Dated 2019-04-23

Kashmiri Women: Realities beyond Conflict

There is no denying how women are suffering as a result of unending conflict, but that isn’t just about it. A heavily lopsided patriarchal structure ensures they continue to suffer in every other possible form.

After attending the launch function of a book about Kashmiri women in August, I kept revisiting the discussion about Kashmiri women and their lived experiences that took place at the venue. As much as one would like to hold the increased violence and militarized nature of Kashmiri society responsible for a high violence against women, the fact also remains that ours is a highly patriarchal society wherein women suffer not only due to the institutional oppression by the state apparatus, but all possible forms of gender based violence(s) that are very much present in the society. Stating this will threaten a movement and/or a community that is not ready to work towards gender justice.


Paul D’souza’s 2015 study about how half-widows living in a perpetual liminality is only one such example. Having interviewed hundreds of half-widows across Kashmir, D’souza’s study breaks down the myth that violence against women in Kashmir is only committed by the state apparatus. It is the overly patriarchal society in Kashmir that never allows a half-widow, for example, to cope with her trauma, ensuring that she stays in that liminal position for the rest of her life. In comparison, D’souza observes that conflict in Sri Lanka pushed women into empowering roles of running their household, navigating on their own the social web and creating in them an ability that was missing before the enforced disappearance of their husbands, which in Kashmir is not exactly the case due to the highly patriarchal societal values. One can’t dismiss this study as coffee table rhetoric or selective scholarship as it is based on responses from 150 households of half- widows spread across 140 villages and towns in Jammu and Kashmir, and painstakingly notes the multiple vulnerabilities they face across five dimensions – social, economic, gender, cultural and health. One of the many  findings is that around 92% of half-widows experience moderate to high vulnerability across all dimensions, especially on account of their gender (71%) and economic status(67%).


Denying patriarchy and its myriad manifestations is only a privilege which male gender enjoys. Sometimes this denial in women and girls is a result of a lack of consciousness around gender identity. Most NGO’s that claim to work for women in the valley do not go beyond providing women menial jobs, providing them money and important supplies as charity or arranging weddings for them. At the level of knowledge creation, there’s a huge vacuum in and around gender identity. Hence denying any gender-based discrimination is the easiest and the most convenient way, also because a discussion on gender leads to a fear of sidelining of the political concerns in the Kashmiri society. It is pertinent to mention that there is as much silence about gender based violence as there is consciousness of a strong Kashmiri political identity. Interestingly, whereas both are not antithetical to each other, they are perceived as inherently oppositional. The purpose here is to explore such less known narratives without seeing them in opposition to the violence perpetrated on women by the state apparatus or trivialising it.


In my understanding, seeing the violence due to conflict and other gender based violence(s) in opposition is one of the many excuses to resist women’s attempts to reclaim and demand power and position in any area of life, political or personal, particularly in a society that has survived conflict and violence. Alice Walker’s book, The Color Purple, is a classic example which was rejected by Afro-Americans only because the main protagonist in the book written by a Black woman, a Black man, abused his wife. Black community could not resist the portrayal of a Black man as a perpetrator, especially when Black men and women were fighting the bigger battle against racism. Later, in the Civil Rights movement in America, was the importance of The Color Purple realized when the idea of intersectionality revealed that Black women not only experienced racism at the hands of White men and Women but also survived sexism (gender based oppression) at the hands of Black men and White men. I often feel that this analogy aptly describes the lived experience of any Kashmiri woman, whose oppression is multi-sided. I was reminded of Alice Walker’s novel when a lame argument about the global occurrence of gendered violence was made at the book launch in a laughing manner, trivialising the degree and severity of the issues of gender based violence.


Indeed, violence against women is almost universal, but so is the presence of conflicts in societies, civil and political. They occur everywhere in the world: from Ireland to Algeria and from Rwanda to Bosnia. If a near universality of a conflict situation doesn’t warrant our accepting it as the normal, same must go for gender based violence and abuse in any society, especially if the society is fighting for a larger political identity.


Violence and abuse have been defined very broadly by the United Nations which does not limit understanding violence and abuse just to a physical assault, battery or sexual touch. There are many and multiple narratives of violence, struggle and survival of women in Kashmir that need to be heard, even if we are not ready to listen to them yet.



Political Sociology

I have often heard people discuss with disapproval the increasing rate of divorce in a conservative society like Kashmir while they fear that the institution of marriage is breaking apart exposing the society’s moral corruption.


As I tried to look up the actual figures, to my disappointment, there’s no proper research that suggests the actual quantum of increase in divorce rate in Kashmir, much like a lack of proper data about anything else in Kashmir, more so a social phenomenon. Politics in Kashmiri society is obviously the frontrunner and any sociological event or phenomenon is valued based on its political mileage. Unfortunately, the same is the case of Kashmiri women and the violence and abuse they suffer. Pro-freedom camp discusses it only when state is the perpetrator and State discusses it in a bid to be Kashmiri women’s saviours and demonising the Kashmiri community as an inherently violent society, more so for being Muslim. In such  complicated, incomplete and selective narratives, Kashmiri women not only suffer the gendered abuse and military oppression but an intersection of the two, which is not a simple summation of the violence(s) but plays out in much more complicated and complex ways, that needs to be acknowledged.


For a project ‘Women and Violence’ that I am currently working on, I interviewed many women to understand what they have to put up with as Kashmiri women. One important theme that my work wasn’t focused on stood out. It was the marriages.


Two Classic Cases

I spoke to Gulafshan from uptown Srinagar who got divorced after four years of marriage. She has a 3-year old girl child whose maintenance as per the law is her father’s responsibility, more so because Gulafshan is not financially independent. Gulafshan caught her husband cheating on her with multiple women. Once confronted, he beat up Gulafshan. He wouldn’t come home till midnight, he would not give her any time and attention, he would demand dowry and at the same time he would continue exchanging text messages with his girlfriends which Gulafshan saw many a time. She sought divorce and after a lot of persuasion by Gulsafshan’s family, the man let her go from an abusive marriage. He is now refusing to pay maintenance for his daughter and threatens to disown her.


Would the society which is so threatened by the high divorce rate expect Gulsafshan to tolerate and accept her husband’s betrayal and abuse? The expectation of our society from sharamdaar – honorable – women is still that they will leave their husband’s homes only at the time of death, for their qabr – grave, meaning thereby that they shall prefer dying at their husband’s doorstep to returning to their parental home.

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Returning of divorced women to their parental home is a financial burden on parents and male siblings. In order to mask this materialistic concern, many women who come to their parental homes after being abused in marriages, are sent back to their perpetrators in the name of saving family honour.

Dilafroza went through a similar ordeal. Her husband abandoned her after she delivered their second child. He never came to take her home after her second delivery. Dilafroz stayed at her parents’ place for about a year. The very custom is offensive in which pregnant women during the last leg of pregnancy go to their parental place, highlighting the societal belief that daughter-in-law is a free labour and during her pregnancy, when she’s unable to labour at in-laws, she’s her parents’ responsibility.


Dilafroz’s brothers and their respective families started worrying. Mohalla committee was involved, which is an all-male group of supposedly respected men in the community, who have no idea or sensitivity of a woman’s experiences, in most cases. I often feel that there’s a need for educated and publicly known women to volunteer to be a part of mohalla committees. After all women’s voices must be acknowledged and valued. Mohalla committee sent Dilafroz back to her perpetrator husband and in-laws to the relief of her siblings. After all, the honour of the family was restored which is seen to be dented with having a woman at her father’s home, whether unmarried or divorced.


In a matter of few months, Dilafroz’s body was recovered from Jhelum. Her family is sure that it is a case of murder as her in-laws were cruel, which it was in know of at the time of facilitating her reconciliation. Her husband and in-laws are on bail and are busy contesting the version of Dilafroz’s brothers that it was a murder. They insist that Dilafroz committed suicide. The conditions of suicide, if that be the case, are equally their responsibility. In fact the  mohalla committee which did not hear Dilafroz’s ordeal, her siblings who feared keeping her home, the society which shut Dilafroz’s mouth in order to be seen as a respectable woman, who prefers dying than returning to her maika, are all responsible for Dilafroz’s death. Which court shall try them? Will those who lament increased divorce rates still justify being in abusive marriages over divorces?


Does empowering women break marriages?


The question then arises: shouldn’t an oppressive marriage with a skewed power dynamics, in which one partner is subject to physical, mental, emotional and often financial control and subordination, be more of a worry for a civilised and justice seeking society than women trying to assert and be independent? This often takes us to the larger terrain of civilizational values. Women empowerment is still seen as a Western construct adopting which, our society fears, will lead to breakage of otherwise successful marriages. A shallow understanding of the societal realities may even seem to suggest that empowerment of women leads to breaking homes. The fact remains, if marriages are based on oppression of a woman and the woman gets conscious and empowered to understand and fight the oppression and makes way out of such a bond, then surely such marriages will break. And whoever claims that oppressive marriages should continue despite a woman’s being controlled and abused is in favour of injustice. And a society so sensitive about human rights, political freedoms and self-determination cannot afford to trivialise such values when it comes to the conduct of personal lives.


What exactly is wrong?


People still continue to marry across the world despite soaring rates of divorce and other acceptable (non-marital) cohabiting arrangements. The new-age marriage has to come with respect and value for each other, sharing of household, societal and financial responsibilities with equal accountability in order to survive.


This summer season, when many of my friends got married in and around the city of Srinagar, I observed that the amount of mehr/dower is much less than the value of other gifts exchanged – gold to be precise. Dower is a security in Muslim marriages that tends to give some power to women in marriage. A husband is obliged to give dower to the bride as per his financial strength, which guarantees a financial support to the bride and in case of the dissolution of marriage becomes a financial support to women. Here it is important to understand that Muslim marriages are contracts unlike Hindu marriages wherein a marriage is defined as the union of two souls. A contract is an agreement reached between two consenting parties.


At one wedding, my friend, the bride, was not even consulted by her otherwise educated and rich parents for her marriage. And here she was happy in dressing up as a beautiful bride with a lot of expensive makeup and gold ornaments. The aesthetics behind the bridal get up, if understood from a critical point of view, signify two things: beautification of a woman to please her husband and the display of her family wealth and status. A bride’s body particularly on the wedding day is used to highlight these two aspects aimed at pleasing two men, husband and father, instead of empowering her as an individual who is at the doorsteps of a new role in her life.


Hence began the journey of an educated woman who was objectified to reinforce her relational existence of being a wife and a daughter. At her nikah and other nikahs that I attended, we, women guests and even the women from family, did not even hear the  khutbah of the nikah. Ideally, the learned person who solemnizes a Muslim marriage delivers a lecture on the importance of marriage, the right conduct and etiquette in a marriage. Unfortunately, like everything else in Kashmir, nikah was an all-male affair with men reciting verses, men listening, men nodding and men agreeing. Women in the adjacent room were told to remain quiet while the khutbah was being delivered. As if the bride was not at all a part of the event, or as if women audience were unimportant in the legally and religiously most important part of the wedding.


At another wedding, I told the bride, my friend, to rest well as it is was stressful event. The conversations went on to take a lighter turn where the first night was jokingly discussed by friends, all of them well educated. One of them went on to say that no matter how tired a bride is, groom does not let her rest on the first night. On such a callous comment, I asked if it didn’t amount to marital rape if the wife didn’t consent. The light talk drifted to something else and the topic was clearly avoided. A facade of giggles and apparent light talk followed. My question was left unanswered only leaving me with a curiosity as to what the rate of marital rapes would be in the community and if such usage would even be accepted to describe non-consenting physical act.


It was too hard a question for our society which still thinks that it is a taboo to discuss rights, particularly sexual rights of a woman, despite following a religion, that lays bare all the rights and duties of its followers in all possible human associations, be it property rights (which is violated big time when it comes to girls), marital etiquettes (which are again tilted in favour of male gender) and even describes dua, a prayer, that a Muslim should make while consummating a marriage. In such a context, it might come as a surprise that the other day a young entrepreneur was verbally abused on Facebook when he dared mention that a customer forgot some packages that contained sanitary napkins in his restaurant.


In marriages, daughters-in-law are still considered as commodities. I met at least four women who, during our interaction, told me how their husbands and in-laws demand their salaries, thinking of them as financially imprudent and incapable, thus maintaining a control even on financially independent women. No surprise that in the past month five well educated women committed suicide in Kashmir valley. These narratives are important to unearth if the society genuinely thinks of women as equal human beings and not as mere pawns.

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Daughters-in-law are also considered as people who shall please in-laws even if their own sons have generally not succeeded in pleasing their parents. At least, ten of the interviewees told me that despite working outside of their homes, the kitchen, clothes, ironing, cleaning and all other home chores and child rearing work is still seen as their primary domain, whereas their husbands come from office and lie down to watch TV or take a nap. One interviewee Sabreena said that while she is working in kitchen, and her husband is taking care of their daughter, her husband would call her when the baby poops in her diaper, in order for her to clean the poop. She was upset with it, whereas many other women, who I asked if their husbands helped them at home thought that it is only normal for the husbands to do so. They were grateful that at least men help with heavy work like a monthly cleaning of the home or like.


A lady, Nadiya, who had a baby of 11 months said that her mother-in-law would not allow her son to take care of the crying baby. Her mother in law called Nadiya to pat the baby and calm it down, even when her own son (kid’s father) was around. Once Nadiya dared say that he (husband) can keep an eye on the baby as she was in the middle of cooking food. That was seen as a sin major enough for Nadiya to bear taunts and tantrums of the whole family for a few weeks. On every meal, she informed me, they would discuss how disobedient modern girls are, how child is a woman’s responsibility and stuff like that. Her husband also got upset with Nadiya for replying back to his mom, Nadiya’s mother in law. This is only one instance, Nadiya told me. She said that if she didn’t have a child, she would have wanted to dissolve such a marriage where she didn’t feel as part of the family and has no voice.


Nadiya’s assertion of having no voice and continuing in marriage for the sake of children was repeated by a few other women. Society understands this as lack of patience or obedience on part of women, whereas the reality is that each time and era has its own norms and values. As functionalists argue, material changes come faster than cultural changes, we take time to accept new values even though many of us take no time to accept social media, cell phones, faster cars etc. And in the cultural milieu also, a  woman who is seen as a guardian and conservator of the culture, is not expected to change on the lines on which man’s changing is acceptable, which in turn means two things. One, we as society burden a woman with such a responsibility in which she is bound to fail, culture is fluid and porous and a woman alone can’t prevent it from changing and in most cases resisting such change is unwarranted. Two, the same new values that seem alright for men to adopt become a taboo for women. Some small examples could be the choice of clothes. When the jeans on a man since three decades has not become a sign of Western culture, how come does it become so immediately when a woman tries it on? How is smoking by men alright and not by women, for example? Such moral double-standards in many more quotidian realities leaves stricter gender roles complaining over, which is not seen as respectable.


How institutions enforce age-old gender dynamics?

If a marriage is based on a woman’s free labour, her control, abuse and a constant devaluation, how just is that marriage? And how is one wrong in wanting to quit such a bond?


And the institutions which are constructed to safeguard women’s individual rights have also interestingly been moulded to suit the dominant societal values prevalent in Kashmir. For instance, in a mediation cell in the newly constructed lower court building in Bemina, the sign reads: “Why dream about him when you can have him?” Mind you, this is referring to a woman, reinforcing a societal message that she should want her husband back, oblivious to whatever caused the discord in the first place. It is also necessary that a woman has to dream of getting back with him, no matter what. What if he is a criminal? What if he beats her? What if he has abandoned her or been cruel to her? From the same law court, one easily knows that these are some of the common reasons why marital discord begins in the first place and the help the institution offers is not based on justice or equality but on a woman’s role of a poor victim who only wants to save her marriage. In a news report published in February 2014, some official from the State Women’s Commission was quoted to have said that their priority is to save marriages and also 2500 cases were registered in the year 2014 from the valley of Kashmir, which is a record high.


In a similar visit to the women’s police station, I found out that the stress is not on following legal framework and registering cases such that a strict reinforcement of law leads to decreased incidents of violence against women. Ironically, the focus is on compromise and reconciliation on part of a woman, in paranoia of an attack on the institution of marriage.


Marriage at the cost of dignity and life?


Human relationships certainly demand effort, patience, willingness and sometimes compromise as well, but all this cannot come from a woman only. Had it been the story of a few women, one could see it as an aberration, but this is a norm in our society where most  women still do not have  individuality, independence and importance in decision making, be it in quotidian affairs of life or some major decisions. One can highlight a few women stone pelters as agentic women and take pride in women being increasingly politically conscious but the same cannot be done on cost of ignoring the fact that women still have no say in decision making at homes: about their own education, their marriage, their everyday mobility and also in family’s important decisions. There are a few studies conducted of late by female Kashmiri researchers that categorically and empirically prove it.


If women’s empowerment in a society automatically leads to higher rate of divorce, then it is the time for the society to closely inspect and introspect its institution of marriage and its framework. May be it is time to mould it in favour of women, to give women those rights which religion and legal framework provides in theory but the patriarchal society is still failing to guarantee the same. Change is the law of nature and a change in an institution which brings equality and justice and prevents breakage of a family is far better than an expectation of the society to burden a woman’s back with the onerous institution of an oppressive conduct called marriage.


P.S:  Many readers might retort saying that they have heard enough about the rhetoric of women’s rights as was the murmur in the book launch itself. Yes, indeed. There’s much talk globally, now it is time to act locally.

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