Month: June 2016

Talking Gender in Kashmir – III

I began this series by citing some personal experiences on the topic of sexual harassment of women in public and private space. Continuing the discussion on the topic of gender in Kashmir, in this third piece in the series, I would like to focus on some micro aggressions which women of Kashmir face on a day-to-day basis – aggressions that often get unnoticed but have an enormous impact on the mental and social psychology of women in terms of their growth and development as thinking and feeling individuals. These are verbal and/or behavioral aggressions that are so common that we don’t even consider them abnormal.

I was fifteen years old when one of my cousins was getting married. All of my peers were very happy and excited, playing and laughing at jokes and silly remarks. Suddenly all of our excitement vanished when an angry aunt admonished us: “tuhy kya khit-khit karaan? besharam koryi!” (‘What are you giggling about? Shameless girls!’) Apparently “shareef” girls are not supposed to laugh out loud. It is not a trait that can be associated with women of sophisticated background. Later in the day, a bunch of us went out to buy some ice cream at the street corner. It was a beautiful weather and since the groom had just left to get the bride, there was nothing to do indoors. So we decided to take a short walk along the Dal Lake — minutes away from my aunt’s house. When we came home after about an hour all hell broke loose. One of my cousins was slapped by her mother on the face in front of dozens of guests. A bunch of young girls taking a walk by themselves, what a shame! Since it was my idea and I being the eldest one in the group, I was the villain. My aunt showered a volley of threats on her daughter: “khabardaar agar yihund gara gayekh” (‘Don’t dare to visit their house again’). I had violated a norm by making a decision to take a walk and I had influenced my cousin to do the same. But imagine if I were a boy. This would never have happened. We don’t admonish boys for going out and taking a walk or get an ice cream at the street corner, do we? Boys hardly ask anyone before they leave the house, not when they are out in the neighborhood.

While the men of my household would leave any time of the day, often without letting anyone know, and return as and when they pleased, we had to follow a strict timetable and be home before a certain time. If you are a woman, you could not step out without permission. You could not, for instance, say, “ba gatshay nyebar taam” (‘I am going out for a bit’), like men do. You could not have a sleepover at a friend’s house like boys often do. You couldn’t go for a cup of coffee or tea and hang out with friends in a restaurant after work or after college like menfolk. And when you get married, you have to ask for permission even to see your family. So, two days after my wedding, when I wanted to “pay a visit home”, my husband suggested I should ask his parents. Irritated, I went to the father-in-law who sent me forward to ask my mother-in-law. The mother-in-law turned: “az na, pagah gatshakh” (‘Not today, go tomorrow’). I was annoyed. Why tomorrow? Why can’t I go today? There is no particular reason that I cannot go today. “I want to go today”, I said confidently risking the wrath of the family and a big fight with my husband. Thankfully, I did not have to ask for anyone’s permission from that day on.But then the many social aggressions did not end there.

While boys often travel on their own, women need a chaperone everywhere they go. So, when I was conducting a fieldtrip for my doctoral research in 2004, an elderly uncle turned to me: “tati aasna mard ti tse saet?” (‘Will there also be men with you there?’). Well, heck, no!!! A year prior to that I had canceled an upcoming research trip to Kargil because my family was adamant to not let me travel alone; I could not arrange a chaperone to accompany me on that harsh journey. “You won’t be able to travel alone; it’s a border area, it will be difficult”, I had to hear despite the fact that I had already lived on my own for the past several years – first in Delhi and then in the US, and had travelled half a world from India to the United States, to Belgium, to Switzerland, to Germany and to Iran without a chaperone and had survived.

Even if you are a successful professional woman, when it comes to childcare that’s your sole responsibility. It was December 2007 and I was on another research trip to India from the US. I was to attend a conference on Linguistics at the Annamalai University in Tamil Nadu. After a short tour of Chidambaram with a colleague, I decided to pay a brief visit to my family in Srinagar. When I reached home, some relatives came to visit. Flabbergasted at finding out that I had left my eighteen-month-old son back in the US, beating her chest, an aunt said to me: “hatay, nyechuw trowuthanay teyt?” (‘Did you leave your son behind?’) I tried to explain that he was in the safe custody of his caring father, but she was hardly convinced. “taawan hay, tse kitha keyniy trowthan su!” (‘My goodness, how could you leave him!’). And when I visited an old friend in Mumbai a couple years later, leaving behind two kids this time, all eyebrows in the family were raised; many people were tortured even at the thought of such an aberration.

Normally young men in Kashmir get married when their mothers are no longer able to take care of them and the household chores: “woyn kerizyeha khaandar? toti gatshihiy yemis maaji madath” (‘Why don’t you get married? Your mother could get some assistance’). Fourteen years ago, on my wedding day an aunt had declared to my father-in-law: “azyiki pyettha chhe yi tuhunz nokar; yi kari tohyi khedmat” (‘From this day onwards she is your servant; she will serve you’). I had looked at her with disdain. I am no one’s servant, mind you! Thankfully, my father-in-law had come to my rescue immediately: “She is our daughter, not a servant”. And on the day of our phira-saal when I refused to bring tash-naer and asked my husband to wash his hands instead “at the sink” in the hallway, my father was astounded: “zaamtur hay chhu asyi; tse chuy na kahn ehsaas?” (‘He is our son-in-law! Have you got no sense?’)

For years after my wedding, women in the family would take pity on me: “amyis may chu bichaari khaandaar kihin karaan” (‘Poor thing, her husband is not working’). Since my husband was still pursuing his education when we got married, the family back home was devastated at the thoughts of a “byekaar zaamtur” (‘a jobless son-in-law’). For a couple years we lived on my scholarship money and then I joined a university as a faculty after completing my Ph.D. in 2006. Thus, I was practically the “head” of our household until my husband completed his specialization in family medicine. That did not go well with the taunting relatives who wouldn’t leave an opportunity to take a pity on us until my husband finally got a “real” job.

A few months ago, when Mehbooba Mufti was taking her good time to make a decision on whether or not to be the chief minister of the state, many netizens were expressing their displeasure at the idea of a woman in control. I made a phone call to family in Kashmir and after some regular conversation I turned to the person on the other side: “I guess Mehbooba Mufti is going to be your next CM, heh?” Bang came a disdainful response: “woyn chaa asyi zanaananiy athi hakumat karnaawyin?” (‘Do we have to be ruled by womenfolk now?’). No matter how intellectually advanced a woman is people in our society continue to have a misogynistic attitude toward her. Her success, her independence, her individual freedom are perceived to be a threat to the society that continues to push for a male-dominated world. Let’s hope things will change one day.

(to be continued)

(Published in the daily Rising Kashmir, June 8 2016:
Or–iii )

Talking Gender in Kashmir – II

In continuation with the previous piece on the gender discourse and focusing on the violation of women’s space in the public domain, I wanted to narrate some experiences that have helped shape my understanding of gender issues in our society. In order to address these issues effectively I think it is extremely very important to be able to talk about one’s own experiences. But it is not that easy. The reason I wanted to bring out these anecdotes is to emphasize the importance of identifying and talking about a problem which exists in our society and for which we need effective remedies. I hope this way I can encourage some other women to come forward and share their own stories.

During my early childhood and up until I was twelve years old I used to go to a Darasgah – a small religious school where children of some of the families of my neighborhood were receiving lessons on Qur’an and Deeniyat. As the Darasgah dismissed everyday after the daily lessons were over, Peer Saeb would kiss on the foreheads and cheeks of only the prettier-looking girls, I being one of them. It felt quite awkward. One could argue that it was done in a fatherly manner, but generally you can tell the difference even at a young age. The man was dismissed from his services as some parents received complaints from their wards. I never went to the Darasgah afterwards.

When I was thirteen years old, once I was visiting a doctor at the Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences for some gastrointestinal problem. Accompanying me was my twenty-three year old aunt. While my chaperone waited in a corner, the doctor, who was probably in his early forties, started doing my “exam”. After placing the stethoscope on to my chest to listen to my internal sounds, the man quietly grabbed my breast with his hand under my shirt and pressed it for a few seconds. As I stood dumbstruck as how to respond to this daring violation right in front of my aunt, I felt quite powerless. But my witty aunt had read the expression on my face as she made a silent gesture to me from the other end of the room: badmaash chaa (‘Is he a scoundrel’)? I could read her lips very clearly but I quickly turned my gaze to the floor without uttering a word. I did not have the courage to open my mouth, let alone create a scene in the hospital. I did not confront the man, who felt like a monster to me at that moment. As we left, my aunt asked me about the ordeal on the way. When I narrated the incident, her response was a curse: ha peyi sa tratth! There was no further discussion on the topic.

As I grew older, just like my peers, I continued to experience similar, and sometimes worse, violations of my personal space. This happened even at the hands of people I knew. Like one day, during my college days, when I was visiting a famous ophthalmologist at his private clinic for an eye checkup. My burqa-clad mother, who also needed her eyes examined, was sitting at another end in the room waiting on me. I lay my face on the platform of the machine as directed so that the doctor could look into my eyes. I felt an awkward tinge in my body and sat stiffly holding on to my abaya (the long black robe that we started wearing at the onset of militancy in Kashmir) and my headscarf with both my hands when the man came a bit too close to me. At the pretext of looking into my eyes through the machine, the doctor slowly pressed his face and his lips against my cheeks in direct physical contact. I could even feel the heavy puffs of hot voluminous breath against my skin. But I sat on, powerless. Although I felt like asking him what exactly he was doing, I feared he might turn the allegation around and shame me instead by saying that he was simply doing his job. With a couple dozen patients waiting outside the room, I had little courage to take the risk. So, I kept quiet and let him complete the torturous “exam”. I had a feeling that no one would trust me. Besides, my family had been seeing the man for years; he had earned great respect in the neighborhood. The doctor continues to have a prolific practice till date.

A couple years ago, during one of my annual visit to Kashmir, I went to see an old friend. As we were having tea in her cozy bedroom, my friend began to narrate a story of sexual assault from our neighborhood. It was about the ordeal of a young domestic help of an upper middle class family. Both of us knew the family very well. The poor girl, originally from a rural area of Kashmir, had been living with the family for years taking care of their domestic chores in return for some small earning. Things were perhaps working fine until a time when the lady of the household “went abroad to visit her elder son for some months”. During her absence, the girl was “repeatedly raped and twice impregnated by the father-son duo”. The duo surreptitiously took the girl to Delhi for a few days for safaayi (‘abortion’). Everyone associated with the family hushed the matter under the carpet. It was a collective shame nobody wanted to talk about.

Tshunus balaay (‘Let it go’) is a very common attitude that we have adopted towards many social menaces in Kashmir. Numerous cases of horrific sexual abuse keep happening behind close doors in the comfort of our own households – cases that never get reported due to the social taboo and the price to be paid for exposing anyone: little girls assaulted by male domestic helps or caretakers who they were entrusted to by their parents while the latter were away at work, young girls (and even boys) sexually assaulted by their close family members or family friends who often keep torturing them for years without any retribution, young domestic helps being abused by their wards, and many others with little recourse to social or legal assistance whatsoever. There are numerous such cases where victims opt to shut their mouths for life in fear of shame and public disgrace, thus going through the worst kind of psychological trauma for years, fighting it all alone.

Sexual assault and women’s abuse are an extremely common problem across cultures, regions and religions, and Kashmir is no exception. Until and unless boys and girls are educated about gender issues and sexual abuse from very early on in their life and unless efforts are made where men and women understand each other, know each other better, respect each other, and communicate with each other, and until and unless the society treats men and women at par at all levels, women and children will continue to be harassed, abused, and tortured. Parents have a responsibility to talk to their children about how to deal with such aggressions. Our educational institutions need to incorporate special measures that can proactively address the epidemic of traumatic sexual harassment. Students should be provided resources so that their basic human rights are not compromised. Segregation of boys and girls, especially during the early years of their development, should be highly discouraged as it only adds to the wide gulf between genders.

(to be continued)
(This article was first published in the daily Rising Kashmir on May 2, 2016).

© Sadaf Munshi.