Independent Appeal: Safe haven for women beaten and abused in Kashmir

For the past two decades, domestic violence has been a low priority in one of India's most troubled regions. But a bold initiative is now addressing the issue – bringing Hindus and Muslims together, reports Andy Buncombe

The woman who has accused her husband of beating her has a moon-shaped face and a gentle smile, but he insists she is controlled by an evil spirit. "I cannot take her back. She is under the influence of a djinni [a supernatural being]," says the husband. "But I have never beaten her."

His wife, Rafika, tries to staunch her tears, while gripping their six-year-old daughter. "No, he has hit me many times. I have gone to the police," she says. "Whenever I ask for money he gets angry. He beats me with his fists."

At this point, the man's father – also sitting in the room of the hearing – angrily gets to his feet. Not only is the woman controlled by a spirit, he shouts, before he is escorted out by officials, but it is a Hindu spirit. "We will be happy if she goes to the Imam [Muslim priest] to have it dealt with."

Few of the cases of marital dispute that come before the Commission for Women in Kashmir involve claims of supernatural power. Many, however, involve allegations of violence: of women being hit with sticks, with brooms and with fists.

For a long time in this troubled place, women had few places to turn to for help and few people to talk to. Amid a two-decades-old separatist insurgency that has claimed more than 70,000 lives, the issue of domestic violence was often considered much less of a priority. At the height of the violence, with people being killed or wounded almost every day at either at the hands of the militants or the security forces, women were told that they had to support their husbands, to keep quiet. How will it help things if you raise this issue? they were told by friends and relatives, many of them women. A spiralling addiction to drugs by many men made matters worse.

But slowly that is changing. Activists from both the Hindu and Muslim communities have come together to educate women about their rights and to spread a message of "no-tolerance" among the broader community. They have reached out to religious leaders, teachers and the media. They are also pressing for new anti-domestic violence legislation that will provide women with more legal protection.

"The domestic violence programme developed from a wider project to create a space in which women across the state could talk and feel safe," said Ashima Kaul, an activist whose work is funded by Peace Direct, one of the charities for which money is being raised by The Independent's Christmas appeal. "As the women started talking, something that emerged was that one thing that women from all areas of the state had in common – whether they were from Kashmir, Jammu or Ladakh, from both the Muslim or Hindu communities – was the issue of domestic violence."

This is a ground-breaking initiative, according to Peace Direct's programmes director Tom Gillhespy. "Mrs Kaul's project offers a unique opportunity to bring together both Muslim and Hindu communities," he says. "It is an entry point to building a wider peace between them."

Forty-five-year-old Zahida, from the town of Ganderbal, is also one of those whose case is being heard by the commission, which works closely with Mrs Kaul's organisation, Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace. After 25 years of marriage she wants a divorce, saying that her husband is controlling, prevents her from seeing her parents and beats her. Her husband, a pharmacist, denies the allegations.

"He has hurt me many times. He is not a good character," she says. "I have told my family about it but they expect me to put up with it and keep on with my married life. I want to go. I want a divorce."

Hafiza Muzaffar, the commission's secretary, says that as society changes so more women are feeling able to speak out about their experiences. They are also expecting more from their marriages, and from their husbands.

The commission now has the legal power to force people to attend the sessions and to give evidence under oath. If a man refuses to attend, the commission can dispatch the police to his house and force him to come.

But the activists working across Kashmir say they want more legal protection for the women of the state. Anti-domestic violence legislation that was passed elsewhere in the country has yet to be adopted by the authorities in Kashmir. After much lobbying, it is understood that a draft bill, that will provide additional residency rights and financial support to women suffering violence, is close to being finalised and activists hope it will become law in 2010.

Mrs Kaul's work to provide a voice for the women of Kashmir's various communities began in 2001. Her Hindu family had left Kashmir when she was a child as a result of death threats made to her father, a senior police officer. When she returned as an adult she found that many women, whose sons and husbands had been killed in the violence, had no contact with each other because they were from different faiths.

With the vast majority of Kashmiri Hindus, or Pandits, having fled the Kashmir Valley as the insurgency gathered pace in 1989, it was not an easy place for her to return to work as an activist. For the first two years, she did not use her family name. But as her work developed, Mrs Kaul felt able to acknowledge her Kashmiri roots – something that ultimately helped her.

"This conflict is described as a freedom struggle, but in fighting, everyone has lost their freedom – we are so scared of each other," she has written. "I want to open up safe spaces, where women can come together and all their voices can be heard."

Donate Now

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
News
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Developer (TSQL, SSRS, SSAS) Fund Manager - London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Harrington Starr: SQL Developer (TSQL, S...

Software Developer (JavaScript, TDD, Jasmine, Angular.JS)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Software Developer (JavaScript, TDD, Jasmine, An...

Front-End UI/UX Developer (HTML5, CSS, JavaScript, jQuery, Ang

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front-End UI/U...

C#.NET Server Side Developer (C#, XML, WCF, Unit Testing,SQL)

£30000 - £40000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C#.NET ...

Day In a Page

All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

Florence Knight's perfect picnic

Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

Mark Hix's summery soups

Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

Tim Sherwood column

I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition