The recent rape incident and the subsequent outrage over it once again brought many issues related to Kashmiri women to fore. Despite playing an important part throughout history and standing toe-to-toe with men, women never really received much credit for it. In this first part of a two-part series on Kashmiri women and their struggles, the author tries to map their forgotten journey right from the days of the Raj.
The early chronicles rarely mention any Kashmiri woman, except the high-heeled and those who didn’t ‘cross the line’ set by the society.
There’s no mention of the daily life struggles Kashmir women would go through either.
As Krishna Misri, a noted educationalist and a member of the women’s militia raised in late 1947, says: “A myth of golden age is evoked and this has functionalized as a historical truth. It’s believed that women had reached pinnacles of power in ancient times… Hosts and hosts of woman slaves, attendants, wet-nurses and dasis who kept the palaces and harems going, are voiceless and invisible.”
Women who mirrored the tactics of men are discredited and shown in a bad-light throughout our history, while the men themselves are seen as impeccable rulers who would go to any lengths to secure their Kingdoms.
It’s only due to the people of Kashmir and their folk and oral history that women like Lal Ded, Habba Khatoon and others like them have survived the test of time.
Before 1947, there was stiffer oppression against Kashmiri women. They were, and still are, a huge part of the demonstrations going on in Kashmir since the 1931 uprising. Back to back (July 27 & September 6 are well documented) protests were held by women after the massacre.
“The protesting women were surrounded by the armed police and were ordered to disperse,” Shazia Malik writes in her paper ‘Women’s resistance against the Dogra rule in Kashmir’.
“On their refusal, they were abused, molested, and then killed in large numbers by the agents of the state. Their bodies were recovered from the river in the Srinagar, where they had been dumped by the police.”
After that, Mohammad Saraf notes in his book “Kashmiris Fight For Freedom”, a memorandum was presented to the Maharaja, which said: “Some constables of the training school who were coming towards the city in a lorry, attacked innocent and peaceful Muslim passersby inflicting death on some and injuries on some others… with promulgation of martial law, army wrought havoc on the Muslim passersby; peaceful citizens were forcibly brought out of their homes and tortured and arrested: nothing was left undone to disgrace, dishonor and destroy Muslim homes: women were assaulted and outraged… wherever it was possible, poor men and women were either drowned or strangulated.”
Among those women was Sajida Bano, 25, who, just like her husband, was shot dead during a procession when Dogra military opened fire. She was pregnant and died along with the child on the spot. Another woman, Jan Begum was also killed in that procession.
Begum Bohru, 30, who hurled a Kangri filled with burning charcoal on the face of a Dogra sub-inspector when she heard him abusing her leaders during a demonstration, was shot dead on the spot.
Another brave Kashmiri woman Zoon Bibi Mujahida was jailed nine times and received punishments by way of taxes to be given to the Maharaja’s government for her activism. Her teeth were broken, she was abandoned by her husband and her family and her nine-year-old son was also shot dead during her imprisonment.
There were also activists like Jan Ded, Fatima, Khat Ded, Fatima Raja Kacher, Zainub Begum, Mehmuda Ahmad Ali and hundreds of other forgotten women who gave immense sacrifices for the cause.
The conditions remained somewhat the same until the fall of the Dogra rule.
Even though a lot of progress was made during the era of Naya Kashmir but as Hafsa Khwaja points out in her article “The New Kashmiri Women” that most of it was state-sponsored feminism done for the state’s own benefit and was curtailed whenever it went against their stand or tried to act independently.
During the era of Plebiscite Front, Kashmiri women, almost entirely from the lower-class would hold, as well as lead protests. A political commentator, Nazir Ahmed explained this strategy to Insha Malik during an interview for her book Muslim Women, Agency and Resistance Politics: The Case of Kashmir, as: “In a traditional “honour” and “shame” society such as Kashmir, in public spaces men are forced to respect women. As a result, it was more favourable to send women to defy curfews and bans, in case a police action ensued, it would be too violent for men. Thus, uneducated women supported the front and helped the movement in such extreme situations.”
As Insha Malik rightly points out next, these women were merely seen as mass protesters—employed strategically for a cause by the leadership and forgotten later on, unlike the elite women who had circles of supportive networks around them. She also details how frustrated they are thinking of how they have been side-lined and their sacrifices misused.
Many organisations like Dukhtaran-e-Milat (DeM) and Muslim Khwateen Markaz (MKM) also came out during the late 80s and early 90s to voice the issues of the Kashmiri women.
While Dukhtaran would release audios, study material, pamphlets for women and take out processions demanding a Caliphate or merger with Pakistan, MKM published posters, spread awareness about sexual violence so that people could identify it. It also documented and provided relief to the victims and trained their activists as first-aid providers to be helpful in cases of emergency.
MKM activists would also hide cameras under their Pheran while secretly visiting far-flung regions of Kashmir and recording the incidents of army’s abuses.
Anjum Zamruda Habib, who headed MKM and was a founding member of Hurriyat, was arrested (on February 6, 2003) and put under solitary confinement for five years of vigorous jail term in New Delhi’s Tihar Jai. On her release, she founded the Association of Families of Kashmiri Prisoners (AFKP).
AFKP provides psycho-social support to the families of Kashmiri prisoners held in Indian jails, as well as tracking and documenting their cases, while Asiya Andrabi is currently lodged in Tihar.
In a recent interview with Peoples Dispatch, Anjum said there was and still is no discussion on women’s issues in Hurriyat which disappoints her and that is why she tries to raise the issue in her own capacity.
Farida Dar, who founded and headed The J&K Mass Movement was also imprisoned and tortured for seven years at Tihar Jail after being framed in the 1996 Lajpat Nagar blasts, until her acquittal in 2010.
Her organisation was one of the first to reach out to the victims of sexual violence perpetrated by the state. Her house used to be raided from time to time, due to which she and her activists used to work from undisclosed locations and rented rooms.
As per Farida, the mass movement in the 90s would have been impossible without the participation of Kashmiri women who “worked as its bedrock”.
In 1994, Parveena Ahangar, a mother of a 17-year-old-boy who disappeared in custody of the Indian armed forces, started the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), an organisation of the relatives of the disappeared Kashmiris. The members of the APDP come together every month at Srinagar’s Pratap Park to protest in a silent sit-in, asking the whereabouts of their kith and kin.
APDP not only works to raise awareness about the disappearances in Kashmir but also uses whatever funds it can garner as relief for those who are looking for their disappeared ones.
The body of a woman has always been a battleground for different ideologies to fight their war on throughout history. And it gets even more severe in a conflict where women are seen as the repositories of ‘honour’ of the community. Violation of this ‘honour’ thus results in loss of the actual honour and respect for the women while in the case of men it’s just treated as an unfortunate incident/torture technique; Kunan and Poshpora being a stark example of it.
Not only have Kunan and Poshpora hamlets found it hard to get their youngsters (children) married but they have, and are, also facing discrimination and stigmatisation in other phases (spheres) of their lives. The stigma of the night of February 23, 1991 runs so deep, that even after JKLF’s intervention, only a couple of men took back their wives.
Speaking to a women’s group, a rape survivor said that she begged her husband to forgive her, for a sin she had never committed, but he refused. He refused to take her back because he saw her as ‘polluted/defiled’ by another man (Women’s Voices from Kashmir, p. 83) while men of Poshpora lament the fate that befell ‘their’ women.
Yet, when asked whether they would marry women from another village where women had been raped, they refuse categorically (Gender and Militarisation in Kashmir, p. 155).
“For most Kashmiris sexual violence is considered an inappropriate and difficult to discuss topic,” a Médecins Sans Frontières report notes.
“Nevertheless a rather high percentage of respondents—11.6—in comparison to other conflict areas—said they had experienced a violation of their modesty since 1989. […] Almost two-thirds of the people interviewed (63.9 per cent) had heard over a similar period about cases of rape, while one in seven had witnessed rape.”
While statements and condemnations do come out from time to time, nobody really cares to find what these women really go through. Those who are raped still remain stigmatised and struggle to keep going on.
A recent study found out that 98% of the half-widows (2,000-2,500 in total) in Kashmir have a monthly income of less than Rs 4,000 per month. It also revealed that 65% of the half-widows live in houses with minimum amenities. Around 95% of these half-widows could not search for their husband due to various limitations.
Most of them, if not all, stripped of their property rights, live in extreme conditions with their children. They cannot ask for compensation from the government, because they do not know if their husbands are alive or dead. These are grief-stricken Kashmiri women have refused to touch even a rupee of the compensation offered in exchange for the sacrifices of their own and yet they have been forgotten.
When women of Kunan-Poshpora questioned the conscience of the Kashmiri society and asked why women who had been raped were not being accorded the same status as martyrs but of lepers in front of a packed hall, on June 22, 2013, it sent shivers down the spine of the people present.
Even then, some of these Kashmiri women continue to face indifference and forgetfulness.
And now, ever so often, the monster is coming back to haunt.
Read the part two of the series here.
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