This violence in the Valley has no name

Baseera Rafiqi | Updated on January 15, 2018

On my watch Policewomen stand guard outside a coaching centre in Srinagar as part of a statewide crackdown on sexual harassment of women Photo: Nissar Ahmad

Years of living in a conflict zone has lowered the threshold of suffering for Kashmiri women Photo: Nissar Ahmad   -  THE HINDU

Open secret As more and more women and girls step outside the home in Kashmir, there is a rise in crimes against them in public spaces Photo: Sana Altaf/ wfs

Kashmiri women struggle to voice their angst against the sexual violence unleashed on them by their own men

In Kashmir, there is ongoing strife on two fronts today. The first is highly visible — and all over the local and national news — as communities struggle to fend off terror elements and learn to live with crippling ‘hartals’ (curfews). The second is completely hidden, although no less problematic or painful. It is the violence unleashed on Kashmiri women and girls by their own men, who are supported unconditionally by patriarchal structures that allow them to uninhibitedly exercise power and authority. Like elsewhere in India, here too boys grow up thinking harassment and eve-teasing are ‘cool’ and sure-shot signs of being ‘manly’ and ‘in control’. But whereas in the rest of the country women are increasingly coming out to voice their angst against these blatant attitudes, in the Valley there is still a rather deafening silence on the issue. Whether it’s dealing with a stalker, fending off the unwanted advances of a teacher or a colleague, or living with the trauma of being molested by a family member... there are many troubling experiences that women have been unable to go public with.

Take Sehar, 24, a Kashmir University student from Noor Bagh, Sopore. For her, even recalling the three “dreadful years” of college, when she was stalked by an unknown man, fills her with fear. “I used to walk to college. It was a lonely stretch and, after a few days, I noticed a policeman tailing me every day. He would whisper my name and follow me. I asked a friend to accompany me, but that too didn’t deter him. He would watch my family’s movements, and when I was home alone, he would call on the landline,” she narrates.

A year passed before Sehar could gather the courage to tell her family. “They could not do anything other than ask me to wear a burqa. For a while my father accompanied me to college. The man disappeared and everyone thought that wearing the burqa had worked. Then, as I was returning home from college one afternoon, he appeared out of nowhere and said: ‘No matter how much you try to hide from me, I’ll still recognise you’. Six years have passed, but I still remember his voice and those dark black eyes. For a while, I had contemplated giving up my studies. It was only after I finished college that he vanished. I shifted to Srinagar and the matter ended there, but who knows what could have happened if I had stayed on. This has had a deep impact on my life. I still get nightmares.”

Like Sehar, Misbah, 21, had a terrible experience while pursuing higher education. When this resident of Darasar Tral enrolled for a Master’s in Mathematics at Islamic University, she was looking forward to “interacting with people and making new friends”. Things were okay for a while until, “one day, a teacher called me to his room and said, ‘Misbah, don’t take it otherwise, but I kind of like you’. I took it very casually, and left the room. But he would stare at me in class and later call and text and email me,” she says. It was unnerving, but she didn’t know what to do and kept wishing it would all go away. This went on for about a year until, by chance, “one of my elder sisters read a text from him. She was furious. When I told her all about it she decided to register a formal complaint”. However, worried about the repercussions, Misbah “begged her not to make the matter public”.

Crimes against women have been rising steadily in Kashmir. According to the police’s Crime Branch, 315 rape cases, 1,342 molestation and 215 eve-teasing cases were registered in 2015. Activists insist that actual numbers would be much higher.

Male privilege hurts

Sociologist Farah Qayoom, who teaches at Kashmir University, is convinced that patriarchy perpetuates such violence. “Men here have always enjoyed a dominant position. The home is where male egos are actually nurtured. A boy is always told he can do anything while a girl is kept subdued, suppressed. Such attitudes deeply impact young minds. The male child begins to feel he is superior and that he commands authority.” When this tendency to dominate spills over into a public sphere it leads to heinous crimes like eve-teasing, sexual harassment and molestation. “A boy thinks if he teases a girl or passes comments at her, he will be considered cool among his friends. Peer pressure only exacerbates such behaviour,” she elaborates.

Adding to Qayoom’s analysis, Dr Aadil Bashir, Assistant Professor, Social Welfare, Kashmir University, says, “Most times, it’s the societal response that prevents women from speaking out. Instead of the culprit getting punished, it’s the woman who ends up suffering.” To handle incidents of harassment, lately policewomen have been posted outside select schools and colleges in Srinagar and other towns, though students like Seher and Misbah say it has made no difference.

Insecurity as weapon

Nayeema Mehjoor, Chairperson, J&K State Commission for Women, observes that in Kashmir there is still not enough “acceptance” for women who step outside the home. “Men aren’t willing to accept women in the field, which leads to discord. There’s a marked increase in harassment and violence as a result.”

Ateeqa Bano, a government employee from Kangan, can relate to this. “I am a divorcee and a working woman. One of my seniors has been passing indecent remarks and making inappropriate advances. I do not want to make it a talking point, so I ignore him. But this only emboldens him since he knows I am never going to tell anyone.” Bano’s helplessness just goes to show that much still needs to be done to make workplaces safe for women. Interestingly, the State government had informed the Assembly in June 2016 that in government departments alone, 27 cases of sexual harassment have been registered since 2010. “As a working woman, I feel we are at war on every front, be it the home, office or public spaces. A woman can’t decide whether to speak up or remain silent because she knows that she is going to suffer either way. The lack of faith in the judicial system also pushes her to accept silence as the best solution,” says Prof Lily Want of Kashmir University.

Concurs Mohammad Yousuf Bhat, senior advocate at the J&K High Court, “A minimal number of harassment cases go to court. And if a girl does show the courage to file a case, it usually falls through for lack of evidence.”

One thing is certain though — gender violence shatters a woman. One look at Nimrah, 16, and it’s clear that the teenager is miserable. She seldom talks to anyone, and spends most of her time sitting alone in her grandmother’s room in Habba Kadal. “She wasn’t always like this,” says her grandmother, “she was a fun-loving child, very sharp and intelligent.” What happened? “She was living with her parents in Khaniyar, Srinagar, in a joint family. One day, her older cousin sexually molested her. She was only 14 and terrified. When she told her mother about it, the elders decided she should live with me. She has been mostly silent ever since,” she says.

Mental health expert Dr Arif Maghribi Khan says, “Sexual violence, if left unaddressed, can develop into major depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. This happens especially if she has no way to help herself. Living in a conflict zone for such a long time has already lowered the threshold of suffering for the Kashmiri women. Social and familial support is crucial if they have to heal and move forward.”

(© Women’s Feature Service)

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

Published on November 18, 2016
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor