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.

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