Co-authored by Aishwarya Bhattacharyya
“Their murders written away as suicides or mishaps, a test of fire where no wife returns alive, suicide-by-proxy” -Meena Kandasamy, from the novel ‘When I Hit You’
‘A mother succumbs to injuries, ‘dies’ at ‘the hospital’?
“A mother of two children, who was allegedly set ablaze by her in-laws in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district, succumbed at a hospital in Srinagar on Thursday”, reads the official reports in the newspapers, dated April 1st, 2021. Another headline runs “Anantnag woman allegedly set ablaze by in-law dies at SMHS Hospital”. What these reports and headline fails to accentuate is this: that the mother of two children who was set ablaze to death by her in-laws was not only a mother! Before being a mother, she was a woman: A woman who lived in a region ridden with political turmoil, battling to survive the patriarchal structures that are in many ways powered by the urgency of political conflict. Further, observe the euphemistic use of the word “dies”, when she was in fact set ablaze by her in-laws, which in all probability falls under attempt to “murder”.
While the reasons that led her in-laws to commit such a heinous crime are far from being clearly stated, it has been told by the parents of the woman that it was due to a marital discord and some disagreements, however the angle of dowry-demand is being probed into, as well as the episodes of domestic violence that went on for months attached to it. While the news culminated in a local protest and the authorities promised action- incidents of such kind raise a spectrum of questions that one will have to contend with. However, before moving onto the larger underlying issue, there are three points in relation to this incident which needs to be noted:
Firstly, according to a team of humanitarian workers which has been following up the case legally, among which Farah Zaidee, who is a public broadcaster and has been working as coordinator for the ‘Education and Livelihood for All’ program (ELFA) that focuses on implementing UNICEF’s “Safe Schools” program in Kashmir, connected with us and said that this case was first reported only after the domestic violence unleashed resulted in the admission of the woman into a local hospital due to grave injuries. It is only then that the issue came to the notice of a group of ground workers who decided to pursue it further. Further, the initial FIR filed in this case labelled the incident as “attempt to suicide” due to which the victim was denied government benefits on account of the Golden Card, for the case of suicide would not fall under the coverage of this scheme.
Only after protests by some humanitarian workers was the case referred for investigation. Given the nature of the issue, one is therefore forced to ask that to what end is a police action after the incident and the murder, is of any help when the life has already been lost. While it could have helped in setting a precedent, there is little evidence to substantiate this claim. Since this incident, a series of similar cases have been reported from the same area, and in one of the cases, the family, of a woman who died by suicide, set ablaze the house of her in-laws.
Further, the institutions of the state are far from being sensitively equipped to handle these issues, as one understands from past records. Cases of domestic violence and general violence against women surged tenfold to more than 3,000 a year during a previous clampdown in 2016 and 2017, according to statistics from the Jammu and Kashmir State Commission for Women, a now-defunct government institution established to protect women and children’s rights and ensure quick prosecutions. The situation only worsened during the pandemic spread as one wonders how many cases go unreported simply because a lockdown implied that women could hardly access the institutions set up for their safety. On top of that, there is only one women’s police station in the entire Kashmir valley. One wonders, where are the women supposed to report as and when they have to.
Second, while the locals demanded action against the perpetrators of violence, few care to question the structure that fuels this kind of violence. The structure is one that is called patriarchy and few are ready to concede the same. This becomes more impending in a society which is already ridden with political conflict and turmoil for ages.
Thirdly, while compensation is demanded through protests and conventionally promised in such cases, one is forced to wonder – compensation for what and to what end? The National Family Health Survey (NFHS) conducted by the Union Ministry of Health has exposed shocking facts about domestic violence against women in Jammu and Kashmir. The survey report, released in 2020, claims that 9.6% of women in the age group 18-49 experienced domestic violence in 2019-20. Five years ago, when J&K was still a state, the survey says 9.4% of women were subjected to domestic violence. Further, while it is true that such incidents are not exclusive to regions embedded in political conflict, it is also difficult to not situate such incidents in the larger matrix of conflict, for various reasons, and hence de-linking the two should be done with some caution.
In 2019, after the Central government removed the special status of J&K granted under Article 370, and bifurcated the state into two union territories, many state-run commissions were abolished. This included the State Commission for Women. Over 18 months have passed, yet the J&K administration has not initiated the process for establishing the office of the National Commission for Women in Jammu and Kashmir.
The war is against women
Sue Lloyd, an author who worked with the BBC, has documented first-hand observations, stories and narratives of oppressions she came across as she travelled different parts of the world in a book called “The war on women and the brave ones who fight back”. She notes that with the changing geographical landscape, what remained constant was the systemic violence against women which manifested itself in varied forms. A striking observation that she makes during her travels, which many feminist scholars too would attest to and reiterate, is that the body of a woman becomes the site of battle, irrespective of who the friendly camp is and who the adversary is. It is no new revelation, that in war zones, conflict-regions or during a political upheaval, women suffer doubly. First, due to the fall-outs and consequences of the wars and turmoil; second, the war crimes and brutalities in form of rapes, molestation and sexual harassment which go unaccounted for. There are many examples to substantiate this in history.
However, there is another pivotal facet which has been overlooked and needs to be heeded to urgently. In the regions, where political conflict and political turmoil are a lived experience, during intervals of relative stability, women continue to suffer in myriad ways because of one major reason, linked indirectly to the political conflict. The reason is that political conflict demands an urgency of attention at all times. Whether there is physical violence or not, conflict takes a toll on many issues, which primarily also includes the questions of gender justice. When newsrooms and press is occupied with covering issues related to conflict, when the collective energy and attention of the society is drained by and drawn towards the developments around the conflict-situation, it is unlikely that other issues, not explicitly linked to the conflict would receive the urgent attention which otherwise they would have.
Additionally, issues related to women’s safety are anyways considered secondary. Given this state of affairs, the scene unfolding in the site of political conflict paves way for relegating issues of such import and nature to the back seat.
The spirit of self-reflection and the issue of collective denial
There is a reluctance and a denial to look within and initiate a dialogue on the structural issues that a society faces within or perpetrates on its own sections of population; in this case women. While conflict-fatigue could be one reason for this denial to turn inwards, the question arises: should one give up entirely on the spirit of self-introspection as a society, while we take on the external difficulties on account of the conflict situation? Do we have the liberty and scope to wait for another time till the conflict is resolved, to then attend onto such issues that also deserve our urgent attention and are equally important? Such issues where women are forced to take their lives or are killed, tortured, set ablaze, rendered homeless, assaulted or raped are not the kind of issues that can wait till then.
Afterword: Religion is not the answer
On social media one often comes across a trend wherein many gatekeepers tend to argue that if one society follows x or y religion in letter and spirit, then women will be safe and there will be no violence against them. One will find a string of similar arguments doing rounds on social media, given that we live in a society where religion is very central to our way of life, here in Kashmir or in South Asian societies in general for that matter. While this kind of argument can hold some normative ground, the point however is that at the end of the day, post-facto justifications collapse when lives have already been lost and women already pushed at the margins. Given the times we live in, it needs to be asked that do we again have the time to wait till everyone becomes a virtuous human, standing on some moral pedestal to guarantee the security of women? The next question then becomes, why is there really a need to even invoke the category of religion for justifications when the issue in case is simply about the bare minimum basics of being human!
To be treated as human has not been manifested in the state or the society’s approach towards the issues of gender discrimination and allied violence faced by women, which is again one among a spectrum of minorities. One has always had to be prepared for these issues to be addressed through ‘the higher rationale’ which is to be found in politics of a kind (here, conflict), statecraft or institutions- in its praise or criticism; but never directly addressed. While that has been the case across the globe, this only worsens as the variable of conflict engulfs the roots of politics in societies where political conflict is a lived reality. Those who try to raise their voices against such issues which forces societies to look inwards are deemed as agents of the state on one hand, and are also shunned by the state institutions on the other hand. While that is a debate for another day, the collective denial which prevents societies from turning inwards for self-introspection will not be a solution to address such issues- we are sure.
The authors are currently pursuing research at JNU, New Delhi. Featured image source: TheWire