Brandeis professor gives lecture on violence against women in India during Partition

March 8, 2019

Brandeis Professor Harleen Singh (SAS/WMGS) gave a lecture last Friday on India’s Partition in 1947, which resulted in the largest exodus known to human history. The lecture was part of the Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center lecture series.

According to Singh, the assault of women’s bodies during the 1947 partition became a foundation for Indian nationalist identity. It was cemented in the resulting cultural and artistic narratives, a trope of trauma which continues to be employed to this day.

The 1947 partition of India into modern-day Pakistan, India and Bangladesh caused the displacement of an estimated 14 million people, which marks the largest movement of people in recorded history. Close to 80,000 women were abducted, raped, and killed—some by members of the opposing community and some by their own families.

As a result of these accepted perceptions of womanhood, when crossing the border during partition, many families felt they must kill their female members to protect them and their honor from kidnappers. Stories of suicide were also widespread.

“These killings constitute a narrative of the nation, a narrative of honor for the nation,” Singh said.

While India proudly mourned these honorable deaths, fewer narratives in the public literary, historical or feminist sphere have asked what became of women who did not die, according to Singh.

As an example of what abducted women during Partition went through, Singh discussed works that date back as early as Amrita Pritam’s 1950 novel “Pinjur.” The main character, Puro, is abducted and raped by a Muslim man. Her family rejects her after discovering this information, and she reluctantly returns to her abductor and son in Pakistan.

At the end of the novel, when approached by her family and asked to return home, Puro refuses, making the choice to continue her new life in Pakistan, citing that her country did not want her back when she was “dishonored” by being raped, but now wants her back because her dishonor represents a sacrifice for the nation. Singh is currently working on a critical translation of Amrita Pritam’s novel “Pinjar.”

Singh is an associate professor of South Asian literature and women’s studies. She served as Chair of the South Asian Studies Program from 2007 to 2016. The lecture, titled Honorable Deaths and Dishonorable Lives: Women, Violence and India’s Partition in 1947 is a part of her other scholarly work on India and Pakistan.

Singh has published articles on novels from India and Pakistan, on Indian film and reviewed books on Hip-Hop music, sexuality and feminism. Her book “The Rani of Jhansi: Gender, History, and Fable in India” (Cambridge University Press, 2014) interprets the conflicting, mutable images of a historical icon as they change over time in literature, film, history and popular culture.

Her works have been reviewed by The Telegraph, Economic and Political Weekly, The Book Review, BIBLIO and South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies. Her work includes texts in English, Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi and is interdisciplinary at its core.

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