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Partition Narratives and Women's Agency

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The month of March is significant in terms of the women's movement, with International Women's Day being celebrated on March 8, and the week preceding it as International Women's Week. The United Nations website writes that International Women’s Day 'is a day when women are recognized for their achievements without regard to divisions, whether national, ethnic, linguistic, cultural, economic or political... (and) has assumed a new global dimension for women in developed and developing countries alike'. Yet, the women's movement in the South Asian context is quite different.

Freedom from British colonial hegemony, the hastily drawn international border dividing the two provinces of Punjab and Bengal, the consequent birth of the independent nations of India and Pakistan, and its aftermath in terms of the largest human migration in the history of South Asia, has drawn scholarship on generic discussions about the rise of communal tension, conflicting ideals of the nationalist leaders, and a gradual descent to an apportion of blame. The common casualty in all this were women and children. Keeping in mind the effects of Partition and migration on women—their plights and encounters with abduction, torture and trauma, Urvashi Butalia's scholarship on the lived experiences of Partition is most relevant. As a feminist historian she negotiates between the affirmation as well as loss of women's agency in the oral narratives of Partition.

Below is an excerpt from her keynote address delivered at the International Conference on Teaching History, held in Calcutta, from

30 July-1 Aug, 2015.

'As a feminist, going into research in the histories of partition I’m ashamed to say I knew nothing about this history of rape and abduction during partition. A hundred thousand women were raped and abducted across the borders—both east and west—although much less in the east than in the west. But we knew nothing about them. No traditional history book based on facts has had anything to say about this. Zero. Despite the fact that the constituent assembly of India post partition is packed with debates about abducted and raped women. But no historian thought it worth exploring this history. Now, I didn’t know it, as a feminist. When I went in and found it, I started to explore this history, I started to look for women who had lived through this kind of violence. I couldn’t find them. I could find records of them in the courts. But I couldn’t find the women. And then gradually when I began to find women, I learnt something that shook my feminist beliefs, which was—it’s not so easy to talk about sexual violence. And you, as a researcher or as an interviewer can go into a situation and use the power that you have to extract these stories from women. But how right or wrong is it ethically? And what will be gained? To what do you owe a kind of loyalty? Is it to some abstract notion of truth which will impact people’s lives in very deep ways or is it to the people you’re talking about? These are questions of ethics for the oral historian. But these are also questions that give us lessons, which can be taught in schools. Children in the India of today are extremely exercised about the whole idea of sexual violence and what it means and how violence against women can be understood. Stories from the partition can provide a base to start talking about these issues.'

Resources and Ideas for the Classroom

  • Activity 1: Here is a point of discussion for students:

Why do you think it is difficult to recover the voices of women from partition narratives, and oral histories? Try locating women who have experienced Partition and have a conversation with them. Alternately you can get access to interviews here: The 1947 Partition ArchiveThe Citizen's Archive of Pakistan Reflect on the following questions/topics:

  1. What are the objects or memories that they hold dear, and which they might have carried with themselves or left back in their homeland?

  2. Try to explore how Partition might have altered their lives.

  3. Compare your observations and findings with that of your other classmates, and attempt to collectively and creatively build a museum-space/audio archive, etc. with these narratives.

Find the full resource here: Partitioning Women in the World of Men: A Study of Qurratulain Hyder's Works

  • Activity 2: The History for Peace module on Reading the 1947 Partition through Poetry presents how poets have reflected on, grappled with, mourned and regretted, as well as recalled their experiences and feelings regarding the Partition. Students can read and discuss in the classroom the literary/fictional representations of Partition.

Find Amrita Pritam's audio of A Call to Waris Shah here: Find Piyush Mishra's song Husna here:

Here are some related teaching–learning resources that may also interest you:

Share your Classroom Practices& Ideas with us!

Partition, as a reality, will always be a crucial part of history and an unforgettable part of the memory of survivors. We feel that it is important for the students of later generations—that has not witnessed Partition first-hand, to learn about the tragic complexities and nuances of it. Moreover, the students require engagement with the topic from a feminist lens in order to comprehend the realities of the gendered 'other' within narratives and discourses that are largely patriarchal/patrilineal. We urge you to use these modules in your classrooms and we look forward to receiving your perspectives, and the insights of your students. Please feel free to share with us alternative ideas about teaching modules, classroom discussions, and formal and informal conversations through which you communicate about caste with your students. As always, we eagerly await your feedback!


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  • March 20, 2023


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