Women During Partition: Rebuilding Lives

By The 1947 Partition Archive

The 1947 Partition Archive

Education In Pakistan (1947-12) by Margaret Bourke-WhiteLIFE Photo Collection

The Aftermath of Partition: Picking Up The Pieces 

Following the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, large numbers of young girls and women went on to educate themselves and enter the workforce. Many who were already supporting their families before Partition, continued to do so through financially difficult circumstances. 

Hoor Bano PanipatiThe 1947 Partition Archive

Hoor Bano Panipati supported her family financially before and after Partition.

Hoor Bano, today called Hoor Bano Panipati, was born in 1925 at Karnal District in Panipat, Haryana. She matriculated in 1940 and lost her father in the same year. She had earlier lost her brothers and sister to sickness-related deaths. “We lost a lot of our property to our uncles and had become helplessly dependent on them in the absence of my father and brothers. I decided to get a job to support my family in any way I could,” she says. Ms. Bano got a teaching job at a school in Amritsar. During Partition, she was with her family in Karnal for summer holidays when they decided to migrate.

Mass Migration, India (1947) by Margaret Bourke-WhiteLIFE Photo Collection

“My grandmother was extremely ill. She could barely stand, let alone walk. We somehow managed to arrange a charpoy from a nearby village to carry her with us," Ms. Bano recounts. Her ailing grandmother passed away on the second day of their journey. Ms. Bano and the rest of her family were picked up by military trucks that took them to the refugee camp at Walton cantonment in Lahore.

Hoor Bano PanipatiThe 1947 Partition Archive

Ms. Bano resumed teaching in 1948 and joined the Nusrat Girls High School at Rabwah where she taught Urdu and Islamiat for six years. She also wrote columns for Mashriq Daily, a Peshawar-based Urdu newspaper, and several other notable Urdu publications.

Ms. Bano took on the responsibility of bringing up her children after her husband Syed Mubarak Ali passed away in 1963. She also took charge of her husband’s institution, Victory College. She taught at Victory College/Kinnaird High School for Girls for several decades and retired in 1992.

KrishnavantiThe 1947 Partition Archive

Mrs. Krishnavanti supported her family after Partition by selling necklaces.

She spent her early childhood in Gujranwala in Punjab, Pakistan. Around the time of Partition, tension grew in her neighborhood and her neighbor was killed. Mrs. Krishnavanti's family locked themselves up inside the house. When looters broke in, Mrs. Krishnavanti's grandmother gave them all of their gold and jewelry except for what she kept hidden in her clothes. After the looters left, Mrs. Krishnavanti and the others ran out of the house.

Mass Migration, India (1947) by Margaret Bourke-WhiteLIFE Photo Collection

Mrs. Krishnavanti's family luckily found a military truck on the street, which took them to a refugee camp in Amritsar. They then migrated to Delhi. The gold they had hidden under their clothes became their main source of income for many months to come.

When Mrs. Krishnavanti’s mother lost her mental balance, her grandmother took over leadership of the family. Mrs. Krishnavanti was educated through grade eight in Delhi. She wanted to continue, but the family had little money. She supported her family by selling necklaces she made herself.

Dr. Khalida Ghousia AkhtarThe 1947 Partition Archive

Dr. Khalida Ghousia Akhtar became a doctor and opened her own clinic after Partition.

She was living with her family in Batote in Jammu and Kashmir when Partition was announced. A few weeks before Partition, several members of her extended family decided to migrate. However, their convoy was attacked en route and one of Dr. Akhtar's cousins was abducted. After eight years, Dr. Akhtar's uncle managed to track his daughter down, but by that time, she was living in an Indian village and had three children of her own. She no longer wanted to return to her family.

Dr. Khalida Ghousia AkhtarThe 1947 Partition Archive

To escape the increasing violence in their region, Dr. Akhtar's family too decided to migrate to Pakistan. The family first reached Ranbeer Singh Pura, located a few miles away from the border. They learned that the best time to cross the border undetected was between 10 AM and 2 PM. During those hours, the entire family ran to cross the border. Dr. Akhtar remembers that all the women were crying, and her father and uncle were telling them to save their tears for later and to just run. Dr. Akhtar carried her one-year-old sister as she ran. Along the way, they drank dirty pond water to survive.

Dr. Khalida Ghousia Akhtar with her brother and daughterThe 1947 Partition Archive

Her family eventually settled in Sargodha in Pakistan, where they were given a villa in exchange for their lost property and homes.

Dr. Akhtar went on to complete medical school, with an emphasis in gynecology and surgery. She opened her own clinic in Karachi and mentions that she was the first female doctor in a ten-mile radius in that region.

Bengal India (1946-09) by Margaret Bourke-WhiteLIFE Photo Collection

Volunteers and Activists

A large number of women came forward to help people who had been displaced by Partition. They volunteered in hospitals and refugee camps. Many of them worked with abducted women. 

Amina KidwaiThe 1947 Partition Archive

Amina Kidwai's aunt Anis Kidwai worked in refugee camps and helped rehabilitate women during Partition.

After losing her mother at the age of ten, Amina Kidwai was brought up by her paternal aunt Begum Anis Kidwai and her husband Shafi Ahmad Kidwai, the administrator of Mussouri, Dehradun. As a child, she often visited their house in Mussoorie, which was frequented by many prominent political personalities of the time. When Partition took place in 1947, the family was faced with a great tragedy – the murder of Shafi Ahmad Kidwai.

Amina KidwaiThe 1947 Partition Archive

The tragic murder of Shafi Ahmed prompted his wife Anis Kidwai and their three children, including Amina Kidwai, to move to Delhi to stay with relatives. Anis Kidwai started working with rehabilitating refugees at the Purana Qila refugee camp. This journey is captured in Anis Kidwai’s memoirs, Azaadi ki Chhaon Mein. These memoirs have been translated by Amina Kidwai’s daughter under the title In Freedom’s Shade.

Mass Migration, India (1947-10) by Margaret Bourke-WhiteLIFE Photo Collection

In her memoir, Anis Kidwai describes the Purana Qila refugee camp in Delhi:

"From the hospital, one had a vantage view of the entire camp. As far as the eye could see, tents and tin-roofed shelters were crowded together. In their midst was a ceaseless traffic of naked children, disheveled women, bareheaded girls and men burning in defiance and humiliation."

- Anis Kidwai, In Freedom's Shade

Amina KidwaiThe 1947 Partition Archive

Amina Kidwai recounts seeing the fire rising from Connaught Place in Delhi, rioting mobs, and being house-bound due to the fear of violence in the city. Her father’s house was always full of refugees, each recounting stories of great tragedy.

The stories of the women were the most troubling for her to hear. Through whispered conversations, she heard stories of women who had suffered sexual abuse and that their captors had tattooed symbols and the name of their abductors onto their skin.

Rasheeda HussainThe 1947 Partition Archive

Rasheeda Husain's grandmother mobilized people in her neighborhood to help refugees.

At the time of Partition, Mrs. Husain was living at the hostel in Kinnaird College in Lahore. “We were told to put the lights out early at night due to the riots outside. The girl next to me was sleeping with a knife tied in a belt around her waist. Suddenly I was scared and I was crying in fear thinking, ‘What if she pierces me with that knife in my sleep?’ Remembering this later on, I was so shocked at my natural distrust in that girl,” she says. “Religion had never played a part in our lives but when Partition happened, it suddenly began to."

Rasheeda HussainThe 1947 Partition Archive

Mrs. Husain's family was in Hyderabad in Sindh, Pakistan at the time of Partition. She recalls huge numbers of refugees entering the city. Her grandmother galvanized many families to provide succour to the refugees.

"It was edifying to see her lead them at railway stations carrying stretchers of the sick and ailing,” she remembers. In 2011, Mrs. Husain published a collection of her grandmother's memoirs titled, Footprints in Time: Reminiscences of a Sindhi Matriarch.

Rasheeda HussainThe 1947 Partition Archive

In 1965, Rasheeda Husain became part of the Family Planning Association of Pakistan, where she worked for several years. She has executed several women’s development projects in rural areas of Sindh and is one of the founding directors of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF).

Om Kumari BavejaThe 1947 Partition Archive

Om Kumari Baveja's mother delivered food to people in refugee camps during Partition.

Mrs. Baveja was living in Ludhiana in Punjab when Partition took place. She remembers Ludhiana as a place with diverse communities. She recalls that many families moved away in 1947. It seemed unnecessary to her, she remembers, because she felt that there wasn’t any real distinction between people of different faiths.

Om Kumari Baveja with Story Scholar Sobia SaleemThe 1947 Partition Archive

Mrs. Baveja recalls that there was a large influx of migrants into Ludhiana, many of whom had faced violence in the towns they had come from. Mrs. Baveja’s mother would make food and deliver it to them at the refugee camps where they were staying before they moved into the vacated homes.

Mrs. Baveja’s husband was also a migrant. His family members had disguised themselves to avoid possible harassment before they migrated across the border.

Asif Saleem QureshiThe 1947 Partition Archive

Nearly 300 refugees stayed in Asif Salim Qureshi's house during Partition.

At the time of Partition, Mrs. Qureshi was a student of grade two. She went to school on a horse carriage amidst the riots in Lahore. “There was a lot of violence, looting, and rioting at the Bank Square and a lot of tear gas and firing as well. I remember the tongawala (carriage driver) would change routes every day,” she says.

She says that nearly 300 people took refuge in their house in Lahore. “They slept there for days and there were two doctors looking after them.

Asif Saleem QureshiThe 1947 Partition Archive

Mrs. Qureshi remembers that women became very politically active in Lahore in the weeks after Partition.

“One of the most significant protests was by the women who led procession marches against the burqa and the veil under the leadership of Begum Shah Nawaz. It was a compulsion on the Muslim women to wear the burqa but after a series of processions and protests, gradually, the women in the streets could be seen without a burqa,” she says.

Shanno KhuranaThe 1947 Partition Archive

Forty relatives came from Bannu, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to live with singer Shanno Khurana's family in 1947.

With so many people to provide for, Mrs. Khurana remembers that time as being one of great hardship. Organizing their stay, along with food and other amenities was a challenge. At the height of the riots, some of her family slept outside on the lawn, owing to the lack of space. They kept guns under their pillows. Some relatives stayed with them for a year, until they were able to set up their own homes.

Shanno KhuranaThe 1947 Partition Archive

After Partition, Mrs. Khurana worked to promote female musicians. In 1959, she began studying with Ustad Mushtaq Hussain Khan, who remained her instructor until his passing in 1964. Mrs. Khurana received her PhD in music and musicology and conducted extensive studies on Rajasthani folk music. She was awarded the Padma Shri and the Padma Bhushan awards in 1991 and 2006, respectively.

Munawwar Humayun KhanThe 1947 Partition Archive

Munawar Humayun Khan arranged 40 visas for Partition witnesses in Delhi to visit their hometown of Lahore for the first time.

At the time of Partition, Mrs. Khan was six years old, living in Mardan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. After graduating from Kinnaird College for Women in Lahore, she married Dr. Humayun Khan, a Civil Services of Pakistan Officer, in 1961. Mrs. Khan visited Delhi with her husband in the 1980s during his time as High Commissioner to India. There, she met with 40 Indian women who had graduated from Kinnaird College in 1947. Her husband was able to arrange for visas for the 40 Kinnaird graduates and helped them reunite with their alma mater in Lahore.

Dr. Hameeda Hossain (January 18, 2012)The 1947 Partition Archive

Dr. Hameeda Hossain's grandmother established a hospital and shelter for refugees in Hyderabad, Sindh.

Mass Migration, India (1947) by Margaret Bourke-WhiteLIFE Photo Collection

Closing Commentary by Dr. Urvashi Butalia - Writer, Publisher and Founder of Zubaan Books

Displacement, uprooting, the loss of homes and friends, sometimes the severing of family ties, all these now form the stuff of the stories of Partition. In this overall narrative, the stories that tend to predominate are those of men, and of the three major communities, Hindu, Sikh and Muslim. Little is known about those ‘others’ such as minority communities, transgender people, inmates of mental hospitals, and women. Some 100,000 women lived through terrible sexual violence, abduction and rape – what were their lives like? Where did they go? Did their families even try to search for them? In recent years, women’s narratives of their experiences have begun to surface stories that alert us to the impact of Partition on homes and families, on different professions, in the field of education, or in social work. We’ve learnt too about the differential impact of Partition in terms of class, caste, location, region, religion, gender, minorities and more. Today it is as a result of these newer histories and stories that we know that Partition was not only about the differences between political parties and political leaders, not only about our erstwhile colonial masters, but also about the people - men, women, children, rich, poor, upper caste, lower caste - who lived through it and who carried its legacies forward into their lives and the lives of those who came after them.

Credits: Story

Exhibit Curation
Rohini Ramkrishnan

Material Sourcing and Editing
Elaine Jones

Special Advisor and Contributor
Dr. Urvashi Butalia

Amina Kidwai
Interview conducted by Citizen Historian Senjuti Mukherjee with cameraperson Ankan Kazi.

Asif Saleem Qureshi
Interview conducted by Story Scholar Fakhra Hassan.

Dr. Hameeda Hossain
Interview conducted by Citizen Historian Farhana Afroz.

Hoor Bano Panipati
Interview conducted by Story Scholar Fakhra Hassan.

Dr. Khalida Ghousia Akhtar
Interview conducted by Story Scholar Sobia Saleem with support from California Humanities, a non-profit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Interview conducted by Story Scholar Zain Alam with support from the American India Foundation.

Munawar Humayun Khan
Interview conducted by Story Scholar Fakhra Hassan.

Om Kumari Baveja
Interview conducted by Story Scholar Sobia Saleem with support from California Humanities, a non-profit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Rasheeda Husain
Interview conducted by Story Scholar Fakhra Hassan.

Shanno Khurana
Interview conducted by Story Scholar Manleen Sandhu with support from the American India Foundation.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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