Kashmiri Women, victims of armed conflict

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Words: Sofia Nogués Segura

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For more than 70 years, women have been the primary victims of the ongoing conflict over the Kashmir territory.

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Women have been victims of armed conflicts for many centuries and in many regions of the world. During the Rwandan Genocide in 1994, for example, as many as half a million women were raped, sexually mutilated and murdered in 100 days. However, Rwanda is neither the only nor the most recent case in which women have been the primary victims of an armed conflict. In the Indian region of Jammu and Kashmir, women continue to suffer as a result of fighting between Kashmiri separatists and the Government of India.

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The origin of the conflict dates back to 1947, when the partition of the Indian sub-continent led to the formation of India and Pakistan, and Kashmir could choose to join one or the other. While the ruler of Kashmir, Hari Singh, was Hindu, most of the population in the region was Muslim. At the time, unable to decide which nation Kashmir should join, Singh chose to remain neutral. Later that year, Pakistan sent Muslim tribesmen to the region's capital, and Singh appealed to the Indian government for military assistance. He then ceded Kashmir to India on the 26 October 1947. Since then, Indian-administered Kashmir has remained a zone of conflict, which intensified in 1987 when a popular anti-Indian separatist militant movement and militancy gained momentum in the Kashmir Valley. In response India militarised the valley.

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There have even been documented cases of soldiers confessing that they were ordered to rape women. According to a 1993 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report: ‘In its efforts to crush the militant movement, India's central government has pursued a policy of repression in Kashmir that has resulted in massive human rights violations by Indian army and paramilitary forces.’ Since 1990, reports of rape by security personnel have become more frequent. As reported by HRW, ‘the security forces frequently engage in collective punishment against the civilian population.’ In some cases, women have been raped after accusations that they are providing food or shelter to militants, while in other cases there is no explicit motive, and they are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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According to Seema Kazi, author and with a PhD in gender studies, ‘the sexual appropriation of Kashmiri Muslim women by the military functions not only as an especially potent political weapon, but also as a cultural weapon to inflict collective dishonour on Kashmiri Muslim men.’ It subordinates the Kashmiri community.

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The most recent victim was an eight-year-old girl from a shepherd community. She went missing on 10 January 2018 and her body was found a week later, showing marks of torture and abuse. This caused a massive online reaction and people took to the streets demanding justice. Chief Minister of the state, Mehbooba Mufti, condemned the act by tweeting, ‘Outraged by the heinous incident in which a young Bakerwal girl has lost her life. Incidents like this will be investigated expeditiously & the guilty will be punished.’

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‘The sexual appropriation of Kashmiri Muslim women by the military functions not only as a potent political weapon, but also as a cultural weapon’

Last year in Kashmir women faced another form of humiliation: braid chopping. At least 40 women in Indian-administered Kashmir have reported attacks by masked assailants, who sprayed chemicals in their faces and left them unconscious. They awoke to find that their hair had been chopped off. It is as yet unclear who is behind these attacks, with both the Indian military and separatist groups blaming each other.

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Women who are assaulted in Kashmir not only suffer the physical and mental consequences, but they are also often shamed as their izzat (honour) is lost. This can lead to rejection or abuse at the hands of their husbands. In 2004, after a 16-year-old girl was sexually assaulted by an Indian army official, her community labelled her ‘spoiled goods’ and her relatives rejected her.

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In recent years, young female voices have emerged from the conservative mindsets of Kashmir to report the challenges women face in the valley. Natasha Rather is a young human rights defender, who currently works as a researcher for the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS). Her work is centred on human rights abuses perpetrated by the Indian state in Kashmir and she has been part of the campaign seeking justice for the survivors of the Kunan Poshpora Mass Rape case of 1991. However, as Natasha explains, the ‘Indian state’s displeasure and dislike for human rights issues to be discussed’ creates many obstacles to activism, such as curfews and restrictions on social media.

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Similarly, Ather Zia, a Kashmiri journalist and Assistant Professor at the University of Northern Colorado, whose work focuses on militarisation, gender and forced disappearances in Kashmir, finds that state surveillance is a barrier, as it impedes mobility and gathering of data. In an interview with The Citizen she said: ‘Many human rights defenders prefer being unnamed since it helps them work in anonymity and without being unduly penalised by the state agencies,’ adding that punishments sometimes go as far as incarceration.

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Despite the obstacles and the risks attached to speaking out against human rights violations, there are many brave activists trying to cast the national and international spotlights on Kashmir in the hope that someday this conflict, and the devastating toll it takes on the region’s female population, will end.