What happens when a Kashmiri woman finds herself in a disputed wedlock? The options she explores to handle marital mess apparently highlight a disturbing aspect of society.
On an early spring morning, Maleeha Ahmed seemed uneasy. Standing outside the gate of Srinagar’s sole Women’s Police Station in Rambagh, she kept looking for someone from the chattering group standing opposite to her.
The group had her brother-in-law, father-in-law, her mother and some strangers. She was looking for her husband whom she last met three years back, just fifteen days after her marriage.
Before her marriage, her husband, Bhat Adil, had demanded that a piece of land be transferred to him, where they would construct a house later. But after his first visit home, Adil never returned. The only communication that was made to Maleeha was through his neighbours and relatives. Later it was known that Maleeha’s better half had married because of parental compulsion.
“As soon as I realized that he had used marriage for some material gain,” said Maleeha, “I asked for divorce…”
With a little statistical validation, there are sneaking suspicions about rising divorce rates in Kashmir. The ‘trend’ is seen as a marker for societal breakdown. Women, across all classes and regions, often find themselves at the receiving end of the slur.
Divorce, however, is not an easy come and easy go for many women who have either sought it or want to. The intermixing of Shariah and regular judicial procedures and surpassing of the judiciary by the edicts from the hyperlocal extra-judicial bodies, called Mohalla committees, often jumbles the process.
Even when the couples find respite by getting out of a dysfunctional marriage, the badmouthing seldom ends. The conservative reproach by the society compels many to cling rather than taking a step forward.
“…and return of the dowry. But they refused,” Maleeha continued. “Instead they sent me a paper mentioning that the marriage had been annulled.”
The document had come from a mohalla committee of Sozieth in Tangmarg. Interestingly, many of these hyperlocal agencies have grown in mohallas and towns over the years. They mediate on issues ranging from marital to property disputes to help the weaker in that area. Composed of men, these bodies influence the decision making at ground level.
The role of such committees should ideally be limited to arbitration, said Mushafiq Sultan, Assistant Fellow, Al-Mawrid, an Islamic research institute. “They do not have authority to execute any divorce,” Sultan said. “In divorce, what matters is the couple’s decision. But they can try to mitigate the matters and try reaching a sensible solution.”
But in today’s Kashmir, marital disputes often reaching at brink of divorce follow an old pattern with shades of modernity—like in the case of a 31-year-old lady doctor.
Dr Samiya Khan’s marriage began falling apart soon after she gave birth to a daughter. She was constantly harassed by her in-laws and occasionally beaten up by her husband.
Being the eldest daughter of her family, Khan resisted rejoining her in-laws three months after her first child birth. She wanted to avoid harassment for having given birth to a baby girl.
“Considering ‘what others would say’, I was compelled to reconcile and return to in-laws,” Khan said. Feeling desolated, she didn’t visit her parents for next one year, till the marriage of her sister. Even birth of a son did not end her abusive life. “On one hand,” she said, “they want a share of my earnings and on the other hand, they question my job.” In fact, she said, her father-in-law would visit her workplace regularly to keep an eye on her interactions with her male colleagues. At home, her phone remained under a constant watch.
But despite being subjected to physical violence by her in-laws, the medico continues to stay put. She doesn’t feel strong enough to end her relationship. Separation, she reckons, would affect her children who love both their parents equally. “They will have to face a societal aversion all their lives,” said Khan, who despite being regretful of her marriage has accepted it as her fate—because she believes: it is the woman who shares blame for a broken marriage. Her parents, on the other hand, believe compromise is part of every relation and in, marriages particularly, a duty of a wife.
“How am I to expect support from the society when my own family is not ready to stand by my decision?” asked Khan.
Advocate Subreen Malik isn’t unaware about such cases. “We all have a tendency to equate divorce with failure,” said Malik. “Reconciliation where couples share the roof and responsibilities devoid of happiness and togetherness is a mask that they wear to please the society.” But the same mask was lately denounced by likes of Aalia Farooq, 35, who took a step to divorce her abusive husband. But the decision proved no cakewalk to her.
For next one year, against her will, Aalia’s parents kept searching for a suitable match for her to remarry. “I would get proposals from those twice my age,” said Aalia, a teacher. When her parental persistence peaked, she left home with her six-year-old daughter and constructed a single-storey house in Brein, Srinagar.
“My parents and relatives would remind me of how miserable my life as a single mother could be,” the teacher said. “This was also affecting my daughter. By moving out, I am giving myself a chance to stand up on my own.”
But even shifting hasn’t ebbed out reminders of Aalia’s bad marriage. She often finds herself being at the receiving end of unwanted sympathies. “Especially at any marriage function,” she said, “I and my daughter become the center of attention with people suggesting a remarriage for I am young and that it would be hard to bring up a daughter.”
Aalia agrees that living as a single mother brings its own challenges. “I not only have to answer my daughter’s queries but also sensitize the people around her on how not to mystify her father’s absence from her life and demoralize her,” she said.
Explaining the kind of trauma the young single mothers like Aalia brave, Shazia Manzoor, coordinator Social Works department at University of Kashmir said that divorcee women remain highly marginalized as women already have a secondary status in the patriarchal society like that of Kashmir.
“It is assumed that she would not have been a good wife as the onus of nurturing and holding together of marriage is always put on women,” Manzoor said.
Meanwhile, to escape an imminent police action, Adil has alleged that his marriage with Maleeha had never been consummated and that Maleeha had an extramarital affair with her cousin brother. In the face of indictment, the young lady stands undeterred. She has filed a case in the police station and is willing to take it to a regular court. The fight is to secure back her property. For Adil’s family though, the case is already closed with the diktat of Mohalla committee.
The widespread ignorance regarding the justice system is making them dependent on the verdicts of these committees lacking legal standing. Even advocate Malik, currently representing a victim of domestic violence, is seeking divorce but the Mohalla committee is becoming a hindrance in process.
Likes of Nasir Ul Islam, Mufti Azam, Supreme Court of Islamic Sharia Kashmir, who sees such cases, open and shut, apparently complicates such cases.
“A man can pronounce divorce,” he said, “even in a gathering in presence of witnesses.”
Men have always favoured men, the advocate Malik said—intentionally or unintentionally. “Presumption of innocence is always in favour of men. Till there is such dominance, there will continue exploitation of women.”
The same exploited marriage had finally brought Maleeha at the gate of law, where her runaway husband was yet to show up. She has already lost her three prime years to the disputed marriage where others have called enough shots and apparently tried to seal her fate. But perhaps, not anymore.