Pippa Virdee is passionate about her subject. She is particularly drawn to non-‘official’ sources. “As a historian,” she writes, “I find fiction, memoirs and autobiographical writing have greatly enhanced our understanding, often filling in the gaps left by ‘official’ history. For me, the personal narratives and the human stories provide an alternative lens through which we can understand the socio-economic changes taking place during this tumultuous time of the partition of India. I am particularly interested in Muslim women and how they responded to the call for Pakistan’s independence - a call that eventually resulted in partition and the creation of Pakistan.” It was through her that Clio learned about Mumtaz Shah Nawaz’s important, though all but forgotten novel, The Heart Divided (1948), which was finally republished in 2004 in India.
The blog text that follows is by Pippa Virdee:
The Partition of India in August 1947 was a pivotal time in the formation of India and Pakistan. In the newly-divided province of Punjab it was responsible for one of the most violent upheavals the twentieth century has ever experienced. Even as independence celebrations were taking place, Punjab (and also Bengal) witnessed scenes of mass genocidal violence, rape and abduction of women and the dislocation of millions, in one of the biggest migrations of the twentieth century. An estimated 15 million people crossed the borders between India and Pakistan. Ordinary people, forced to abandon their ancestral homelands, suffered the most. The death toll associated with the partition violence remains disputed; the figures vary from 200,000 to 2 million.
During the 1940s in British India elite Muslim women had been making genuine progress. At the forefront of this movement were elite women such as Fatima Jinnah (the sister of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, leader of the Muslim League); Begum Ra'ana Liaquat Ali Khan (the wife of Pakistan's first prime minister); Begum Jahanara Shahnawaz ; Shaista Ikramullah (who struggled for the opportunity to get an education and went on to do a PhD at the University of London); and Abida Sultan, a member of Bhopal's royal family who ardently supported the Muslim League. These figures served as early role models for other women to "come out" of purdah, as the system of veiling and seclusion was called, and to participate in the political process. For example, in 1942, Lady Maratab Ali said wrote:
The days have gone when Punjab’s Muslim women were considered fit only for cooking food and minding children. It is now essential for them to take an equal share of responsibility with their menfolk in the field of politics.Writers of fiction were the first to capture the human drama of partition. Writers such as Intizar Husain, Bhisham Sahni, Saadat Hasan Manto, and Amrita Pritam wrote from their own experiences of being dislocated during partition. They were able to capture the nuances and the sensitive subject matter under the guise of fiction.
The Heart Divided by Mumtaz Shah Nawaz (the daughter of Begum Jahanara Shahnawaz , mentioned above) offers a moving fictionalized account that documents the plight of Muslim women before and during the partition. Written in English and set in Lahore in the late 1930s, this writer tells the story of two sisters, Zohra and Sughra, and their family and friendships. It poignantly documents the challenges of modernity and the impact this has on the Muslim community and on politics. The story narrates the division of India and Pakistan, which the author believes had already begun in the 1930s in people’s hearts. It is based on Nawaz’s own life.
In later years Zohra often wondered when the change in her life began. The change that had led her, a young Muslim girl, born and bred behind the purdah, to a life of independence and adventure. It was not easy to define when it began, for the lives of all the girls of her generation had changed so much and they were woven together in such a manner, like many-coloured threads of an intricate pattern, that it is difficult to decide when the change in her particular life began.Mumtaz Shah Nawaz became a socialist, a poet, and a women’s advocate and, until the 1940s when she began to question her allegiance, an idealistic Congress supporter.
The novel charts the story of Zohra and how her split between the Congress and the Muslim League was mirrored in the wider society and in personal life. After the Congress started its ’quit India movement’, Nawaz broke completely with the Congress. She decided that her future lay in organising Muslim women to demand their rights as women and as Muslims. Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who led the Muslim League, encouraged her to organise Muslim women in Delhi, where she was then based. From 1942 until the end of World War Two, she became a prominent member of the separatist movement. She then shifted her attention to Lahore where she helped set up the Women’s Branch of the Muslim League in the Punjab. She also assisted in organising relief work for victims of communal riots after partition and worked to rehabilitate the Muslim refugees coming in from India.
The Heart Divided is ground-breaking in the way that it represents Muslim women. Nawaz weaves together four separate stories connected to Zohra, Each strand represents the dreams and aspirations of a young girls growing up in Lahore. Zohra’s brother, a Muslim, falls in love with her Hindu friend; Zohra’s sister is agonizingly unhappy in her arranged marriage; Zohra’s friend is forcibly married off to a widower, and then Zohra herself falls in love with a man from a lower social strata then her own. Each story narrates the predicament of young Muslim girls with aspirations and minds of their own, who are restricted within the confines of family tradition, with its responsibilities and pressures to conform. Some of the characters manage to change the rules but others succumb to the pressures.
Tragically, the author of The Heart Divided, Mumtaz Shah Nawaz, died in an air crash in 1948 at the age of 35. She was on her way to the US to represent Pakistan at a session of the United Nations concerning Kashmir. Her novel was published posthumously.
Had Nawaz survived to see how Pakistan developed, she would undoubtedly have been disappointed with the lack of progress for women’s rights. During her lifetime, the movement for women to come out of purdah paralleled the Muslim separatist movement. Emancipating women seemed necessary to progressive Muslims, to demonstrate modernity and responsibility and to show that self-rule could be granted.
Yet, after partition this campaign fell by the wayside. In the second half of the twentieth century there was a gradual, almost reactionary shift toward the re-introduction of ‘modest’ dress, to symbolically demonstrate the shift from colonial to self-rule by developing a national Islamic identity. The Heart Divided evokes the split between the various futures envisaged by the character Zohra. This theme resonates in today’s Pakistan just as much as it did when the novel was originally published in 1948.
Sources: Shah Nawaz Khan, The Heart Divided (India: Penguin, reprinted 2004); Khawar Muntaz and Farida Shaheed (eds.), Women of Pakistan (London: Zed Books, 1987); Alok Bhalla, Partition Dialogues: Memories of a Lost Home, India (Oxford University Press, 2006).