History tells us the Kashmir crisis will be particularly dangerous for women – so why aren’t we talking about it?

Provisions that afford armed forces ‘special powers’ to maintain order make the danger of sexual violence more likely, but there are other negative impacts that are also being ignored

Payal Dhar
Wednesday 21 August 2019 14:04
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Military convoy in the streets of Srinagar, Kashmir

On 5 August, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in India “disappeared” the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), a disputed territory between India and Pakistan since 1947, at the northernmost tip of the Indian subcontinent. This was accompanied by the arrests of its leaders, a communications blackout, a curfew and an unprecedented deployment of troops in what was already among the world’s most militarised zones.

In the two weeks that have followed, there have been protests, human rights violations and concerted government propaganda to deny unrest. More than 4,000 people – including former chief ministers, other ministers, lawmakers, activists and workers from political parties and separatist groups – have been illegally detained. Kashmir remains a tinderbox. Whatever happens next, history tells us that women will bear a disproportionate burden.

Humanitarian crises always have a gender angle, particularly those involving armed conflict and state actors. Trends analysis by the United Nations in 2018 shows that sexual violence is factored into the broader strategy of conflict, with women and girls being disproportionately affected. It has been no different in Kashmir’s disturbed history. Sahba Husain, an activist and researcher on gender, conflict and women’s rights, wrote in Fault Lines of History, a volume on sexual violence and impunity in India, published in 2016: “The deliberate/strategic use of sexual violence by the armed forces [in the J&K conflict] makes it a powerful subtext.”

Likening national honour to women’s bodies has been used to justify sexual violence against the bodies of “enemy” women time and again. This has been helped to a large extent by a controversial law known as the Armed Forces (Special) Powers Act (AFSPA), which confers “special powers” upon armed forces to maintain order. AFSPA has been in force in J&K since 1990, and is the carpet of impunity under which various human rights violations, including rape, are brushed.

“Army personnel have never been tried in a civilian court and no prosecutions or punishments following supposed court-martials have been made public,” say the authors of the book Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora? (2016), which is about an incident on 23 February 1991, of the mass rape (the numbers vary from 23 to 100 women) in the villages of Kunan and Poshpora in Kashmir, allegedly by the 4th Rajputana Rifles regiment of the Indian Army. While the army denied the incident, the survivors of the incident have continued their fight for justice. Twenty-five years after the event, in 2017, the Supreme Court finally admitted the plea for the case to be heard.

The threat of violence, including sexual violence, hangs in the air as people go about their daily lives, Sahba Husain noted during her fieldwork in 2013 in J&K. But it isn’t just the fear that you could be assaulted or arrested or tortured; there are other kinds of impacts upon women, including economic and cultural.

Nitasha Kaul, a Kashmiri academic and writer, wrote in Feminist Review in 2018: “There is a specifically gendered aspect to the exoticisation of Kashmir … which results in a feminisation of the Kashmiri landscape and Kashmiri bodies.” Writing about the current crisis, she adds, “Muslim-majority Kashmir has always been India’s Oriental ‘other’, loaded with fantasies of beauty and cruelty as surely as any Ottoman harem in the fervid imagination of Europeans.”

“Kashmir is filled with women without men,” says historian, author and feminist publisher Urvashi Butalia in a telephone interview. Often referred to as “half-widows” – women whose husbands have been disappeared or killed by the army – these women are the primary breadwinners of their families, charged with the double burden of running the household as well.

“With a curfew in place, it directly impacts their economic activities, when they are unable to go to the markets or when customers cannot come to them [many of them provide services like embroidery],” she says.

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Butalia also points to the changing demographics of the protesters who come out on to the streets. “You see a lot of young people, including young women [these days]. This increases the chances of women being in harm’s way.”

With the army nearby, particularly with provisions like the AFSPA, there is always a danger of sexual violence. Since men are at risk of being picked up by the police and military, women are more likely to step out after curfew is lifted to buy provisions, for instance.

Another effect of the ongoing siege is likely to be a cultural one, Butalia adds. The BJP, which is a Hindu nationalist party, has had its sights set on abrogating J&K’s special status for long, and it is not a coincidence that this is the only Muslim-majority state in India. The airing of the BJP’s Hindu ideology might result in the increased radicalisation of the relatively open Islam that has been followed in Kashmir, particularly in relation to women.

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