Ruksana Wani* is a postgraduate who taught in a private school till she got married. An orphan in her late thirties, and the only sister among four siblings, Ms. Wani was “a responsibility to get done with” for her brothers.
In September 2019, Ms. Wani was married off to a man, fifteen years older than her, of her brother’s choosing. In keeping with the Kashmiri tradition of observing the first seven days of marriage as a time of celebrating the bride, she was treated well with special care and attention.
The normal life of everyday chores began from the eighth day but the disaffection of her sisters-in-law for bringing less dowry was out in the open. Just a month later, her husband was sacked by the private company that employed him as a clerk as the lockdown—imposed by the Government of India as it unilaterally abrogated Jammu and Kashmir’s limited autonomy and statehood in August—continued.
Ms. Wani’s husband has since been unemployed, leaving the couple dependent on the income of his unmarried elder sister, a government employee, who lived with them. Grounded at home, her husband’s abusive behaviour increased.
At one point, Ms. Wani’s husband insisted that she give him the gold she got as wedding gifts to start his business but when she refused to part with her assets, beatings followed and the involvement of sisters-in-law to pressure her escalated matters to the point that she was thrown out of the house.
She suffered greater emotional trauma when her elder brothers refused to support her, insisting that she go back to “her home” and live as her in-laws wanted her to. This was also when she was two months pregnant. For two weeks, she lived with her younger brother and was consumed with suicidal thoughts.
Sometime later, the husband brought Ms. Wani back home but little changed. Her pregnancy granted her no concession as her sister-in-law continued to burden with household chores, during which she eventually suffered a miscarriage. The couple had no money to see a doctor.
This situation persisted till December till the curfews were eased. The gradual easing of the lockdown had come as a breath of fresh air as Ms. Wani saw opportunities outside the home.
Subreen Malik, a lawyer who runs a Srinagar based collective called Marham: Women’s Cell, said that women who faced domestic violence had no social support to bank upon. “There is absolutely no system in place for such women,” she said. “No doubt there are courts and police stations but it is not a priority for police officers to entertain such cases.”
In courts, Ms. Malik said, women had little support to fight legal battles. “Some who chose to fight legally give up in the middle because they don’t have the support system neither socially nor otherwise so they give up,” she said. Ms. Malik has taken up several cases of women in distress, pro-bono or charging them nominal fees.
Through Marham, Ms. Malik provides legal aid and psychological support to women in distress. “Once someone approaches, we assess what kind of help that is required,” she said. “Some women need financial help, [especially] those whose cases [demanding maintenance] is lying in limbo in courts. During the lockdown, they had no means to sustain themselves so they approached us and we connected them to donors—we were [simply] the link between the victim-survivors and the donors.”
The extensive containment measures in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic have led to a lack of outlet simultaneously as longer periods of confinement indoors has increased the interface of the family–the inevitable result being the exposure of “fractured relationships”, as sociologist Dr. Adfer Shah puts it.
In Kashmir, however, the confinement began seven months prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, on 5 August 2019, when the Government of India unilaterally abrogated the semi-autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir and split the erstwhile state into two Union Territories: J-K and Ladakh.
In the weeks that followed, a strict curfew was imposed and the common Kashmiri remained homebound, most of them with depleting financial resources owing to job losses and restriction on movements across the region. “The prolonged conflict over the years has only added to it,” said Dr. Shah, adding that the breakdown of the traditional gender roles also has a role to play, with men still idealizing wives as “the ideal mother, obedient wife…a good woman is one who is quiet and unquestioning.”
Simultaneously, Dr. Shah said that economic considerations, too, play a part in marriages. “A well educated, earning woman is preferred over an unemployed woman for obvious material reasons,” he said. “Emotions have largely taken a back seat.”
In a mute society
In Kashmir’s conflict-ridden society, the conflict at home is rarely given due attention. The institutional framework–though existing, if not up to the mark—has largely remained inaccessible to scores of women, whose first instinct is to seek help from local non-profits.
It is evident from the number of First Information Reports (FIR) registered in the Women’s Police Station in Rambagh, Srinagar between 5 August 2019 and 29 May 2020–only about 33 FIRs have been registered in cases of domestic violence.
In many cases, the women also approach their local mohalla/masjid committees–the Kashmiri equivalent of a resident’s welfare association–with their plight; but in most instances, these committees end up condoning or hushing up the abusive behaviours by husbands.
A postgraduate in arts, business administration, besides a diploma in computer applications and a qualified teacher, Deeba Yousuf, 34, is one such woman whose abusive husband found support through such mohalla committees. Ms. Yousuf’s woes began with her husband’s family feeling “disrespected” for the unsatisfactory amount of dowry she had brought them, it soon turned into a nightmare where she found herself forced into immodesty by her in-laws and her own parents being unsupportive of her.
Ms. Yousuf had approached the local masjid committee, complaining of her husband’s affair, the lack of intimacy between the two, and the frequent beatings by him. The committee intervened and demanded the husband apologise in writing but asked her to spend one more week with her abusive husband. “I gave one more chance,” she said, the couple consummated their marriage two months after their marriage. Thereafter, the entire issue was declared resolved by the committee.
She resumed a life of abuse, till the father- and brother-in-law’s inappropriate advances finally made her leave the marriage and get a formal divorce in 2015, a year after her marriage. “I don’t know how I got the strength,” she said. “But it is difficult to trust anyone now. Only after falling does a person learn to rise.”
Ms. Malik of Marham said that a major problem for women seeking help was the lack of a shelter home—as mandated by the Domestic Violence Act. “So women who were driven out of their matrimonial homes were literally shelter-less,” she said. “even during the pandemic, there were no shelter homes.”
After consistent requests to the Social Welfare Department by Ms. Malik, some shelters were designated “after 2-3 months of lockdown” but it was “too late for women to go there”. “This is a very serious issue that we don’t have a single shelter home in Kashmir. Across the country, there are shelter homes in the thousands,” she said.
In case of physical assault, the reality of suffering may be acknowledged “but if there are mental issues, you don’t see them as issues. You attach a stigma to it the moment you think this person is unstable,” said Ms. Malik. “We don’t understand the mental issues—we don’t recognise them as issues.”