By Salman Nizami
16 May, 2012
The portrait of a cheerful, smiling woman in an orchard in Jammu and Kashmir can be found in promotional material of the State’s tourism literature. But many women in the State face discrimination and physical abuse from family members
Suicides in Jammu and Kashmir have become common occurrences. Women, sometimes even young girls, kill themselves in an effort to escape a lifetime of abuse and suffering. Many Kashmiri women are victims of domestic violence. Either way, these women choose to end their lives tragically, by dousing themselves with kerosene and lighting their bodies on fire.
Shehnaz Begum felt like she had no way out. Married off to her cousin at the age of 18, she had been beaten routinely by her husband and in-laws in their poor rural home in Devsar tehsil of Anantnag district for the first three years of her marriage. Marriage had become too much of a burden to bear. Then, after she saw her brother-in-law strike his wife on the head with a gun, Shehnaz finally did what she had threatened to do many times before: She doused herself in cooking fuel and struck a match.
Now Shehnaz lies in a hospital bed, with third-degree burns covering 35 per cent of her body and ash coating the insides of her lungs. Her physician, Dr Mukhtaar Ahmed, believes it’s unlikely that she will survive. The terrifying thing is that she is far from the only person in Kashmir to take such drastic action. No one knows what the actual numbers are of the women who try to kill themselves in this fashion. More than 80 per cent of them cannot be saved. Dr Ahmed believes that most of his would-be patients never make it to the hospital. In some cases, families are too ashamed or fearful of prosecution to report what happened. “There are many such cases where, because of honour, because of the media, the families don’t want to disclose it,” says the doctor. “I’m sure there are many, many cases that are still invisible.”
“I have seen a number of instances of women setting themselves on fire in my life,” says Shehnaz’s mother, wiping away tears. She insists that there is nothing unusual about her daughter. “Four months ago, someone else from our village lit herself on fire and died.”
The same is the story of Nargis Ara. She thinks about the one day that she wants to forget, but it is all that she can think about. Still traumatised, she recounts the events that led her to a safe house in Humama, Srinagar. She had been beaten and nearly stabbed to death by her husband just days before I met her. Her lips are quivering and her eyes are full of fear. “He forced himself on me,” Nargis says. “All I could do was scream.” She was married off 15 years ago when she was a teenager. Throughout those years she was tortured and abused, suffering daily beatings with an electrical wire or the metal end of a hammer. This was her normal life. “He chased me with a hammer. He threatened that if I protested he would kill me,” Nargis recounts.
Nargis and her husband could not conceive a child. And in Kashmiri society, it seems, the blame always falls on the woman. After one severe beating, she fled her home and to the police station. Her husband promised the police that he would not attack her anymore, so she gave in and agreed to return home with him.
Days later, her husband took her on a trip to visit an apple orchid. As Nargis walked along the orchid with her husband he took her near a tree where he forced her to the ground, lifted her burqa and assaulted her. He then threatened her with a knife. She screamed as he slashed at her throat. Now, she has no one to turn to, not even her own parents. She misses her parents but has not been allowed to meet them. She now hides in a safe house, isolated and alone. Like most Kashmiri women, she has lost all hope.
Another case is from Doda, Syamul Nisa whose husband deserted her, allegedly subjected her to harassment, including physical torture, and served life threats, soon after the marriage. Syamul Nisa says, “We married on October 25, 2009, and then moved to Udhampur district for a living. In the second month of the marriage, the relationship turned sour. My dreams of happy married life shattered.” As the days passed into months, she said, her husband was transferred to Kashmir. She also visited the Valley where she gave birth to a baby on October 14, 2010. “Soon after giving birth to a baby, my husband left me at my sister’s house in Srinagar. This further worsened our relationship,” she said. “When we were going to our home in Doda after winter break, my husband dragged me out of his car near Qazigund and tried to flee. However, when people around the area gathered, he pretended as if all was well. However, after covering a distance of a few kilometers, he left me in the running car and escaped. Since then he has been raising demands of dowry.”
In Kashmir for centuries women have been considered property — not equals, like the Constitution states. They are often beaten and raped. There are very few places women can turn to. “Our mothers are beaten by our fathers. Sisters are beaten by their fathers and their brothers. It’s a way of life,” said Irfan Mir, a local resident of Bhaderwah.
Kalpana Tikku is a Kashmiri Pandit who grew up in Kashmir and has returned to the Valley to work with other women in the hope of bringing about a change in their living conditions. But that, she admitted, will take generations. “They see their mothers being beaten, they see their sisters their aunts, everybody, been beaten and abused” Kalpana said, adding, “So that’s what they expect for themselves.”
Unfortunately, Jammu and Kashmir has thousands of similar heart-wrenching stories. But then, it’s also a State where, despite such handicaps, women are forging ahead in life. They provide hope to the thousands of others.