penalty for rape. He is the personification of a trend that was slowly creeping into Antiguan society long before his official arrival. 

The story of Antigua’s masked serial rapist led to positive changes, but these efforts were necessarily limited because if you misdiagnose the problem, you cannot effectively solve it. 

Antiguans need to hear a different story about crime and sexual violence, one that includes a historical understanding of the intra-racial sexual violence that existed during slavery and its post-emancipation aftermath and is grounded in 50 years of police data.

Shifting the narrative to emphasise both historical understanding and current significance can facilitate more effective interventions. If the story we told sounded more like the stories we tell of Sir Vivian Richards and the West Indies cricket team—comprehensive and contextual focused on individual events yet with statistics, trend analysis, forecasts, commentary and discussion— Antiguan criminal justice policy might be more comprehensive and less reactionary than it is currently. 

Author’s Bio:

Dr. Janeille Zorina Matthews is a multi-disciplinary criminal justice scholar who teaches courses in criminal law and criminology at The University of the West Indies Cave Hill campus in Barbados.  Dr. Matthews most recently authored an article entitled ‘Two Different Stories: A Mixed Methods Investigation of Crime in Antigua and Barbuda’ and a book chapter entitled ‘The Stories We Tell Ourselves: Reframing the Discourse of Sexual Violence in the Anglophone Caribbean.  She is currently engaged in work around decriminalizing minor offences and tracing colonial legacies in contemporary penal practices.  Dr. Matthews is the Research Coordinator of The UWI Rights Advocacy Project, a collective of UWI public law scholars committed to human rights and social justice in the Caribbean. 

DAY NINE: Myth and reality of gender-based violence in India’s partition and thereafter 

Rachna Mehra traces the legacies of Partition-era gender-based violence and abductions on community relations and consensual inter-faith marriages in contemporary India.

Rachna Mehra

ਅੱਜ ਆਖਾਂ ਵਾਰਸ ਸ਼ਾਹ ਨੂੰ ਕਿਤੋਂ ਕਬਰਾਂ ਵਿਚੋਂ ਬੋਲ
ਤੇ ਅੱਜ ਕਿਤਾਬੇ ਇਸ਼ਕ ਦਾ ਕੋਈ ਅਗਲਾ ਵਰਕਾ ਫੋਲ
ਇਕ ਰੋਈ ਸੀ ਧੀ ਪੰਜਾਬ ਦੀ ਤੂ ਲਿਖ ਲਿਖ ਮਾਰੇ ਵੈਣ
ਅਜ ਲੱਖਾਂ ਧੀਆਂ ਰੌਂਦੀਆਂ ਤੈਨੂ ਵਾਰਸਸ਼ਾਹ ਨੂੰ ਕਹਿਣ
ਵੇ ਦਰਦਮੰਦਾਂ ਦਿਆ ਦਰਦੀਆ ਉੱਠ ਤੱਕ ਆਪਣਾ ਪੰਜਾਬ
ਅਜ ਬੇਲੇ ਲਾਸ਼ਾਂ ਵਿਛੀਆਂ ਤੇ ਲਹੂ ਦੀ ਭਰੀ ਚਨਾਬ

(To Waris Shah, I say unto today! 

Speak up from your grave!

 And in the book of love turn the next leaf,

Once, when a daughter of Punjab cried,

You filled pages with songs of lamentation

Today a million daughters are wailing

and beseeching you O Waris Shah!

O symapathiser of the heartbroken, arise and see your Punjab

Corpses are strewn on the pastures and blood is overflowing in Chenab)

On 15th August 2021 India celebrated 75 years of political independence from colonial rule but to this day the joy of freedom is marred by the tragedy of partition  (August 1947) which was presented as a fait accompli to gaining the long awaited sovereignty. The partition of India was the division of the subcontinent into two independent dominions, India and Pakistan based on religious differences. This led to one of the worst refugee crises in history, resulting in about two million deaths and an estimated 20 million people displaced along communal lines. The excerpt above from Punjabi poet Amrita Pritam’s elegy “Aaj Aakhaan Waris Shah Nu” reflects on that fateful decision which resulted in en masse displacement and gendered violence in both grotesque and insidious ways. The poem is addressed to an acclaimed Punjabi Sufi poet of the 18th century Waris Shah, and asks him to arise from his grave and bear witness to the pain of partition by adding another chapter in his book of love (written a century ago). Shah was well known for his tragic love story Heer Ranjha which symbolises eternal love and separation. Pritam’s poem recalls how Shah penned an entire saga when one daughter (Heer) cried about her misery to him, but now he needs to rise up to the occasion when a million daughters are grieving and river Chenab is overflowing with blood.

In March 1947 communal riots and the ensuing violence resulted in mass scale abduction, rape and forcible conversion of women from both communities. In September, the leaders and representatives of the government of India and Pakistan met and resolved to restore abducted persons to their original homes. Soon an Inter-Dominion Conference was held at Lahore where the two countries agreed upon a joint exercise which resulted in the ‘Abducted Persons Recovery and Restoration Act 1949’. Mridula Sarabhai, who was a frontrunner social worker in the recovery program, estimated that about 1,25,000 (0.12 million) women were missing on both sides of the border (Balakrishnan 2011). Though the Act was to remain in force for a year or so, the recoveries continued for almost a decade. The full extent of abductions remains a matter of debate. While on the one hand the forcible abduction and conversion had caused outrage and rancour; on the other the process of recovery had opened a Pandora’s Box. Many women were either pregnant or had children with their abductors and were not sure if they wanted to return or would be accepted by their families. Hence they neither had a choice in their abduction nor a say in the recovery program as both decisions were made outside their consent. 

The stories of the women as victims or men as aggressors usually come from oral testimonies narrated by family members, neighbours, social workers, leaders, administrators or reports circulated through newspapers. Other heartrending accounts come from fictional representations which brought out the dilemmas associated with partition. Jyotirmoyee Devi’s ‘Epar Ganga, Opar Ganga’, Jamila Hashmi’s ‘Exile’, Rajinder Singh Bedi’s ‘Lajwanti’Manto’s ‘Khol do’, ‘Thanda Gosht’, ‘Khuda ki Qasam’, and many other literary works brought out the predicament and effects of violence on both the victims and the aggressors.

It has been observed that antagonism based on religious differences before and since 1947 seem to exacerbate and not wane with time. With each incidence of new hostility between Hindus and Muslims, the ghost of the past is resurrected and traced to the communal riots of partition and beyond. While some fiction writers have written cathartically about the event, creative writing along with newspaper reports and political propaganda through pamphlets can also be seen as a means to produce and reproduce stereotypes both historically and in contemporary times. 

Historian Charu Gupta (2009) has emphasized the deeper historical roots to stories and beliefs that the abduction and conversion of Hindu women is a characteristic Muslim activity. She draws from diverse sources to show how a communal narrative was constructed during the public campaigns of the Shuddhi Movement in Uttar Pradesh in the 1920s. In colonial Bengal as well, the privileges associated with majority-minority status acquired communal overtones where a prejudiced portrayal of lascivious Muslim men was publicised post the 1919 Montford Reforms, which introduced self-governing institutions. P K Datta (2010) ascertains that abduction as a phenomenon and a narrative  allowed powerful binaries of antagonism and desire, permissibility and repudiation to thrive, which have left enduring legacies.

One such legacy can be seen in the hostility and jeopardy regarding consensual inter-faith marriages in India. Seven decades on from partition-era abductions, the Hindu and Muslim communities continue to be suspicious of each other and the so-called ‘Love Jihad’ (war on love) forbids interfaith marriages. There is a belief that Muslim men feign love and use seduction, deception and kidnapping as a means to convince, coerce, convert and marry Hindu women. The consent or elopement of women in such cases is disregarded because it transgresses prescriptive norms. In 2018, the Supreme Court of India restored the marriage of Hadiya and Shafin Jahan which had been annulled by Kerala High court on the plea of the girl’s parents who believed that she had been influenced and forcibly converted to Islam. The couple had to undergo 15 month long legal battle to win their conjugal rights. In another state, for instance Dakshina Karnataka, the Hindu Janajagriti Samiti (Hindu People’s Awakening Organisation) claimed that 30,000 young women had been duped by ‘Love Romeos’ (Rao 2011).

There is constant anxiety about development of amorous relationships particularly between men hailing from the Muslim community and women belonging to the Hindu community. Hence most of the cases are either fought in courts or end up in honour killing. Whether it was 1947 or it is 2021, the honour of the Hindu family, community and nation is inextricably linked with a woman’s body and any amatory desires towards Muslim men is considered illicit or a challenge to social norms which is neither forgiven nor forgotten.

References

Das Veena (2007) Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary, (UCLA Berkeley)

Datta P K (2010), Heterogeneities: Identity Formations in Modern India (Tulika, Delhi)

Gupta Charu (2005), Sexuality, Obscenity, Community: Women, Muslims and the Hindu Public in Colonial India (Permanent Black, Delhi)

Pritam Amrita ‘Aaj Aakhaan Waris Shah Nu’ poem

Rao Mohan, (2011), ‘Love Jihad and demographic fears’ Indian Journal of Gender Studies, 18 (3), pp.425-430.

Bio: Dr Rachna Mehra is Assistant Professor in the Urban Studies Program (SGA), Dr. B. R Ambedkar University Delhi. She completed her PhD in history from JNU and her research interests include partition studies and urban history of small towns and cities. https://aud-in.academia.edu/RachnaMehra