Golden Girls: How South Asian Women Preserve Legacy Through Gold

Sebastião Salgado, India, 1990. Courtesy ICP.
Sebastião Salgado, India, 1990. Courtesy ICP.

My mother recalls the first piece of gold jewellery she bought with the knowledge that it would live on to be more than just her own. At twenty-six years old, she gave birth to her eldest daughter in Karachi. What proceeded was the expected revolving door of family, friends, and occasional strangers, from all around Pakistan, arriving at my parents’ doorstep to celebrate this new life. Along with them, they brought a cacophony of prayers and blessings for the newborn, as well as a handful of rupees for my mother. Once the commotion of these visits had died down, my mother counted the paper notes she had collected over the course of these few weeks. They amounted to ten thousand rupees which was, at the time, around one hundred American dollars. My parents, who were recently married twenty-somethings in the beginning stages of their careers, could have easily used the money for a variety of needed expenses for their baby: nappies, baby clothes, formula.

Instead, my mother found herself confronted by a sentiment planted in her mind years ago by her own mother. It was a voice that told her any monetary saving that was hers was as good as gone if it wasn’t placed into jewellery. My grandmother’s thinking was that if the money stayed sitting in a bank account, or lying around the house, it would inevitably be spent on the never ending, nebulous expenses of the household, disappearing all too quickly and quietly. If, on the other hand, that money was used to purchase gold jewellery it would be transformed into something permanent and everlasting.

With this wisdom in her ear, she used the rupees to buy a thick gold chain attached to a solid gold pendant engraved with Ayat Al-Kursi — a sacred Islamic verse that provides protection and wards off evil. With this purchase, my mother alchemised ten thousand rupees into a promise for her daughter. Twenty-eight years later, this pendant was passed down to my sister on her wedding day. By the time the necklace had completed its first intended transfer, it was worth twenty-five times what it had initially been purchased for. But beyond the growth of its monetary value, through the various stages of buying, owning, and passing down, this gold necklace became a participant in the pivotal moments of my family’s personal history. And in this way, dimensions of meaning are woven into these objects transforming them into emotional heirlooms.

Quotidian anecdotes such as this one showcase how the practice of passing down gold jewellery through generations of mothers and daughters is embedded into, and remains a marker of, South Asian womanhood. Solid gold bangles, intricate tikkas encrusted in jewels, magnificent chokers covering the entirety of a woman’s neck — all of these objects can be found in the periphery of every significant moment in a South Asian woman’s life, from birth to death. According to the India Times, Indian housewives own approximately 11% of the entire world’s gold. To put the staggering scale of gold ownership into context, these housewives own more gold than all the bullion combined in the United States Fort Knox Bullion Depository. This common practice of stockpiling gold within the subcontinent has been viewed through a variety of lenses.

Some scholars approach this phenomenon through the lens of an insatiable hunger, referring to it as a ‘gold-craze,’ ‘gold-fever’ or even a fetish. Indian government officials, on the other hand, have expressed their negative views on the hoarding of gold calling it an economic leakage, akin to storing money under a mattress. From another vantage point, this statistic is a window into the ways that South Asian women have been systematically excluded from traditional avenues of financial freedom within their societies. And further, how these women have used gold to try to circumvent these exclusionary financial practices for themselves and their daughters. Due to the patriarchal setup of many regions within the subcontinent, and despite the formalisation of laws trying to combat these societal practices, many women do not generally inherit any immovable property. For countries whose rural poor rely on farming and agriculture for their survival, land ownership is a major avenue to economic benefit. As a result, through the marginalisation of women pertaining to inheritance and land-related affairs, gold often becomes the only viable avenue for women to access some version of property. Applying this gendered lens of ownership, in many South Asian societies, we can come to understand land as a man’s property and gold as a woman’s. In communities where gold is the only guaranteed a security blanket not only for themselves but for future generations of women within their family, in times of crisis these women will go to extreme lengths to protect it.

In the weeks leading up to August 15th 1947, my eight-months-pregnant great-grandmother, heard the loudening murmurs of neighbours and friends playing a scary game of telephone. The story rapidly spreading across the subcontinent was that India, a country that had been my great-grandparents’ homeland for generations, was on the verge of division. After almost two hundred years of British rule, and with increasing pressures of the Indian Independence Movement, the British were finally leaving the subcontinent. The parting act of their violent colonial legacy was to carve up the map of India into two independent nations, one for the Muslim minority, and the other for the Hindu majority. What came after, was one the largest mass migrations in human history, marked by brutality and unimaginable loss of life. Nisid Hajari, an Indian-American writer, and author of Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition, describes the scenes that took place during the partition by writing the following:

‘Gangs of killers set whole villages aflame, hacking to death men and children and the aged while carrying off young women to be raped. Some British soldiers and journalists who had witnessed the Nazi death camps claimed Partition’s brutalities were worse: pregnant women had their breasts cut off and babies hacked out of their bellies; infants were found literally roasted on spits.’1

Towards the end of the partition it is estimated that fifteen million people uprooted their lives and migrated and between one and two million were killed trying.

Despite the horrific violence on the precipice of eruption and the rising dissent in the air, my great-grandfather remained steadfast in his position that India would remain one country. From his perspective, his whole life was spent working on the Indian railways alongside Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and other Muslims. He couldn’t wrap his head around the idea that these groups, who had lived together for a millennium, were no longer capable of coexisting. He was quick to dismiss the murmurings of partition as paranoia. Despite my great-grandfather’s unconcerned attitude, nationalism fuelled tensions continued to escalate and the whispers of this partition quickly turned into screams. My great-grandmother, Nusrat, who could now see the smoke from fires of houses being burned and looted in the distance, made the difficult decision to leave her husband behind and, along with her six children, escape to the newfound Pakistan.

Not knowing what would be waiting for her on the other side of this new political border, and in an act that demonstrates both her desperation and the importance she placed on her gold, Nusrat made a calculated risk. She made the decision to hide all her gold jewellery underneath her clothes, tying it around her pregnant belly for the treacherous journey to cross the border. Nusrat collected all the gold that she had acquired over the course of her lifetime, through Jahaz and Bari, the customary dowries received from the bride and groom’s family during a wedding, as well as through other significant moments in her life such as the birth of her daughters. She carefully sewed a make-shift utility belt that she could inconspicuously wrap around her stomach, using her pregnant belly as a means of disguise for her precious jewellery. Within the pouches of the belt, she delicately placed each piece of her collection of gold jewellery — from small jhumkas to solid cuff bracelets. Hyperaware of the looting, rape, and mass violence that was all too common during partition, Nusrat made the decision to take her gold with both her own and her daughters’ future in mind.

In the night, Nusrat’s brother arranged for a truck to arrive at their door and smuggle her and her children to the refugee trains that would take them to the land that had overnight been deemed Pakistan. With her six small children walking hand in hand as to not lose each other, and with the weight of the gold around her stomach, Nusrat and her family boarded a packed train bursting with other scared strangers escaping into the unknown. When retelling this story, my aunt eerily recalls that this train was one of the last to enter Lahore with living passengers. The trains that followed suffered frequent ambushes by violent mobs, and by the time they crossed the border the recently bustling trains entered Lahore in funeral silence with carts filled with dead bodies.

Once Nusrat and her children reached Lahore, they stayed in a refugee camp with others who now had the freshly conceived identity of Pakistani placed upon them. Soon after arriving, Nusrat gave birth in this refugee camp to her seventh child, a baby boy. The gold that she had attached to her body and brought with her eventually completed its intended transfers and was passed down to her three daughters in the same way that Nusrat had initially come into possession of it. These daughters, my grandmother and her sisters, would go on to pass it down to their own daughters and other women within our family. As these objects travel from generation to generation they inevitably become small, tangible portals into personal histories and familial legacy. These metals serve as reminders of the past lives and experiences of the various women who owned them. And with each handover they seemingly become heavier with the weight of an additional lifetime. In this way, these adornments come to mean so much more than just the sum of their monetary value. They come to represent stories such as Nusrat’s and the gold that survives across generations is a testament to the strength and bravery of women like her.

While the emotional sentiment that becomes intertwined with this jewellery can serve as a vehicle of connection to ancestral legacy, it can also act as a double-edged sword. Because of the intense personal attachment associated with these pieces, they can be extremely painful to part ways with ⎼ even in moments of financial pressure. Stories of selling personal collections of gold are familiar for many South Asian women who have experienced either parting ways with their jewellery themselves, or who have friends and family members that have done so.

A family friend of mine recalls an instance where she had to sell a portion of her gold collection that was inherited from her mother on her wedding day. When her husband was building their first house in Pakistan, she felt she had no choice but to sell some of her gold in order to fund part of the construction. She describes this as one of the most defining moments in her life — one in which she was forced to closely examine her relationship with these objects and ultimately find a way to let them go. With the profound emotional connection women like her have with these items, feeling forced to put them up for sale can be deeply humiliating. For my family friend, this memory is shrouded in a blanket of shame as she remembers secretly entering a jewellery store in Islamabad with a paper bag filled with her treasured gold trinkets. Afraid of the judgment of others, she waited patiently in the store until all of the other patrons left before approaching the shop owner to sell her pieces. Separating from this jewellery was excruciating, and she felt the entire process was so gut-wrenching and bitter that she could not share it with even her closest friends and family. She buried this experience inside herself, and to this day, decades later has managed to keep the secret even from her husband. As these heirlooms travel through time and their sentimental currency continues to increase, what results is a paradoxical relationship between the theoretical intended purpose of the gold and the realities of having to let it go in practice. Instead of simply serving its practical purpose as a financial security blanket in times of need, when financial hardships do arise, women who sell their gold are often left feeling ashamed and full of grief.

In Desi communities around the world, the practice of passing down gold jewellery through generations of mothers and daughters is a sacred, long-standing tradition. The historical reasoning for the birth of this practice may have been to provide a viable avenue for these women to secure financial freedom outside of men. However, through the generational ownership of these objects and the histories that are passed down along with them, their intended purpose is only one small aspect of a South Asian woman’s relationship with gold. To many South Asian women, their gold jewellery is deeply and inextricably enmeshed with their heritage — symbolising ancestral trauma, freedom, familial legacy, and resilience.

Eman Naseer is a writer and poet who was born in Karachi, Pakistan.

  1. Hajari, Nisid, Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition, Mariner Books, 2016.