By Zeenat Zeeshan Fazil - This article won an award for Media Reporting on Development at Development Networks.
Yes, many aspects of normal civilian life are compromised in Kashmir, as in any area of conflict. But in Kashmir, there is an overlay of this reality with another one; of women being treated with insensitivity, callousness and being subjected to all manner of discrimination, and in extreme cases-violence.
The rape and killing of two young women in Sopore has drawn the ire of many in Kashmir’s multi-layered society and polity. The last few months have been a period of relative quiet after the spiral of violence last summer and killings that have now erupted are once again a reminder of how tenuous this peace may be.
The incident is no doubt horrific and highly condemnable, but it also depends on the lens one is looking at such acts of violence. Is it only an incident triggered by a particular set of circumstances at a particular time or is it symptomatic of a larger malaise affecting society in Kashmir, that of degradation of women in many spheres of life and in the larger society and polity?
Yes, many aspects of normal civilian life are compromised in Kashmir, as in any area of conflict. But in Kashmir, there is an overlay of this reality with another one; of women being treated with insensitivity, callousness and being subjected to all manner of discrimination, and in extreme cases-violence. There is an inherited tapestry of Kashmir’s societal norms which are discriminatory, that are then exacerbated by the over two decades of conflict Whatever the provocation for this incident and the steps to prevent such attacks in the future, the fact still remains that women in pre-conflict Kashmir have suffered in different ways.
The problem is deep-rooted, pervasive. Social prejudices reinforce the woman’s identity as being subordinate to the male. Domestic violence is more widespread than is reported. Dowry is an ugly reality with ceaseless demands leading to a high degree of stress. According to Dr. Mushtaq Margoob, well-known psychiatrist in the Valley “Women's physical and mental health is often permanently damaged or impaired. In some cases there can be fatal consequences as in the case of dowry deaths.”
In Kashmiri society, women are generally repressed. The region over the decades has witnessed tremendous change with the processes of industrialization and modernization ushering in enhanced levels of economic prosperity and education. The traditional role of women in society has also changed but it has also brought about new areas of stress within the old mould. Pre-conflict, the suicides amongst women can be said to reflect this but there has been an alarming rise of suicides over the last two decades with some 12000-18000 persons committing suicide. According to leading sociologist, Dr. Bashir Ahmed Dabla suicides amongst women are more. He cites the ongoing conflict as the major underlying factor.
It is not always easy to discern how the existing patterns of societal norms and attitudes towards women, reach a point of conflagration but they feed each other. A woman who has been abused either at home or has been a victim of attack, molestation or worse rape by any of the players operating in the conflict zone finds it difficult to register her complaint with the authorities. She finds very little support from the family or society and often carries a stigma for a wrong that has been done to her. The Minister for Social Welfare, Sakina Itoo agrees with this view and holds the police accountable for negligence in registering their complaints. “Hundreds of women have informed me that police refuse to register their complaints of domestic violence,” states Itoo.
The environment for women in Kashmir is far from conducive and the fall-out of the conflict has taken a huge toll not only on the physical security of women but their psychological well-being, mental peace. People anywhere in the world exposed to benumbing violence in any situation of armed conflict are prone to developing psychological disorders and this is equally true for Kashmir where the incidence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorders (PTSD) has grown. According to Dr. Margoob, “Women constitute more than 55% of the patients seeking treatment at Kashmir's only mental health hospital in Srinagar. Most are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorders (PTSD).” Margoob says women are more prone to PTSD than men. Whether this is a reflection of the odds stacked against them or their coping mechanisms can be debated but there are no simple answers.
The atmosphere of conflict pervades all of society and within that what women endure, what are the points of breakdown, what are the factors both underlying and immediately provocative, which lead to their suffering and in a sense their marginalisation? The answers need to be urgently sought.
Margoob believes that hundreds of women do not approach medical help because of illiteracy and social taboos attached to the mental health hospitals. “They continue to suffer silently,” he says. Abdul Rashid Hanjoora, a committed social activists says, “Women are often caught in a vicious circle of economic dependence, a sense of insecurity, a lack of awareness about their rights” These factors effectively keep a woman trapped in circumstances that maybe harmful to her physical or mental health but the shroud of privacy or so-called sanctity of a home often stops outside agencies from knowing about let alone acting upon the problem. Hanjoora also reiterates the belief that it is social stigma that prevents many cases of domestic violence being reported thus giving a false picture of the situation. He says “We need to ponder on how degradation of women can be stopped. It needs support from all quarters, be it government, NGOs and women themselves,”
What could signal hope is that the police acknowledges that violence against women gets ‘least’ attention and seeks to correct its image as being negligent by taking firm action. Says the state’s police chief, Khuldeep Khoda “We are aware about most cases not getting registered in police stations not only because our administration mechanism is weak but other reasons as well. “ He says increasing the number of women’s police stations was a step in the direction “ In order to control crime against women, we have established two women police stations - one in Jammu and another in Kashmir, exclusively headed by women officers. These have helped police a lot in controlling the crimes against women. Our target is to establish women’s police stations at all district headquarters of J&K”
That women have got a raw deal over the ages in Kashmiri society is now being accepted as a credible view within enlightened sections. It is vital that in the larger ramifications of seeking solutions for the region’s way forward politically, economically and culturally, this is not ignored.
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