Shadows of stalking: The unspoken woes of Kashmiri women

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With a series of domestic abuses unsettling Kashmir lately, the harrowing harassment experiences are now being voiced like never before. Otherwise brushed under the carpet on the supposed moral high grounds, the issue now looks grave and demands serious handling.

She stares at her frigid form in the mirror, at the unyielding, unsparing glare of her eyes, at the sublime manner her hijab blends into her life, at the layers over layers of clothing that covers every inch of her body.

She stares, until there’s no mirror, and her finger tips touch the finger tips of this strange, naked girl staring right back at her, right through her layers of decency and honour, at the nakedness beneath it all.

Is this how they see me?

She secures her hijab around her neck, so tight that it hurts her head and tiny drops of blood appear below her chin where the pin has pierced the smoothness of her neck. She sorts her layers, one over another over another.

A thousand times she stops in her tracks and retreats instinctively towards the snug and shielded comfort of her home. And a thousand and one times she hauls herself, head first, horns blaring into the heartless hush-hush of the world outside her door steps.

She steels her nerves and prepares herself for the unintentional and innocent collision of the bodies, for the abrupt grasping here and there, the burning of retinas into the defensive segments of her face and body, the stalking till the roads and the alleys give up, the commentary that makes her face become a rotten shade of red and the ignorance and indifference of the people as they look away in shame, guilt and embarrassment.

She steels her nerves for yet another chapter that leaves her pride and her poise in smithereens for the world to see and she has to pause and gather them up, step by step.

The definition of Sexual Harassment that the Google provides is harassment (typically of a woman) in a workplace, or other professional or social situation, involving the making of unwanted sexual advances or obscene remarks.

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Look at the women around you, the young and the old, the fearless and the fearful, the artists and the intellectuals, the pigtails, the horn-rimmed glasses and the hijabis, the shy, quiet ones and the ones who carry the weight of the world on their shoulders.

Each of them would tell you their own versions of this momentous term with its equally momentous definition. It may surprise you to know that almost every woman around you has been a victim of sexual harassment in one form or the other.

Farah (not her real name) was in grade 11 when a man of her father’s age, sitting beside her in a public bus touched her private parts.

“He touched me in a way you can never imagine any man to touch you,” she says.

She stood up and grabbed the collar of the man and told the conductor of the bus to stop the bus near Baghat Police Station. But the man managed to escape.

“The worst part is that no one in the bus helped me. There were two ladies sitting right behind me, even they were quiet. No one said a word. And all this because I was dressed in a shirt and jeans,” she adds.

This incident traumatized her and she had to fight a year-long depression.

This was not an isolated incident. This has happened to her before and this will probably happen to her again. And to all the other girls who dare to venture out of their homes.

The wise men and women with their beards, briefcases and burqas look away and pretend that they don’t hear her. Or they nail the blame to her audaciously conventional body or paste it on her audaciously unconventional western clothes, like a badge of shame and contempt, because their holier-than-thou fathers, sons and uncles can do nothing wrong.

On any given day, you would find elderly women sitting on the edges of the vibrant alleys of Amira Kadal, in the heart of Srinagar. They sit there all day, from morning till evening, selling mushrooms, or haddar as they are called in Kashmiri.

One would think that these women, open and exposed, in the hustle and bustle of the city must have faced a lot of harassment in their lives. Ask them and their answer would surprise you.

One of them is an elderly woman called Sonmali. She is from a small village called Shalbug in Ganderbal. She has been coming here since past 30 years.

“I have spent a lifetime in this area selling mushrooms,” she says. “And I have never faced any kind of harassment. Men treat me like their sister. The girls who are harassed are different. They are a different type of girls.” A lot of young Kashmiri people also think the same.

Bazila Aijaz, a 20-year-old girl from Srinagar studying Bachelor of Arts, started a project called Voices Inside Unknown to conduct surveys and awareness programs in schools, colleges, universities and workplaces. She wants to provide awareness, support and counselling to the victims.

“I want the people to know that there’s someone who can help,” says this petite girl. She is alone in her project, and has been slapped thrice for daring to ask questions regarding this taboo. But that does not diminish her resolve to fight back.

The survey that she has conducted in the schools of the city reveal that 84% of the students are of the view that sexual harassment is affected by the way a girl is dressed.

“How can we expect a better future if this is the mindset of this generation?” Bazila asks. “I am a 20-year-old girl and I can say this isn’t a safe place for girls. No religion says it’s alright to harass a girl even if she is roaming outside naked.”

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Women’s Commission was established to protect women’s rights and ensure speedy justice for women that face discrimination and human rights violations. The number of cases that were registered since its commencement in the year 2000 is 3037 with merely 14 cases in 2000 and 177 cases in 2016. 43 cases have been registered till Feb 2017. These include the cases of women facing domestic violence, harassment and torture.

“If we get 8 to 10 cases per day, 80% of them are for domestic violence,” says Nayeema Ahmad Mehjoor, the Chairperson of State Commission for Women. “Sexual harassment for workplaces is very thin here in Kashmir. But in Jammu there are plenty of cases for sexual harassment.”

Mehjoor, who started her career as a journalist, reckons that workplace harassment has to do with a sense of insecurity. “Women don’t feel comfortable in presence of men,” she says. “And because they have this sense of insecurity that if they highlight this thing, then their job will be in danger or they won’t get the same treatment that others are getting.”

But still, Mehjoor says, women are coming up. “There were some institutions here where women had taken a stand and they came to us and we intervened and the problem was resolved.”

Nayeema Ahmad Mehjoor

According to her, most of the harassment cases are from the women who are well-read. There’re no such cases emerging from the rural areas. “It’s a stigma, the family will come to know and then they will become a target and they don’t report,” Mehjoor says.

The Government has provided buses exclusively for women, but its number is very small, and routes few. “There was a problem in the Women’s College and we got a call from girls that once we come outside the gates, eve-teasing starts. With the coordination of the women police, this problem was handled,” Mehjoor says.

As the cases of physical violence are emerging, and reported more now, marital rape is one thing that is hardly talked about. “We don’t have cases of marital rape being reported. Maybe there are cases, but they don’t come forward. That is too much for the society. I don’t think people have so much courage to come forward with it,” Mehjoor says.

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