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Violent Misogyny Against Kashmiri Women Shows War Is Patriarchal

Women are caged at home in Kashmir while armed Indian military-men parade on empty streets. The fear of losing lives and ‘honour’ holds them back from even trying to go out. Shabana Mahfooz writes about the plight of Kashmiri women who are living under fear of violence and rape. 

Kashmir bleeds. It bleeds more today than it has for many decades. But among all the men, women and children who plead to the world for justice, the sufferings of the women resonate the loudest.

It so happens in almost any war that women become victims of forced aggression, whether in mass murders or sexual victimisation. When the sub-continent was partitioned in 1947, many Muslim as well as Hindu women were abducted and raped. When East Pakistan broke away from the centre in 1971, its violent rebellion was answered by shoot outs, murders and rape.

When the Rohingyas were and still are routed out of Myanmar, rape was one of the forms of aggression used to permanently scar their women; physically and emotionally.

The history of each war or exodus has stories and incidents of rape entwined with the use of violence man afflicts another with. Kashmir is not at war today, not in the literal sense, although there have been at least two wars in the region. But a separatist movement has been sometimes simmering and at others, erupting since a part of it came to be known as disputed and occupied, although the movement for its independence and right of self-rule continue to be suppressed.

Sexual abuse and other forms of gender-based violence, often deployed as weapons in war, are still largely feared, as Indian forces have previously been accused of sexual assault in Kashmir.

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On February 23, 1991, as India carried out a large military operation, soldiers allegedly raped more than 30 women in two villages, Kunan and Poshpora, in the Kupwara district, allegations which the Indian Army has always denied.

According to a 1993 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, the Indian security forces have used rape as a method of retaliation against Kashmiri civilians during reprisal attacks after militant ambushes, while a 1996 report by the same organisation reveals that security personnel in Kashmir have used “rape as a counterinsurgency tactic”.

Scholar Inger Skhjelsbaek, in the report titled “Sexual violence in times of war: A new challenge for peace operations?”, states that the pattern of rape in Kashmir is that when soldiers enter civilian residences, they kill or evict the men before raping the women inside, while Shubh Mathur calls rape an “essential element of the Indian military strategy in Kashmir” in the book “The Human Toll of the Kashmir Conflict: Grief and Courage in a South Asian Borderland”.

A study in 2005 by Médecins Sans Frontières concluded that the rate of sexual violence against Kashmiri women was one of the highest among the world’s conflict zones, with 11.6 percent of respondents, out of a total 510 people in their survey, reporting personal experience of sexual abuse.

At present, what is really happening in the curfew-blocked valley of Jammu and Kashmir, we do not know, since there is no media coverage and all communication with the outside world is stopped. But words have a way of reaching out to the world. And among many such words, we hear stories of women, who are suffering from existing or feared misogyny.

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In an Al-Jazeera report, Uzma Javed, a 20-year-old student belonging to Sri Nagar, talks about her caged existence at home while armed Indian military-men parade on empty streets. While men of her household make attempts to go to the outside world for basic necessities and prayers, women including herself remain confined. The fear of losing lives and ‘honour’ holds them back from even trying, except once when Uzma was taken to the hospital by her brother when she got sick.

Like Uzma, most women in the region are afraid of the exploitation their vulnerable bodies may suffer, especially after the news of eagerness by outsiders to marry Kashmiri women, following the abrogation of Article 370 from the Indian constitution, which surrenders a special autonomous status previously granted to Kashmir.

While the decision was forcibly implemented but rebelled and voiced against, it was also celebrated by its supporters in many ways. Kashmiri Hindu pandits, who have experienced their own share of violence when threatened and forced to leave the region by Muslim extremists, are turning back to their origin. Non-Kashmiris are seeking employment, residences and investments in the lush green valleys, previously allowed only for the Kashmiris.

And some are rejoicing over the fact, that they would finally be able to lay a ‘legal’ claim on the ‘fair-skinned’ Kashmiri women.

Before the revocation of Articles 370 and 35A, women who were permanent residents of the state but married an outsider lost their property rights.

However, it was a 2002 High Court decision that struck down the law. The Jammu and Kashmir Permanent Resident Status (Disqualification) Bill 2004 which sought to overturn this ruling lapsed after no voting in the Legislative Council – and the bill was never re-introduced. Thus, misogyny in Kashmir traces its roots to the law itself.

The valley of Kashmir has been praised in many ways for its beauty. Emperor Jahangir called it a paradise on earth. India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who also happened to be a Kashmiri Pundit, eulogised Kashmir as a ‘beautiful lady’ – a comment many find misogynistic, since it objectifies Kashmir as a feminised territory.

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Thus, the striking beauty which Kashmir has been bountifully blessed with by nature, whether in it scenic surroundings or in its women, is plundered in a savage manner. But what is, perhaps, more painful, is the sad irony this very beauty brings to the women. Locked, besieged, embattled, they await the curbs on freedom to be lifted and protection to be granted. Whether or not they maintain the rights to their property and basic human existence, for the beautiful women of Kashmir, time stands still. Barbed wires and pellet guns no longer hurt them, for it is the very confines of their safe havens, which is gradually, shrinking the world around them.

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