Living on the edge

Print edition : December 14, 2012

A conference in Srinagar highlights the issues faced by women in militancy-ridden Kashmir and suggests ways to mitigate their misery.

in Srinagar

Parveena Ahangar, whose son went missing 22 years ago, speaks at the conference. Seated are (from left) Seema Mustafa, director, Centre for Policy Analysis, and Gul Wani, professor of political science, Kashmir University.-TARIQ SALEEM

THEY are called half-widows. The term, a peculiar one, has been crafted to describe the specific situation of women in Kashmir today. Caught between the militants and the security forces, women in Kashmir have been leading an edgy existence for the past two decades. The fact that the rest of India does not fully comprehend the situation makes their plight worse.

Parveena Ahangar is the mother of a boy who was picked up in 1990 when he was 16; his whereabouts are still unknown. In 1994, she, along with some other victims, founded the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons. Apart from sons, the list has husbands as well. With no news confirming the deaths of their husbands, hundreds of women in the valley have been labelled half-widows.

One angle that gets missed out in conflict situations, involving either state or non-state actors, is their devastating impact on women. The tragedy is that every incident involving women and the armed forces becomes a ground for reinforcing the secessionist demand. The role of the Indian state in all this is ambivalent.

In recent times, there has been more focus on the collateral damage caused to sections of Kashmiri society. A two-day conference in Srinagar on Peace and justice for Kashmiri women, organised by the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Analysis along with national womens organisations, highlighted the concerns of Kashmiri women. The conference was a continuation of similar consultations held in February and July this year. The participating womens organisations were the All India Democratic Womens Association (AIDWA), the Joint Womens Programme, the National Federation of Indian Women and the Young Womens Christian Association.

Given the special circumstances that had a role in exacerbating the conditions of Kashmiri women, a resolution was passed demanding demilitarisation, withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and the Public Safety Act, immediate trial and punishment of security personnel and others accused of rape and molestation, rehabilitation measures for widows and half-widows such as employment schemes for them, compilation of data of missing persons, appointment of an inquiry commission under a judge and experts to look into the specific conditions of the women of Kashmir, and the setting up of medical facilities in Srinagar and other towns in the State. While some studies had been undertaken by individuals and non-governmental organisations on the specific problems faced by Kashmiri women, no such endeavour has been made by the State or Central government.

It is a humanitarian issue. It could apply anywhere in the world, said a student of Kashmir University, where the conference was held. The university was the perfect venue as women comprise more than 50 per cent of its student strength.

Short-sighted approach

A vociferous group among Kashmiri women has maintained that resolution of the conflict and self-determination for Kashmir are central to tackling any issue concerning Kashmiri women. It is accepted that addressing the situation of Kashmiri women alone cannot lead to a resolution of the on-going conflict. However, it was felt at the conference that the womens issue could not be neglected any more.

The demand for self-determination led to the denial of all rights. Aspects of civilian life were replaced by military institutions, said Hameeda Nayeem, an activist. She said the problems of Kashmiri women had to be seen in the wider context of the Kashmir problem. In the existing situation, any discourse on the democratic rights of Kashmiri women appeared self-defeatist, she said.

In the countryside, she said, personnel of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) frisked civilians not once, but ten times. On occasions, the undergarments of the women frisked would also be displayed, she said. We are a conservative and patriarchal society. When these things happen, women do not talk about them but they go through tremendous trauma, she said. What made matters worse was that because of the peculiar situation in the valley, there was no proper documentation either by the government or by NGOs of such violations.

A SECTION of the audience at the conference.-T.K. RAJALAKSHMI

Now distinctions are being drawn between the violence perpetrated by men in uniform and by the freedom fighters. It was shocking to hear an academic express such a view at the conference. She argued that rape committed by a freedom fighter was merely for his sexual gratification, but such an offence committed by state forces had a power element to it.

It is worrisome that a section of the male students, too, believes in such a distinction and argues that the violence against women cannot be compartmentalised in the larger context of the demand for self-determination. When you divide the victims, you divide the resistance and strengthen the occupation. One violation leads to other violations, said a youth, drawing loud cheers from the audience. It had to be pointed out by a panellist that the violence and perpetrators in both instances had the common element of unequal power in relationships and that the plea of sexual gratification was inexcusable and unacceptable. Striking a moderate note, Gul Wani, a professor of political science at the university, said a regional perspective could not be assigned to such actions, and structures of oppression were common to South Asia.

Poverty and violence

The fact remains that whether women were victimised by the militants or by the armed forces, they were victims. A socio-economic study of widows and half-widows in Ganderbal district, conducted by Effat Yasmeen and Farah Qayoom of the Department of Political Science of the university, showed how every aspect of daily life had been impacted by the armed conflict. Not only were women found to be the worst sufferers, but they had become the indirect victims of arrest, torture, disappearance, displacement and loss of loved ones, and direct victims of the physical violence of rape, abduction and murder, noted the introduction to the study. While on the one hand, the prolonged conflict had caused an immeasurable breakdown in terms of services, education, job opportunities and social support systems, thus causing hardships of a certain nature, on the other, mental disorders such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorders were on the rise, the study said. Medical specialists who spoke at the conference corroborated the findings, citing how the pressure on government hospitals had increased. Cases of bipolar disorder, panic, phobia, anxiety and sleep disorders had gone up at Srinagars Psychiatric Diseases Hospital, they said.

The study was conducted in three blocks of Ganderbal district among 15 women in the age group of 18 to 40 years; the mean age of these women when their husbands were picked up was 29 years. All the women were poor, and some lived in abject poverty, according to the surveyors. The monthly income of 98 per cent of the respondents was below Rs.2,000. The sources of income were either a paltry ex-gratia payment from the government, or self-employment. They worked as domestic help, or were engaged in seasonal labour and occasional handicraft work. There was practically no monetary support from NGOs. These households were headed by women, a new phenomenon in the valley. The women faced considerable social stigma and had to give religious and social functions a miss.

Among them, the one with the highest educational qualification was Rozy Jan, a graduate; the others were either illiterate or had done a few years in school.

In almost all the cases, the whereabouts of their husbands had been unknown for 10 years or more, the study said. The youngest among them were three women, aged 35, and they lived in the hope that their husbands would return some day. According to them, agencies held responsible for the disappearances included the Special Task Force, the Border Security Force, and the Indian Army. Unidentified gunmen were behind more than 50 per cent of the disappearances.

Almost all the women suffered from high blood pressure, anxiety, palpitation, and sleep disorders. Dr Arshad Hussain, a psychiatrist at the Government Medical College in Srinagar, said that the hospital had recorded 1.5 lakh patient visits last year. He noted that depression was one of the most common disorders prevalent in Kashmiri society.

Sitting on a tinderbox

The problem is not merely one of providing succour and relief to the victims. That justice is being done needs to be felt by the populace, especially the women, who bear the brunt of all excesses, military and militant. The earliest documented violence was in 1990 at Mohreepora in Anantnag district where a bus carrying a wedding procession was stopped and fired at, and the women, including the bride, gang-raped. This was followed by the rape of more than 30 women in Kuman Poshpora village by Army personnel in 1992. The rape and murder of two women, Neelofer and Aysia, in Shopian in 2009 threw the valley into a state of turmoil once again. The victims of Mohreepura, said a youth, were still waiting for justice; neither have the culprits of the 1992 case been apprehended. For months after the Shopian incident, he said, the valley remained in a state of siege, with anger seething beneath.

It is like a tinderbox. It just needs a trigger, and the so-called peace will collapse, said a social scientist, not willing to be identified. Kashmiri women do not feel secure with the armed personnel or the freedom fighters, he added. A large number of women and girls have been killed by gunmen for allegedly having ties with security personnel or being of loose morals, he said. Very recently, two young sisters from Sopore were killed by gunmen who said they were agents of the security forces. Later, it was found that they were killed because of some personal rivalry. A young woman from Chagolpara Noorabad in Kulgam district and another from Haram Shopian were also killed for having loose morals, he said.

There is a strong resentment as well as a sense of helplessness. At the same time, there is a desire for normalcy. Given a chance, the majority of the youngsters in the State would like to pursue their dreams like their peers elsewhere. The problem is that life is only just about normal, and on the edge, always.

* * * LIVE BITES

T.K. RAJALAKSHMI

Everyone is of the view that there should be some movement forward. In New Delhi, they jump to the conclusion that if Kashmiris ask for bijli (electricity) and paani (water), there is no need to talk about rights. The youth feel that the right to self-determination has to be attained peacefully. However, there is no understanding about what needs to be done. The interlocutors created more confusion. On a small issue like the AFPSA [Armed Forces Special Powers Act], the government is not willing to move forward.

Whether it is the Hurriyat or Syed Ahmed Shah Geelani, the view is that there is not much hope in engaging with New Delhi as there is no clarity about what it wants to do. There is a need to engage the leadership of Kashmir. The Chief Minister is okay, but there is this question of credibility and accountability too. It appears as if there is no concern about the disappeared persons, human rights and unmarked graves. There is no clarity in Pakistan as well on how it wants to move. It has invited the Hurriyat, but there is no clarity. From a peoples point of view, there should be opportunities for them to interact.

Issues concerning women are important but the political issue remains paramount. There is no accountability from the governments side; it says it has no resources. We do not have the Juvenile Justice Act here. That is a big issue. It is for the policymakers to decide whether a political initiative is to be made. If they say militancy has gone down, then they should start thinning the troops from the countryside. But, instead, they have deployed more CRPF personnel on the excuse of the Amarnath yatra. The Army is now entering the arena of providing services. Several NGOs have also come up with government support and they are trying to push the Barelvi thought of religion to counter the Wahabi sects.

There is no mechanism to deal with issues relating to women. If we need to do something, then we need to get ourselves registered as an NGO. That is not easy. We do not have vocal womens organisations raising these issues. A few individuals are raising this, though.

Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, chairman, Hurriyat Conference.
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