At the time of the Partition when there was bloodshed in the name of homeland, nation, and religion, not all people were arsonists. Among them were those from different religions, creeds, and classes, who extinguished the fires of violence and hatred. However, after independence, historians conveniently ignored the good works of individuals of other religions, as well as the sacrifices of minorities once Pakistan, a nation for minorities, came into being.
The Partition of the sub-continent into two separate states — Pakistan and India — led to a large displacement of people in both countries. Across the Indian subcontinent, communities that had coexisted for almost a millennium attacked each other in a terrifying outbreak of sectarian violence, with Hindus and Sikhs on one side and Muslims on the other, a mutual slaughter as unexpected as it was unprecedented.
Muslims drove Hindus out of their homes and seized their properties, while the same was being done to Muslims in India. Their shops and homes were robbed and children were kidnapped. The families were scattered. Women were sexually abused and burned alive on both sides. Men were killed in a similarly brutal manner. Mobs attacked migrant caravans and the bloodshed of innocent people painted the borders.
It was a time when the Christian community went above and beyond to help those suffering. The Christian community was small but educated and held key positions in the army, civil service, banks, police, telegraph, medical, postal, and press departments. They stayed in Pakistan and served their duties with peace and loyalty.
The Christian women, in particular, risked their lives and sacrificed their comfort to serve the people and children in need regardless of their religion or creed. These females belonging to different fields, including education, nursing, missionaries, etc contributed wholeheartedly to the protection and wellbeing of innocent lives.
“There are several unsung women heroes who stand as an example for their services to humanity, despite the discrimination they face as both a woman and members of vulnerable religious minorities.”
Catholic Archbishop Lawrence J Saldanha recollects the services of the Christian community. He goes on to mention the meritorious services of Christians in the field of nursing, education, and social projects since 1947. He particularly cites the case of the Franciscan Sisters of Mary, who were serving in a hospital in Kashmir’s Baramula and provided shelter to 880 people, both Hindu and Muslims during pre-Partition riots.
He also states how the Sisters of Charity took care of the Sikh girls who were saved from the violent rioters by Father Fidentian Vanden. They not only educated the girls but brought them up with compassion and later were happily married. Similarly, Christian women continue to promote humanitarianism over religion and their struggles and outcomes are oriented on humanitarian grounds.
A few known ones include Dr Ruth Pfau, a German missionary who dedicated her life to taking care of leprosy patients in Pakistan. Similarly, Catherine Nicol, a Scottish missionary and educationist who dedicated more than 40 years of her life to Pakistan and continues to make selfless efforts for the education and well-being of young girls. Sister Naseem George has contributed significantly in the field of human rights, especially the rights of women. In addition to these women, a Hindu human rights activist, Veeru Kohli, stood for freedom from slavery after being a victim of bondage and physical abuse herself.
There are several other unsung women heroes as well who stand as an example for their services to humanity and are spending their lives serving the people in Pakistan, despite the discrimination they face as both a woman and members of vulnerable religious minorities.
“The physical and psychological damage caused by a regular pattern of discrimination, violation, and abuse against minority women in Pakistan is haunting.”
The term ‘double jeopardy’ describes the disadvantage and imbalance of chances for women in general, nevertheless, the prejudice and exclusion experienced by minority women merit the term ‘quadruple jeopardy’.
The physical and psychological damage caused by a regular pattern of discrimination, violation, and abuse against minority women in Pakistan is haunting. Unbridled religious extremism is shrinking spaces of minority women in the education and employment sectors as well as in the social setting of the country for which their ancestors sacrificed their life and comfort.
The education sector is indebted to missionaries for imparting quality education to members of the young nation, however, a majority of educational institutions have now narrowed down the opportunities for minority students. Professions such as nursing, which taught compassion and empathy, now haunt minority nurses amid false blasphemy accusations, physical and mental abuse.
“Laws alone will not prevent violence against minority women in Pakistan.”
Increasing cases of abductions, forced conversions and underage marriages of minority girls, particularly those belonging to the Christian and Hindu communities, only add to the horrors of minority women.
Laws alone will not prevent violence against minority women in Pakistan and a much deeper and stronger move is needed to transform the entire mindset of the society, both towards the inadmissibility of violence against women and the respect of different faiths. It is about time the government, the response of which has been limited and mostly retrospective so far, takes these issues head-on and proves that it is committed to ensuring the protection of women belonging to minority communities.