In Depth

Suffering in silence: Why isn’t charity coming to Kashmiri Widows’ rescue?

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Besides fasting, Muslims pay alms to the downtrodden and needy in the holy month of Ramzan. But the condition of deprived widows reflects all that is wrong with the society.

From last twenty years now, a widow Maryam has been fighting to flip her befallen fate, despite being snubbed by the society, when she desperately needed their support. Today, her slog has paid off—as her three daughters and two sons, living in Srinagar outskirts have started shouldering her burden.

Back in 1998, hers was the lively house—reverberating with laughter and liveliness. But then, one night, the death came knocking at her door, leaving her husband—the caring patriarch and a generous trader—dead.

“It shattered me,” Maryam says, flashing signs of wretchedness on her parched face. “People still tell me how rich we used to be.”

She breaks the flow of the conversation, and lifts her eyes skyward—as if in complain with Almighty, for testing her beyond her strength.

This sense of gloom is sadly omnipresent in Kashmir’s war-torn homes, where death and disappearance of the loved ones continues to make the air mournful.

“In fact,” the 40-something widow continues, “people think we still might have some money and never knock our doors to help us.” This skewed societal mindset has already made many of these families some kind of forsaken lots, getting no major support from the society.

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“To get hands on the property,” Maryam carries on with her painful journey, “my brother-in-law came to our place one night along with some men, and beat my husband to death.” That tragedy turned 20-year-old this year.

“I did not agree upon his post-mortem,” she recalls, “otherwise, the culprit and his accomplice would be in jail.”

Apparently Maryam couldn’t bear the thought of passing her dead husband through surgical blades. “I didn’t want him suffer even after his death.”

That death doomed her family. And even the time couldn’t prove a ‘great healer’.

Grappling with frequent bouts of helplessness, Maryam’s family only had God to look up to—and, at times—her brother’s small help. Even that support stopped, when her sibling got busy with his own family.

“In our religion,” says Shaheen, Maryam’s eldest daughter, “we’re told to look after our needy relatives and neighbours, but no one ever bothered to enquire about us—not to talk of helping monetarily.”

To take care of such needy families, Islam makes Zakat and Sadqa obligatory for Muslims.

Indeed,” Allah says in Surah At-Tawbah in the holy Quran, “[prescribed] charitable offerings are only [to be given] to the poor and the indigent, and to those who work on [administering] it, and to those whose hearts are to be reconciled, and to [free] those in bondage, and to the debt-ridden, and for the cause of God, and to the wayfarer. [This is] an obligation from God. And God is all-knowing, all-wise.”

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While Zakat is the obligatory alms given from the wealth of Muslims and intended for the poor and distressed, Sadqa is a voluntary offering of some form to benefit a needy person.

These days, clerics keep preaching from the mosque pulpits that if the Muslims give these twin charities in a true spirit, the needy families like that of a Maryam wouldn’t find themselves distressed and end up become some kind of social liability.

In fact, a common refrain in Kashmir remains that major portion of Zakat often finds its way into orphanages and ‘welfare trusts’, without verification. Many even believe that it would be far better to pay Zakat to needy families—especially to widows—living in one’s neighbourhood and help put their distressed homes in order.

Even Imam Ali (peace be upon him) stresses on this in Mizan al-Hikmah: “The Zakat of prosperity is goodness to neighbours, and maintaining good relations with family.”

But amid the pervasive state of social disparity in the valley—reportedly forcing many needy families to resort to some menial tasks—the religious reformers and intelligentsia continue to play indifferent.

Sadly for the strife-laden society, a gleaming praying room has an apparent precedence over a grieving widow!

Caught in the same miserable state since 1990, when a grenade attack killed her street vendor husband, Rahat hardly finds any helping hand knocking at her door.

Putting up in Batamaloo’s bustling bazaar, her daily ordeals often go unnoticed. Dejected and depressed, the mother of two even fell off from the balcony of her house, once, injuring her head. But she fought on.

To sustain her family, Rahat would go to neighbours, banks and NGOs for help. It’s because of her long slog for survival that her son manages to earn now. But her ‘indifferent’ neighbours seem to question their clothes and a bike now.

“Probably we’re supposed to stay downtrodden for people to consider us as unfortunate,” says Rahat, grinning. “Instead of helping us get out of the situation, they talk about us being able to eat two times a day. Are we not supposed to have our share of happiness?”

The contemporary Kashmir houses several such widows — fighting a dual battle: one for survival, other against societal hassles.

In Srinagar’s Bagh-e-Mehtab, there lives an elderly woman having no clue of her husband since long now. While she’s not sure of his death, people around refer to her as a widow.

Years ago, Hajra’s husband Ghulam Mohammad Sheikh ran away, leaving her behind, with their daughter. To sustain herself, she worked—still works—as a maid in Kashmiri households. But that does not fetch her much.

After somehow managing to marry off her daughter, she started living with her. But the weight of being a widow often crushes her. In her moment of distress, she hardly finds any helping hand around.

But with too much to take care of and too little on her hands, the septuagenarian widow continues to work as a maid to “at least sustain herself”.

In Sheikh Dawood Colony, Batamaloo, Raja Begum, another widow has been diagnosed with a terminal disease. From past three years, she has been suffering in silence.

“I’ve three unmarried daughters and no earning hand at home,” she says. “I’m too sick to do anything. These are the days of Ramadan. Hoping to get some charity, I asked a neighbour to write an application on my behalf and get some help for us.”

It’s disheartening, she says, to go out and ask for help. “It degrades your self-esteem,” she lowers her gaze, as if in shame. “But if we don’t ask for help, no one will probably turn up.”

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In a society where multiple ‘welfare’ bodies are actively seeking charity from people—especially in the month of Ramzan—such poignant cases show that the much-needed financial help isn’t reaching the most needy. In absence of social support, many widows are compelled to do odd jobs and end up facing social scrutiny.

A war widow seeking justice for her husband’s blood since nineties told me once, “when I needed the society the most, I was given a cold shoulder. And the moment, I decided to be my own help, the same society stopped short of calling me a slut!”

Perhaps for the society fighting for the collective cause, this abandoned state of widows does point out to the fact of the larger apathy. Their pity state persists, despite many of them losing their loved ones for the same collective cause. As hardly anyone bothers to enquire about their state,  many widows suffer in silence.

“I swear we would’ve Haakh (Collard Greens) every single day. It was the only thing that was cheaper,” Maryam says. “We would’ve tea with no milk in it.”

Rising above that indifference, the widow managed to educate her children. And today, her eldest daughter is teaching in a private school after completing her Masters, while her younger son works as a painter.

“Insha Allah, this time shall pass,” Maryam expresses a resolve. “But probably, we’ll never forget how our own people abandoned us—when we needed them the most!”


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