Does Conflict Empower Women?
By Mushtaq Ul haq Ahmad Sikander
05 September, 2011
“Necessity is the mother of Invention” is a well proven fact; similar has been the case with women of Kashmir. The armed conflict has imposed on them new alien roles, which they have readily accepted and are fulfilling the responsibilities of the same. During the initial phase of armed struggle, the women rubbed shoulders with men, and in many cases proved more effective than men, especially when the army or police would pick up the youth. The women of the locality would stage protests outside the army camps and pickets which would force the army to release the youth. The women would even resist the illegal detention of any youth, and would protest alongwith men against the atrocities of the State and army.
When the things turned ugly, and women found themselves in the line of fire, they retreated a bit from the active protests as the killings, rapes, abductions, torture and illegal detentions were threatening to disrupt the whole Social and Family life, which would have ultimately led to anarchy, but women took charge of their lives and responsibility of their families; they were overburdened by the challenges of extended responsibilities and roles but they didn’t panic and only due to their perseverance and steadfastness, a Social catastrophe was avoided. In the families whose lone bread earners were killed or disappeared, women began to shoulder the economic responsibilities, to educate their children and drive the cart of daily life.
Illiterate women, whose sons, spouses, brothers or fathers were serving jail sentences in different parts of Kashmir and India, began to follow their legal suits, contacted lawyers, got to learn about the draconian laws under which their beloved ones were imprisoned, got exposed to the legal clauses and knew which judges were hearing their cases. They began to visit various jails, torture and detention centers and traveled to alien places, which provided them diverse exposure, and they are well aware of the location of prisons, courts and cheap hotels to stay during which the trail was going on. Thus their personal tragedies made them emerge as empowered women, who control the lives of their kith and kin, despite the impediments of education, gender and birth.
Thousands of men have been killed in staged, fake encounters and in custody by the army and Police too. Then there are men, who have been picked by the army or police and since then none has heard about them, army and police claims they have run away from the custody, whereas their families allege that the disappeared souls are either in the custody of the agencies that picked them or have been killed who are occupying the unknown graves. According to the unofficial sources more than ten thousand persons are disappeared in Kashmir, and there are more than three thousand half widows(Half Widows are those women whose husbands have disappeared in the custody and there is no consensus among the scholars of different schools of thought about the stipulated time after which they can be pronounced as Widows and have the right to remarry). The disappearance is a brutal continuous source of agony for the family and those belonging to the victim as they always remain in a dilemma about the status of the victim, neither the law is able to declare him dead nor the dear ones are ready to accept him as dead, as the victim has vanished in thin air.
To follow the cases of these disappeared souls, mothers of the disappeared sons got together under the chairmanship of Parveena Ahangar, whose own son Javed Ahmad Ahangar is missing since 1990s from the army’s custody to form the Association of the Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) in 1994. Later on half widows too joined APDP. Since 1994 till date they have been fighting a continuous legal battle for Justice demanding the whereabouts of their beloved ones, which till now has yielded nothing, but Parveena a middle aged, illiterate, common woman has reiterated never to surrender or give up, and is inspiring others to follow her suit. On the 10th of every month, members of APDP stage a peaceful silent protest in the Pratap Park, located in the heart of Srinagar. Parveena is regularly invited to attend different seminars and conferences in different parts of the world, where she shares her agony and agony of thousands others.
The stalwarts of armed insurgency, most of whom either have been killed or have joined Pro-Freedom politics have been grossly negligent towards building institutions for the victims of conflict, instead the money which was contributed and channeled through them to take care of the victims of the conflict was siphoned and swindled off by the majority of them either for personal or political use, and the victims were left high and dry; and forced to fend for themselves which left them in pathetic conditions, where they are forced to be exploited in multi dimensional ways. It is one of the reasons where the common masses feel disgusted against the flag bearers of Aazadi, as they can’t relate their miseries and conditions to them. APDP with its little means tries to cater to the needs of the families of disappeared souls. Parveena holds that only mothers know the agony of losing a son, hence mothers have to be in the forefront in the struggle for Justice.
Armed insurgency which now has lost its momentum as a result of which women now are regaining their public space back once again, and are even on the forefront of the protests that have rocked Kashmir Valley for last three consecutive years since 2008. Women are also active in the Peace and Reconciliation efforts too, though these initiatives are still an elite venture.
Thus conflict made women of Kashmir to acquire new roles, and with it came its own set of problems and responsibilities and women have proved to be oceans of sacrifice and courage and with a smiling face they are delivering what these roles demand from them. But there is a flipside of the conflict which is having an adverse effect on women and has made them more vulnerable to various evils and their rights are violated with impunity.
The incidents of Domestic violence have gone up due to the impact of conflict, as the men folk are being daily humiliated by the army and police bruising their self esteem and crushing their self confidence, who in turn to want to regain and assert their authority, stature, status and manliness against women hence coerce them to submission. They avenge their humiliation from their womenfolk, which even in many cases has resulted in death.
The women related to militants and Pro-Freedom voices suffer from governmental and State apathy, hostility and hate at every step of their lives, and those related to renegades or counter insurgents from Social apathy, as they are declared as Social outcastes, and their women and children have to face a host of problems.
Families, whose bread earners have been killed, find women trying hard to keep the family together, often neglecting their own health. The financial constraints drive them from pillar to post and cultural impediments and social norms don’t even permit some of them to beg.
Previously it was the father, brother, husband or son who used to provide security to his daughter, sister, wife or mother but given the situation prevalent in Kashmir the roles have been reversed. The women shoulder their men when they are encountered with a calamity, though social norms inhibit women visiting Police Stations, army camps and torture centers, but the situation demands so and in the process they get a bad name label.
Child marriage is becoming rampant in the heavily militarized areas, so as to escape rape and molestation by the army. The drop out rate of girls from schools is also on rise, in order to escape the routine taunts and harassment by the army enroute to school. Some girls have been even forced to marry certain people of influence through coercion by Police and counterinsurgents and in case of resistance; either the girl has been raped or killed. There has been no survey about the exact number of rapes committed against the Kashmiri women but in a survey conducted by Medicans San Frontiers(Doctors Without Borders) an International NGO in 2006 on “Kashmir: Violence and Health”, 11.6 percent of interviewees said they had been victims of sexual violence since 1989. Almost two thirds of the people interviewed (63.9 percent) by MSF had heard about cases of rape during the same period. The study revealed that Kashmiri women were among the worst sufferers of sexual violence in the world. The figure is much higher than that of Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, Chechnya and Ingushetia. Many teenage girls are now going for counseling in order to cope the rising psychological impact of the atrocities on women perpetuated by army and police. The suicide rate among women of Kashmir is on rise and the ramifications of conflict have contributed to its steep increase among women.
The women of Kashmir have been dragged to flesh trade, and they are exploited in this process as they are offered money sometimes but most of times denied. The lower rung Special Police Officers(SPO)s are even a part of this vicious circle, who would marry a girl, then sell her to others or make her to visit their higher officers for sexual favors. These women forced in the flesh trade are even used as mukhbirs(spies) or even coerced to drag other girls in their net, thus the vicious circle continued and the girls had no escape from the same. Luring the poor girls for jobs and then sexually exploiting them, came to the forefront on a large scale in the form of VIP Sex Scandal 2006 in which high rank police officials, top bureaucrats and politicians were involved in sexploitation of the young local girls, all of whom were educated, some even with bachelors and masters degree, though most of then were not poor, but they needed jobs for attaining social status. In Kashmir it now has become difficult for young unemployed girls to find a suitable groom, as the marriage market demands the girl to be employed, and more the high paying job, more are the chances of having a similarly high status groom, this trend is making the girls run helter skelter for jobs and in the process fall in the trap of sex exploiters, who in this case happened to be men of Power.
The sexploitation of women in Kashmir still continues unabated, and now there are many clear signals that Kashmiri girls are even trafficked to other states for prostitution, and sooner or later this brutal fact will too dawn on the people of Kashmir.
The recent population census of 2011 has brought to fore various shocking facts about women of Kashmir, of which the drastic decline in the female sex ratio will have serious ramifications in the future, though some leaders have even advised the men to turn gay, but we must try to find the real roots of this decline, as the Sex ratio has dropped from 906 per thousand males in 2001 to 883 in 2011, as the decadal census proved. One of the reasons for this drastic fall is the vulnerability of women via the presence of army in Kashmir who ravage their chastity with impunity, hence numerous incidents of rape and molestations by the army and zero percent persecution of the culprits has reinforced the belief of parents that they can’t afford the liability of a girl child. Other reasons like Dowry, patriarchal hostility towards girl child, unemployment and a host of other issues too contribute to the brutal female feticide, which is continuing unabated, despite dire warnings in the Quran against such inhuman, uncivilized, brutish, nasty and savage practice. Also many girls have been left unclaimed in hospitals by their parents, giving rise to another issue of catering to these infants, which mostly are adopted and if not the orphanages, special homes have no arrangement for the same. The Social & Child rights workers encounter serious challenges while addressing this new problem.
Women of Kashmir even in 21st century suffer from scores of problems and issues in this corner of the world, where women still have numerous inhibitions and are far from empowered. Women of Kashmir have adopted and acquired new roles that conflict imposed and demanded from them, but the perpetual denial of Justice, failure to bestow equal rights on them, structural prejudices prevalent in society against them, absence of institutions which will cater to their needs, marginalization of their dissent, suppression of their voices and turning a blind eye towards their sacrifices and contribution has obviously led to their souls being bruised, vision blurred, physique burdened, courage undermined, voices chocked but despite all these hurdles they play a significant part in holding the family and society together. They have always proven to be an inspiration for men to continue their struggle against occupation and atrocities. Every conflict brings in its wake new roles for women, and in most cases women comply with the same, same has happened in Kashmir too, but these roles have both Positive as well negative implications depending on the manner, means and degree of exposure to the conflict and its impact on the lives of women.
What more new roles or disastrous implications conflict will have on women of Kashmir in future, only time will tell!!
Mushtaq Ul Haq Ahmad Sikander is Writer-Activist based in Srinagar, Kashmir and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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