Panipat: Once Upon a Time, it was the Women Who Ruled the Roost

Look back at a time when Panipat, far from having the worst sex ratio, had women taking centre stage.

4 min read
Hindi Female

(The following has been excerpted with permission, from the chapter by Syeda Saiyidain Hameed in the book ‘Visions of a Nation: Paths and Perspectives’, which has been edited by Ashis Nandy & Aakash Singh Rathore, and published by Penguin Random House. Sub-headings have been added by The Quint.)

Talking of watan, mine is Panipat, which was at the time a flourishing district of Punjab, with a large population of Muslims. Panipat was the place where caravans of scholars migrated from Afghanistan and Iran to spread their teachings among a populace which was ready and willing to learn.

All the schools of Islamic jurisprudence flourished there; people openly debated religion and followed their own maslak, each according to his or her light.

This town was famous for its Sufi culture, being the markaz for Bu Ali Shah Qalandar, known by all as Qalandar Sahib. The distinguishing feature of this erudite, Sufi-dominated town was the primacy of women. Women were greatly revered in my qasba. Our homes were known by the name of the woman of the house, for example ‘Bi Maimuna ki Haveli’ (much later I was pleasantly surprised to see in Marrakesh the same formulation: ‘Riad dar Maimuna’).


Men usually went away for employment; women looked after the agricultural lands. They went to the fields to collect lagaan, driven there in their private behlis (bullock carts). The women and men of Panipat were famous for their Quirrat or Quran recitation. The status of women is reflected in the reformist and feminist poetry of Hali. His poems celebrate the woman, not for her beauty but for her grit. Lines of what I regard as women’s anthem are: Ai maon, behnon, beityon duniya ki zeenat tum say hai Mulkon ki basti ho tumhin, quomon ki izzat tum say hai (Translated: O mothers, sisters, daughters / You are the ornaments of the world / You are the life of the nations.)

Panipat: From Women Empowerment to Having the ‘Worst’ Sex Ratio

Then there are lines about the deprivation of the rights of women — not only Muslim women, but women of all communities, and how the world will one day have to atone for this injustice. Until you live, you are deprived — of education, learning. Ignorant you came here, went ignorant from hence. Learning — which for men is the elixir of life, for you it is poison, bitter, lethal and rife. Time for justice draws near, day of judgment is nigh, the world will have to atone for depriving you of rights.

Today my watan, Panipat, bears the ignominy of having the worst sex ratio in the country. In 1947, my mother and other women of the family decided to shed the burqa. Their decision to remove the veil was accepted and respected by the men of my family.

These Panipat women were agents of their own fate.

When several of these women reached Pakistan (per force they had to migrate), they did not revert to the veil. In either case, no one asked them to wear or remove it; neither the State nor the family.


Partition’s Aftermath: Learning to Make Friends

Soon after Partition, however, my child-world shattered around me. When I was nine years old, I had my first direct experience of communal hatred. It was in the aftermath of 1947; several years after blood had been spilt on both sides and wounds were still raw. Parents invariably and perhaps inadvertently passed on memories to children. I became the victim of one such ‘passing’. In the mid-fifties, we came to Delhi to live in the upmarket Sujan Singh Park; we were probably the only Muslim family in the colony. For some time, I had a secret apprehension that there was something ‘wrong’ with my name. Whenever an outsider asked, ‘Achha, aapka naam?’ I just mumbled hoping there would be no rejoinder. This time I got caught.

Father used to watch me look longingly at children playing in the park. One day he insisted that I join them. ‘You will be amazed how many friends you make!’ He gently pushed me out. But my instinct proved right.

Someone asked my name and that spoilt things; the kids said, ‘We won’t play with you, you are a Muslim.’ ‘You have no right to be here; why didn’t you go to Pakistan?’

For the next few evenings, I hung out inside the house trying to avoid Father. In my heart, I felt guilty about being in India. We Muslims had asked for a separate homeland and got it, I thought. So why were we still here? I was too embarrassed to ask the elders this troubling question. It was Khushwant Singh who helped me out of my childish anguish. Father and he suggested that I pen this as a story; thus I wrote ‘You Have to Learn to Make Friends’.

How this little book became known the world over is another story, but having made my point, I will stop here.

(All views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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