Almost a year ago, I was talking to some friends on Facebook one day about the BBC documentary “India’s Daughter”; indeed an amazing film which ought to be broadcast in every Indian household rather than having been banned. The very brutal and barbaric nature of the crime sends shivers across one’s spine every time it is described in detail. As the discussion ensued and people presented their perspectives, a Kashmiri poet and journalist friend of mine, referring to Kashmiri society, proudly responded: “We live in a very civilized society, where a woman is respected in all her shades”. The gentleman even went ahead with allegations against western societies being “immoral”. The statements triggered an unpleasant spurt of objections and disagreements. My friend was seriously offended when I claimed that Kashmiri men were no different when it came to harassment and sexual assault of women. In fact, I wanted to add that my personal experience with men from my homeland has been equally embarrassing.
While the discussion went on, I came across an online article by Anees Zargar about women commuters in Srinagar talking about their experiences in the public transportation vehicles. Clearly this is only the tip of the iceberg, but definitely an area where we need to break the silence. However, I believe women in general are not comfortable providing explicit details of the extent of the daily harassment they experience. So, I thought let me add a few lines to this discourse to tell some of my friends in Kashmir how ignorant many of us have opted to be. While there are horrendous and traumatic experiences, in this piece I will barely touch upon a few extremely very common examples but those that are quite displeasing for women. I will cite a few personal anecdotes as an illustration of exactly what young women in Kashmir go through on a day-to-day basis in public spaces. I will continue to write about some of the more gruesome cases that I have directly or indirectly witnessed in the next few weeks.
During my college days in the 90’s, sexually triggered violations were a routine for my peers and me every day while commuting between home and college in the over-loaded buses. Men – young, old, and middle-aged, pressing their bodies and their faces against those of young women, pushing their arms and elbows on their breasts, shoving their genitals against the women’s behinds or thighs, and some even grabbing an arm, a hip or another body part, while the poor girl would juggle for space in discomfort; with so many passengers in the bus, at times it was difficult to tell exactly who did it. With no better alternative, most of the times the girls stayed quiet, but at times they did speak. Yet, most often the men would simply deny any mischief and at times put the blame on the woman. At one such occasion, a man turned to a complaining woman: teli gotsh na hawaeyii jahazas khasun (‘You should have traveled in an airplane instead’). Many of us would be terrified of the young men waiting outside college premises to “follow” us and harass us on our way home. Thankfully, as I grew into an adult, I managed to be more confident, more vocal and less submissive. When need be, I even extended a blow on the back of a young man or slapped them right in their face when they tried to violate my personal space. I did not shy away from grabbing a young man by his arm and thrashing him down the door of a bus even as they pretended innocence. But it wasn’t always easy and caused enough discomfort.
Much more common than physical assault is the verbal assault on women, which may look harmless at the surface but often causes great emotional damage. Every time a young woman is walking down the street, a man or two will make a lucid remark about her looks, or her body, or simply pass a vague comment to harass her. During one of my annual visits to Kashmir, I was taking a walk on Srinagar’s Eid Gah road one day when a young teenager, barely sixteen years old, came forward and said: walay kushti karkhay mye saet (‘Hey, would you like to wrestle with me?’). I might have tried the adventure, despite my petite structure, had I not been five months pregnant at that time. So I kept quiet and carried on. The following day I was going out somewhere and encountered the boy again, this time on a motorbike. As he repeated the phrase and made a couple rounds on his bike trying to harass me, my husband, who was nearby, noticed. The event resulted into a scene with the entire neighborhood on the street. While getting a big thrashing and injuring himself in this commotion, the boy turned to me sheepishly: Sister, mye kyahaz kor? (‘Sister, what did I do?’).
There are numerous such cases where women have to put up with such harassment on a daily basis. But why do women choose to be silent even when an incident like this happens in broad daylight? Why don’t we confront such public demonstrations of uncivilized behavior vigorously? I think most of us know the reason why. Raised in a deeply conservative society which enforces strict gender segregation, women are brought up as submissive and subservient to men. While men of all shapes, sizes and ages could merrily ogle at you, girls are expected to lower their gaze. They are asked not to talk to or be seen by male strangers. They are even discouraged from talking to their male classmates in educational institutions. When men are passing by, they are told to not stand by or look out the window. Women cannot lie down in a public park or garden and relax like men do. You must keep your voice low at all times and not laugh out loud or you are not a shareif koor (‘refined girl’). You are reprimanded should you go out on your own. When our menfolk had no problem in wearing western outfits or using modern gadgets, these are especially banned for women as marks of “cultural aggression” and “immorality”. Ah, what hypocrisy!
(To be continued)
© Sadaf Munshi, April 18, 2016.
(Note: An edited version of this article was published in the daily Rising Kashmir on April 18, 2016, available at URL: http://www.risingkashmir.com/article/talking-gender-in-kashmir-new/ )