Mehrunisa does not feel safe in opening the curtains in her room. A paramilitary bunker is positioned right in front of her house in an uptown Srinagar area. “I feel like they are constantly watching,” she said. “I don’t feel safe.”
It becomes even more frightening considering the power dynamics between civilians and the government forces–the latter having sweeping powers to trample the rights of the former, said Ms. Mehrunisa, who only gave her first name.
“I guess women feel powerless when [government forces] stare at them because we can’t do anything about it,” said the 22-year-old.
Ms. Mehrunisa has vivid memories of having to pass through another bunker, every day on the way to high school. “I remember them whistling and calling for us ‘Hey! Hey! Hey!’,” she said, and added that she and her friends would walk past the troopers, avoiding eye contact.
Government force’s bunkers dot the landscape in Kashmir–one of the world’s most heavily militarised zones–and has been a subject of deep resentment from the civilian population. As the violence ebbed in the Valley, many bunkers were removed as a goodwill gesture.
Before abrogating Jammu and Kashmir’s partial autonomy, the Central government rushed tens of thousands of additional government forces troops to Kashmir. After August 2019, bunkers and several barricades, guarded by armed government forces, on the roads returned to Srinagar in greater numbers, leading to a sense of insecurity among women. Nearly 500 new bunkers have been set up in the Valley, particularly in Srinagar city, after August 2019.
Nobody should live a life where armed men fill the streets, said Zairish, a student of English literature at a government run college in Srinagar. After August, new bunkers were set up in her area, with one having come up in a passenger shelter right outside the lane to her neighbourhood.
Ms. Zairish, who also gave only her first name, said that as a child she would wave at army troopers but as she grew older, the childish veneration of armed men was replaced with contempt. “There is no other option,” she said, but to pass by bunkers in Srinagar. “They [troopers] stare at you as if they are staring right into your soul.”
Like many women in Kashmir, Ms. Zarish, too, feels insecure amid growing militarisation. “Usually when men stare at you, you aren’t afraid for your life but when they [government forces] do, you know that one wrong move can cost you your life,” she said, adding that “the major problem is that nobody will hold [the government forces] accountable for anything.”
For college student Aiman Mushtaq, there have been times when she has felt uneasy because of the bunkers set up right outside her home. “It has impacted my mental health,” she said, adding that she is also fearful when her mother goes outside. “I have a phobia (sic) that they might do something to me or to any woman I know.”
Ms. Mushtaq was in class eight when army troopers blew kisses at her. Since then she has never felt safe or comfortable around the bunkers, she said. “I can’t even look at them. I feel scared of going out and we have normalized (sic) the presence of [the bunker and the] staring men now,” she said, adding that now, she requested her brother to carry out errands outside for her. “I avoid going out as I can’t tolerate their gaze on me.”
After 5 August, not only have three more bunkers been set up near Ms. Mushtaq’s house but she passes by more bunkers whenever she travels to other parts of Srinagar. “At least, I used to go out before they built the bunkers post-August. I used to feel free but now, I feel uneasy,” she said. “I feel scared and even my mother feels the same.”
According to Ms. Mushtaq, many women fear going out because of the bunkers. “I wish they weren’t there but unfortunately, they are. I don’t like them. It’s quite disturbing and uncomfortable,” she said, adding that she has started to now wear a burqa–a loose garment, commonly black in colour, worn over clothes by women–when she goes out.
Zainab, 21, also a college student, said that before the abrogation of J-K’s partial autonomy, when women would stare back at the government forces, they would look away. However, after August, “the [government forces] now look at you with their bloodthirsty eyes like they own you and your land.”
Passing by the armed men stationed inside the bunkers, covered by nets and surrounded by barbed wires, is a fearful memory of Yasmeen Showkat’s youth. “They used to pass comments and start whistling,” said Ms. Showkat, now in her 50s.
During the 1990s, Ms. Showkat had to pass through at least four bunkers every day to reach the government-run high school near her home in downtown Srinagar’s Fatehkadal area during the 1990s. She recalled the overwhelming fear of being watched by government forces and began wearing the burqa to feel safe outside her house.
This was also a time when there were reports of widespread incidents of sexual abuse and harassment of women by men in uniform on a daily basis, Ms. Showkat constantly felt fear. “They used to abuse women by passing comments, singing and using slurs like saali,” she recalled. “How can one forget about sexually implicit remarks?”
Even today, news reports showing bunkers and further militarisation in Kashmir brings back memories of the 1990s despite Ms. Showkat having moved out of the bunker infested downtown Srinagar to an uptown area on Srinagar’s outskirts.
With a visible rise in militarisation on the streets, Ms. Showkat is constantly worried about her two daughters. “If my daughters are outside after dusk, my mind automatically wanders around bunkers and men in uniform,” she said, adding that she did not want her daughters to go through the same fear.
Shazia Malik of the Kashmir University’s Centre for Women’s Studies and Research, said that government force’s bunkers have restricted movement of women in the current scenario. “We already know because of the militarization, the issue of eve-teasing and the gazes of military men are normally there which makes women feel unsafe,” she said.
“Military patriarchal setup is even more difficult for us [women] because there is little chance to confront it,” said Ms. Malik. She added that the societal restrictions on women and the fear for women’s safety is more pronounced owing to the patriarchal concept of associating honour with women. According to a Human Rights Watch report, “One of the ways security forces in Kashmir use rape is as a weapon against women suspected of being sympathetic to or related to alleged militants.”
The several bunkers dotting the Srinagar city were reminders that something is not normal, ”this makes you feel that you don’t belong to a normal region,” said Ms. Malik. “In the society where you have been brought up. There is something because of which this structure is there.”
“When women have to pass through bunkers, they often have to listen to sexually implicit comments. She fears to respond because there are people holding guns,” said Ms. Malik. “You become powerless.”
According to Ufra Mir, a peace-psychologist in Srinagar, militarization adversely impacted women’s psyche, their self-esteem and agency, and their understanding of power as a woman. “This may at times make them feel unsafe at their homes too, while they interact and respond to the dynamics of the restricted space, physically and mentally,” said Ms. Mir. “It can also make women more vulnerable to violence and harassment of different kinds.”
She added: “Psychologically, it can affect your identity as a woman when insecurity becomes the norm, since women may feel like they are always being watched because of the militarized gaze and presence.”
The story was originally published in our 10-16 August 2020 print edition.