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.

DAY SIXTEEN: Freedom from endless violence, freedom from helpless silence – Songs against gender based violence in India’

Freedom from endless violence, freedom from helpless silence. Sumangala Damodaran discusses the place of songs about GBV in protest movements in India.

Sumangala Damodaran

Featured image: Indian People’s Theatre Association commemorated on a postage stamp half a century after its founding. Source: Wikimedia Commons

‘Auratein utthi nahin to zulm badhta jayega

Zulm karne wala seena zor banta jayega

Auratein utthi nahin to zulm badhta jayega’

If women do not rise, oppression will multiply. This is the rough translation for the first two lines of a song written by Safdar Hashmi, theatre person and political activist. Hashmi  was assassinated on New Year’s day, 1989, for performing a play in support of trade unions who were on strike for better conditions on the outskirts of Delhi in India. Hashmi’s song was written for a documentary film made in the wake of the horrific burning or ‘Sati’ of a young woman, Roop Kanwar, in Rajasthan, which shook the conscience of the entire country as an example of extreme gender-based violence that was being condoned in the name of ‘tradition’.

The film was made by a young women’s filmmakers’ collective called Media Storm and contained two songs, the one mentioned above and another one that described poignantly the various kinds of work that women do, at home and outside, and yet were subjected to the most horrific forms of violence.

Some lines of the second song are:

Sataati hai rulaati hai use zinda jalati hai

(She is harassed, made to weep, burnt alive)

Songs about gender-based violence have been a significant element of wider struggles in India, having been written spontaneously as part of various campaigns and social and political events that brought issues to the fore, including before the mass mobilisation of the women’s movement in the 1970s.

There are several examples of powerful songs written in the late colonial and early post-independence period. During the Tebhaga peasant movement in Bengal in 1946, where peasants were demanding two thirds of the share of the grain they produced, the brutal murder of a young, pregnant peasant woman called Ahalya produced spontaneous poetry and songs. Ahalya was killed by hired goons of landlords, as she, along with others from her village, stood guard over the grain produced and harvested by them.

Paying homage to Ahalya, a song called ‘Aar koto kaal, bolo koto kaal, shoibo ei mrityur aupoman’ (How much longer shall we have to bear the humiliation of death) was sung by singer Reba Roychowdhury and other young women as they campaigned for the peasants resisting the brutal landlord system in Bengal.

‘Auratein Utthi Nahi Toh Zulm Badhta Jayega’ (Song mentioned at the beginning of the post)

In the Telugu speaking Telangana region in Southern India, rape and murder of women from lower castes by landlords and their gangs formed the subject of several songs written and sung during the Telangana peasants’ movement soon after independence in 1948. Under the aegis of a political cultural organisation called the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) and of similar organisations at the regional level, the beginning of songs focussing on gender issues, and to some extent gender-based violence, can be found.

However, even if there were many across different languages and different genres, these songs were not created as part of consciously gender-politics-driven objectives. That happened later with the growth of the women’s movement of the  1970s and after. From the late 1970s, the women’s movement started focussing on specific kinds of gender-based violence like dowry, rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment and violence at the workplace and various parts of India saw extensive campaigns against such forms of violence and the outdated and patriarchal laws that governed them.

Street theater and songs became popular ways to reach out to people in the streets, workplaces and near homes. Kamla Bhasin, the fiery, humorous and inspirational feminist from Delhi wrote several songs in Hindi and Punjabi and also raised the famous Azaadi (Freedom) slogans that she heard first in Pakistan and made them popular in India. ‘Freedom from endless violence, freedom from helpless silence’ was one such electrifying slogan. Working with simple and popular folk melodies from North India, Kamla Bhasin wrote songs that not only addressed violence against women frontally but also spoke to the patriarchal structures that shackled both men and women into the system of dominance and dependence that patriarchy represents.

“Todh todh ke bandhanon ko dekho behane aati hai…Ayengi zulm mitaeingi…Yeh to naya zamana laayengi!”

(Breaking through the chains that bind them, our sisters advance…they will eliminate repressions…they will bring forth a new time)

Thus went a song that became a rallying call for the women’s movement, like “Auratein Utthi Nahin To” mentioned before. Several other songs that Kamla Bhasin wrote focussed on gender based violence as part of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence every year between 25 November and 10 December.

As  awareness of gender based violence began to spread in the public consciousness, popular media also produced responses in the form of films, advertisements and songs. One such song is ‘Rupaiya’. Based on a folk tune from North India, it was written against dowry by popular songwriter Swanand Kirkire and sung by Sona Mohapatra. Appealing to the conscience and emotional bond of a daughter with her family, the woman protagonist in the song emphatically states ‘I will not be sold for rupees’.

Like in the struggle against patriarchy at the societal level and in individual contexts, cultural activists have had to struggle hard within their own movements to bring focus to gender issues and highlight gender based violence. Songs depicting the lives of women, inside and outside the home, in workplaces and society at large, and particularly focusing on the violence that is inflicted, have had to edge their way into larger repertoires around class, caste, racial and ethnic discrimination.

At the same time, these songs have played a very major role in mobilisation in not only movements that focus on gender-based issues but also go beyond to focus on various kinds of societal domination.

To go back to the Azaadi slogans popularised by Kamla Bhasin in India, they were first raised by Pakistani feminists as calls for emancipation from all kinds of bondage. 

Prof Sumangala Damodaran singing ‘Aar Kotho Kal’

Author Bio
Prof. Sumangala Damodaran is Professor of Economics, Development Studies and Popular Music Studies at Dr. B. R. Ambedkar University Delhi. As a development economist, her research and publications fall broadly within the rubric of Industrial and Labour studies and more specifically on Industrial Organisation, Global Value Chains, the Informal Sector, Labour and Migration. She is also a singer and composer. Her  book  “The Radical Impulse: Music in the Tradition of the IPTA”  is a documentation of the musical tradition of the Indian People’s Theatre Association from the 1940s and 1950s. Her album titled ‘Songs of Protest’ and a collaborative project titled ‘Insurrections’ has resulted in four albums. She is currently engaged in researching the relationship between music and migration, particularly of women in slavery and servitude across centuries and across vast tracts of the globe that were linked through long distance trade in commodities and symbolic goods. This work is being done in collaboration with several universities in Africa and Asia.


Day Sixteen |When the law against violence becomes violent

A critical question for feminists to ask when women turn to the law is whether a legal victory is always a triumph of the feminist worldview. Violence against women is ubiquitous in patriarchy.

Rachana Johri, Bindu K.C. and Krishna Menon

Resisting Violence

A critical question for feminists to ask when women turn to the law is whether a legal victory is always a triumph of the feminist worldview. Violence against women is ubiquitous in patriarchy. It pervades virtually all spheres of lives, happening most often in relational spaces. Without questioning the necessity of the law, it seems that the work of feminism must include a detailed analysis of the many moments in which women experience violence such as sexual harassment at the workplace and at educational institutions. 

Every violent act – whether it is a comment on the looks of a classmate, persistent messages from one student to another, or rape – constitute violence. Must all these be treated within a legal framework? And is ‘punishment’ the only imagination of justice? Perhaps more pertinently, does ‘punishment’ belong in a feminist approach to justice?

Continue reading “Day Sixteen |When the law against violence becomes violent”

Day Fifteen |Understanding dowry and dowry abuse in Australia

Manjula O’Connor, Jan Breckenridge, Sara Singh and Mailin Suchting

dowry abuse
Reproduced from Shutterstock via The Conversation

The practice of dowry usually involves the giving of money, property, goods or other gifts by one family to another before, during or any time after marriage. It is a universal practice. For example, Bombay Island – now called Mumbai – was a former Portuguese outpost which was gifted to England as dowry in the marriage of Catherine of Braganza to Charles II (and was later leased to the East India Company in 1668). 

In its modern day avatar, dowry as a practice has different customary characteristics across different communities. Dowry exchange in South Asian communities is characterised by the woman’s family providing goods (including but not limited to money, jewellery, furniture and appliances) to the man and his family. In North African and Middle Eastern communities, dowry is characterised by the man’s family providing goods (predominantly in the form of money or cattle) to the female and her family.

Dowry is an ancient practice most frequently associated with India, but in reality, it is a cultural practice globally. This blog mostly addresses dowry in the South Asian context. Dowry in ancient times originated as a form of ante mortem inheritance, meant only for the bride. In modern times dowry gifts are expected by the family of the receiver as well and has become a practice that is a product of patriarchy reinforcing gender inequality. Women activists have campaigned against dowry practices in India since 1961, recognising the toxic impact of patriarchy combined with greed, and growing evidence of serious violence, murders and suicides associated with dowry in India. 

The Australasian Centre of Human Rights and Health (ACHRH) has refined the definition of dowry as ‘substantial gifts’ in the context of a marriage, where the value of gifts is out of proportion to the income of either family and causes financial distress to the giver.

what about dowry abuse?

Day Fourteen |Gender-based violence: a glimpse of feminist dilemmas in the academy

Cat Wayland, Kamya Choudhary and Radhika Govinda

Feminist cartoon day 14

Artwork by Samia Singh and used with permission and produced as part of the Teaching Feminisms, Transforming Lives Project, a collaboration between Ambedkar University and the University of Edinburgh

The above image is a preview of a (web)comic focused on feminist struggles in the academy, that is currently under development. The (web)comic features 24 pages of beautiful original artwork by illustrators Samia Singh based in Punjab, India, and Shazleen Khan, in London, UK. It is based on roundtable conversations and panel discussions that took place at Ambedkar University Delhi, India in December 2017 and at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland in February 2018 as part of the ongoing Teaching Feminisms, Transforming Lives Project

Continue reading “Day Fourteen |Gender-based violence: a glimpse of feminist dilemmas in the academy”