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.