In armed conflict, the experiences of women are varied. From victims to survivors, and from peace-builders to perpetrators of conflict, the categories of classification are indeed numerous. In the context of the conflict in Kashmir, however, what are the new opportunities that have been created for them? And what are their roles in it?
As victims of the conflict
Women have continuously been the victims of physical, psychological, and cultural violence as well as economic inequalities. On a daily basis, they face a range of atrocities, from eve-teasing to rape, and physical violence to murder. While women in Kashmir are victims of violence from all sides - the security forces and the militants - they have shown great resilience. They have emerged as survivors by not only continuing with their lives but also providing support to their families in both economic and emotional terms.
For example, the case of Kashmir’s ‘half-widows’ - who do not know the whereabouts of their husbands. While not presumed to be dead, these men have left behind children and their wives. Without proof of their husband’s death, their wives are unable to re-marry, receive government funding and are often cast out of society as a great stigma is attached to women in such positions. Most of them are disowned by their in-laws, and live mostly indoors. Aspirations among them are high, however, despite the restrictive lifestyles they lead. For example, many women study to be journalists but at the end of the day most of them end up taking up teaching. There are hardly any women journalists in the Valley.
Conflict and women’s empowerment
Kashmiri women have adapted themselves to the conflict and are attempting to make a positive contribution. Parveena Ahanger founded the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP). The association seeks justice and acquires information on the whereabouts of disappeared people. It is an important initiative on the part of women towards bringing peace in Kashmir. The AFKP (Association of Families of Kashmiri Prisoners) led by Zamruda Habib provides psycho-social support to the families of Kashmiri prisoners held in various jails, as well as tracking and documenting their cases.
Athwaas (‘handshake’ in Kashmiri) is an initiative by WISCOMP (Women in Security Conflict Management and Peace) to bring women from all parts of Jammu and Kashmir together to explore possibilities for a just peace. This is done through a range of activities, including trauma counselling, conflict transformation workshops, articulation of the concerns of women to policy-makers and government interlocutors, and initiation of programmes that facilitate economic empowerment and political awareness. South Asia Forum for Human Rights (SAFHR) initiated a programme called Daughters of Ladakh, Kashmir and Jammu (DLKJ) which is involved in mobilising women in the state, where the conflict has deeply divided the people. Its strategy is to build a network of local coalitions or networks that move between social justice and welfare interests to human rights and peace-building.
Women’s participation in the conflict
Women have also become facilitators of combat by acting as couriers for arms and informers for militants; providing them with shelter and food and at times helping them escape capture during the sudden military raids and crackdowns. The All Party Hurriyat Conference which is the umbrella organisation spearheading the movement for independence has women’s organisations, namely the Muslim Khawateen Markaz (MKM) and the Dukhtatran-e-Millat (DeM), as constituent members. Both MKM and DeM have a political mandate professing separation from India while in addition also carrying out social and human rights activism. DeM is the only women separatist group in South Asia and it wants to establish an Islamic state in Kashmir.
Another strain of activity engaging women which keeps coming to prominence intermittently yet consistently is the role of women during protests. They were seen wearing shrouds and chanting pro-freedom slogans in marches against Indian rule in the early years of the conflict. Many were killed or injured in shoot-outs by Indian armed forces while demonstrating. In the mass protests of 2008 and 2010, an increasing number of women participated alongside men; at times even leading all-women protest marches. The former were triggered by the illegal transfer of Kashmiri land by the local government, and the latter by arbitrary teenage killings by Indian paramilitaries.
To conclude, the largely patriarchal and conservative Kashmiri society is still not comfortable with the active political participation of women in the public sphere. However, a reversal in attitude is necessary. Empowering women would shape the path for peace and reconciliation that would organically grow out of participatory dialogue and lead to peace and development in the state.