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 )

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