Kashmiri women tell their stories of the conflict.
|flickr / Kashmir Global|
The sheer incongruity of two soldiers in full battle gear standing under Chinar trees whilst women in simple pherans (loose gowns worn over the clothes) and chappals walked across fields on a November afternoon in south Kashmir set me thinking. What is it like to live in what has been termed one of the most militarised zones in the world? While the militancy that began in Kashmir in 1989 has diminished, there are still an estimated 500,000-700,000 security personnel in the state.
What is it like for Kashmir’s women to carry out daily activities under such continuous male scrutiny and such visible symbols of hostility? What were the emotions of the women when their husbands and sons crossed the border into Pakistan and became militants? How did women view the protests of 2008, 2009 and 2010 when young boys came out on the streets and where many of them, including innocents returning home from school or mosque, were killed? What is the meaning of sacrificing for the struggle?
All of this sparked my interest in how militarisation and the conflict affects women, and inexorably influences their cultural and social spaces even when there is no overt violence. The following narratives from Kashmiri women offer some understanding of their struggles. In these oral histories, we see how memory and memorialisation articulate resistance.
Mubeena: “Pick up the pieces yourselves”
I am ensconced in the seemingly serene surroundings of Mubeena’s home in Anantnag district. A government school teacher, Mubeena, recalls a time when nights held no terror. A woman could walk in solitary splendour to enjoy the magic of the moonlight, or carry a samovar – a metal container traditionally used to heat water or tea – to take refreshments to those labouring in the fields. This was a time when women could nonchalantly roll their salwars up to their knees to plant paddy saplings or walk long distances to their vegetable gardens, without having to be accompanied by a male member of the family. A time of relaxed pleasures, when one returned from picnics and social gatherings well after 11 pm.
One of her greatest regrets, Mubeena tells me, is that her son and daughter, who grew up in the 1990s, were denied such childhood joys. “Picnics became rare. My son once returned from a school outing with food uneaten. He told me they hadn’t even got down from the bus because it was getting dark and they had to hurry back.”
Nights became synonymous with crackdowns and cordon-and-search operations. Cordon-and-search operations meant that troops would enter village homes, segregate the men and women, and turn the house upside-down hunting for weapons or militants. These operations provided troops the opportunity to enter households and harass, molest and even rape women with impunity.
Such operations were particularly relentless in 1996, recalls Mubeena. The slow build up of the military matrix meant that her village was now encircled by camps on all four sides. Troops from different regiments took turns to violate the privacy of her home. Demanding to know where militants were holed up, they vandalised her kitchen, smashed utensils and threw her grains and spices on the floor. “One day, after a discussion with other teachers, I left the mess they had created. When some soldiers asked me what happened I told them I was tired of cleaning up. They could continue to inspect the damage inflicted by their fellow soldiers.”
It was Mubeena’s way of staging a protest. Her story resonates with scenes from Where Have you Hidden My New Crescent Moon?, independent filmmaker Iffat Fatima’s documentary film on Mughli, a woman deserted by her husband whose son was picked up by troops and disappeared. In her solitariness, Mughli’s hookah became her solace. In the film she narrates how, during a search, a soldier repeatedly demanded to know where she had hidden the guns until she pulled out her hookah and laughingly said, “Here, this is my gun.”
Such examples demonstrate Kashmiri women’s language of resilience. But some memories are so indelibly seared into the consciousness that they surface again and again. For Mubeena, it is the day when her husband was taken to a stream, along with the other village men, and beaten with sticks until, in the words of a poem by her son Arif Ayaz Parrey, “the last traces of self-respect were rinsed out.” Mubeena also had filthy abuses and taunts hurled at her. She was repeatedly told that people like her who took a government salary had no right to think of azadi (freedom). “They told me ,‘Here is your azadi’, when my husband was brought back and I was ordered to give him a white kurta to cover the wounds.” She also recollects the horror of rushing home, clutching her young daughter to her chest, while the sound of gunfire rang through the area.
Misra : “I gave my son to azadi”
Shopian, in south Kashmir, sprang into the national headlines in 2009 when the bruised bodies of two young women, Nilofar and Asiya, aged 22 and 17 respectively, were found in a small stream between two army checkposts. The spontaneous anger at the alleged rape and murder by security forces brought women out onto the streets, and protests spread like wildfire. When I first visited Shopian in 2011, I was struck by the way people cherished memories of those who had joined the militant movement. The next year, I met the mother of a militant.
Misra welcomes me into her small and sparse home. She recalls the deaths of two of her sons. One, mentally challenged, died of natural causes in 2010. The other, she says, was Tariq Ahmad Shah, who died way back in 1992. With tender warmth she says, “This boy of mine was only 17 when he went across the border along with friends and became a militant. He was martyred shortly after he returned.” She adds, “At that time it was the prevailing sentiment that families with three or four sons should make a sacrifice towards the cause of azadi.”
Her remark provides crucial insight into the mindset of women who accepted the decision of their young children to join the armed struggle. It brings into context the concept of sacrifice and martyrdom in Islam which is pivotal to understanding the struggle for self determination in Kashmir. Historically, the political systems and structures that developed with the spread of Islam have hinged on the need to fight zulm, or injustice. (The root of the word comes from the Arabic zulla, which means to move something from its rightful place.) Those who fight against zulm thus accept, in the spirit of sacrifice, the harm they and others may suffer.
Militants are seen as those who have made this sacrifice and so are accorded the status of martyrs (shaheed). This honour is manifested in the various funereal rites and acts of commemoration upon a shaheed’s death; for instance, the ritual purification bath before burial is not performed since martyrs are considered to already be pure. Their funeral processions become statements of strength and demonstrations of solidarity, with women joining in and singing songs.
It is only recently that a debate has begun about whether such sacrifices achieved anything for Kashmir’s struggle for freedom, but in the 90s families were willing to give up their sons for the cause. Mothers still recount with pride the sacrifices of sons who died without thoughts of tangible gains, stoically shrugging off their own and the family’s sorrow.
Misra’s narrative is matter-of-fact and dignified, even in the face of acute financial distress. Her lone surviving son, Sonu, is a labourer, and is sole provider for seven people. Government officials, Misra claims, made vague promises of succour but never delivered. Nor has she received much help from community institutions.
Misra’s paradoxical expectation of financial aid from the very government her son set out to fight is reflective of the varied expectations of the people towards the state. For simpler folk who retain a feudalistic outlook such expectations do not seem contradictory. But the more politically educated and conscious spurn ex gratia relief or government aid as blood money, and consider it a mark of dishonour.
Soldier under the Chinar tree
Photo: Freny Manecksha
Kulsum: “Tell me what happened to my son”
One woman who spurns monetary compensation for the loss of her son killed in police firing is Kulsum. She brushes aside even the honour bestowed by the state in 2001 on her husband Nazir Ahmed, a retired employee of the Jammu and Kashmir fire service, for his efforts in saving lives when the state assembly was attacked. Kulsum, who has tragically lost all her three sons, echoes her husband’s bitter lament, “It is the poor who are being finished off day by day in the violence that engulfs Kashmir.”
In their home in Shopian, they speak at length although they are busy with preparations for the Haj. For Kulsum, the agony began on 3 March 2003, when her second son Naseer Ahmed left home saying he was going to offer prayers. He has not been seen again. Some in the town believe he joined the militants and was shot dead soon thereafter. Kulsum believes he may have been picked up by security forces and become a victim of custodial violence. The only information of her son’s whereabouts came when their eldest son Nevli Hilal Ahmed received a phone call on 18 August 18 2003 claiming that Naseer had been killed by an army commander. Either way, Naseer has become yet another statistic in the list of ‘enforced disappearances’ in Kashmir. In a double tragedy, Nevli collapsed on receiving news of his brother’s death, and was declared dead of a cardiac arrest at the hospital.
Five years later, Kulsum’s youngest son Sajjad Ahmed, aged 17, lost his life on a Friday as he was returning from his eldest brother’s grave after offering prayers. It was 2008 and turmoil had gripped Kashmir because of the government’s decision to grant more land to the Hindu shrine of Amarnath, which Kashmiri Muslims perceived as a bid to effect a demographic change. Eyewitnesses say Sajjad was not one of the protesters but only a bystander, who rushed to save the masjid from a blaze and was deliberately targeted by the Jammu and Kashmir Police’s feared Special Operations Group, who shot him at close range.
Three months later, police officials came to the house with an official statement insisting that the death had taken place in a different incident the following Saturday. When Nazir approached the police in Shopian he found an FIR had been lodged against him for stone-throwing, and that he and Sajjad had been accused of participating in an attack on an ammunition depot.
Curiously, two years later the distraught parents were informed that they would be offered ex gratia relief of INR 1 lakh for the killing of Sajjad. Kulsum and her husband have recorded in writing their refusal to accept it. “Do not rub salt in our wounds,” they state. “What do we do with their money? We would rather beg.”
In her twilight years Kulsum says she wants nothing save justice. That, and the fulfilment of a mother’s desperate need to know the truth behind her middle son’s disappearance.
Zareena: Slash and burn
Two stately buildings with latticed windows stand out in the village of Laroo in Kulgam district. In one such house – one of the first three brick houses in the district – Zareena and Mohammed Ayub Lone lived with their extended family. Today nothing remains of that building: it was razed by security forces. In their new and more humble dwelling, Zareena envelops me in a hug before she and others of her extended family tell their stories in short, fragmented bursts. Present in the room are Zareena’s husband, her daughter Shaukya, her son, her daughter-in-law and her young grandson.
In 1991, one of Zareena’s sons, Khursheed Ahmed Lone, went across the border. Three years later he returned and began visiting the family secretly. According to Zareena he was “teaching the Koran”. He was perhaps actively involved in a recruitment drive, because by 1996 at least half the population of their village had joined the armed struggle for azadi. Reprisals against the family were swift and brutal. Troops stationed in the area took away Zareena’s husband and tortured him so badly that his leg was permanently damaged. This occurred even though news had already filtered in of the death of their militant son in an encounter near Kellar. Raids on the home and assaults on other family members remained a constant feature. “Soldiers came repeatedly to the home,” recounts Zareena. “They put the gun on my shoulder, demanding to know my son’s whereabouts. They broke all our vessels. One day they razed our house. ”
Like the house, the support systems of family and community also collapsed. The women were left isolated as male members were taken away or forced to go into hiding. “My young son, aged 15, was picked up by troops a day before Eid and taken away with his hands tied behind his back.” Her son did return later, but the incident left its scars. Zareena’s two younger sons fled home to live in Amritsar for a year. A daughter-in-law, who had gone to her parents’ home for the birth of her baby, was not allowed to come back for nearly two years.
Shaukya, Zareena’s youngest daughter, who is unmarried and does embroidery as a means of supplementing the family’s income, chips in with nightmarish recollections of what appears to be an abduction and sexual assault on some of the women in the village. “Troops came in one day and tried to grab me but I managed to run away. My young nephew who was crawling in the vicinity saw them dragging away someone’s wife. We feel he must have been severely traumatised because even today he can barely speak a few sentences.” Shaukya also recounts how, during those years, children were encouraged to act as informers. “The soldiers would distribute ten rupee notes and promise them rewards if they could provide clues of the militants’ whereabouts.”
The process of dehumanisation continues today. “The security forces and administration have instilled such fear that very few dare to associate with us. The sarpanch has not issued us any identity cards.” In the absence of these crucial documents, which all Kashmiris are required to carry at all times, the family members cannot step outside their hamlet. They must remain faceless, anonymous. “We cannot take up employment. We are dependent on mazdoori,” adds Shaukya.
Shirin: Abducted and raped
A 2008 report by Medecin Sans Frontieres, titled Kashmir: Violence and health, notes that “sexual violence is a common strategy to terrorise and intimidate people in conflict but in Kashmir it is an issue that is not openly discussed”. In a small village near Shopian, I meet someone who choses to speak out against such violence.
She greets us warmly, albeit shyly, and begins the process of mehmannavazi (hospitality). She presses upon us platefuls of fresh walnuts and pears. Only after this does she consent for an intermediary to tell her story. She does not want to narrate the details herself but adds she will answer questions or verify facts.
Shirin (name changed) was a schoolgirl of 15 when she was abducted by militants. They had spotted her in her father’s home, where they had come to berate him for the deaths of two other militants who had sought shelter there during an encounter with security forces. Senior commanders of the militant outfit blamed Shirin’s father, and later in the day three militants picked up the girl as she was returning from school. Her parents lodged an FIR at the Zainapora police station when they learnt of the abduction.
A little more than a year later, the police brought Shirin back home. They said she was found hiding in the forests with a three-month-old baby boy after a fierce encounter in which the militants were killed. In reply to questions, Shirin says she believes the three militants who abducted and sexually assaulted her repeatedly over a year were foreigners because they spoke in another language. They were brutal, she adds, and at times beat her savagely, inflicting a serious leg injury. Shirin says that some villagers who tried to intervene and reproach the militants were assaulted and intimidated by these senior commanders.
What is remarkable about Shirin’s story, however, is the manner in which her family and the village tried to deal with complex issues of the young girl’s trauma. Kashmiri activists say it was the village elders who sat down together and decided that finding a groom for Shirin from the village itself would lessen the possibility of stigma against the community. The fact that her abductors, the militants, had all been killed in an encounter helped foster a mature acceptance of what had happened. Significantly, these community support structures seemed to provide a healing touch in the absence of any professional psychiatric services.
“The police told me the case would be closed after taking my statement. People from my village also kept telling me that I should put this chapter of my past behind me and get married,” she says. Eventually a marriage was arranged with the son of the village headman. Shirin seems genuinely happy with her partner and appears comfortable with her role as mother even though her son now lives with her parents and calls her sister. This tactfully resolves the issue of giving legitimacy to the child.
Shirin says her husband too is bonding with the boy, who comes over to her home daily. Like many mothers she voices concern that he may be not eating as much as he should. As we leave she pushes the bag full of pears and walnuts into my hands with touching generosity. I am struck by the calm manner in which this young woman, scarcely out of her teens, refuses to succumb to victimhood. She seems to have been able to move on – to remember without allowing the horror of memory to engulf her.
~ Freny Manecksha is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.
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