The body was pale and lying motionless in the corner of a room as mourners gathered around in shock and grief. The woman’s dead face had deep cuts made with razors; another cut splashed across her eye.
The scarred face of the 21-year-old woman of Kulgam has haunted 16-year-old Ruby Ashraf every night she goes to sleep.
On a cold November morning last year, Ruby had rushed out of her house when she heard an announcement from a local masjid that her friend and neighbour, the 21-year-old woman, had died. She quickly paced to see her friend for the last time.
Ruby did not touch her friend’s corpse. She could not. She just looked at her body, her disfigured face. Ruby couldn’t believe it was her friend who always carried a smile.
“There were bruises on her face, it had cuts made with blades everywhere, on her face, on her chest,” she said. “I fell unconscious. I don’t remember anything after that.”
It was in the last week of October last year that the 21-year-old woman from a village in Kulgam district had gone to her aunt’s home for a marriage function in the nearby Akhal village. As she had stepped out of her aunt’s house on 31 October, she was abducted and raped by two local men. She was referred to a hospital in Srinagar where she battled for life and died after almost a month, on 27 November 2020.
The Kulgam police said they identified two men as the accused: Aadil Ahmad Dar and Waseem Rehman Dar, both residents of Ashmuji village in the Kulgam district.
It, however, is not the only incident of rape that happened in the area. A police official from Devsar Police station said that nearly a month after this incident, three rape cases were reported from Kulgam district among which two victims were minors.
On 5 December, a person made a complaint in Devsar Police station stating that his minor sister, aged 17, was raped and video-graphed. The video, later, was uploaded on social media networks.
Another complaint was registered in Devsar Police station by the family members of an 11-year-old girl who alleged that she was raped by her 50-year old neighbor, said the police official.
The rape and murder incident of the 21-year-old woman has shocked everyone in the village. When the deceased was buried, Ruby came back home with her mother, Qulsum Bano, who told her to take care of herself and be more careful. She was told not to go anywhere alone. Ruby would later realise that this meant she couldn’t even meet her friends from tuition.
The incident had changed the village and the lives of its girls and women.
After the incident, Ruby couldn’t sleep peacefully. “In the middle of the night, I would see her face right in front of my eyes and wake up,” she said, adding that she got these nightmares for exactly a week as she would mark it on her calendar the next morning.
It has been more than two months now but, Ruby said, she has not gone out too far from her village. Earlier she would go to her relatives without any restriction and fear.
Recently she wanted to go to her aunt’s place at Ashmuji, the village of the two accused men, however, she was not allowed to go there by her grandfather. “He told me: don’t go or else I will break your legs,” said Ruby.
Scars are deep
Not only visiting relatives’ places but going to tutions has also become a challenge for many girls who, after the heinous crime, are not allowed to move out of their homes by their families.
Ambreena Jahangir Ganai, 17, from the same village was passionate about studying and had a dream to become a professor. She would ask her parents to get her books and pencils because she was so much into studying.
“The times have changed,” she said. “Now I am embarrassed to even ask my parents if I can go to my tuition,” she said, adding she has not been able to go to her tuition ever since the incident.
A student of 11th class, Ambreena said that her father has lost all the dreams that he had for her. “He is not interested in my studies now. He has lost all the hopes,” she said, breaking down, adding that “it is the saddest thing” for her.
Jahangir Ahmad Ganie, Ambreena’s father, wants his daughter to study but is now apprehensive about her safety. “What will her college degree do if something happens to her?” he said, adding “it’s better for her to stay home and be safe.”
As the climate of fear has gripped the village, the girls have found a way of their own to cope up. Some girls told The Kashmir Walla that they are so scared, since the incident, that they now carried a knife, red chili powder, and a blade. “These things make us feel secure,” one of them said.
Ambreena is of the opinion that her parents are considerate about her which is why they stop her from going to tuition but, she said, even she can’t make her parents understand. “Why should we suffer because of a dirty crime done by other men? Why should we become their scapegoat? How is this fair?” she asked.
She said that it is not only her 21-year-old neighbour who suffered but every girl is suffering too.
Ambreena is not sure if her parents will allow her to go to her school, which will open in March. She said that her father strictly told her not to go. “He told me to stay at home. I don’t think he will allow me to go to school now,” she said.
Sheikh Shoib, Consultant Neuropsychiatrist at Jawahar Lal Nehru Memorial (JLNM) hospital in Srinagar, said the incident in the Kulgam has affected the psyche of parents as well as the general population.
“Parents have become more anxious and fearful about the well-being of their own kids due to the increasing rape incidents,” he said, adding that the psyche has changed in a way that they don’t allow the womenfolk to go out for studies.
Climate of fear
The fear sown by the incident has become so entrenched that the women of the village, who would earlier go to the fields and orchards alone, now have to plan their trips carefully.
Noor Jahan, 35, a mother of three daughters, said her biggest fear is leaving her daughters alone at their house as she is comprehensive about their safety.
“The only thought that I have in my mind ever since the incident is what if the same happens to my daughter,” she said. Jahan said that every time she goes out she has a fear that someone might enter her house.
Jahan said that if these incidents keep happening, she would never allow her daughters to study. She said that her elder daughter, a twelveth standard student, has had enough education and should stay home now.
“We also want our daughters to move forward and make their life better but if this happens in the way, I would prefer my daughters to stay in front of my eyes at home than go to a school. I will never allow my daughter to go out,” she said.
When the incident happened, Noor Jahan’s husband, 36-year-old Mohammad Ramzan Ganai, strictly told her to take care of her daughters and herself and not allow them to go out.
Since the incident, the Ganai daughters have stopped visiting their relatives and neighbors. “We say a girl can go to any place in this world but look at the fate of us all, we can’t even send our daughters to get a packet of salt,” Jahan said.
She said that if the accused are not hanged, the incidents will repeat and increase. “If I board a public bus right now, you will see how men pinch you and touch you. Why do they do that? Because they know no one will say anything to them,” she said.
Jahan, who does not have a son, said that she was hopeful that her daughters would be her support. But since the incident, Jahan has lost all the hopes and now she fears that she might lose her daughter if she sends her out.
“Shouldn’t my daughters take me to a hospital if I am unwell, but looking at the circumstances, I would prefer dying at my home than letting my daughter take me to a hospital,” she said.
After the incident, no woman of the villages goes to her fields and orchards alone as used to be the practice for generations. Jahan said that she takes her husband with her when she has to go to her field.
Lovely Jan, a 32-year-old mother of a daughter, now keeps a sharp knife in her pheran’s pocket when she goes to her orchard or to the field of rice. “I can’t take a risk,” she said. “I am scared for myself and my daughter.”
“No one wants to come out of their house late,” Jan said.