Gender

Talking Gender in Kashmir – V

Social Norms and Dress Code – 2 

Dr. Sadaf Munshi

This article is a continuation to the topic of social norms and dress code that I started in my previous piece in the series on gender in which I argued that it is misleading when people argue that Kashmiri women wear traditional clothing only because our society is more traditional, or that they wear hijab only because hijab is in vogue in many Muslim countries. Both of these positions are misleading and I will explain why based on my personal experiences in Kashmir over the many years.

When I was a child in the 80’s, many of my aunts and older cousins who were either in college or in the university, did not cover their head; today all of them do. There was a great diversity in women’s attire – both Pandit and Muslim women in shalwar-kameez with transparent chiffon dupattas on their shoulders, some putting them on their heads in front of elders, and only some covering most of the time. I would also see a young woman or two occasionally in pants and shirts near our Khankahi Sokhta neighborhood in Srinagar – my ancestral place. My mother’s Seyyid family being exceptionally conservative, for many years I was the only girl in my classroom who wore a headscarf. Almost all of my girl friends came to school without covering their head and this continued until 1989 when things suddenly changed for everyone.

During my higher secondary school and college years in the 90’s, a number of incidents happened where I found myself amidst confrontations with people on matters of dress code. Our college principal extended several “rustication” warnings to me when I refused to follow the new dress code that was made mandatory for Muslim girls by the dukhtaran-e-millat (‘daughters of the nation’), who paid regular visits to schools and colleges to provide lectures on azaadi and shariyah. The prescribed code included, besides the headscarf that I already wore owing to family traditions, a burqa or an abaya. Additionally, an unofficial temporary ban was imposed on various other things in educational institutions, such as wearing high-heeled sandals or make-up. Many atrocities were hurled at the girls on the pretext of not observing purdah. Women squads of militant organizations would patrol bus stops and catch potential targets for a lecture, an admonishment or simply public shaming. Colored paint, and sometimes acid, was thrown upon girls who did not comply. Many schools and colleges were forced to change their uniforms – from skirts to shalwar-kameez in schools, and from white color to grey color for kameez (‘shirt’) in colleges (white being more “transparent”). A young schoolgirl was once shot in her leg for wearing jeans; women were terrorized. Non-Muslim women were asked to were symbols (such as a bindi for Pandit girls), so that Muslim women could easily be identified, targeted and punished for any violations.

While I chose an abaya, my younger sister was pressurized to wear a burqa after a shocking experience one day. She was returning from school in her uniform – an all-white qameez-shalwar and a dupatta that properly covered her hair, when a squad of dukhtaran-e-millet patrolling near Nauhatta threw color on her from inside a moving auto-rickshaw. Humiliated and angered, she ran after the woman holding on to the auto only to be dragged on the street as the auto ran away leaving her bruised. Many years later, a similar incident happened to a young family acquaintance. Naheed, a young girl from a remote area of Kashmir and poor family background, went to school in Srinagar and lived with my aunt helping her with the household chores during the after hours. One day I was visiting my sick aunt at her residence in Soura (Srinagar) and I asked about the girl. I was shocked when she narrated the story of Naheed’s horrific ordeal: “She was returning home after buying groceries. A bunch of young boys, some of them covering their faces with handkerchiefs, followed her in a “tempo”, stopped and dragged her by her hair for not wearing hijab. Her neck is broken; she is back home in her village.”

Although such horrific incidents are rare, they happened nevertheless and changed the face of our society, which became monochrome in a number of ways (Barring an island of the elite society, which is out of reach of the commonplace space and norms, and lives in a mini-world of its own). Last year I was invited for a lecture at a college in Kashmir. When I met the college principal – a lady in her late fifties with a head-to-toe cover – her face suddenly struck me. “I think I know you but I cannot remember,” I told her scratching my head. It took me a while before I recognized my teacher of the early 90’s. I was extremely excited to see her but before I could express my feelings, she said: “Please excuse me, I have to say my prayers.” In a women-only college, I felt it was bizarre and unnecessary to be covered from head-to-toe all the time.

Sometime later, I bumped on to an elderly neighbor on the street walking home with a burqa-clad woman. I stopped for a salaam and as I looked at the woman through the little holes in her face veil, I quickly recognized his daughter, my college friend, but she refused to recognize me and headed home in a jiffy. A year later, two of my distant cousins visited my painting exhibition at the Cultural Academy. It took me a second to recognize them from underneath the burqa. “We read about your exhibition in the newspaper and came to see you. We are so happy for you,” they said to me. But when I invited them in, they refused to come inside amidst a male dominated gathering and left quickly from the main gate. I found a barrier between us that did not exist when I left Kashmir. The two women, now married, never wore burqa when I was in Kashmir in the 90’s though they did cover.

I was at a mushairah (poetry recitation) in Srinagar one day. I had invited my family to come as well as it was the first time I was to read any of my poems in Kashmir. Right before the session started, my aunt turned to me: bay maray agar na kalas pyetth duptta thawakh (‘You will see me dead if you don’t cover your head’)an aunt who was quite up-to-date with fashion and did not always cover in the early 80’s during her youth. Today when my father asks me to wear traditional clothing and cover my head in public space during my visits home, I get very annoyed. “You will leave in a few days; I have to live here in this society”, he tells me.

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For feedback, the author can be reached at smunshi2002@yahoo.com.

(This article was first published in the daily Rising Kashmir: http://epaper.risingkashmir.com/EPaper.aspx?kH2sJU5b4Ae_bseFzuBuykEQ_ep_ep )

Talking Gender in Kashmir – IV

Social norms and dress code – 1

In continuation to my previous pieces on gender, I would like to talk about dress code in this issue. Many years ago, soon after I had arrived in the United States for my doctoral degree, I was showing some pictures to an American friend of mine one day at my student apartment in Austin. As she turned the leaves of the photo album, my friend said to me: “How come men in Kashmir wear western clothing while women are only in traditional dresses?” I looked at her and pondered for a moment. How come this stark reality never struck me before? It was the first time in my life that I seriously thought about this striking difference in the dressing norms of men and women in Kashmir. Not that I never wished to wear western clothing myself before I left – in fact while growing up, many Kashmiri women I knew, as part of natural curiosity, had expressed a secret desire to try pants, skirts, saris and other non-local outfits – but I hadn’t even imagined there could be other possibilities for me in life.

Whether at workplace, parties, weddings, and other social gatherings, or in the privacy of their homes – women in Kashmir, just like the women of rural India, are expected to be more traditional. We are supposed to be the torchbearers of our culture and social norms while men continue to break those norms without much scrutiny or hullabaloo. While our men – young and old – have largely switched to wearing more comfortable modern outfits except in case of religious gatherings, cultural events, etc., women are under constant pressure to uphold the practice of traditional clothing. If you don’t trust me, go to a Kashmiri wedding, visit a school or a university campus, go to the marketplace or a picnic area, or even a cultural event – you will see menfolk mostly in modern outfits – Jeans, T-shirts, shorts, pants, leather belts, shirts, suits and neck ties. Now, imagine a situation where men start wearing traditional clothing in a formal office setting at workplace – pheran-yezaar and topi, kurta-pajamah and a dastaar — they are sure to receive many surprised looks, be looked down upon, considered “untidy” or even “backward”. However, as soon as women start catching up to the way men dress like, all eyes are out of their sockets to measure their modesty. Any aberration on their part in the way they carry themselves in public, and everyone is out to give a lecture on religion, traditional values, culture, and morality. Though more and more young girls are seen wearing jeans and riding their newly acquired scooters in some parts of the city nowadays, they are often subject to ridicule and moral policing.

But what is it about western clothing that makes it so attractive for both men and women, and why should we make a big deal about clothing in the first place? I have lived in different cultures and tried all sorts of clothing, depending on the occasion and mood. It seems to me that traditional clothing, unless fairly modified, is not suitable for everyday use. You can’t wear a shalwar-kameez to the gym, for instance (Yes! that is a possibility! Even women like to be physically fit). It’s good for parties, cultural events and “take-it-easy-resting times” when you are not on your toes trying to get things done. You may even love to wear it every now and then if you feel like, but beyond that those traditional dresses don’t really give the confidence that you may get in some of the more comfortable modern outfits where you don’t have to worry about tripping every second and holding on to your dupatta or headscarf with one hand and your baggy pants with the other when you are trying to do some chores, talking at a public event, or simply walking. No, I am not lying. Haven’t you seen our chief minister, Ms. Mehbooba Mufti on television recently? Have you ever noticed how often she talks hands free? Poor Mehbooba had recently attended a wedding without a headscarf, and a storm of trolls attacked her with a volley of judgments after looking at the picture somebody shared on Facebook.

People back home are so obsessed about women’s outfit that it gives me nightmares for weeks if not months before I plan a trip to India. Every year, packing my luggage is an ordeal as I find myself running out of space to fit in clothes that would be appropriate for each place and occasion. With little time for shopping, I find myself digging for discarded and unused clothing that has been sitting in my wardrobe for years. Piling up many sets of kameez-shalwar-duppattas that have to be matching and color-coded (Yes, that’s another headache!), I find it a frustrating wastage of time when I should be doing something more creative and intellectually satisfying. And as soon as I arrive at the Srinagar airport, I become conscious of my body feeling as if everyone is looking at me; and often they are. And it’s not just me. It’s the story of almost every other Kashmiri woman I know. Yi kyah chhuth loagmut (‘What are you wearing?’) is a refrain for any encounter with your acquaintances should you not fit the norm.

But that’s only part of the story. It’s not just the traditional dress code that we are expected to follow. For Muslim women, it’s also the baggage of religious norms associated with that, which is selectively thrust upon us by our society. Every time I am in Kashmir, I find myself irritated with people wanting to provide unsolicited advice on Islam and morality, invoking the practice of hijab. You are walking on the street and someone may yell at you: kalas pyetth thawizihe dduptta (‘Why haven’t you covered your head’). Menfolk, drooling at women in sexy outfits on television, social media and elsewhere, engaging in sex talk with unknown women on Facebook, will give lectures on Islam and haya. “Women look more beautiful in hijab,they will tell you. “It’s mandatory in Islam for women to wear hijab”, they will say without even knowing the socio-historical background of the practice. People who have a very superficial understanding of Islam, Qur’an and hadith will provide sermons on how “it is a sin not to cover your head.” Men shielding their own women from the “sinful eyes” of other men, won’t leave an opportunity to flirt with other women they find more modern and outgoing. You are constantly seen as a sexual object rather than as an individual.

About three years ago, I had a bitter experience at the Kashmir University during a two-day seminar on language and culture, which I had organized with a colleague from the university. While walking towards the Iqbal Memorial Library for the “welcome” address, my co-organizer stopped to give me a friendly advice. He turned to me politely: “If you don’t mind, I request you to cover your head. You don’t know this place; people will say things.” Very politely, I refused to oblige and we carried on. On the following day, however, during the morning session, soon after I invited our plenary speaker to the stage, I was subject to the worst form of public humiliation. Standing on the podium in a crisply ironed safari suit with his freshly dyed hair, the retired professor, a renowned poet and writer, looked at me with great contempt and started a lecture on morality: “In our society, good women value traditions. They don’t go about showing their hair in public. Girls of shareef families respect these norms and that’s how they get suitable grooms.” Sitting right across the stage from him, it was more than clear that I was the target of his abuse. I wanted to stand up and tell him that I was a mother of two kids and happily married to a “good guy” but I did not. In seething rage, I held on to my shaking limbs, clenched my fists against my knees and carried on with the conference. The memory of that humiliation continues to bother me. Sometime later, a similar request was made by a local television host seconds before a live program where I was invited for an interview. When I objected, he said to me helplessly: “It’s the month of Ramzan; people will start making phone calls in a moment. It’s a difficult place.” With little time to argue, reluctantly, I gave in. But I never understood what it was about Ramzan that people suddenly become hyper-religious for a month.

I have visited different educational institutions in Kashmir in the past many years where I noticed a drastic change in the dress code of girls. In certain places I was taken by shock finding almost every single girl in a black abaya and a headscarf. In some cases, they even cover their entire face except for a tiny little space for their eyes. On the other hand, you will see young men in tight-fitting T-shirts, comfy trousers and jeans, showing off their abs, stylish hairdos and modern gadgets, standing nearby. I don’t have an objection to anyone wearing a particular dress as such, but when it becomes a social norm and people are under immense pressure to follow suit, it is problematic. It can be suffocating and that’s exactly how most women feel quite very often in public spaces in Kashmir. Many women simply give in to avoid confrontation but live double lives nevertheless.

But how did we arrive at this stage? Many people will argue that it’s only because Kashmiri society is more traditional, or because hijab is in vogue in many Muslim countries around the world. But that’s only part of the story, and it’s misleading.

(To be continued)
*****

For feedback, the author can be reached at smunshi2002@yahoo.com.

(This article was first published in the daily Rising Kashmir)

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)

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(Published in the daily Rising Kashmir, June 8 2016:  http://epaper.risingkashmir.com/PopUp.aspx?8ZkljZ_ppDowqZNPStH8WDcQ_ep_ep
Or http://www.risingkashmir.com/article/talking-gender-in-kashmir–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)
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(This article was first published in the daily Rising Kashmir on May 2, 2016).

© Sadaf Munshi.

Talking Gender in Kashmir – I

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/ )