Voicing vulnerability

THE beautiful women of Kashmir speak out in this book — their voices reliving the horrors they have been experiencing in the region's fight for "freedom". Back in June 1990, Sara Bano of Srinagar wrote in the Daily Alsafa News: "During the struggle for freedom we have witnessed things which have no bearing on the movement." This is what the book highlights.

Kashmir, the "paradise on earth", has burnt for over a decade but few books, articles and discussions have focussed on the ignoble acts of violence that the women are suffering. They remain voiceless and faceless, their situation continues to be unrecognised, unreported. Here, rape, and gang rape, is used as an instrument of war. Sexual molestation is demanded as a right by the security forces, the militants and the renegades (local name for militants who have "surrendered for peace"). Women are forced to marry "foreign militants" from across the border, even at gunpoint. Women bring up children born out of rape. The married ones get beaten at the slightest pretext by their husbands for being "impure" after a rape. Family life is under threat as women find it difficult to trust their own brothers, husbands, fathers and sons, many of whom take to militancy by choice or are forced to do so by other militants.

This book echoes the silent screams of these women of Kashmir. In this war-torn region, religion offers no protection. Women, whether Muslim, Hindu, Sikh or Ladakhi, face indignity, flagrant violation of their basic rights and humiliation. And what about the women who have been forced to flee Kashmir? Here again, religion is no safeguard. As refugees, it does not matter whether they stay in Muslim camps or Hindu camps. They all face a hostile environment and lack of basic amenities, privacy and security. The Kashmiri community has disintegrated and women are finding it more and more difficult to come to terms with the new realities imposed upon them.

Can they hope for the re-creation of a new community? The essays in this book explore women's yearnings for normalcy, for peace. Kushboo, 15, knows she cannot go to school everyday like her elder sister did because of frequent hartals, crackdowns and curfew. Yet she studies with her mother so that she is able to take her exams. Girls are still attending schools and colleges. Nusrat Andrabi, principal of the Government Women's College, Navakadal, says girls' education continues to be emphasised among the Muslims, in contrast to the more conservative Muslims of Uttar Pradesh. The Kashmiri Pandits have always upheld girls' education and boasted of the highest literacy rate among Kashmiri women in more peaceful times.

Essay after essay narrates poignant "stories" of women's sufferings that have no bearing on the struggle for "freedom". In hospitals, for instance, security forces raid women's wards, labour rooms while deliveries are being done and operating theatres during surgery with scant regard for hospital rules or privacy. In Batmaloo, a locality in Srinagar, women had taken out a procession in June 1990 to protest against the district police chief "who came to the area only to ogle at the women" and targeted women during raids and search operations. Women participating in the procession were hit with rifle butts to force them back. Women wonder how wearing, or not wearing, a burqa or sticking a bindi, affect the struggle for freedom?

In such an atmosphere, it is not surprising that women-related social indices are plummeting. For example, there is much more of domestic violence today. The maternal mortality rate has increased and so has the incidence of stress, trauma, depression, spontaneous abortions and miscarriages among women. A study, done by the Department of Sociology, Kashmir University, on suicides in this idyllic valley has revealed that women are the most vulnerable group, accounting for over 77 per cent of the reported suicides.

Then there are thousands of "half-widows" whose husbands are "missing" and their plight is not recognised by society or by the government. The question uppermost in these women's minds is whether they can remarry? After how many years of waiting? They are entitled to compensation only if they can prove their widowhood. Red-tapism does not make getting this compensation easy. Women have taken to the streets several times to demand justice and peace yet there is hardly any forum that is responsive. They are victims of high levels of corruption and official indifference. Even the few women's groups, the Muslim Khawateen Markaaz, the Dukhtaran-E-Milat and a Pandit group called Daughters of Vitasta have not been able to help these women or even to help themselves. Take the unfortunate Association of the Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) started by a mother whose son has been missing for 10 years. In spite of having networked with international human rights organisations and the media, not one of the members have been able to trace their near and dear ones. Yet, they clutch on to hope.

The book points to some of the issues that politicians and civil society organisations, specially the women's movement, should keep in mind if they want the Kashmiri people to accept their decisions. These include protecting the famed "Kashmiriyat" which encourages social cohesiveness between Hindus and Muslims. The need to urgently deal with the major economic crisis facing thousands of widows, "half-widows" and children living with their grandparents because they are orphans or because their surviving parent has remarried. The need to build links with civil society groups, particularly women's groups, within India both to expose the gross violation of human rights as well as to overcome the "us" and "they" psyche of the Kashmiris. The essays also reflect the traditional social freedom that Kashmiri women had. A fact that any new arrangement should give cognisance to — giving women an enabling environment to exercise their rights.

There is some amount of repetition of case studies in the essays. However, they are well written and tightly edited. A photo-essay paints these women's lives with a vivid brush. The introduction does well to compare and contrast the plight of Kashmiri women with those caught in conflict in the far-flung North-east. The interaction among women from conflict areas sharply brings out the Kashmiri women's cry for help from the outside world; and their need to organise themselves as a voice for peace and justice.

The strength of the book lies in the fact that the essays span a period of 10 years and reveal how little has changed in the past decade. The atrocities have only multiplied. The book makes a strong case for hearing women's voices for any peace intervention to be successful.

Speaking Peace: Women's Voices from Kashmir, edited by Urvashi Butalia, Kali for Women, 2002, p.315, price not stated.

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