Githa Hariharan

The Place Kashmiri Women Live In

How does a beautiful place turn into hell? And how do the women in this place live?

There were eleven Kashmiri women round the table in the cosy room lit by the winter sun. They were there to tell us Delhi women of their lives. A few of the Kashmiri women spoke of childhood memories; others of crippling fears. All of them spoke of the loss of, and the longing for, a half-forgotten thing called “normalcy”.

What is normalcy in Kashmir, what is normalcy anywhere? It made me think of some lines from Agha Shahid Ali’s prose poem “Dear Shahid”: “We are waiting for the almond blossoms.  And, if God wills, O! those days of peace when we all were in love and the rain was in our hands wherever we met.”

Like people anywhere in the world, Kashmiris want a life in which they can enjoy the sunshine and rain in peace. Like people anywhere in the world, Kashmiris want a life in which the little businesses of life become the real business of life – say bringing up children without fear for their physical safety, and with commonplace hopes for their future.  

All the women spoke of the unbearable odds against conducting such safe, healthy, normal lives. But all of them, without exception, also spoke, in one way or the other, about their battles against these odds. About their anger and frustration; their protests; their plans of action; their travel in search of support. These women have had to make the language of resistance their mother tongue.

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The women were gathered in the room to speak about the situation in Kashmir today. The Delhi women in the room were representatives of Indian civil society in general, and Indian women’s organisations in particular. The objective of the organiser, the Centre for Policy Analysis, was to hold a small closed-door meeting to try and set up a “Working Group for the Justice and Empowerment of the Women of Jammu and Kashmir”. Since the Jammu and Kashmir government has failed to collect even basic data, we had before us data from various independent sources, national and international. Much of this information just about touched the tip of the iceberg; but it was bad enough as it was.

Above all, there was, there is, sexual violence. As always, the women bear the brunt of prolonged armed conflict; of crackdowns, cordon and search operations and all kinds of “security checks”. Rape is the pre-eminent instrument of punishment, intimidation, coercion and humiliation, and it is used freely. Bringing the rapist to book is practically impossible. To begin with, the police are reluctant to register FIRs against members of the troops.

Then there are “enforced disappearances” and “half-widows”. Strange new terms become current when the inexcusable happens over years and years. Thousands of people, many of them married men, have been “subject to enforced disappearance by state agencies”. In other words, they have been picked up by the troops. These men have mothers, sisters, daughters, wives. In the absence of information about them, the wives become half-widows. Half-widows bear extra suffering: they are left without entitlement to land, homes, inheritance, pensions or social assistance. They face the constant threat of destitution. And, of course, they are more vulnerable to harassment by the troops.   

Psychiatric disorders thrive in such a climate of unpredictability. Trauma and wounds are not always visible. In the post-1989 years, there has been a sharp increase in mental illness among women – from sleeping disorders to depression to Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD). The lone psychiatric hospital in the valley is in Srinagar. In 1989, about 1,700 patients visited this hospital; by 2003, the number had gone up to 48,000. It does not take an expert to visualise which way the numbers go between 2003 and 2012. And these numbers account for one single hospital in one single city, and for women who are lucky enough to make it to a hospital at all.

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But data does not have a human face. Nor does it have a voice that rises in anger and breaks with sadness. The women round the table, talking to us in Delhi, did.

 There was Parveena, who could have been anyone’s ordinary but beloved mother. But Parveena is far from ordinary. Her son, Javaid, was picked up by the security forces in 1990; she has heard nothing of him since. Worry and grief did not stun her into acceptance. In 1994, she set up the APDP, the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons. She goes wherever she can to tell her story and the stories of other parents. She spoke for all of them when she asked us, “Where are our children? Where is our justice for them?” For twenty-two years, she has been leading protests in a park every month. She will not stop her work, she told us, till all the missing children get justice. Search for our children! Her full-throated cry haunted us long after we left the room.

There was Lebul Nisa, a young woman whose maroon head scarf framed her pale moon-like face. She looked delicate but her voice was calm, strong, and mature beyond her years. She is a human rights lawyer who has worked with half-widows. Up to seven years, she told us, the missing husband is not officially dead. His half-widow cannot remarry; she cannot lay claim to property. Most likely she has not been educated enough to support herself or her children; at any rate, she has trouble with shelter, with child rearing, with anxiety and depression. How do we help half-widows survive? asked Lebul Nisa. The problem, she said, is that there are no support structures for rehabilitation – in terms of employment and shelter, or counselling and medical treatment.

Half-widows, full widows. We heard of Lebul Nisa’s visit to Dardpura Village. Ironically apposite, this cruel name: the place of pain. Close to the Line of Control, Dardpura in Kupwara epitomises what happens to a place when regular skirmishes over two decades make conflict a way of life. The little village has come to be called the village of widows – the pain in Dardpura personified by the lives the widows have had to lead. One woman took to begging so her daughter could survive; another was heartbroken that she could not pay for a shroud for her dead husband. Still another – who got no “compensation” because her dead husband was described as a militant –had to support four sons on a salary of Rs 650.

Lebul Nisa told us a particularly painful story of a seventy-two year old woman who was raped. The security forces told the woman: “If you tell stories to the media, we will send you to heaven even before they have shown their film.” It was not surprising then that Lebul Nisa minced no words when she referred briefly, indirectly, to her own life: “Ours is a generation that does not know what a picnic means. It is only a word for us.”

We heard other young voices, more edgy than Lebul Nisa’s. Inshah, a researcher and activist, alternated between impatience with the rest of the world and passion for azaadi. She recalled growing up amid homes and schools torn apart by bombs; she recalled the terrible and constant anxiety about the safety of loved ones. She was sharp about any talk of “victims versus activists”. I am a victim, I am a fighter, she said firmly, ready to take on anyone who disagreed. Whether she meant to or not, her words captured a truth about Kashmiri women: they are victims, yes; but they are, inevitably, part of a resistance movement.

As if to balance the picture – or complicate it, as it must be – we heard a Kashmiri Pandit who had to leave the valley. Renu, a teacher, talked poignantly of the Kashmiri Pandits’ right to return. “Our suffering should also be counted,” she pleaded. “We want to return without having to support any faction.” No one in the room contested her right to return home, though there was a digression – suddenly we were in the middle of a discussion about the Amarnath Yatra. Perhaps there was something to be read between the lines in this apparently irrelevant exchange; but before we could pin it down, the valley as it is now took over again.

We heard Tehmeena, a gentle-voiced doctor who did not speak “politics”. She spoke about the women patients who come to her, many of them victims of a range of mental disorders. The more experienced activists in the room hastened to place the situation Tehmeena described in a larger context. What does “militarisation” really mean? Anjum and Hameeda asked us. They answered the question themselves. It means the security forces, and sections of the Kashmiri military and police, are growing more brutal by the day. It means that Kashmir and Kashmiris are subject to the “militarisation of place, body and mind.” If this does not change, no other change is possible. As these women spoke, two language registers sat uncomfortably beside each other. For our benefit perhaps, the women referred to the security forces. But when one of them asked us dryly, “Where is the security?” what we heard was occupying forces.

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By the end of the day, we had ample evidence of the direct link between the plight of Kashmiri women and the state of conflict they have lived in and continue to live in. Women have suffered terribly because of the security forces and the oppressive laws in force; and because the state has completely failed in providing its citizens justice, compensation and rehabilitation.

The newly set up “Working Group for the Justice and Empowerment of the Women of Jammu and Kashmir” discussed ways to highlight the problems facing the women of Jammu and Kashmir. How was public opinion to be mobilized? How was that one-sided perception of Kashmir as a land of terrorists to be made more complex, more real, more true? People round the table listed the inevitable strategies: joint action in the form of statements, public meetings and protest demonstrations. And to what end? Above all, de-militarisation; the withdrawal of AFSPA, PSA and all other laws that affect the citizen’s right to free movement, livelihood, education, health and the right to live with dignity; the immediate trial and punishment of security personnel and all others accused of rape and molestation; the establishment of support structures such as hospitals and employment schemes, especially for half-widows; the compilation of detailed missing persons records; and the appointment of a Commission of Inquiry, under an impartial judge and experts, into the present condition of women in Jammu and Kashmir, with time bound implementation of recommendations.

Our time is running out. The Kashmiri women are suffering, even while they bravely fight back. The Kashmiri women are still waiting for us.

Githa Hariharan

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