As a kid I would often rush to the baker across the lane in front of our house. The shop in the ground floor of the baker’s house had an oven in the back room. A small window connected the oven room with the front shop. Mostly the baker’s wife would be at the window, peeping out to attend customers. A short, stout lady with a round face, she would nod in greeting as we exchanged the bread and money. If she was busy she would ask or gesture to keep the money on a plate near the window just over the locker.
Then one day we heard that some unidentified gunmen have killed her youngest son. Rumour had it that he was suspected to be a police informer. When my mom returned from their house after paying a visit like other neighbours that day, she said that blood was still oozing out of the body of the killed man. I remember father saying that evening that the bleeding had not stopped even after the customary bath, and his shroud had drenched with blood.
In the following days I could not gather myself to go near her shop. I didn’t want to see her. I felt I couldn’t look into that chubby face again or meet her eyes, which I knew would never be the same again. I stopped getting bread.
In Kashmir’s long list of women affected directly by conflict, the baker’s wife was the first I knew personally. I also remember Gul’s wife. Gul Muhammad, or Gul to us, a butcher by profession, was a next-door neighbour. Gul and his siblings were childhood friends to my father and his siblings.
I remember Gul as a God fearing man, teaching his sons intricacies of kite flying on the roof of his house in winters. My brothers and uncles would be on our roof, also flying kites.
I didn’t like to fly kites but I loved to soak in the sun and watch the kite dance to the tunes of the wind. Many families would be on the roofs, watching kites soaring and severing.
When a kite would be in trouble, anxiety levels on the roofs soared. Instructions would roar in the air from rooftops, so would encouragement or compassion when someone’s kite was lost.
Gul and his two sons gave us regular company. I liked him for being a good father as he taught his little sons the nuances of the game. We often exchanged tips. His wife would sometimes come and sit with him
Then one day I returned from school to find an empty house. There was a hue and cry all over the locality. Someone told me Gul has been killed. A Frooti tetra pack had burst and a panicked CRPF personnel had retaliated by shooting Gul inside his shop. People said Gul had been friendly with the trooper who shot him.
That day when mom returned she said Gul’s thumb had been severed as he had caught hold of the iron hook used to hang meat, while falling. Dad said he had chewed a candle, as there was no one to offer him water while dying. I rarely saw his wife since, as she confined herself to her house. I also dreaded seeing her as I realised the face wouldn’t be same anymore, neither she.
I was just a kid but I knew by then that with every blast and bullet a Kashmiri woman was being affected – directly, a widowed wife, a wailing mother, a dumbstruck sister.
Women have a role to play in every society, so in Kashmir. Here women have traditionally worked alongside men in fields, and in markets. There are women who have left their mark in every era. Kashmir had a Lalla Arifa, popularly known as Lal Ded, a great poetess whose verses still adorn the lips of its people. Habba Khatoon, the legendary queen of Kashmir’s has great poetry to her credit besides being a good advisor to her husband, King Yousuf Shah Chak. In recent past, Begum Zafar Ali an educationist went door-to-door convincing people the merits of girl education.
Even during the conflict women did not take the backseat. In fact there are women like Nighat Shafi Pandit who rose to the occasion and did something to alleviate the lot of people around them. There are others like Sakeena who despite the conflict excelled in hitherto male bastions.
The role of women is more significant in a conflict area. In such areas women can be victims, survivors, perpetuators as well peacemakers. Conflict increases the responsibility on women in terms of children, home, health, and livelihood as men mostly bear the brunt of violence leaving women with the additional burden.
As the conflict took its toll in Kashmir it left more than 70,000 dead, most of them men. It resulted in the shifting of the responsibility of men to women. Women had to take care of food, children, their education and all the basic amenities of the family.
The conflict left behind a large number of widows and orphans. It also left behind a new group called the half widows, women whose husbands are missing.
The village Dardpora near the line of control in Kashmir is home to hundreds of widows, whose husbands were killed either as militants or as informers. Sexual violence is used a weapon in a conflict area. Kashmir has also had its fair share. An example being the mass rape of more than 20 women, allegedly by troops, during a crackdown in Kunanpospora village in early nineties. In such tiring situations women health was sure to take a beating. The conflict saw a rise in the number of mental problems especially among women and children. The most common being the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or the PTSD. A large number of homemakers suddenly found themselves as the only hope for their families. With male bread earners killed or jailed, women had to take the responsibility.
Amid all this mayhem there were women, who stepped out of their houses to rise to the occasion. Women like Nighat Shafi Pandit, a bureaucrat’s wife, who could not keep herself to her cosy house. Ignoring the risks involved, Pandit ventured out of her house to help the widows and orphans of the conflict. She founded Hope, an NGO, which established an orphanage in Srinagar, a school for orphans and poor, and also a vocational training centre for poor women and girls. Pandit’s husband had a narrow escape once, when he attacked by two-dozen militants. That did not deter her from helping the widows of militants.
Then we have Parveena Ahanger, who transformed her personal tragedy into a struggle for the rights of the whole lot. Ahanger’s 18-year-old son was disappeared after he was picked up from her house by troops in 1990. She has been struggling and fighting for his whereabouts since then. It has been a long and endless fight, one she converted into a fight for all of the Kashmir’s disappeared. In 1994 she founded the Association of the Parents of Disappeared Parents, Kashmir (APDP), where the victims gathered and not only fought together also found solace in the common sufferings.
Ahanger fought her case in the judicial system where special acts favouring the armed forces hardly left any scope for a fight. Nighat Pandit and Parveena Ahanger found place in the 1000 Women for Nobel Peace Prize 2005 project along with Dilafroze Qazi an educationist. Qazi opened the first private polytechnic of the state and ran it in challenging conditions. She also runs schools for underprivileged children besides giving women vocational training.
Then there are a lot of women who emerged as leaders in their chosen fields, keeping alive hopes of a new generation.
Sakeena Akhter became the first woman cricketer to have qualified from the National Institute of Sports. Bilquis Mir was the first Kashmiri woman to become a national Kayaking and Canoeing Coach of India. She has been recently inducted into the International Panel of Elite Referees- the first Indian woman to be inducted into an international refereeing panel.
In politics Mehbooba Mufti made a niche for herself in Indian Politics. Shabanum Lone has started working at the grassroot level and is learning the political nuances.
And there are certainly countless nameless women who sustained and supported their families through tough and turbulent times, and whose ordinary stories are far more heroic, who toil consistently to improve the lives of people around them.