South Asian Femininsm
Defining Identities: The Women of South AsiaThere is no doubt that the events that ensued in 1947 India were one of the worst crimes ever committed by humanity against itself. As depicted in Deepa Mehta’s film Earth, the partition of India after British colonial rule left the country in ruins as if lions were left out of their cages to ravish a once beautiful country.
Indeed, as predicted by one of the characters in the film succeeding Jawaharlal Nehru’s radio broadcast, “independence from the British [was] soaked in [their] brother’s blood.” At the midst of all such atrocities were women who were left most devastated by the event. Aside from the devastation that ensued, however, the partition of India also left women in a continuous process of definition and redefinition, which made the events even worse than it already is for them. Thus, in the context of 1947 India and the years thereafter, together with the multitude of conflicting relationships surrounding it, this essay will argue that the partition plays a focal point in the development of women’s identity as defined by the State, society and religion where a woman’s viewpoint was given little attention as portrayed in their private lives within the backdrop of a national tragedy.
As illustrated in the film Earth, the atrocities that resulted from the partition of India cannot be narrowed down to a single causal factor. In this respect, while the British colonial government should, in large part, be accountable for leaving its colony in such haste and without due preparation for an orderly transfer of power; one cannot deny that India, prior to the partition was plagued by a number of brewing conflicts. On one hand, there exists the evident regional imbalance where an established Hindu middle class struggles to prevent the rise of an emergent Muslim middle class (Markovits 239). Within this struggle for class dominance is also the struggle for economic dominance between the Hindu and Muslim businessmen, as well as the British and Parsee entrepreneurs. In addition, there also exists the struggle for political power and control fueled by a budding Indian nationalism against its colonial government. Lastly, one cannot ignore the religious conflict between the Sikhs, Muslims and Hindu, among others. As Claude Markovits claims, “the underlying causes of partition are to be sought in long-term trends and policies which, after a certain point in time were beyond the control of any of the actors involved” (Markovits 236). Thus, as a result of all these factors, like cracks on a plate, the answer to Lenny’s question in the opening scene of Earth, would be yes, one could break a country.
In the midst of all the forces that lead to a broken India, however are women, such that as a result of the partition, they were not only continuously “destituted (sic) in one way or another by the event” (Menon & Bhasin 209); but they were also left in a state of constant definition and redefinition by all sectors of the society. This process of definition and redefinition of women are founded in the unique roles that Indian society and consequently Pakistani society as well, accorded to women – a member of a community and a symbol of honor.
As illustrated in Earth, Ayah Shanta’s character, which represented the figure o womanhood, was portrayed as a young and beautiful Hindu woman admired by a number of suitors from different religious backgrounds. Constantly wooed by men, she was envisioned as a trophy not in a derogatory term, but as a symbol of prestige. This symbolism, in turn can be attributed in tribute to her religious affinity as a Hindu. Hence, as a Hindu woman, her abduction after the partition according to Menon & Bhasin “as a retaliatory measure, it was simultaneously an assertion of identity” for Muslims and “a humiliation of the rival community through the appropriation of its women” (212). It is therefore no surprise that in a society where women are given such worth and conflicts are raging between differing factions, women were made to suffer the most.
The plight of women and the definition of their identity, however, do not end with the atrocities they suffered during the partition nor does it end with recognition that their devastation is the devastation of their religion and community. As stressed by an MP in the Indian Parliament after chaos has relatively dies down after the partition:
If there is any sore point or distressful fact to which we cannot be reconciled under any circumstances, it is the question of abduction and non-restoration of Hindu women. We all know our history’… ‘of what happened in the time of Shri Ram hen Sita was abducted. Here were thousands of girls are concerned, we cannot forget this. We can forget all the properties, we can forget every other thing but this cannot be forgotten.” (Menon & Bhasin 212)
The result was therefore a piece of legislation meant to aggressively pursue the return of “abducted” women to their respective countries. In this regard, one can observe that dual role that the government and the State gave to women. In the context of their previous abductions and the conflict between Pakistan and India, women were defined her as a member of the community with the full responsibility of “upholding community honour,” denying her of autonomy and violating her sexuality (226-227). This was despite the desire of some, if not most, “abducted” women to stay in their abductor’s home – abductors who became their husband and family, whose home was now theirs as well. In the words of some women who were forced to return to their “designated” country, “After all… where is the guarantee of happiness in a woman’s life anyway?” (217). In addition, since women were given the responsibility of maintaining her country and her community’s honor, their recovery will therefore, hold the symbolic significance of returning their country and community’s honor as well. Hence, recovery became “a matter of prestige”, where, as noted by Menon & Bhasin, recovery, which was meant to be a humanitarian effort took a back seat in favor of prestige for the two countries (223). Apparently, as illustrated by the recovery efforts of both countries, women were not given a right to proclaim her desire if she wants to be taken away from the life that she lived in the past years, with family she came to build.
Thus, as apparent in the manner that women were treated and given no consideration during the partition, where they were forcibly abducted; and after the partition, where they were forcibly returned to the country that they belong to, women were stripped not only of their lives, but of the ability to define their identity as well. Identity, as a construct requires consciousness. However, given the powerless of women in the face of a State, or in the face of a mob trying to destitute her, whatever consciousness South Asian women might have had prior to the partition were already stripped of them. Hence, their identity was left to the State, their government, their abductor, their family, and their society to be determined without input from them. They were known as part of a community and society, as part of a State, as part of a family, and even as part of an enemy’s properties; but they were never acknowledged as women first. Such that as illustrated by the way they were treated, their identity as women was always preceded by their identity as defined by others. Hence, in the midst of the partition of India, it was the women “…whose voices have hitherto been absent in any retelling of it: women who were destituted (sic) in one way or another by the event…” (209)
Thus, as illustrated in the manner that Deepa Mehta presented her film through the private lives of her main characters, which were neither public officials nor political figures, but simply regular citizens with regular lives; the process of defining a woman’s identity, at least during the time of the partition and immediately thereafter was dependent upon everyone but her. A process, which began when the plate that was India broke.
Menon, Ritu, and Bhasin, Kamla. “Recovery, rupture, Resistance: The Indian State and the Abduction of Women During Partition.” Inventing Boundaries: Gender, Politics and the Partition of India. Ed. Mushirul Hasan. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002. 208-235.
Markovits, Claude. “Businessmen and the Partition of India.” Inventing Boundaries: Gender, Politics and the Partition of India. Ed. Mushirul Hasan. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002. 236-255.
Earth. Prod. David Hamilton, Anne Masson, Deepa Mehta and Jhamu Sughand. Dir. Deepa Mehta. Perf. Aamir Khan, Maia Sethna, and Nandita Das. DVD. Madman Entertainment Pty. Ltd., 2004.