The deadly divide: When female bodies became battlegrounds

During curfew, we knew we had to hide from the mobs; mobs that would rape and kill us

Sana Jamil August 14, 2017
We always dreaded that a Hindu and Sikh mob will burn our home after killing our men and raping our women. PHOTO: LIFE MAGAZINE

KARACHI: “The stories we heard from the other areas were horrifying. Whenever there was a curfew in our neighbourhood, we genuinely feared for our lives. With our eyes glued to the doors, we dreaded the fact that at any moment a Hindu and Sikh mob could break the door down, barge in, kill our men, rape our women or burn our house down,” said 85-year-old Zaibun Nisa who now lives peacefully in Pakistan since 1947.

In 1947, India was divided and Pakistan was born. British colonial administrators had ordered the creation of two countries – one mostly Muslim and one majority Hindu and now it was the time to be a part of the greatest migration in human history.

Nation celebrates 71st Independence Day

Tear constantly roll down Zaibun Nisa's wrinkle-covered face as she tried to narrate the horrific tales entailing a bloodbath, arson, forced conversions, abductions and sexual violence. She was only 15-year-old when it happened.

“It (the curfew) was like a trap. There was little in the way of police to maintain order. Police were either Muslim police officers or Hindu police officers. Muslims officers were busy informing people about possible curfews in their neighbourhoods. Their announcements were warnings that we should flee our homes as soon as possible to prevent the killings. Hindu officers, on the other hand, used to stop people from running away. Their fate was then evident.”

A mass migration followed, marred by violence and ethnic cleansing, as approximately 15 million Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, fearing discrimination, swapped countries in a political upheaval that cost more than a million lives.

During the chaotic transition, trains full of bodies arrived at railway stations in the cities of Lahore and Amritsar, split roughly down the middle at partition on August 14, 1947.

Many survivors of the bloodshed found themselves separated from family on the other side of a hastily drawn-up border. Elders of the families hid their young girls and women at different places at different points in the day and night.

Message to enemy: Our will to fight is unbreakable, says COAS

Regardless of its religious association, the body of women became the main sites during the struggle for independence where communities fought battles to protect their so-called reputation.

From Rampur, Zaibun Nisa continued, “a couple of Muslim families stepped outside their homes one night and took a train that they hoped would safely take them to the newly built Pakistan” leaving behind family, friends and homes.

“Our families always hid the children and women during the migration. Muslim men were chopped as they clashed with the gang of killers,” said Zaibun Nisa.

The 85-year-old said, at that time, saving our identities become our only option to survive. Women were made to dress up in typical Hindu attire in one lane and introduced themselves as a part of the Sikh community at the other.

Indeed, women were the worst hit victims of partition’s brutalities and the independence that Pakistan is celebrating this year for the 70th time. They were killed, raped, cut into pieces and their babies were separated from their wombs. Many never even made it to the other side.

“The train I was travelling in with my parents, stopped at different stations but at every station, the number of passengers was reduced. The last of the compartments were bloodied. They murdered everyone,” said Zaibun Nisa.

The famed writer Saadat Hasan Manto saw the creation of Pakistan as both a personal and a communal tragedy as depicted in his work. The ending of one of his stories, ‘Khol do’ translated, as ‘She is alive’ has the ability to send shivers down your spine with vivid imagery of what the 1947 divide looked like for the ordinary women of the sub-continent.

Solo Turk and Saudi Hawks to participate in PAF's Aug 14 air show

“The doctor glanced at the body lying on the stretcher. He felt the pulse and, pointing at the window, told Sirajuddin, “Open it!” Sakina’s body stirred ever so faintly on the stretcher. With lifeless hands, she slowly undid the knot of her waistband and lowered her shalwar. “She’s alive! My daughter is alive! Old Sirajuddin screamed with unbounded joy. The doctor broke into a cold sweat.”

On that dark night, one of the Muslim families in our compartment found a young girl, my mother had told me in later years, said Zaibun Nisa. "Too young to even tell her name, she looked traumatised. Hindus and Sikhs had killed almost everyone in the last compartments of the train as it stopped at previous stations. Her parents too were probably killed. I do not remember, where and when exactly we landed in Pakistan, but we somehow made it to our new country."

Lalu Khet’s migrant colony (now Liaquatabad) became our new home. We also met the girl who was found on our train there. She was now living with one of the Muslim families (then neighbours of Zaibun Nisa’s family). We learnt that she was named Munni by her new family,” Zaibun Nisa recalled as her eyes gleamed.

“Where she is now, I do not know, but she must be as old as I am today,” she giggled, her eyes lost in grim memories of that life-altering day.

It is estimated that during partition between 75,000 and 100,000 women were kidnapped and raped.

“When I see the Pakistan around me today, I feel bad. I do not know what has gone wrong in our society. We are killing each other; we do not respect each other, let alone women. Is it so easy to forget what we [nation] have gone through? Fight for freedom is never easy. We must wake up. ”

And wake up we must.


Pankaj Sahasrabuddhe | 6 years ago | Reply Riots during Partition cannot be qualified as freedom struggle for Pakistan, it is ignorance to say that.
Replying to X

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

For more information, please see our Comments FAQ