| A woman watches from the window of her house near Dal lake as officials in bulletproof vests and helmets scan names on a list ahead of Tuesday’s voting in Srinagar. (AFP, Reuters)
Chadoora, Sept. 23: For years they have silently borne the scars of terror. Now, one among them has decided to speak out.
Looking after the home and children while their men battle militants, women in the Valley have suffered trauma, threats, rape and murder. They have braved the bullets of both the militants and armed forces, while the government remained a silent spectator. Even during election time, their voices and pleas for redress found few takers among political parties.
Shameem Begum is determined to change all that. She resigned from the Jammu and Kashmir police force to contest the elections on a BJP ticket from here. “I resigned because I wanted to do something for the women. We have suffered, perhaps more than the men have. But nobody has forcefully put across our point of view. If I win, be assured you will have a voice in the corridors of power,” Shameem said to cheers from a handful of her compatriots. They are her only security. The men in khaki, wielding guns, are conspicuous by their absence.
The only woman candidate in the constituency, Shameem has a mission: to lift Kashmiri women from the morass they have been forced into. “Khaki mein kitne log mare hain. Lekin hum auratein roz marte hain. Hamare bachhe roz marte hain. Chahe who militant hain ya chahe police aur army wale (Lots of men in khaki have died. But we women are dying every day. Our children are dying every day. Be it in the hands of militants or police and army personnel),” she said on a visit to the home of a resident.
Since 1990, when militancy raised its head in the Valley, women have been the most vulnerable targets. Some have been killed, others terrorised and raped. Recently, they suffered acid attacks by terrorists for not donning the veil. Death threats followed when they still defied their diktat.
The threat outside is reflected within their shattered homes with most women widowed — or “half-widows”, as is the case of Kashmiri women whose husbands have gone missing.
The latter are forced into a life of uncertainty and are not entitled to any compensation from the government, unlike those whose husbands have been killed in action.
In June last year, the state government along with the Centre did evolve a scheme, Sawadhar, for the socio-economic and psychological rehabilitation of militancy-hit and traumatised women. But it has not been heard of since then.
For women, the prospect of remarrying, too, gets mired in the divide among Islamic scholars. There are two schools of thought: one allows remarriage if the woman’s husband has not been traced even after four years, the other insists that the woman wait for 90 years.
Take the case of Shakeela Badyari. Twenty-two years old and a mother of three, Shakeela’s husband Abdul Hamid was a taxi driver who went missing in January 2000. Her youngest daughter, Sumaira, was born three months after her father disappeared. Living in a one-room wooden tenement in Srinagar, she now washes clothes to feed her children. There are hundreds like Badyari whose lives Shameem aspires to change for the better.
“I want to help women, I want to help the widows who have been left in the lurch by the government. I now want to spend the rest of my life in the service of women who are suffering. I may never win. But I will continue, rukungi nahin (I won’t stop),” she says.
Women constitute over 46 per cent of the electorate in the state, but the election manifestos of the National Conference, BJP and the Congress have nothing to offer them. “We simply listen to what is discussed at home,” said Nasreen. “Can you believe there were no women candidates in the first phase'” she adds, before leaving in a hurry to catch Shameem’s cavalcade.
Shameem does not aspire to become famous like Mehbooba Mufti of the People’s Democratic Party, which advocates a clean government within the Indian Union.
Nor does she want to become another Asiya Andrabi of the Dukhtaran-e-Millat, an orthodox Muslim group that advocates women’s empowerment and demands Kashmir’s secession from India.
“I personally feel, women can do a lot to bring peace to Jammu and Kashmir,” she asserts.
“Women come out to protest, not when a terrorist is killed, but when there is a human rights violation — when someone (who) was not a militant or when he was trying to change his life (is killed).”
Leaving the police force was tough for her. “I had thought a lot before taking the plunge into politics,” Shameem says. While the women have welcomed her, the men are sceptical as she represents a party widely perceived to be anti-Muslim.