Twenty-three-year-old Mehnaz, not her real name, has long dreamt of traveling. Travel, for her, has meant to be able to simply be able to venture out of her home and rejoice in the beauty of nature. A resident of downtown Srinagar, she has grown up during the most turbulent phase of the militancy in Kashmir, during which access to public spaces had shrunk for many in the Valley.
Like many from the 1990s generation, Ms. Mehnaz has grown up hearing stories of her mother’s childhood, when women going to the movies and returning from late-night weddings was common. But with each passing year, her own freedom to step out of the house has only diminished.
It isn’t just the militarization that has played a major role in restricting Ms. Mehnaz’s freedom. The moral policing, prevalent in Kashmiri society, has time and again put her in situations where she has had to think twice before leaving her home.
Today, Ms. Mehnaz, a literature student at the Women’s College in Srinagar, spends most of her days confined to her home. “Women lose their freedom when they start growing up in a society like ours,” she said. “We are always told not to go out alone because it’s not safe or morally sound.”
Loss of recreational spaces has not only impacted her but many other women like her as well. The constant pressure caused by either moral policing or militarization has left her not only constricted to her home but has also affected her mental well-being, pushing her to overthink every time before doing things.
Lost public spaces
For Kashmiri women, militarization, and the societal response to it has curbed the freedom that women have had. Arshie Qureshi, a researcher, said that women in older times had many more avenues of outings, apart from the shrines where women socialized.
Additionally, Ms. Qureshi said, houses in the older times did not have strict boundaries, something that can still be found in few parts of rural Kashmir, “so it was easier for them to navigate spaces and meet each other and socialize.” But today, she said, women went out only when they have to go out for work and not for recreation.
“Somehow, women going out and traveling is only considered important when it is for work and not for leisure and recreation. I have faced moral policing several times, in parks and in other public spaces. In parks sometimes random men walk up to you and ask you for IDs and that has happened to me,” said Ms. Qureshi.
Over recent years, however, the role of Kashmiri men in harassing women in public as such has also played a part. “All public spaces, be it cafes, parks, or any other places, are highly male-dominated, and claiming space in such an environment is not easy or comfortable for all the women,” said Ms. Qureshi.
Public spaces in Kashmir, said Ms. Qureshi, were not accessible to women. “Accessibility isn’t unidimensional,” she said, “it has to do with structural as well as cultural or societal arrangements as well. Structurally, there are not many spaces constructed to accommodate women’s needs, for example, having a feeding room for lactating mothers.”
The biggest factor in the loss of public spaces for women since the 1990s has been the presence of thousands of troops on the streets of the Valley. Kashmir women, as such, have lost almost all recreational avenues that were available to them before the 1990s, said Shazia Malik of the Kashmir University’s Centre for Women’s Studies and Research.
The militarisation and the violence against women by government forces was an overarching factor in curbing women’s space in public, said Ms. Malik. “In the 1990s many women were raped,” she said. “Because of that, women were told not to go out. Many women were not even allowed to go to schools or colleges. There were cases when women were mistreated on roads.”
According to Dr. Ubaid Rasool, a senior resident at the Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (IMHANS) in Srinagar, the lack of recreational spaces worsens the already existing mental health conditions as well as give rise to new ones.
“Recreational spaces in day to day lives act as stress busters,” said Dr. Rasool. “Lack of recreational spaces, militarization, and moral policing have been major reasons for depression and anxiety among women of Kashmir.”
The Kashmiri population as a whole “has been under a lasting psychological siege for decades now and women have been the most affected by lack of recreational spaces”, noted Dr. Mudasir Firdousi, a London based psychiatrist of Kashmiri origin.
“Men and children are able to go out on a regular basis but women have been in constant voluntary and involuntary confinement,” said Dr. Firdousi, a consultant psychiatrist and Honorary Senior Lecturer at the Saint George’s, University of London. “Given the higher rates of mood and anxiety disorders in the valley population, again have a higher prevalence in women than men, which becomes worse due to prevailing patriarchy.”
“The whole society has become dysthymic and any expression of joy or happiness can be seen as inappropriate. Even celebrating important life events is looked down upon at times,” said Dr. Firdousi.
As per Ms. Malik, the Kashmiri culture was accommodative of recreation for women if not for the cultural and societal changes induced over the years. “The folk culture included “roufh” (a traditional form of dance performed by women). Women would gather at a particular time, it was way too common in old times,” she said.
“There used to be a Yarbal in Srinagar in old times where women used to gather to wash clothes and talk to each other. Many women who faced problems at her home including domestic violence used to ease her burden by sharing and listening to other women. It would act as a source of counseling,” added Ms. Malik.
These age-old practices ended abruptly, said Ms. Malik, because of the “classism” rooted in patriarchy that has overtaken the Kashmir society. “Many people who consider themselves of high castes or class tell women to wear “burkha” (veil) and not go out for things like these,” she said.
“We don’t have to create new spaces, our culture is rich and things should be revived,” she said. “It will have two impacts, one is that women will get back their lost recreational spaces and others is that it will be a service to the Kashmiri culture.”