Of Knots and Weaves:
Indian and Pakistani Women Connect Across Borders
Khemkaran- a border village where the partition line drawn in 1947 cuts through the village dividing its inhabitants into the citizens of India and Pakistan. Draped in chunnis, every Thursday till today, women, particularly young girls, from both sides gather together under a tree next to a pir's mazaar. Singing together, sharing news, they gift each other new clothes, leaving behind old ones....a continuing connection. (Shanti's story - a punjabi beggar woman who came over to India in the first kafila, as told to Urvashi Butalia and Sudesh Vaid)
Koitta - a village in Bangladesh. In 1986, South Asian women, including 14 from Pakistan and India, meet for a month long workshop. A celebration of intellectual and creative energy - sharing experiences, discussing the nature of the state, capitalism, patriarchy and the womens movement in each country, singing and dancing, composing new songs, poems - connecting at multiple levels. At the end of the month we tied rakhi on each other, a promise of protection and support.
Huiarou - a small mountain resort town, turned into a site for the Fourth World Conference on Women, 1995. In a corner of the Peace Tent, " Caught in the Crossfire: Women against Militarisation", an exhibition made by Indian women - walking between two poles/walls hung with portraits and testimonies of Kashmiri women, from the valley and the refugee camps in Jammu and Delhi. The testimonies speak of violence, terror, of being caught between the guns of the security forces and the militants. They also speak in anger at the destruction of their lives, the loss of childhood and youth and the indifference of others. At the end of a South Asian peace march, women, including Pakistani and Indians, tie coloured threads onto strings between the walls, threads of solidarity, of hope, threads as wishes, a demand to put a stop to militaristic methods, to look for a democratic solution for peace in the valley and subcontinent. The threads are to be woven into a multicoloured tapestry and taken back to Kashmiri women as an expression of support ....
Three moments in time. The first moment is a continuous one - a special connection between village women which is part of the larger cultural mosaic which links people at a popular level in both countries. The origins of these predate the emergence of nation states and their persistence defies erection of divisive boundaries of nationality or religion. No amount of barbed wire along the Wagah border can barricade the cultural exchanges and links between people who share an essential similarity and whose hearts resonate collectively to the poems of Faiz, Sahir Ludhianvi and Amrita Pritam, the voices of Abida Praveen, Lata Mangeshkar and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan or the mesmerism of dancing feet, the fantasy world of Indian cinema and the addictive drama of Pakistani plays. Spatially divided today, this continued exchange unites the people of India and Pakistan in a special, almost timeless relationship.
The second and third moment is a connection consciously forged by the womens movement in South Asia to overcome the divisiveness and hostitlity between governments in the region. In the ten years between Koitta and Huiarou, numerous such meetings, workshops, training programmes have been held between South Asian women. Women from India or Pakistan have been involved in national workshops in either country. In 1989 a South Asian Feminist Declaration further strengthened the linkage and more and more women and groups have been drawn into the process. In 1995, a number of the participants from the 1986 meeting, gathered again in Dhulikhel, Nepal, and formed a South Asian Women's Peace Bahini to focus on militarisation and violence in civil society in the region.
The hostile relations between India and Pakistan are the most contentious in the region and the dynamics of the links built between Pakistani and Indian women forms a distinctive leitmotif within these interactions. The process of connecting across borders is a political one, a delicate unravelling of inherited prejudices and stereotypes created by war hungry governments and the propaganda machinery - a systematic operation over many years whereby 'permeable identities were forged into bunkered mentalities'. The Koitta workshop in 1986 was my first meeting with women from Pakistan - a meeting that changed many of our lives as deep friendships formed, forged through a common process of understanding. As we enter the 50th year of our existence as separate nation states, I reflect back on the interaction between Pakistani and Indian women and the processes by which we dealt with the historical and psychological knots in the relationship between our countries, weaving from 1986 onwards a new tapestry of peace.
We always began the meetings with sharing our personal lives. In talking about our families and ourselves, the gates of nostalgia opened...grandmothers stories - stories our fathers and mothers still tell - walking on the Mall in Lahore, the havelis...my mother still keeps a boxful of mitti from Lucknow under her bed ....clamps on tablecloths to keep them from flying off in the strong sea breeze when we lived in Karachi - today it is full of high rise buildings - hardly a breeze......Chandni Chowk ... tongas from the Delhi railway station.... is the Oriental Fruit Mart still there?
Nostalgia and the sharing of memories are essential moments in meetings between Indians and Pakistanis - an amalgam of childhood memories, pain, regret and a sense of loss. Even if it is mainly northerners and some from the Deccan, these should not be belittled. The images of the enemy Other constructed to provide a rationale for keeping alive divisions, mutual suspicion and hatred, and designed to further militaristic and domestic control state policies are difficult to disassemble. As they slowly began to recede, we moved to the next stage.This however, was more difficult as we began to question why and how - what led to partition, was it inevitable? We began the process of interogating history with new questions - not just 1947 but also 1971- a process which assualted hitherto assumed identities, unquestioned allegiances to state discourses of national honour, of heros and victims. It was not easy for many of us to accept for instance, that India's role in the creation of Bangladesh was not simply one of saviour against a rapacious Pakistani army but dictated by its own geopolitical interests. Or for the Pakistanis to accept that West Pakistan had a racist, colonial extractive relationship with the east. It took time to acknowledge that in fact the Bangladesh movement was an autonomous expression of bengali and secular nationalism.
The process of unearthing personal experiences of partition, breaking through the shroud of silence over the experiences of abducted and raped women in 1947 still continues as Indian and Pakistani feminists research and rewrite the history of the creation of two nations. As one of them wrote in 1994 "....we were acutely conscious that we were also the subjects of our study and that in unravelling the many threads that clothed our view as Pakistanis (add Indians), of Partition and of Pakistan (add India), that we were unravelling ourselves".
Slowly the images of the 'Other' constructed by our governments and media began to dissolve - India was not just poverty stricken, not every Indian was a fanatic hindu persecuting all muslims, there were groups in India which had spoken out on state repression and violence in Kashmir .... Pakistani women were not all enclosed within chador and chardiwars, there was an active women's movement Womens Action Forum but also Sindhiani Tehrik, a strong mass based peasant womens movement, both had confronted the military dictatorship, feudal explotation as well as Zia's Islamisation policies, there were even women trade union leaders heading the Karachi Shipyard and Engineering Works Union and the Steel Mill Union...
It was only after confronting our national identities and dealing, albeit partially, with the shibboleths of the past, a past which still inhabits our present, that we could move to our other identity and location as women. Sharing at this level bought out sharply the commonalities in our situations as women in a patriarchal society. As we listened to each other's lifestories, there were many instances when, struck by the cultural similarity, one of us would say " if the names and places were replaced, the same story could be my own".
The most striking was the similarity in the experience of violence in the family and in society. The statistics are revealingly alike. If we look just at the tip of the iceberg - reported cases of rape - in 1994 the frequency of rape was one women/child raped every three hours in Pakistan, while every 47 minutes a woman is raped in India. In 1994 there were 151 cases of extreme domestic violence resulting in death or disability, 92 cases of public humiliation in Pakistan while in India, a woman is kidnapped/abducted every 44 minutes, and 17 women are killed for dowry every day.(from The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, 1994 and Crime Records Bureau, Home Ministry, Government of India 1994 ) Our countries also have the distinction of being two, of the few in the world where more women die due to the discrimination in access to food, and health care as reflected in the sex ratio - 92 women/100 men in India and 91 women/100 men in Pakistan in 1991.
So whether it is stove bursts/ dowry deaths, public humiliation through naked parades and gang rapes of women to reassert upper caste/landord authority in rural areas, or equal access to jobs, wages, political participation and economic autonomy, Indian and Pakistani women are subject to similar structures of patriarchal control within their families and communities.
The greatest threat to women in both countries is from religious fundamentalist forces and the power they exercise over the state. In Pakistan, anti -woman legislation such as the Hudood Ordinances, the Law of Evidence and the law on Qisas and Diyat, passed as part of President Zia's Islamisation program, are maintained till today. These laws equate rape with adultery, make the victim into the accused, reduce a women's testimony to half that of a man and makes it virtually impossible to prove the crime of rape. The communal judgement in the Shah Bano case and the passing of the Muslim Women's (Protection) to Rights of Divorce Bill which took away citizenship rights from muslim women, the blatantly communal statements in recent judgements of the Supreme Court on cases of bigamy and triple talaq, and of course the complicity and silence around December 6th and the Bombay riots, leaves little doubt about the government's secular credentials.
There are significant differences - in Pakistan, fundamentalist groups such as Jammat- e-Islami have never got more than 3% of the vote while in India the hindu fundamentalist party BJP has got 30% of the popular vote in the last elections. Fundamentalists in Pakistan call for a restriction of women in chador and chardiwari and a return to archaic 16th C customs while the BJP uses the rhetoric of liberalism, of a "gender just uniform civil code'. Yet Sushma Swaraj's strictures on a dress code for women television announcers, the nature of the Shiv Sena women's wings campaign against 'pornography' and bar workers is a sign of times to come. In both countries it is fanatic fascists who are taking on the mantle of being guardians of public and private morality. There is a common basis for joint strategies on legal rights, a Charter of Womens Rights based on the principles of the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, as well as broad based campaigns for women to be recognised as independent citizens.
New areas of commonality are emerging as both counteries are subjected to IMF dictated patterns of globalisation and liberalisation. Whether it is in relation to spiralling prices, cuts in social sector spending and reduction in job security or the creation of new jobs for young, unmarried women in export industries, the effects of these on women as workers, household managers, consumers and citizens are the same in both countries.
A crucial issue in South Asian feminist interactions has been the increasing militarisation of our societies. Making a link between excessive defence spending, lack of democracy and underdevelopment, the South Asian Feminist Declaration 1989 highlights the threat of a nuclear holocaust in the region. It also points out the ways by which militarisation of daily life - war toys, daily violence on television and in films have created a militarised culture which makes brutalised relationships a 'normal' way of life.
The links built between women from both countries has also led to joint interventions in the broader peace movement and the forums of other peace initiatives. In the Lahore Convention of the Pakistan-India People's Forum for Peace and Democracy in November 1995, we formulated a resolution which urged -
"the governments and civil societies of Pakistan and India to undertake measures to counter adverse effects of foreign and domestic policies of militaristic nature on the daily life of citizens, reflected in the growth of a culture of violence, hatred and guns, an aggressive and communalised nationalism, a distorted model of masculinity and an increasing sense of insecurity for citizens of the two countries."
Bringing a feminist perspective into the discussions on militarisation is not without opposition. Before the resolution was presented to the plenary, we heard sniggers from some members of the forum at the link made between sexism and war, making us realise, yet again, that the struggle to change mind sets has to continue even within the peace movements. Anticipating a rejection of the resolution on' technical' grounds, we added more concrete suggestions to the resolution demanding that,
"a. the governments of India and Pakistan should dismantle and refrain from installing weapons of war as national monuments. b. wasteful expenditure on military parades and exhibitions of military hardware be stopped and c. a citizens monitoring group be set up to monitor hate producing and sexist images of war and military prowess in the media."
The resolution was passed unanimously and it is significant that the Urdu newspapers highlighted the first demand.
From common issues to joint strategies, from nostalgia to concrete action, over the last ten years a number of collaborative projects have emerged from the interactions between Indian and Pakistani feminists. Along with the recognition of commonalities, there is also recognition of differences. At one level are differences in strategies and political analysis such as the debate on reform within personal laws vs. a common secular code to ensure women's rights, but these are differences amongst feminists within each country rather than between Indian or Pakistani women. At another level there is a maturing of perceptions and a respect for differences that arise from the specificites of each country as well as an acceptance of the existence of each others historically formed identities.
Most of us engaged in building these connections come from the immediate post partition generation and have carried the mixed emotions and memories of partition, articulated by an older generation that experienced the division in 1947. The second generation has grown up in a political and cultural context of fortified national borders and two wars. They have been taught and believe that India or Pakistan is our primary enemy, that our borders are constantly threatened by an Islamic terrorist state or a Hindu, expansionist state which has never accepted the existence of Pakistan. They would therefore find it perfectly reasonable that we should spend money on accquiring the most sophisticated weapons, including the bomb, for our security. The significance of the connections built across borders by different sections of people with specific issues and interests, lies not only in countering the disinformation, transfering history, memory, but in showing the younger generation that it is possible to build friendships and that Indians and Pakistanis have similar situations and common interests in working together for peace and democracy in the region.
I watch my three year old son grow - born in Holland, Indian nationality, Pakistani father, Indian mother, Sikh grandfather, Muslim grandmother - not an unusual combination in the subcontinent. .. and yet I cannot help the fear that sometimes rises - during a cricket match - riot, or worse if there is war? The fear goes as I know that he is growing up with the love and affection of people from both countries, without an image of one as the "enemy other". As the number of people involved in peace initiatives expand, the possibility of a different world for him increases.
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