In kashmir, there is on-going strife on two fronts today.
The first one is highly visible – and all over the local and national news – as
communities struggle to fend off terror elements and learn to live with
crippling ‘hartals’ (curfews). The second one is completely hidden, although
it’s no less problematic or painful. It is the violence that has been unleashed
on Kashmiri women and girls by their own men, who are supported unconditionally
by patriarchal structures that allow them to uninhibitedly exercise their power
and authority.   Like elsewhere in India,
here too boys grow up thinking harassment and eve-teasing are ‘cool’ and
sure-shot signs of being ‘manly’ and ‘in control’. But whereas in the rest of
the country increasingly women are coming out to voice their angst against
these blatant attitudes, there is still a rather deafening silence on this
issue in the valley. Whether it’s dealing with a stalker, fending off the
unwanted advances of a teacher or a work colleague, or living with the trauma
to being molested by a family member there are many troubling experiences that
women have been unable to go public with.

Take Sehar, 24, a Kashmir university student from Noor Bagh,
Sopore. For her, even recalling the three “dreadful years” of college when she
was being stalked by an unknown man, fills her with fear. “i used to walk to
college. It was a lonely stretch and after a few days, i noticed a policeman
tailing me every day. He would whisper my name and follow me. I asked a friend
to accompany me but that too didn’t deter him. He would watch my family’s
movements and when i was home alone, he would call on the landline,” she
narrates.

A year passed before Sehar could gather the courage to tell
her family. She continues, “They could not do anything other than ask me to
wear a burqa. For a while my father accompanied me to college. The man
disappeared and everyone thought that wearing the burqa had worked. Then, as i
was returning home from college one afternoon he appeared out of nowhere and
said: ‘no matter how much you try to hide from me, I’ll still recognise you’.
Six years have passed but i still remember his voice and those dark black eyes.
For a while, i had contemplated giving up my studies. It was only afterI
finished college that he vanished. I shifted to Srinagar and the matter ended
there, but who knows what could have happened if i had stayed on. This has had
a deep impact on my life. I still get nightmares.”

Like Sehar, Misbah, 21, had a terrible experience while
pursuing higher education. When this resident of Darasar Tral enrolled for
masters in mathematics at Islamic university she was looking forward to
“interacting with people and making new friends”. Things were okay for a while
and then “one day, a teacher called me to his room and said, ‘Misbah, don’t
take it otherwise, but i kind of like you’. I took it very casually, and left
the room. But he would stare at me in class and later call and text and email
me,” she says. It was unnerving but she didn’t know what to do and kept wishing
it would all go away. This went on for about a year, when, by chance, “one of
my elder sisters read a text from him. She was furious. When i told her all
about it she decided to register a formal complaint”. However, anxious at being
censured Misbah “begged her not to make the matter public”.

Crimes against women have been steadily rising in Kashmir.
According to the police’s crime branch, 315 cases of rape, 1,342 of molestation
and 215 cases of eve-teasing were registered in 2015. Activists, however,
emphasise that actual numbers would be much higher. Sociologist Farah Qayoom,
who teaches at kashmir university, is convinced that patriarchy perpetuates
such violence. “men here have always enjoyed a dominant position. The home is
where male egos are actually nurtured. A boy is always told he can do anything
while a girl is kept subdued, suppressed. Such attitudes deeply impact young
minds. The male child begins to feel he is superior and that he commands
authority.” When this need to dominate spills over into a public sphere it
leads to heinous crimes like eve-teasing, sexual harassment and molestation. “a
boy thinks if he teases a girl or passes comments at her, he will be considered
cool among his friends. Peer pressure only exacerbates such behaviour,” she
elaborates.

Adding to Qayoom’s analysis, Dr Aadil Bashir, assistant
professor, social welfare, Kashmir university, says, “most times, it’s the
societal response that prevents women from openly speaking out. Instead of the
culprit getting punished, it’s the woman who ends up suffering.” To handle
incidents of harassment, lately policewomen have been posted outside select
schools and colleges in srinagar and other towns though students like Seher and
Misbah say it has made no difference.

Nayeema Mehjoor, chairperson, J&K State Commission for
Women, observes that in Kashmir there is still not enough “acceptance” for
women who step outside the home. “Men aren’t willing to accept women in the
field which leads to discord. There’s marked increase in harassment and
violence as a result.”

Ateeqa Bano, a government employee from Kangan, can relate
to this. “I am a divorcee and a working woman. One of my seniors has been
passing indecent remarks and making inappropriate advances. I do not want to
make it a talking point, so i ignore him. But this only encourages him since he
knows i am never going to tell anyone.” Ateeqa’s helplessness is just another
reminder of the work that still has to be done to make workplaces safe for
women. Interestingly, the state government had informed the assembly in June
2016 that in government departments alone, 27 cases of sexual harassment have
been registered since 2010. “As a working woman, i feel we are at war on every
front, be it the home, office or public spaces. A woman can’t decide whether to
speak up or remain silent because she knows that she is going to suffer either
way. The lack of faith in the judicial system also pushes her to accept silence
as the best solution,” says Prof Lily Want of Kashmir University.

Concurs Mohammad Yousuf Bhat, senior advocate at the J&K
high court, “a minimal number of harassment cases go to the court. And if a
girl does pull the courage to file a case, it usually falls through for the
lack of evidence.”

One thing is certain though – gender violence shatters a
woman. One look at Nimrah, 16, and it’s clear that the teenager is miserable.
She seldom talks to anyone, and spends most of her time sitting alone in her
grandmother’s room in Habba Kadal. “She wasn’t always like this,” says her
grandmother, “she was a fun-loving child, very sharp and intelligent”.

What happened? “She was living with her parents in Khaniyar,
Srinagar, in a joint family. One day, her elder cousin sexually molested her.
She was only 14 and terrified when she spoke to her mother about it. The elders
decided she should live with me. She has been mostly silent ever since,” she
reveals.

Mental health expert Dr Arif Maghribi Khan says, “sexual
violence, if left unaddressed, can develop into major depression or post stress
traumatic disorder. This happens especially if she has no way to help herself.
Living in a conflict zone for such a long time has already lowered the
threshold of suffering for the Kashmiri women. Social and familial support is
crucial if they have to heal and move forward.”

Women’s Feature Service