DAY NINE: Migration and Violence:  The Question of trans* masculine persons in India 

In India, trans* masculine people face the risk of violence and displacement through forced migration and homelessness. Family resistance can take the form of conversion therapies and healers while trying to silence to avoid stigma. Sutanuka Bhattacharya and Bindu KC explores this issue in this insightful piece.

Sutanuka Bhattacharya / Suto and Bindu K. C.

Featured image: ‘Uprooted’ by Archee Roy (she/her), a queer visual artist based in Kolkata. Ink and water colour on paper, 16th October 2022 

Seeing Violence, Seeing Gender 

Thinking about gender is thinking about “normalcy”.  One does not “see” gender if one is comfortable in one’s gender identity. Thus, people who see themselves within the cis-hetero-sexist nexus need not think about gender as a system of power.  It is precisely this invisibility of normality that is any powerful system’s route to domination.   

Under these circumstances, an event of violence, in a flash, gives us a glimpse into what was always already at play. Like a scanner revealing the inner structure of the body, it allows us access to the violently structured world of power. Thus, it is not surprising then that the everyday of queer and trans* lives marred by violence opens up the process of gendering.   

On 22nd July and 1st September 2022, India saw a torrent of social media posts by the queer and trans* community about violence against transgender persons. In both the instances, Aditya and Shyam, two adult trans men from Uttar Pradesh were forced to leave their violent natal homes. They took refuge in shelter homes for transgender persons, run by Non-Governmental Organizations based in Delhi and Gurugram respectively. While Aditya found shelter in Garima Greh, a government-aided shelter home run by the Mitr Trust, Shyam sought shelter in Aasra run by The Transgender Welfare Equity and Empowerment Trust (TWEET) Foundation.  

21st July, post mid-night, Aditya was abducted from Garima Greh by the UP Police based on the “missing diary” lodged by his parents. At the same time, on 1st September afternoon, Shyam’s father, who was himself working with the UP Police, barged into Aasra searching for him. However, unable to find Shyam, his father forcefully brought the co-chairperson and the board member at TWEET, who also identify as trans men, to a Gurugram police station. At the police station they were physically assaulted, detained without documents and were threatened while the local police remained silent.    

Gender-based violence perpetrated by the institutions of family, education, medical sciencehealth care, judiciary, legislation, law and so on take diverse forms.

In this piece, we concentrate on the often methodically orchestrated violence leading to forced migration and resulting homelessness of trans* masculine persons. Such violence might be routine for various groups marginalized by gender and sexuality. However, even amongst less documented queer groups, the lived experiences of trans* masculine persons is striking. Their relative epistemic and ontological invisibility makes the world miss them as a category.   

Forced Migration and Homelessness 

Forced migration and homelessness among trans* masculine persons are often reported to be systematically orchestrated by natal families through physical violence or severe lack of support. For example, in both the cases we discuss, the trans men were forced to leave their natal homes because their family members refused to accept their self-identified gender and unleashed severe violence on them. Aditya was reported to be under house arrest for more than two years because his parents were ashamed of him; while Shyam, in his application for his stay at Aasra mentioned that his family members were planning to kill him or marry him to a cis–man against his consent.  

In most cases, family resistance starts when the trans* masculine persons either assert their non-normative gender identities and/or their non-normative sexual desires. Many parents at the initial stage try to hush this up fearing social stigma and the shame stemming from deep rooted trans negativity and homo–negativity. Further, parents and other family members might also take recourse to conversion therapies, performed by modern medical professionals or traditional healers with a hope to “cure and control their unruly daughters”.  

Gender–based violence unleashed on trans* masculine persons by their families entail psychological, physical and sexual violence, for example, denying their gender-sexual identities and desires, blackmailing in the name of family honour, house arrest, separating them from their romantic partners, forcing them to marry cis–men, restricting their mobility and access to resources such as food, education, communication, beating and “corrective” rape . There are also reported instances where trans masculine persons, unable to withstand societal and familial pressure, had even been forced to end their lives

Conclusion: Network of care, community spaces and their challenges 
There are glimmers of hope in alternative narratives amidst the deluge of violence against trans* masculine persons.  Occasionally, some find acceptance from their natal families. More often, they find safe spaces and care networks among friendships, community members and also within intimate relationships.  

Strangely, we find some stories of acceptance to be embedded within patriarchal ideas of gender.  In our society, intrinsically steeped with son preference, trans masculine persons—post–medical and legal transitions—taking up traditional masculine gender roles sometimes receive acceptance from natal families. However, most of the time, this acceptance comes at the cost of erasure of their gender-sexual transgressive past and hiding their gender-sexual journey. Moreover, in such cases, migration often becomes not just the trans person’s burden but that of the entire family. There are stories of entire families relocating to different localities, sometimes in the same city.   

The emerging shelter homes for queer and trans* persons across the country should be seen as possibilities of safe spaces institutionally. But the stories for existing shelter homes for cis women and children do not give much hope.  Till date, friendships and informal networks within the community remain safe spaces for trans migrations.  However, such friendships and care networks are still precarious.   

To conclude, one can see migration in trans* masculine persons’ lives, forced or otherwise, as stemming from unbearable violence within families and others whom young trans people might interact closely with. Under these circumstances, migration is both a cry for help and at the same time, the indomitable human urge to survive.  

Authors’ Bio 

Sutanuka Bhattacharya/ Suto (they/ them) is an activist-researcher based in India. They are pursuing a Doctor in Philosophy in Women’s and Gender Studies, Ambedkar University Delhi. Their doctoral thesis, titled ‘Writing Trans Subjectivities: Re-thinking gender-sexuality through identities and relationalities’, revolves around understanding contemporary trans masculine subjectivities in the context of India. At present, they are located in Kolkata and have also been associated with feminist, queer and trans* activist spaces in the city since 2005. Suto identifies as a non-binary queer person. 

Dr. Bindu K. C. (she/her) is an Assistant Professor in Gender Studies Programme, Dr B R Ambedkar University Delhi. 

DAY SEVEN: Shayma’s story – Early marriage among Syrian refugee women from rural backgrounds 

As part of the FIELD SONGS project, Ann-Christin Zuntz and her colleagues conducted two workshops with middle-aged Syrian women in Gaziantep, Turkey to document Syrian refugees’ agricultural heritage. Read about Shayma’s story and the complexity behind early marriages among refugees.

Ann-Christin Zuntz

Featured image: Syrian women’s homemade cooking in Gaziantep, Turkey (Zuntz 2022)

During the Syrian conflict, the spectre of early marriage has become a staple of humanitarian discourse and NGO-run awareness-raising sessions. Humanitarian actors such as Save the Children and UNICEF ascribe early marriage to a combination of added livelihood pressures and Syrians’ patriarchal “culture”. The reality, of course, is not that simple. In this blog post, we reflect on how Syrian women in Turkey navigate changing gender roles, economic losses, and new income-generating opportunities in exile, and we consider the implications of their experiences for how we conceptualise and combat gender-based violence. 

In March and August 2022, we conducted two workshops with middle-aged Syrian women in Gaziantep, Turkey, for our FIELD SONGS project.i Through these conversations, we sought to document Syrian refugees’ agricultural heritage. In recent years, humanitarians have taken an interest in the skills that refugees acquire in host countries, and that they could later benefit from when rebuilding their homes. By contrast, in our work, we focus on the agricultural expertise and traditions that refugees bring, and that still matter for their present-day survival in Turkish agriculture, but also shape their sense of identity.

During our workshops, it soon became clear that Syrian women had very distinct, gendered experiences of working in farming: many considered women as the “pillar” of rural families, as they used to work on the fields, but also cook, weave baskets, and sew clothes inside their homes. For many participants, productive labour in agriculture was closely linked to reproductive activities, such as marriage and childbirth.  

We first heard from Shaymaii, a married woman from Palmyra, in March of 2022. She spoke movingly of her youth in rural Syria. Growing up under the watchful eyes of her father, she was not allowed to leave the family home or attend high school, even though some of her female cousins enjoyed greater freedoms. Instead, she often helped her father with agricultural tasks; these shared activities forged a strong bond between them and are now some of her fondest childhood memories. As a teenager, Shayma fell in love with a neighbour, but had to fake disinterest when he asked for her hand in marriage – admitting that she had feelings for the young man would have been shameful. Heartbroken, she turned down several more suitors, until her father threatened to divorce her mother if she refused to get married.  

Image above: Syrian women working in a greenhouse in southern Turkey (Zuntz 2022) 

At the age of 17, Shayma thus became the wife of an older man. While this was far from a love match, her husband introduced her to her greatest passion: painting. She lived a comfortable and busy life managing their growing household until the onset of the Syrian conflict, when Shayma and her sister lost several of their children in an airstrike. In Gaziantep, the family now gets by through Shayma’s work in a care home; she also regularly takes part in NGO activities. During workshop breaks, Shayma proudly scrolled through pictures on her phone: of her oldest child, a 16-year old daughter, and of beautiful artwork that she had made herself. 

In August 2022, Shayma told us that she and her husband had decided to betroth their adolescent daughter. We were surprised: had she not resented her own experience of an early and arranged marriage? But for Shayma, the passage of time, and life as a refugee, had changed her perspective. “I now understand my father better”, she explained. “He was only trying to protect me.” The reasons behind Shayma’s decision were complex: having already lost one child, she feared for her daughter in the urban sprawl of Gaziantep. She also believed that there were no other possible futures for her daughter in Turkey. In the same discussion, Shayma advocated for teaching Syrian children about agriculture, even if they now lived in Turkish cities, as white-collar jobs remained out of reach even for highly educated refugees. Finally, Shayma felt that displacement and new urban lifestyles were threatening the tight-knit rural communities that she had grown up in and sorely missed. But she thought of her agricultural heritage – including particular gender roles – not only as a bridge to the past, but also to the future: holding on to traditional expertise and family structures could later facilitate refugees’ return to Syria.

Agricultural work is family work, as evidenced by Shayma’s own memories of farming alongside her father. To her, working the land came with a deep sense of connection, encompassing nature, parenthood, and the family – aspects of life that make it “complete”. In Shayma’s version, marriage would thus not prevent a fulfilled and active life for her daughter, but rather make such a life possible within the framework of their community of origin. 

Shayma’s story does not fit humanitarian narratives about how stopping early marriage could magically unlock women’s potential as economic and even development actors. In her version, fathers and husbands are not simply oppressors, but also loving and encouraging. Similarly, women are not fully devoid of agency. Shayma has worked very hard for her entire life, first as an unpaid helper in her father’s and husband’s households, and now as a salaried nurse in Turkey. Paid or unpaid, her work has been always been meaningful to her, and she takes great pride in it. While she had no say in arranging her own marriage, as a matriarch, she now gets to decide on her children’s future.  

Practices such as early marriage that may look like “unchanging traditions” are highly fluid and given new meaning by refugees struggling to survive in unfamiliar socioeconomic contexts.

Behind sensationalists reports on rising numbers of Syrian “child brides” lie complex truths about what jobs displaced men and women used to work and now have access to, and how economic pressures, but also love and hopes for the future, shape families’ decision-making around marriage. As researchers working on refugee labour rights, we find that fighting gender-based violence against refugee women requires an integrated approach that does not single out “the patriarchy”, “refugee culture”, or “refugee men” as the usual suspects, but rather sheds light on displaced people’s gendered positioning in restrictive asylum regimes and exploitative global economies, and on their own expectations about what a “good life” may look like. 

[1] The FIELD SONGS project, led by Prof Lisa Boden from the University of Edinburgh, is a collaboration between social and agricultural scientists and musicians from the University of Edinburgh, Syrian Academic Expertise and Douzan Art & Culture, two Syrian-run organisations based in Turkey. For a full list of all team members, please consult the project website: https://www.onehealthfieldnetwork.org/field-songs

[2] All names changed.

Author’s Bio

Dr Ann-Christin Zuntz is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in the Social Anthropology department at the University of Edinburgh. She is an economic anthropologist, with a focus on the intersections of labour, migrations, and gender in the Mediterranean. Ann does collaborative research with Syrian agricultural scientists, humanitarian, and cultural practitioners within Edinburgh’s One Health FIELD Network. 

DAY FIVE: “It’s not just the war that displaces these people”: care and containment for displaced survivors of sexual and gender-based violence 

This piece is based on the DiSoCo project, which looks at improving healthcare for internally displaced people in Somalia and DRC,and Somali and Congolese refugees in Kenya and South Africa. The authors reflect on their interviewees’ stories on sexual and gender-based violence and the repercussions on those who report these stories.

Rina Ghafoerkhan, Elise Griede, Laura Jeffery, Lucy Lowe, David Nieuwe Weme

Featured image credits: SIDRA Institute

… she actually complained to the camp leaders. And there was an NGO, that NGO helped her, she went to the police station and the guy was caught and, you know, he stayed in jail for two days. And since then, that’s when the abuse started. He rapes her constantly. As a punishment. So, you have the rule of law that is not doing its job. The government’s not doing their job, you have the NGO, of course they do help, but then they don’t look at the consequences. You’re not addressing the issue. And that’s why women don’t come forth, because it’s easier. Maybe it happens to you once. And if you keep quiet, then it stops. But then you talk and you get punished.  

These are the words of an internally displaced teenager in Somalia. They reflect the experiences of many displaced women too scared to report experiences of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) because of the repercussions experienced by those who do. Her account was shared with researchers on the DiSoCo project, which aims to improve healthcare for internally displaced people (IDPs) in Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and amongst Somali and Congolese refugees in Kenya and South Africa.  

Both Somalia and the DRC have been involved in decades-long protracted conflicts, and Somali and Congolese people have faced prolonged exposure to numerous human rights violations, including torture, sexual violence and repeated and often protracted displacement. During interviews, many people emphasised the stigma surrounding SGBV, sometimes as an even greater concern than physical or mental health, due to the social significance of female virginity and chastity. Several interviewees discussed concerns about the lasting impact that public knowledge of assault might have for survivors’ futures, such as being deemed unsuitable for marriage.

As a result, they suggested, a priority of many survivors and their families is to conceal the assault, in an attempt to avoid the shame and dishonour that often haunts survivors.  

Our interviewees discussed this process of concealment and containment as a response to stigma occurring on multiple levels. Firstly, several interviewees articulated that victims’ fears about other people’s responses might disincentivise victims from disclosing sexual violence to others, but that this containment might also result in social isolation. Secondly, in relation to containment within the household, interviewees noted that victims and their families might seek to restrict knowledge about the incident to a select group or even remove the entire household from the social setting by moving away. Both Somali and Congolese interviewees mentioned cases of people relocating – displacing or re-displacing themselves – in order to evade the stigma surrounding what had happened to them. One Congolese interviewee responded that: 

In some cases, they isolate themselves or they will be forced to go into exile, another village or into the city where again they don’t have the support system. So it’s not just the war that displaces these people…  

Thus, in displacement contexts in which social support networks have already been severed, household containment has the potential to compound pre-existing social isolation. 

Thirdly, strategies for containment at a community level via social institutions include transforming the violation into an ‘appropriate’ sexual interaction through marriage, seeking reparations in the form of compensation, or initiating retributive justice. Similarly, our research partners in Somalia found that a commonplace principal response to sexual violence is families and extended clan networks seeking compensation from the offending parties to the victim’s family (Boeyink et al. 2022, p8). This implies a framing of sexual violence not only as a mental health concern and physical assault for which the victim might warrant medical attention, but also crucially as a (dis)honour for which the victim’s family should be compensated.  

Prevalent norms surrounding sex and gender are crucial to understanding how victims, their families, and local communities react to experiences of sexual violence. Displaced populations face parallel challenges in accessing all forms of care because displacement ruptures and fragments support networks. This is compounded in cases of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), where perceptions of gender, violence, and sex among displaced and host communities are entangled with practices of care.

Our interviewees highlighted that gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status, and the availability of local support networks together inform the forms of social harm and potential care experienced by survivors of sexual violence. Without viable and accessible support and care, survivors of SGBV can be subject to repeat displacement, revealing the highly gendered, but often concealed, nature of forced migration. 

Authors’ Bio 

This blogpost draws on a journal article in preparation for publication. Its co-authors – Rina Ghafoerkhan, Elise Griede, Laura Jeffery, Lucy Lowe, David Nieuwe Weme – are based at ARQ International in the Netherlands and the University of Edinburgh in the UK. The co-authors are collaborating on a UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) research project aiming to help Somali and Congolese displaced people to access appropriate healthcare for chronic mental health conditions associated with protracted displacement, conflict, and sexual and gender-based violence. For more information about the project, please visit our website at displacement.sps.ed.ac.uk/ and twitter @gcrf_disoco 

 

DAY FOUR: Sacrificeable bodies: gender-based violence against LGBTIQ+ people and displacement

Within debates around displacement, gender-based violence is conflated with violence against cisgender and heterosexual women. In this piece, Tina Dixson argues for the need to meaningfully engage with LGBTIQ+ communities’ experiences of displacement.

Tina Dixson (formerly co-founder Forcibly Displaced People Network)

Featured image credits: Renee Dixson

Sexual and gender-based violence are manifestations of power and an enforcement of the patriarchal order where rigid and harmful gender norms and binaries permeate relationships, and racial hierarchies are created. Perpetrators, mostly men, use their power and control to create a world where all women exist to serve their needs, and where toxic masculinity allows no divergence from a rigid sex binary. Violence is inflicted on LGBTIQ+ communities as a tool of punishment for defying this patriarchal order.

Yet in the context of displacement, gender-based violence is often conceptualised as violence against women, meaning those who are cisgender and heterosexual.

Queer and trans refugee women are rarely seen as legitimate victims of displacement. Their experiences are marginalised and their gender and sexuality are deemed private or irrelevant, if not the very cause of their displacement. In describing drivers of displacement of LGBTIQ+ people in their Age, Gender and Diversity policy, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) writes that violence against this community happens “due to their sex, sexual orientation, and/or gender identity”. In other words, a victim is blamed for causing violence by simply being who they are, and not because violence is inflicted by the racist, homophobic and transphobic patriarchy.

There is evidence that LGBTIQ+ people experience familial (eg. forced marriages, ‘honor’ killings), societal (eg. conversion practices, stoning or ‘social cleansing’) and state violence (eg. imprisonment, perpetrator impunity or death penalty), which are drivers of displacement. Despite this violence continuing throughout their displacement  and in settlement, LGBTIQ+ refugees exist in the “zone of nonbeing”.

Françoise Vergès writes that “trans people, queer people, male and female sex workers are simply bodies to rape, traffic, torture, kill”. They are sacrificeable. They are blamed for the violence they endure. Their extinction becomes the norm.  

While gender-based violence marks the everyday for LGBTIQ+ people, especially those who are displaced, paradoxically they are excluded from how displacement is imagined. In writing about sexual and gender-based violence against refugee women, Jane Freedman categorises women who are traveling alone in the following heteronormative way: “women are travelling alone because they are single, or because they have lost their husbands during the war”. This indifference to experiences of gender-based violence against LGBTIQ+ people spans from community organisations to the UN. In 2011, I was an NGO delegate presenting a shadow report on the human rights violations against of lesbian, bisexual and trans women in Ukraine in front of the Committee operating under the Convention on Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women. A day before, a Committee member from Brazil approached me during breakfast in my hotel. ‘Lead with stories, explain the impacts violence and discrimination has on women, only then mention their sexuality, and only in passing’ she said to me. Thinking about violence inflicted on these women (and very soon myself), we cannot and should not separate their gender from their sexuality. Both constitute the experience of violence.

Years after and now in my own displacement, UN rhetoric has not changed. In 2017, I was invited to join a Gender Audit team, led by the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Forced Migration Research Network, to take part in the development of the Global Compact on Refugees. What offered a unique opportunity to finally make LGBTIQ+ displacement visible became an experience of silencing. Many countries never mentioned this cohort. When Western countries did, this was seen as an imposition of their values and issues that are not relevant to some bigger cause. It is no surprise that this issue became one of the first to be dropped during the negotiations process. It did not matter where you were in the room as an LGBTIQ+ refugee. You were always not the right kind of a refugee.

As a result, the final text of the Global Compact on Refugees not only omits any references to these communities but importantly creates a normative understanding of concepts such as ‘vulnerable groups in displacements’, ‘survivors of gender-based violence’, ‘specific needs in displacement’ and so on. It moves away from allowing to fit yourself in as an LGBTIQ+ refugee when your experience is mentioned as ‘other status’ in a long list of diversity characteristics to a complete silencing and fixed definitions. For example, persons with specific needs are defined as: “children, including those who are unaccompanied or separated; women at risk; survivors of torture, trauma, trafficking in persons, sexual and gender-based violence, sexual exploitation and abuse or harmful practices; those with medical needs; persons with disabilities; those who are illiterate; adolescents and youth; and older persons”. You do not have access to words, let alone protection.

Trying to bring attention to the issues of LGBTIQ+ displacement and the extent of gender-based violence inflicted, you always hit a brick wall. Within mainstream feminism in a country such as Australia, most morning teas, report launches and parliament events during the 16 days of activism will neglect to meaningfully engage with anything other than whiteness, heterosexuality, cisgenderism and citizenship.

Within displacement activism, again heteronormativity will prevail. Still so much research on displacement that always claims to offer new and comprehensive ways of looking at this issue neglects including sexuality and gender as inherent and constituent parts of one’s selfhood, one’s displacement journey, and most importantly one’s feeling of safety and belonging. Neither acknowledges that homo- and transphobia are a feminist issue and are in turn an anti-racism and decolonial issue, and that neither of these social justice struggles can be completed in isolation.

Where LGBTIQ+ displacement is mentioned, it is either reduced to an anomaly (something so rare that it is not worthy of attention) or racialised communities are being blamed for their ‘backwardness’ when it comes to LGBTIQ+ equality.

What is missing is an honest reflection on the impact of colonisation and the importation of homophobia and transphobia onto communities who used to celebrate and honour sexual and gender diversity.

Mikki Kendall writes that “entitlement, intolerance, homophobia, misogyny, aggression and sexual violence inside and outside marginalised communities are the antisocial behaviours that patriarchal systems create” regardless of the countries location. Instead of achieving safety, marginalisation is being perpetuated.  For as long as we think of some as more deserving of protection than others simply because of who they are, violence and domination will prevail and we will not achieve justice for anyone.

***

You can learn more on how to work inclusively and meet the needs of LGBTIQ+ forcibly displaced people by passing this free training: https://fdpn.org.au/lgbtiq-settlement-training/

Author’s Bio

Tina Dixson is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University researching the lived experiences and construction of narratives on queer and trans women’s forced displacement and violence. Tina’s research focuses on trauma theory, gender studies, migration studies and queer theory. She has contributed to a range of work on LGBTIQ+ displacement within Australia and internationally.

In 2012 Tina and her partner Renee Dixson became displaced due to their LGBTIQ+ human rights work in Ukraine and settled in Australia. Tina co-founded Forcibly Displaced People Network, the first registered LGBTIQ+ refugee-led organisation in Australia, with her partner Renee Dixson in 2020. When Tina stepped down from her role with the Network, Renee Dixson became the current chair.

DAY ONE: Truth Tales: Gendering the Violence of Displacement

Acclaimed feminist author and publisher Urvashi Butalia opens this year’s Blogathon with the hard truths we learn when we listen to survivors’ stories.

Urvashi Butalia

Featured image: ‘Carrying Home’ by artist Nilima Sheikh

People migrate for all sorts of reasons – political conflict, climate change, violent discrimination, poverty, in search of work, and so much more. Such ‘journeys’ (if one can call them that) are not always voluntary, and even when they seem ‘voluntary’ on the surface, behind that façade lies a set of circumstances that make it impossible for people to stay on in places which are settled.

Migrations differentially impact people – depending on their class, caste, location, gender, religion and so much more. And when people settle in new places, part of the struggle for survival is also a struggle to recreate a sense of home, the burden of which often falls on women.

So how do we begin to talk about this subject? And how measure, say, something like displacement in the lives of those – women – who have never really had a place to call their own? In this short piece, I cannot even attempt to answer these questions satisfactorily – in any case there are no ‘real’ or ‘comprehensive’ answers to them.  But perhaps one way of understanding how these broader realities play out on the ground is to turn to people’s lives and experiences.

Years ago, I did some research on what I call the ‘hidden histories’ of the Partition of India – the experiences of ordinary people who lived through that time.  Many of their stories have stayed with me. Here is one: several years ago, at a literature festival in Karachi, I met an 85-year old woman called Shehnaz who told her story in a halting, hesitant narrative, the gaps filled in by her children (now in their fifties and sixties).

Shehnaz had once been Gurbachan, a young sixteen-year old at the time of Partition. She and some of her friends were abducted at Partition (while trying to flee with their families) and ‘shared’ among the abductors – a fate that befell thousands of women. The story goes that her abductor then married her – again a common occurrence at the time – and like many women (on both sides of the border), she converted to his religion and became Shehnaz. By all accounts the marriage was a ‘happy’ one, although we do not really know what that means. She and her husband had five children – four daughters and a son. Many years later, they learnt that her parents had survived the attack and were somewhere near Amritsar in India. With her husband’s support, the family came to Amritsar to meet her parents.

Once there, though, the parents refused to let her return, and sent her husband back to Pakistan with their children. Shehnaz was forced to revert to being Gurbachan and was married to a widower, to whose young son she now became a mother. Meanwhile her first husband, now in Pakistan, remarried too and his wife became mother to the five children Shehnaz and he had had together.

At some point, both Gurbachan and her first husband lost their partners. She then moved to the United States with her foster son, and once there, began seeking out her family in Pakistan – she said that there hadn’t been a day in her life when she had not thought of her children. Her son helped; they advertised in Pakistani papers, and soon, miraculously, she found her children. Fifty years had passed; the youngest, who had been two and a half when they separated, was now fifty-two. When I met her, Gurbachan/Shehnaz had come to Lahore to meet her children and had decided that she now wanted to stay with them and not move back to the US.

She once again became Shehnaz. ‘This is my family,’ she said, ‘it is with them that I will live and die.’

Let me move now to another story. One of my most memorable encounters during my research was with another woman, Damyanti Sahgal, who spent many years working in the Gandhi Vanita Ashram in Jalandhar. She told a harrowing tale of travelling moneyless and alone, from Pakistan to India. Her wealthy father refused to leave his factory in Pakistan but told her she could go. But where was she to go? ‘Partition had started,’ she said, ‘I went alone, and there was rioting in Amritsar…I went alone…. Train, train. Everyone was full of fear…they kept saying put your windows up, put your windows up. Amritsar is coming and they are cutting people down there…’

Months later, after her constant search of a place to call her own, Damyanti finally found some solace in her work as part of the rescue teams sent out to find abducted women, and then in the Gandhi Vanita Ashram in Jalandhar where abducted women who had been rescued were housed, awaiting ‘rehabilitation’ or acceptance by their families. Such camps were set up in many cities, including Hoshiarpur and Karnal. Here is how Damyanti described her time:

‘The government had opened these camps, …and women like me were put in charge of the camps…. None of us was really qualified for this work; many of us were not educated. The government wanted to rehabilitate these women in every sense – our job was to make them forget their sorrow, to put new life into their veins, and to give them the means to be economically independent.’

Two stories of two different women, and so much to learn from them. Partition displaced them, pushed them into a mobility – sometimes travelling alone in uncertain and violent times – they had not known before. It exposed them to enormous violence including, in Damyanti’s case, a family who had no awareness of what she had lived through for the longest time. And yet, they survived, they made their lives. Damyanti worked with women who, like her, had been similarly uprooted and displaced – including thousands of abducted women, survivors of multiple sexual assaults. Gurbachan/Shehnaz did not belong to the same elite class as Damyanti, and she spent a lifetime searching for a place to belong, a home she could call her own, eventually finding it with her children but not knowing if she would ever be allowed to live with them in the long term.

Like these two women, there were millions of others who were similarly uprooted and displaced. Their stories lead us to the histories of the nearly hundred thousand women who were victims/survivors of sexual assault and for whom uprooting and displacement became an experience repeated multiple times: abducted, often sold from man to man, sometimes married to their abductors, sometimes ‘recovered’ from their abductors through a ‘rescue’ operation carried out by the Indian and Pakistani states who wanted to being ‘their’ women back to their ‘homes’.

The violence of Partition also contained in it – if one can say that – other forms of violence towards women and other gendered experiences that help us to understand what home, family, nation mean to women. For the millions who joined the long foot caravans (kafilas) which became people’s method of flight, the whole nature of public space changed (and therefore the notion of being settled). The street, the road, hitherto not a space they were allowed to own, suddenly became their home and all domestic tasks, hitherto carried out in the ‘safety’ of the home, now became part of this space. At another level, the desire of families to ‘protect’ their women from possible rape and conversion, meant killing them, and labelling those deaths as ‘honour’ killings, as ‘martyrdom’. The women were killed because their families felt they would not survive the long journey to escape, and yet, so many millions of women did walk those many miles to cross the border.

Even today, 75 years down the line, we know so little about the gendered dimensions of displacement and uprooting. I have mentioned only a few instances, and all of them relate to a history that is long gone. We have only just begun to scratch the surface of these stories. While we know a little about the experiences of elite and better off women, we know virtually nothing about lower caste and Dalit women – in the large kafilas for example, did caste play out as it does in everyday life? Did flight, desperation, hunger, a shared fear and insecurity, transform caste equations even if just for the moment? We need to continue to record, search and learn from our histories.

Author’s Bio

Urvashi Butalia is co-founder of Kali for Women, India’s first feminist publishing house, and Director of Zubaan, set up after Kali shut down in 2003. She writes widely on feminism and gender. Among her best-known publications is the award-winning oral history of Partition: The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India.