Kashmir’s half-widows considered only half in society

Kashmir correspondent Aliya Bashir – WNN Features

Mother of Kashmiri 'missing' youth cries at Srinagar rally
Parveena Ahanger, mother of a ‘missing’ Kashmiri youth, cries while addressing a peaceful demonstration organised by the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) to mark the International Day of the Disappeared in Srinagar August 30, 2007. The APDP says that more than 8,000 people have gone missing since rebellion broke out at the end of 1989. Image: REUTERS/Fayaz Kabli

Journalist, Aliya Bashir, talks with families whose husbands, brothers and sons have disappeared during years of conflict in Kashmir.

(WNN) Srinagar – Indian-Administered Kashmir: Twenty-eight year old Haleema (name changed) is a resident of the predominately Muslim Anantnag district of southern Kashmir. In a region where the literacy rate is 42% for men and 25% for most women, she is known in her community as a ‘half-widow,’ a term given to woman whose husband’s have completely disappeared and are still missing during the ongoing campaign of conflict in Kashmir.

Situated 55 kms (34.5 miles) south-east of Kashmir’s capital Srinagar, the strikingly beautiful large Anantnag region has a population of 8.50 lakhs (850,000 people). Called the ‘Granary of the Kashmir Valley,’ the Anantnag is known as the home of rice and maize (corn) agriculture. The region is the third most highly populated district in Kashmir, after Srinagar and Baramulla, where 89% of the population of Kashmir lives in rural areas.

Haleema feels alone, but she is not alone. She is part of the countless women who have faced the casualties of Indo-Pakistani conflict on the border and violence inside Kashmir with the ‘enforced disappearances’ of their husbands, fathers, brothers and children during an ongoing twenty years of conflict in the Himalayan valley.

While authorities estimate the missing to number approx 4,000, the APDP – Association of Disappeared Persons estimates there are actually between 8,000 to 10,000 missing people in the region. The number of publicly announced and reported half-widows in the Kashmir valley is 2,000 to 2,500. This, along with 6,000 orphans, the children of half-widows who are affected deeply by the conflict, add much to the crisis. True data and numbers for both half-orphans and half-widows are thought to be much higher.

“Life has crushed me with a double tragedy,” explains half-widow Haleema. “My husband has disappeared and I am all alone to look after my little children, especially their education.”

It’s been five years since Haleema’s husband left for work in the morning never to return. Since then, she has received no news of her husband. Not even an idea of what happened to him. Tired of tracing who she has named, ‘my beloved,’ she desperately wants to move ahead to take care of herself and her three children. Today, Haleema has developed a guilty wish to remarry for two reasons: economic and moral support.

The primary concern of families, “…is to find their missing person. They move from one police station to another, from one army camp to another and so on. It takes months and years…,” says a detailed 2007 report by award winning Kashmir based journalist, Mr. Haroon Marani.

During the years of conflict in Kashmir, it’s not only the half-widows who have suffered. The half-orphans have also suffered heavily under the great weight of lives with little opportunity. As a child’s self-esteem is wrapped in the identity of a missing father, a generation of children are now living through the confusion of broken dreams.

In 2004, after spearheading numerous campaigns to help the women of Kashmir, 30 year old Aasia Jeelani was killed as her car, filled with fellow activists, was destroyed in a landmine explosion in the village of Chandigam, northwest of Srinagar.

Trapped between years of territorial war between India and Pakistan, the women and girls of Kashmir have grown up knowing too much – too fast about conflict, trauma, bombs and violence. In the reach for equality many women and girls are left behind without a voice. Like Haleema, there are scores of hapless women caught in restrictions between Kashmir’s laws and society.

The legal system and society holds half-widows and their children, half-orphans, tight between the boundaries of the past and the present, where they ‘hope against hope.’

On the edge of considering remarriage, Haleema’s in-laws have warned her against doing so. Even if she takes a stand to go in this direction there are many societal hurdles against mothers in Kashmir who ask to divorce their missing partners. There are many cases, even after ten years, where a husband has been missing  and widows haven not been able to remarry. Responsibility to in-laws, children, property rights and other social factors act as the main barriers.

Enforced disappearances in Kashmir have created a wide aura of fear that weakens the families of the missing with invasive ‘collateral damage.’ The common opinion of many families is that they’ve been deprived of all rights and means of protection. Relatives of the missing are often left in a grueling state of uncertainty, where they can neither mourn – nor live with any happiness.

Some of the Kashmir missing under "enforced disappearance"
Some of the Kashmir missing under “enforced disappearance.” Image: APDP

As early as 1989, reports of enforced disappearances began in the Jammu Kashmir regions when a group of young men took up arms against ‘the occupation’ of the Indian government chanting pro-freedom slogans of “Azadi”. Due to lack of proper investigation, current numbers do not show how many people have actually disappeared. Fear of violent reprisal still causes many disappearance cases to go undocumented.

To file a missing persons report is not easy in Srinagar. Some families, while trying to report missing family members, have faced police pressure and intimidation after giving a report. Some have also had to move their plea to a different court just to register an FIR – First Information Report. It is not uncommon for relatives to completely withdraw complaints due to fear.

The irony is that the government relief pension payment of 100, 000 Rs ($2,253 USD) per year is awarded only after families obtain a death certificate from district authorities. First, they must prove that the victim was never involved in any actions that might be interpreted as political militancy.

Senior advocate Zaffar Ahmad Shah says that The Dissolution of The Muslim Marriage Act, originally adopted in 1939 and approved in Jamu Kashmir in 1945, provides conditions under which a woman can clearly be divorced. The Dissolution of Muslim Marriages Act, Section 2(i) states that a widow may ask for a divorce if, “..the whereabouts of the husband have not been known for a period of four years.” But this provision is often ignored in Kashmir as women most often must fight their in-laws and in the courts for property rights in divorce.

The Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), a civil-rights group in Kashmir, has recently organized a conference titled, ‘Half Widows and Orphans – A Way Forward in Islamic Jurisprudence,’ bringing together Islamic scholars and international social activists to discuss the ongoing plight of the half-widows.

“Half-widows are an issue which we have always tried to put into the limelight as much as possible,” said JKCCS president and human rights attorney, Pervez Imroz.

Moving from pillar to post, some relatives of the disappeared who are more wealthy spend huge sums of money, time and resources toward their search for missing family members. Often they realize the system of justice will not provide proper investigation into the crimes of the disappeared. Even some police security forces have been known to become enemies in the search.

“It may come as no surprise that Kashmiri women have struggled and continue to struggle against societal discrimination and inequality. Not only have these women been subject to violence by the police, but many have also experienced intense suffering at the hands of militants as well as Indian security forces,” Dr. Ayesha Ray, social science professor at Kings College, said during a recent, June 2009, conference on human rights and civil society at Luis University, Rome, Italy.

Today, scholars have not arrived at a consensus regarding the legal needs of half-widows. Thousands of women are currently languishing as they continue to experience identity crisis from the ambiguity of whether or not they are a married or non-married women. This struggle is indicative to Kashmir’s cultural gap to recognize the needs and equality of women in general.

“Rita Manchanda captures the situation and agony of Kashmiri women when she states that ‘women have been the worst hit in the war on Kashmir. They have been killed in crossfire, shot at in public demonstrations, blown up in grenade explosions or in shelling across the Line of Control (LoC) and have been raped by the militants.’” admitted Dr. Ayesha Ray in her recent talk in Italy .

In a region where a majority of women have not reached education beyond the third grade level, advocacy, empowerment and legal knowledge are essential.

“To declare a missing person dead, a cleric versed in Shariah (Islamic) law is needed,” says senior journalist and rights activist Mr. Zahir-ud-Din.“But they (the clerics) seem to be in a deep slumber and not ready to accept the (half-widows) agony.. They are not being given the rights that they deserve in a real-sense,” continued Zahir-ud-Din. “These women do not fall in any of the categories fixed by various NGOs, orphanages or widows’ homes.”

“Only through a bottom up approach can true changes be brought to Kashmir,” said women’s advocate and human rights activist, Shelani Vanniaskam, of Brandeis University (U.S.). “Empowering women is the first step towards this goal,” stressed Vanniaskam.

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