Plague in public spaces: The harassment blues of Kashmiri women

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In the politically-charged atmosphere, the routine woes faced by Kashmiri women, especially in public spaces often falls on deaf ears. As the larger indifference continues, many women gripe about the growing harassment in public spaces.

Srinagar’s High Court is an intense theatre of intrigue and incite. People in droves arrive to attend to their cases of varied nature. Among the battery of lawyers, handling from divorce to harassment, assaults to criminal cases, is advocate Mehak.

She sounds like an alarmist when saying that ‘domestic violence and harassment cases are fast becoming a crisis’ for the society. “We need to deal with them,” she says, “before it increases to a point beyond our control.”

Behind the surge, Mehak sees the major the implementation and execution agencies at fault.

“The police on the ground usually turn cold towards such cases,” the lawyer says, terming herself a victim of wolf-whistling, catcalling, gazing and vulgar comments. “The victims are generally advised not to register an FIR by the concerned authorities.”

While many such cases are apparently being overlooked, the status of many high-profile cases that sparked off public outrage in the past remains in doldrums.

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In case of 2014 Nowshera Acid Attack in which a jilted lover in connivance with his friend-turned-accomplice sprinkled acid on a law student, the court is yet to convict the accused.

Such cases, the woman advocate says, have been happening in large numbers in the society, but only a handful of them make news.

“We still don’t wake up to the issue,” Mehak says. “And it’s baffling, why as a society we maintain silence on such matters.”

The similar fate surrounds the 2009 murder case, involving 17-year-old student Romana Javaid.

The Class XII student of Srinagar’s Bagh-e-Mehtab was on her way to tuitions when followed by one Shoaib Daryeel and Ubaid Ahmad Khan in a car. The duo gave her a chit scribed with their phone numbers. As Romana tore the chit and threw it away, the youth, in rage, began circling her in the car. They drove too close to the girl, and in the process ran her over, killing her instantly.

Nine years later, the trial is still going on, without anyone being convicted in this case.

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In a study conducted by student Mariya Mushtaq in her college project about Eve-Teasing and Molestation in Kashmir, it has been found that 81% of women facing harassment were students. And the rest included working women and homemakers.

“97.9% respondents knew what harassment meant and all of them had faced it in the form of stalking, whistling, catcalling, passing of lewd/unwanted comments, ogling, etc,” the project report states. “40.7% of women faced harassment very often while 27.7% said that they had faced harassment sometimes.”

The study further reveals that 90.5% victims knew others who faced harassment, while 88.5% believed most of it happened in public buses, 56.3% on streets and 20.8% in offices.

When a 31-year-old woman from Sopore committed suicide by hanging herself in her room on April 7 2017, she left behind a note, in which she blamed the HDFC Cluster head for the suicide. According to Mariya’s report, it has been found that very less people report and raise their voice against the menace and if such a situation arises, no one comes in support of the victim.

Such indifferent support is often being decried in public transport, where some ill-mannered and undignified people take undue advantage of the situation.

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In a study titled ‘Eve Teasing in Kashmir’ by Aadil Bashir and Shabana Khurshid at Kashmir University, it has been found that despite being caught in conflict and subjected to numerous physical and mental traumas, women of Kashmir have shown great character and strength in competing with their counterparts in any other part of the world.

“But today,” the study warns, “one of the alarming issues which women often come across is eve-teasing in our public transport.”

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Unlike the somewhat accepted belief that dressing sparks off these stalking incidents, a Srinagar-based girl student shares her own ordeal, to counter the “popular” notion.

“I myself wear Abaya and cover my head and still, I’m a victim,” says Ambreen Mir, pursuing Masters in Kashmir University. “The way you dress does not change anything. I once saw an Abaya-adorned girl being harassed. When she tried to resist by raising her voice, people did not support her. In fact, the passersby spared some nonsensical comments on her, like, aaj kal ladhkiya he kharab hai, abaya vali he zeyada zaleel hai (These days, it’s the girls who’re at blame; the ones wearing Abaya are worse).” The scene, she says, shook her will to oppose.

Somewhat similar story is being voiced by class 12 student, Afifa. Usually sporting jeans, trouser and a long overcoat with a hijab, the girl often faces unwanted situations.

“Every single morning,” she says, “I fight an emotional battle, by convincing myself that I’ve to board a bus and won’t have to face any odd situation.”

Although the government has reserved first 9 seats for women in public transport and introduced Ladies Special buses, it’s not helping on a larger scale — as many aren’t able to get a berth in them.

“I’ve to make sure,” says Zaika, a government employee and a regular passenger of the Ladies Special Bus, “to leave both home and office on time, so that I don’t miss the bus. That’s where I feel safe and comfortable.”

Apart from public buses, mostly coaching centres remain in news for eve-teasing and harassment incidents.

“Some unruly boys keep subjecting us through inappropriate gazes, pass illicit comments, or even throw chits scribbled with phone numbers inside,” says Ruksana, a class 12 student. “At times, some road romeos wearing flashy accessories for attention-grabbing play loud music, try capturing pictures on their mobile phones while following a girl.”

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There’s a law to curb this stalking menace, says Ghulam Rasool, an advocate.

Under IPC Section 354(A), a man committing any physical contact, involving in unwelcome advance and explicit sexual overtures; or demanding or requesting sexual favours; shall be guilty of the offence of sexual harassment. Punishment under this Act involves rigorous imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years.

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Similarly, under Section 209 and 509, any obscene acts in any public place or uttering any word or making any gesture intended to insult the modesty of a woman qualifies for harassment. The accused can be imprisoned for a term of up to 3 months or fine, or both, while under-509, imprisonment for 1 year, or fine, or both can happen.

“Women should make use of the law and send out a strong message,” the advocate says. “It’s better to come forward and make an example of these culprits than to suffer in silence.”

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