Between Redressal and Survival: Domestic Violence in Kashmir

Arshie Qureshi

My house was burnt in a ‘counter-insurgency operation’ …that felt like a crack in my backbone. We [now] live in a rented home. My neighbours hear my screams every other day when my husband beats me… but who do I tell it to? The ones who turned my house into ashes?

36-year-old Jabeena’s quote from a long conversation remarkably sums up the experience of living under a military occupation and dealing with violence in an intimate relationship. She has been living in an abusive marriage for a decade. Her neighbours and relatives, aware of her ordeal, have offered intervention through multiple meetings at her marital home in South Kashmir’s Shopian. These local dispute resolution committees had asked her husband to transfer the possession of their two-storeyed house to Jabeena. She says that she was relived at this decision for it gave her reassurance of not being forced out of the house. However, before her husband could carry out the paperwork, the house was razed to the ground in an encounter in 2018.

To Jabeena, possession of the house was a form of reparation of the marital abuse and discord. But what happens when houses are deliberately burnt down by Indian forces who do not engage in a drawn-out gun fights with the suspected militants seeking refuge there?

The crisis of state violence in Kashmir is far from new. The nature of violence and escalation may have changed over the years, but its consequences are devastating for the locals. Kashmiri women continue to bear the brunt of this violence on many ends. Ironically, their welfare is used as a justification for India’s ‘developmental’ agendas in the region, particularly in the Parliament sessions for the abrogation of Article 370 in August last year. Arguments were made for Kashmiri women’s empowerment under the guise of property rights which the state claimed were discriminatory against women marrying non-residents of the state. However, even preliminary analysis of this claim based on facts and ground reality, debunked this myth. The definition of ‘welfare and security’ by the Indian state in Kashmir stands against all universal, ethical and moral codes.

In August this year, the valley completed a year of siege and disrupted communication. Restrictions on mobility, collapse of local businesses due to frequent shutdowns and rising poverty, among other consequences of the lockdown have had a profoundly negative impact on the social relationships of Kashmiri populace. There might be a link between familial discords and the political turmoil in the valley that needs to be understood and examined taking into account day to day experiences of people. Although this assertion remains largely under theorized, what is increasingly clear is the paradox of acquiring justice from hostile state institutions like the J&K Police.

Jabeena, for instance, harbours no illusion of accountability from a system which disenfranchised her even more than she already was. She breaks into tears as she narrates her journey to the house and the pain of witnessing its demolition. Jabeena stresses that she had no source of income and her husband deprived her of basic financial security.

While battling for survival, she says, she put together money to furnish the house. “I would save whatever little amount I received from relatives from time to time as gifts (locally referred to as Mubarak)… Rupee by rupee, I gathered the money to get curtains, carpet, crockery…my husband did not even spend a penny and instead questioned me, and accused me of having affairs with men who would buy me these things. I never bothered…. I found a respite in cleaning the walls of the house, windowpanes, and rugs. It was my territory and my comfort, my space.” recalls Jabeena. Exerting control over the house perhaps provided a semblance of belonging and safety- something which domestic violence victims rarely get.

In 2018, her house was burnt down by the Indian Army. Three days after the tragic incident, she visited the site. She recalls how she picked up the burnt curtains which dissolved into ashes in her hands.

This forced her and her husband to move into a relative’s place. Things between him and Jabeena went from bad to worse with the additional burden of homelessness.

Although the law which protects women from domestic violence has been applicable in Jammu and Kashmir since 2010, along with section 498 A of IPC which makes cruelty by husband punishable; in a conflict zone like Kashmir laws and penal codes are an unchartered territory particularly when it comes to the protection and enabling of women’s rights.

In addition, defined gender norms and roles, incidents of everyday violence, heightened state surveillance, restricted mobility etc. renders women and men further vulnerable and disrupts access to basic services and livelihood avenues.

Jabeena feels uprooted from her social group; particularly, her neighbours whom she would meet and speak to on an everyday basis. Her privacy also stands compromised and whenever anyone hears her story, they suggest her to file an FIR.

Jabeena admits to maintaining silence over the issue of domestic violence against her after her house was burnt down. Earlier, she had the ownership of her home as a form of relief. After the incident, she says, resorting to silence felt safer. “Who would I report to? I still feel tremors in body when I see armed forces-police as well the army” she says.

“How do I walk into an establishment of these [people] who did not know me yet took away all that I had? What happens when I tell them that my husband beats me? Will he meet the same fate as my house?” she asks.

Although the loss of a home and acts of domestic violence may seem as disjoint, occurring in different spheres but in Jabeena’s case (like many other Kashmiri women) the two spheres collide as the trauma is reoccurring and impacts all aspects of her life. Being subjected to enforced homelessness has irrevocably altered her approach and perspective to what constitutes justice. She emphasizes that her life and experiences were intimately linked to the house and now to its memory.

Jabeena recalls her husband’s hostile behaviour towards her- with a plate in his hand in the kitchen of her burnt down house, aimed at hitting her, and this memory merges with the images of police and military approaching her house to plant the IED Blast. Jabeena’s hopes of respite were demolished along with the house. When she recalls the interiors of the house, she breaks down and cries endlessly.

Jabeena’s story typifies the nuanced violence that bodies of Kashmiri women are subjected to. Her experience calls for understanding the changing positionality of women in conflict zones. She does not seek help. She doesn’t not describe herself to be dependent, victim or as somebody who is unwillingly silenced. She explains the decision of not reporting domestic violence as her ‘survival strategy’ and stresses that this decision was informed by the experiences that altered her life in an unimaginable way.

Similarly, Nuzhat, a 33-year-old woman from Sopore, living in an abusive marriage decided never to report domestic violence to the police or courts. She says “…what if he [the husband] is taken under frivolous charges?”  She recalls getting beaten up by her husband on August 03 last year. After this incident, she left home and informed her family about it. One of her family members informed a local police official. During this time all communication lines were blocked in the region. Although no action was taken against Nuzhat’s husband as no formal complaint was filed but the thought that he could be detained gave her sleepless nights. She wanted him to stop the violence against her but not at the cost of him being victimized by the state.

She had heard of men being detained and sent to jails outside Kashmir around that time. She complained of getting frequent panic attacks thinking about her husband’s welfare. She would often wonder what if the police had detained him just like the other men or what if he had left home to meet her, would the police or army have nabbed him? She says she continuously prayed for his safety during those days.

“I used to cry inconsolably…had I brought him unnecessary scrutiny? Would they have done anything to harm him? Will I not be able to see him? All these questions in my mind were killing me,” says Nuzhat.

As a child and a teenage, Nuzhat has witnessed men from her family being punished by the forces on the basis of mere suspicion. Her paternal uncle was detained on flimsy grounds. After allegedly stealing jewellery from a neighbour’s home, he was picked up by the police and his whereabouts were unknown to the family for months. He had been lodged in Tihar and was finally released after a few months. It had lasting impact on his life and family, including Nuzhat.

He was never able to resume his education. He failed at business because of severe psychological impact of the violence that he continues to bear till date. Nuzhat is witness to the life of his uncle being ruined because of one incident of reporting to police and never wants to replicate the horror in anyone’s life, even if it is her abuser.

Nuzhat is back to living with her husband and satisfied knowing that her family dines together at night, as one unit and they see each other every day- which she describes a luxury for a number of families in Kashmir.

For both Jabeena and Nuzhat, being subjected to state violence subsides their concerns of domestic abuse and marital discord. In both the cases, their survival strategy is formulated by their instinct of protecting their families from the state institutions. Here, the idea of safety emerges as one surrounding notions of collective familial welfare rather than individual empowerment.

Arshie Qureshi is a researcher based in Kashmir. Her work is focuses on understanding everyday experiences of women living in conflict zones.

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