Women and Borders in South Asia

Concept Note


The present state system in South Asia, in particular the state system of the sub-continent, is a result largely of the partitions in the eastern and western parts of the erstwhile united India, giving birth to three states – India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The borders dividing these countries are markers of past bitter history, current separate, distinct, and independent existence, and the sign of the territorial integrity of these states. The bitterness of the past, the lack of mutual confidence at present, the security concerns of all these states, at the same time the existence of thousand and one linkages make the South Asian borders unique. They are the lines of hatred, disunity, informal connections and voluminous informal trade, securitised and militarized lines, heavy para-military presence, communal discord, humanitarian crisis, human rights abuses, and enormous suspicion, yet informal cooperation.


Borders become the site where this contest over inclusion and exclusion is played out. They demarcate the inside from the outside, sovereignty from anarchy and. the singular from pluralistic space. They construct what Nira Yuval-Davis has termed “the space of agency, the mode of participation in which we act as citizens in the multilayered polities to which we belong.”   Hence borders are not merely lines. They are zones that situate the gray areas where the jurisdiction of one state ends and the other begins.  They are the common ground of two or more states that share them and also interpret its meanings in very different ways to its citizens in their national narratives, history writing and collective spatialized memories.  Security concerns overwhelm all other equally legitimate concerns and values. Military security dominates over human security in the border region. In the case of South Asia, these borders, or more precisely borderlands, are also peopled by groups that have linkages to both sides of the borders.  Yet in their efforts to emphasize the national identity, state sovereignty demands a severance of those linkages that “encourages difference” leading to a conscious exclusion of the recalcitrant from privileges. As a result of this, States often forget that borders are not only lines to be guarded, they are also lines of humanitarian management, because borders are not lines but borderlands – that is to say these are areas where people live, pursue economic activities, and lead civilian lives attuned to the realities of the borders. Human security in the borderlands would mean first security of the civilian population along the borderlines.


This project concerns itself with women living in these borderlands that Edward Said calls “the perilous territory of not-belonging,” and discusses how they negotiate their differences with a state, albeit democratic, which denies space to difference based on either ethnicity or gender. Women living in the borders are the subject of this project not merely because they belong to these perilous territories or the borders but also form them.  According to Yuval-Davis the universalistic nature of citizenship that emanates from traditional liberal and social democratic discourses is extremely deceptive as it conceals the exclusion of women from national identities of citizenship. Thus the ideological constructions of the state are weighted against women who remain in the borders of democracy. Yet in moments of conflict at times they assume centrality. This is because in areas of civil conflict men withdraw from civic life for compulsions of war and self-defense.  In such a situation the public sphere retreats into the private and women form the civil societies.  They assume roles that are completely new to them and confront and negotiate with the massive power of the state machinery in their everyday lives.  Further, as transmitters of cultural value women construct differences that shape the future of the nation and the border.


But in fact most of our traditional efforts to make geopolitical regions more secure are nothing but attempts to privilege a masculine definition of security that result in only feminine insecurities. Yet in addressing questions of security the insecurities of women always remain in the back of beyond. The political class talks about ISI, insurgency, terrorism, and never talks about how trafficking or its linkages with statelessness and HIV/AIDS. Little does it realize that the threat posed by AIDS is much more than the one posed by “terrorism”. And, herein lies the fallacy in most policy decisions. When AIDS becomes an epidemic migrant prostitutes are punished without any recognition that they are as much a victim of the system. It is the system that needs to be restructured with gender just vision.


In this respect it is important to note that women face specific forms of marginalisation in border areas.  This include:


1.       Harassment by the security personnel including sexual abuse and killings.

2.       The border security forces on both sides engage in forcible push-backs – extreme harsh methods of deportation resulting in loss of limbs, lives, money, and dignity.

3.       The daily economic activities of many women such as fisherwomen fishing in river-borders are hampered greatly resulting in sustained distress

4.       Long and undue detention at jails and sub-jails when these women are caught while crossing a border.

5.       Rampant sexual abuses

6.       Undue harassment of immigrant women on the suspicion of either being terrorists or harbouring terrorists.

7.       Harassment of women marked as having loose sexual morals and thereby endangering people through sexually seducing them.

8.       Undue harassment of immigrant women as harbingers of AIDS

9.       Harassment of women living in border enclaves

10.   Harassment of women belonging to matri-lineal tribes who are seen as susceptible to entanglement with immigrant men.

11.   Women are deprived of ownership of resources such as land.

12.   Effects of communalization of women in the borders

Women belonging to both settled, immigrant communities, and those living in the enclaves face many of these marginalisations.  Such marginalisations affect women in areas such as Northeast India, Kashmir, Rajasthan and many other regions as India has over 17 border states.  Yet no study till date has been conducted keeping this particular problematic in mind and so such a research work will not just fill a gap in the existing literature on governance but it will also have definite policy implications as well.  



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