Militarisation, Nation and Gender:

Women's Bodies as Arenas of Violent Conflict


Rubina Saigol


Recent feminist theories of nationalism have pointed out that the Qaum (nation) is essentially feminine in construction. The nation is narrated on the body of women who become an emotionally-laden symbol of the nation, self, the inner, spiritual world and home. One's motherland or maadar-e-watan, as it comes to be called, becomes invested with the kind of erotic attraction felt towards women, especially in the figure of the mother. The country comes to be appropriated, represented and contained within words which have strong romantic, erotic as well as maternal connotations. The desire for this land/woman/dharti is constructed as masculine desire; the desire to possess it, see it, admire it, love it, protect it and die fighting for it against rivals.


Since the desire for women gets transferred on to the nation and women's bodies come to signify the nation, communal, regional, national and international conflicts come to be played out on women's bodies. These bodies thus become arenas of violent struggle. Women are humiliated, tortured, brutally raped, and murdered as part of the process by which the sense of being a nation is created and reinforced.


The first part of this paper will examine the ways in which gender ideology lies at the heart of the production of nationalist and militarist thought in Pakistan. The second part will look at how women's bodies were used during Partition as part of a national battle to create Pakistan and India.

Militarisation and the Erotics of Nationalism

Pakistan complicates and enriches a more general understanding of the gendered construction of the nation. Pakistan as an idea was imagined in opposition to Hindu/India within the parameters of the two-nation theory. There are constant attempts at the level of popular and official discourse to assert Pakistan's and Islam's difference from India and Hindus; in fact these two are often represented as the exact opposite of each other.

When self-definition depends so desperately on real or imagined difference, this difference has to be asserted aggressively, consistently and violently. Most States maintain large standing armies for the purpose of protecting and maintaining the boundaries of the Self against encroachment, conquest, invasion and intrusion by the 'enemy'. These armies are provided with the latest weapons of mass destruction to enable them to enforce internal cohesion and integration, while sealing off the borders against the threatening and polluting outsiders. Militarisation thus becomes the foremost imperative of the nation-state, frequently its number one priority even at the expense of the welfare and happiness of its citizenry which it claims to protect.


The concept of militarisation is being used here not merely to denote a large, standing army equipped with the latest nuclear and conventional weapons. Militarisation, in a wider and more comprehensive sense, entails the effects of militaristic thinking on an entire society. This happens when the whole society becomes so permeated by violent imagery, thought, emotion, cognition and imagining, that it becomes inconceivable to solve any conflict without resorting to the force of arms. All institutions of society become saturated with violence and ideas of combat, battle, fighting, blood, martyrdom, victory, defeat, heroes and traitors become a part of everyday life even in civilian matters. In such cases, even the language of the military is borrowed and internalised by the civilian institutions, for example, words such as 'strategy', 'plan of action', 'targets' have become part of common usage in the departments of population, education and social welfare. Violence becomes so much a part of everyday consciousness that its brutal effects, its painful consequences and its tragic outcomes are obliterated.

The nation-state, as a form of legitimised violence, inscribes itself on the mind at both the conscious and unconscious levels. This is done through imagery which has immense evocative power through its associations with other objects which are invested with desire. The desire for objects of love is displaced on to the nation-state which becomes a highly erotic entity. It becomes the object of desire, the subject of poetry and song and it comes to be eulogised in the mass media, textbooks and public monuments.


A complex and intricate relationship develops between the predominance of military values, love and desire for the nation-state and gender ideology. This relation is articulated through the construction of the nation state as mother. As Saba Khattak writes "The nation state is portrayed as the mother which needs protection against the outside enemy. This appeals... to a male macho psyche that is called for defence and survival." As an example of the 'protector' and 'protected', she quotes Sardar Assef Ali, the former foreign minister, as having said that "to us the nuclear programme is similar to the honour of our mothers and sisters, and we are committed to defending it at all cost."


This kind of imagery is clearly evident in our nationalistic songs, poetry, taranas, milli naghmas, television plays and popular films. A song from the old movie Aag Ka Darya, (River of Fire), which became very popular, goes: Ay Watan hum hain teri shama key parwanon mein (Oh, Country you are the candle around which we, your lovers, hover). Shama (candle) and parwana (the lover) are commonplace images used generously in Urdu poetry to denote the beloved and the lover who yearns for her and burns in the pain of her love. In the song, the country becomes the beloved, therefore feminine, and the lover represents male desire. It reflects the displacement of private passion on to the public sphere of the nation.


There is ample evidence of the appropriating and desirous male gaze in other nationalist songs. One of the oldest comes from the national poet, Allama Iqbal, who wrote:

Saaray Jehan say Acha, Hindustan Hamara

Hum bulbulain hain is ki, yeh gulsitan hamara


Hindustan is better than the entire world

We are its nightingales and the land is our garden


Similar feelings are echoed later in a famous song: Chaand meri zamin, phool mera watan (My land is the moon, My country is a flower). These songs are extremely well-known and popular. They are often sung in schools and are printed in school textbooks next to pictures of war heroes, guns, tanks, fighter jets and submarines. In all three examples above, the country/land is compared to something considered beautiful in local folklore and national imagery. In the first case, the land/beloved is a candle/light around whom the burning lover hovers; in the second case the land is a garden and the lovers are bulbuls who sing love songs for the beloved; and in the third case the land is compared with the moon (usually considered beautiful) and the country with a flower, another symbol of beauty and romance.


The use of such romantic metaphors for the country is widespread in nationalistic poetry. Massive amounts of passion is displaced on to the land which is invested with images normally used for women and hardly ever used to describe men. The subject of desire is male and the gaze is also that of a male looking upon a beloved. The active/passive relation is easily discernible in the above poems as the candle is passive and it is the masculine parwana who hovers around her, the garden is passive and the active bulbul sings to it.


The connection of woman with inanimate objects, whether the moon, land, or candle is also common in our society as is obvious in the common saying that most troubles are caused by zan, zar and zamin, that is, woman, money and land. Here two inanimate objects are placed side by side with woman, a living being whose connection with land is once again asserted. The important thing to remember is that all three are commodities which males desire and exchange among themselves in the form of transactions and alliances.


The imagery of nation-as-mother and motherland evokes even more passionate responses. Nalini Natarajan argues that the image of the mother is used because it "suggests common mythic origins. Like the land (which gives shelter and 'bears'), she is eternal, patient, essential." There seems to be a primordial sense of connection between land (dharti) and mother; both are perceived as being in need of protection; both are loved and admired; both are respected; there a willingness to die for the honour of each. The irony is that while the trope of mother-as-nation is so powerful in nationalist thought, actual mothers and women are unequal, lesser citizens with less rights in the nation-state's structure of power. The discriminatory laws about women in Pakistan bear ample testimony to that.


Nevertheless, the symbolic appropriation of woman as mother into the nation-state carries immense emotional investment. Women's primary entry point into the nation-state is as mothers, as producers of strong, brave sons ready to fight to death for the sacred land. It has been argued that "family play[s] such a central role in the nation's public imaginings that motherhood could be viewed as a national service." The idea of motherhood as a national service is explicitly present in Pakistan's educational policies in which the stated aim of female education is to produce good, moral motherhood for the benefit of the family, nation and State.


The fact that the symbolism of motherhood is intensely emotionally evocative can be gauged from the reaction to the US State Attorney's mindless and foolish remark regarding how easily Pakistanis would sell their mothers. It is a well-known fact that women are exchanged, bought and sold in some form or another in all societies, including American society. The remark was thoughtless and insensitive, but the reaction reveals the intensely threatened self which relies on moral motherhood to reproduce a nation of valiant sons. As Syed Talat Hussain observed:


Mothers are the hub of most family activity and even when they do not enjoy financial freedom and when they are confined to their homes, they enjoy incredible power and clout over the whole family. They run this basic unit of the society and command a position on the scale of honour that cannot be compared with any other relationship...Pakistanis do take their mothers very seriously.


In the quotation above, Hussain recognises the confinement and lack of financial power Pakistani suffer but refers to their clout in the family. The family is the basic unit of society, as well as the pillar of the State, and it is within the family that the nation can reproduce itself, its sons and future mothers. It is the family, therefore, that exercises the greatest control over female sexuality in the name of the purity of the nation. Women's sexuality can find legitimate expression only in national service through the family; it is otherwise denied, controlled and hidden behind the chadar and chardivari, the personalised boundaries placed around the woman, equivalent to the boundaries, frontiers, and borders of the state, all of which are under the protection of the son/mujahid or other male member.


The figure of the mother appears in nationalistic poetry and war songs as the bearer of brave sons, the sacrificing brave mother who suffers in silence, the proud mother who bore the shaheed and who salutes him. Women in war songs praise male valour and the fact that the lover, or husband, or son, is a soldier. They praise his war exploits, urge him on and promise eternal love in life or in death. The following song was extremely popular during the 1965 war with India and brought tears to the eyes of all who heard it. In this song, the mother of a soldier who has just been killed in battle, is the speaker

Ik Jinay Jamia si, o teri maan ay

dooji teri maan ay, zameen jida naan ay

lay ke meray kolon onay tenu godi pa lia

sadqay main jawan teray, maan kehn walia


hoyon tu shaheed, khat aya teray naan da

puchday nay lok lal si o keri maan da

rab di janab wich sir main jhuka lia

sadqay main jawan teray, maan kehn walia


teray jeaan putran da des Pakistan ay

meray jiaan maanwaan noon jinan utay maan ay

sadqay main jawan teray, maan kehn walia


The one who gave you birth is your mother

The land is also your mother

it has taken you from my loving embrace

and placed you in her own lap

May you have my life, Oh you who calls me Mother


When you were killed in battle

the news came in a letter

the people asked 'who is the proud mother of this soldier'

I bowed my head in obedience to God's will

May you have my life, Oh you who calls me Mother


Pakistan is the land of sons like you

of whom mothers like me are proud

May you have my life, Oh you who calls me Mother


Here the various elements of nationalism are all woven together; the sacrificing but proud mother, the connection between the mother's lap and the land/grave, the soldier as the son of the soil who was killed defending the honour of the motherland. Another extremely popular song during the 1965 war had the following words:

Ay rah-e-haq kay shaheedo, wafa ki tasweero

watan ki betian, maaien salaam kehti hain


Oh, martyrs in the path of righteousness

pictures of faith

the daughters and mothers of the land salute you


The women of the nation are cast as those who praise, applaud and eulogise the young males who fight in battle. The glory, the greatness and the eternal life belongs to the men; the women are in the background urging, encouraging, praising and supporting. An essentially passive role is carved out for them to participate vicariously in the masculine exploits of war. Giving birth to such sons, or having such brave men as lovers is the greatest honour that a woman can receive. In a lighter vein, the lover/fighter is praised for his position in the army by a doting beloved who sings: Mera mahi chail chabeela, hai ni karnail ni, jernail ni (My lively lover is a colonel, a general). Songs like this one became so popular during the war of 1965 that the singer Noor Jehan, who sang these at the front to entertain the jawaans, herself became a kind of icon of the eulogising, doting, loving woman/mother.


Nationalistic poetry and songs, which connect the whole enterprise with the honour of mothers/sisters and one's inner sanctum, enable the gory reality of war to be forgotten. The glory attached to martyrdom and bravery in battle, the playfulness in the song above, all mask the sordid reality of war - the mangled and charred bodies, the brutalisation, the violence, the excruciating pain, the needless wastage of precious life, the human degradation and misery, all for state expansion and economic gain. When religion is added on to the protection of state and nation, the emotional investment doubles.


In the creation of the war mind-set, it is not only young men who are conditioned to be the defenders of the faith, the motherland and nation; women are similarly conditioned to believe that they need defending by strong male protectors and that, as mothers, they must raise strong sons. Women are taught to be convinced of their own 'inherent weakness' from childhood and it is in opposition to this 'weakness' that male 'strength' is constructed. Hence, as mentioned earlier, gender ideology lies at the heart of the production of nationalist and militaristic thought. This kind of complementary construction of masculinity and femininity enables warlike nationalism to be imbibed by the whole population, which feels empowered by a sense of participation in the State's nationalist triumphs.


Women not only participate in the imagery of violence and war by creating and upholding it, they constitute the bodies on which the narrative of gendered violence is written. War imagery gets divided into masculine and feminine, for example, being defeated is equal to being feminine and winning is equal to being masculine. A very popular song during the 1965 war had the following verse:

Uj Hinduan jang di gal cheri

ukh hoi hairaan hairaanian di

Maharaj, ay khed talwar di ay

jang khed naien hondi zenaniaan di


Today, the Hindus have stirred up war

Surprise itself is surprised

Maharaj, this is a game of the sword

War is not the play of women


In this song not only is war referred to in terms of a game and play which removes attention from its horrors, the clear message is that war is not the play of women. In other words, war is a masculine pursuit, the implication being that it requires strength, valour and bravery which women lack. It is a manly enterprise, and Hindus, who are here equated with women, are too weak to fight.


The feminisation of Hindus is commonplace in Pakistan. It is indicated in common sayings like "the banya is a vegetable eater, he cannot fight". In textbooks, Hindus are frequently presented as weak, timid, non-warlike and effeminate, in contrast to Muslims who are represented as hypermasculine. It has been noted that the "difference between male and female human beings is exaggerated in warlike societies." With Pakistan's massive defence spending, and the preponderance of warlike imagery, it can safely be considered a warlike society.


Pakistani war songs not only reflect this hypermasculinity but exaggerate the imagery of blood, gore, death, weapons and pain. A very popular song during the 1965 war went:

jis rah se Aye ga

us rah pe maarain gay

pani bhi no maangay ga

yoon nasha utarain gay


Whichever direction you come from

we will kill you there

You will not even have the time to ask for a drink of water

So completely will we erase your intoxication with war


The enemy becomes a soldier who is dying in battle and cannot even ask for a drink of water. The humanity of a dying soldier is erased; he is merely the 'enemy' and has no existence as a person. His pain is obliterated, his sorrow a matter of scorn. The whole song is designed to show the immense power and prowess of the Pakistan army which is represented as capable of inflicting exemplary defeat on India. In the process, the army jawaan is also created as heartless and inhuman. Strength is equated with cruelty.


The idea of being unrelenting towards the enemy is emphasised in other songs as well, possibly as a way of keeping up the spirits of the jawaans. Another very popular song, also from the 1965 war days, is the following:

Rakh jigra tey ho ja hun tagra

mit jaye kufr da jhagra

bala ji hun thar ragra

deyo ragra aena noon deyo ragra

Don't lose heart and become strong

The infidels must be eliminated

give them a severe bashing

give them a bashing, give them a bashing


The conflict is presented as that between Islam and kufr, which is not unusual. National war is couched in religious terms in order to increase emotional investment in it and exploit people's religious feelings. The aggressive impulses within human beings, meant for survival purposes, are here harnessed to the national cause in which manhood can be proved by a repeated bashing of the enemy.


In Pakistan, children have always been indoctrinated in the discourse of war, bloodshed, fighting and manhood. In a song which emerged early on after Partition:


Aao bacho sair karain tum ko Pakistan ki

Jis ki khatir hum ne di qurbani lakhon jan ki

Yeh dekho yeh Sindh jehan zalim Dahir ka tola tha

yehin Muhammad Bin Qasim Allah-o-Akbar bola tha

tuti hui talwaron mein kya bijli thi kya shola tha

ginti ke kuch ghazi thay lakhon ka lashkar tola tha


Come children, we will take you on a journey around Pakistan

the country for which we sacrificed millions of lives


See, this is Sindh where the cruel Dahir had a band of men

this is where Muhammad Bin Qasim pronounced Allah-o-Akbar

there was lightening and fire in their broken swords

there were only a handful of ghazis and millions of the enemy


By associating victory, power, glory and fire with a hero and in turn associating the hero with religion, children, who all grow up listening to this song, are infused with the desire to become like the historically reconstructed heroes. The same message of martyrdom, war, death and fighting turns up in virtually every history and social science textbook. Aggressive impulses are directed towards a real or imagined enemy, within and without, so that legitimacy can be provided for organised state violence.


As the song moves around the newly independent state of Pakistan it comes to Bengal. Praise is lavished on the beauty of the province, on its jute as a golden fibre and its ability to withstand floods and cyclones. The last line is: yehan ka bacha bacha upni qaum pe marne wala hai (Every child of this land is willing to die for the nation). This is highly ironic given that in 1971 many Bengalis did die for the nation, but the nation was not Pakistan; it was Bangladesh. They died fighting against Pakistan.


The nation is a fictional construct and at any moment in time, its boundaries can shift re-determining who is excluded and who is included. In 1947 East Bengal was part of the nation, a part much derided by Ayub Khan and other West Pakistani leaders. In 1971, Bengalis became outsiders, enemies of the nation. This shows how the homogenising process of the nation-state is replete with violence and how tentative the identity of any nation-state is; nevertheless, people are expected to lay down their lives for this precarious and contested entity.


In the last part of the same song, the masculinity and strength of the men of the Frontier Province is established.

yeh ilaqa sarhad ka hai, sub ki nirali shaan yehan

bandooqon ke saye me bachay hotain hain jawaan yehan

thokar main zalzalay yehan hain muthi main toofan yehan

sar pe kafan baandhay phirta hai dekho har aik Pathan yehan

Qaum kahe to abhi laga dain bazi yeh sab jaan ki


This is the Frontier region, everyone has a unique glory

children grow up in the shadow of the gun

it has withstood many Earthquakes and Storms

every Pathan wears a kafan on his head at all times

If the nation desires, they are all willing to die


Children are told here of how Pathans grow up in the shadow of a gun and are ever ready to die for the nation. The emphasis on the word jawaan repeatedly does not simply mean youth, but virility, power, strength and valour.


A recent incident shows how pervasive the evocative power of battle, conquest and glory, and masculinity have become. The Wills World Cup Cricket Championship in 1996 was described almost entirely in terms of war. The cricket grounds were referred to as a battlefield, the cricketers as warriors, coke bottles as missiles and winning and losing became a matter of life and death. In this kind of cricket nationalism, gender imagery was once again employed; the defeated Pakistani team was sent a set of bangles signifying that losing to arch-enemy, India, meant they must be feminine. Similarly, Wasim Akram was accused of losing the 'battle' against India because he wears an earring.


The concern about maintaining gender identities is evident in a news item entitled 'No long hair for Sahiwal boys', which reported that the District Administration in Sahiwal had decided to launch a campaign against young men with long hair and earrings. The City Magistrate started a campaign in which he took barbers with him to give haircuts to any offending boys and remove their earrings on the spot. This is a telling example of the State's nationalist anxiety manifesting itself in the possible loss of masculinity -- if we don't have 'masculine' men, our nation will be weakened.


It is through a consistent reinforcement of the imagery of power, masculinity, strength, blood, death and war, that a masculine and powerful nation is evoked. Along with the imagery of strong and brave men, a concomitant imagery of weak women/mothers in need of protection, is maintained. In order to buttress this imagery further, a permanent sense of threat and impending doom is maintained by means of the myth that India wants to devour Pakistan as it never accepted its existence.


Women's Bodies as Arenas of Violent Struggle

An important part of nationalism in S. Asia has been the way women and their sexuality are treated as the symbol of culture, tradition and home. In a situation of national conflict this leads to the women of the enemy being forced into a similar symbolic role. This is why while violence during communal, ethnic and international conflicts is directed against everyone, women are violated in a sexually-specific way, that is, they are raped. Not only are they raped, their bodies are marked in particular ways that are meant as reminders of their being women, the honour of the community/nation.


The use of women in this way marked the moment of independence for India and Pakistan. The most horrifying tales of torture and insane violence during the Partition of 1947 have been recorded by writers like Saadat Hasan Manto in stories like Thanda Gosht (Frozen Flesh) and Siyah Hashiyeh (Black Frames). Similarly, Krishan Chandar in his story Ghaddar (Traitor), recorded the specific kinds of sexual violence against women of opposing communities. There are terrible instances of this in the more recent history of Pakistan. According to one estimate, the Pakistan army raped two hundred thousand women during the army action in East Pakistan in 1970.


Writing on the Partition of 1947, Veena Das comments that widespread violence against women of all religious communities was witnessed with more than hundred thousand women having been abducted from each of the two parts of Punjab alone. She argues that "the bodies of women became political signs, territories on which the political programmes of the rioting communities of men were inscribed." In her view, the desire to assert collective identity, whether of nation or of community, becomes transformed into "the desire to humiliate the men of other nations and communities through the violent appropriation of 'their' women." Women's own identities are transformed and subsumed in this process of state-formation and nation-building.


In their analysis of communal sexual violence during the Partition of India, and more recently in Bosnia, Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin find there are three specific features of the crimes against women, namely their brutality, their extreme sexual violence, and their collective nature. The range of explicit sexual violation includes "stripping; parading naked; mutilating and disfiguring; tattooing or branding the breasts and genitalia with triumphal slogans [including the phrases 'Pakistan Zindabad!' and 'Jai Hind!']; amputating breasts; knifing open the womb; raping, of course; killing foetuses." Furthermore, violent sexual crimes were often committed against women of other communities in public places, such as the marketplace, usually in the presence of their male kin.


Given the symbolic role of women, the desecration of women becomes a matter of national shame and cultural/religious dishonour and must be avenged. Menon and Bhasin note that "one rumour guaranteed to provoke communal violence and reprisal during Partition, was that of large-scale raping of a community's women." Thus, just as the nation is narrated on women's bodies, the enemy inscribes its victory on the female body. The ultimate defeat that can be inflicted on the enemy is the pollution of its race through collective rape during war and other forms of conflict. Women's dishonour is the dishonour of the race, the nation and the country. It is the ultimate form of defiling, the defiling of one's mother. It is interesting to note that since so much emotion is evinced through the imagery of the mother, most forms of Punjabi abuse centre around the defiling of the mother, sister or daughter. This is usually considered the ultimate insult to be avenged with physical violence.


Menon and Bhasin quote Stasa Zajovic about ethnic cleansing in Bosnia: "when 'their' women are raped, it is experienced not as, and through, the women's pain, but as a male defeat: they were too feeble to protect their property." Menon and Bhasin conclude that the failure to protect women-as-property reflects on a man's masculinity -- and, by extension, his community's honour. This is one reason why, in communal violence, a whole collectivity is involved.


Women's bodies are treated as territories to be conquered, claimed or marked by the assailant. The fact that so much of communal sexual violence took place in temples or gurudawaras means that it was the simultaneous violation of women and sacred space. As Menon and Bhasin assert, "In the context of Partition, it engraved the permanence of the division of India into India and Pakistan on the women of both religious communities, in the way that they became the respective countries, indelibly imprinted by the Other."


For Menon and Bhasin, then, the marking of the breasts and genitalia made permanent the sexual appropriation of the woman. This enabled the enemies to pollute the "biological national source of the family". In this way, women's reproductive power was appropriated to prevent the undesirable proliferation of the enemy's progeny. Thus, the female body itself could be made to appear as a traitor. Such violence constituted the "profaning of everything that was held to be of sacred and symbolic value to the Other."


It is clear that wherever identity and self are threatened by an Other, an outsider defined as an enemy, women’s bodies become the arena of the most violent forms of conflict. As global conflicts intensify, and males of weak and dependent countries feel threatened by global powers, the notion of women’s bodies as signifiers of nation, home, and honour is likely to increase. This increase can potentially manifest itself as nationalist anxiety and the response is most likely going to be further incarceration of women, greater emphasis on the veil and the chardivari, an enhanced desire to confine women to domestic tasks and motherhood. This is likely to be accompanied by an intensified glorification of motherhood and a more urgent need to protect motherhood against violation and impurity, even while increasing women's participation in the market due to economic imperatives. The double burden is, therefore, likely to increase along with the controls imposed on women's bodies. Women's bodies will not merely be the site of political, national and armed struggles; they will also become the major signifiers in economic struggles and market conflicts.