As the muezzin called for prayers from the mosque, Begum Rafiqa prayed in a dingy room of her old brick house for someone she has not seen for almost a decade—her missing husband.
“I am neither a widow nor divorced, I am married but without a husband,” said 35-year-old Rafiqa.
“God help me, I’m in limbo.” Rafiqa, a mother of four, is one of Kashmir’s hundreds of “half-widows”—women whose husbands disappeared after their alleged arrest by the Indian security forces. Many of these men are presumed kidnapped, tortured and killed.
Since militancy broke out in 1989, up to 10,000 people have gone missing following their arrest by the security forces, according to the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP)—an independent group in Kashmir.
At least 2,000 of these disappeared people were married, and nearly all were male and young, APDP says.
Their wives now live a life of limbo, unable either to close an old chapter in their lives or to start a new one by remarrying, leaving them with the label of “half-widows”.
Indian troops, engaged in fighting more than 17 years of insurgency, have been accused of killing innocent civilians in staged gun battles and passing them off as separatist militants to earn rewards and promotions. Officials say violence has declined considerably since India and Pakistan started a cautious peace process in 2004. But, people are still being killed in daily shootouts and occasional explosions carried out by separatist militants.
Rafiqa says her husband, Mushtaq Ahmad Khan, was picked up by the security forces one night in 1997, in a round-up of suspected militants.
“I went to every security camp and police station in the hope of finding any clue, but all in vain,” a tearful Rafiqa said of her efforts to find her husband.
“Is he alive or dead? ... It is a constant pain. But most of the time my heart tells me he is still alive. How can I remarry?”
“I wish no women suffer like we suffer,” Rafiqa added. Security forces deny having arrested him. Officials say most of the missing people have crossed into Pakistan occupied Kashmir for armstraining.
Most “half-widows” are from lower-income Muslim families and according to Islamic faith cannot remarry for at least seven years after their husbands go missing.
“Many such women...have been forced to leave their in-laws’ homes and some of them (have) returned to their parents,” said Parveena Ahanger, a founder of APDP. “And others are lonely, struggling hard to rebuild their lives. Even after seven years of long wait, men hesitate to marry such women. Many of them (men) fear their husbands may return one day.”
Without proof that their husbands are dead, “half-widows” are not eligible for government compensation for widows, nor can they claim the property of their husbands.
Kashmir’s “half-widows” also suffer emotional trauma, psychiatrists say.
“There is a lot of pressure on half-widows to stay within the framework of marriage but without husbands,” Abinah Syed, a doctor at Kashmir’s only psychiatry hospital said.
“Unlike normal widows, they are in a difficult situation. They can’t fulfil their normal desires.”
Every month, dozens of “half-widows”, along with scores of parents, gather in a park in Srinagar, Jammu & Kashmir’s summer capital, to demand information on the whereabouts of their missing loved ones. Many carry photographs of their lost husbands.
Indian authorities, who put the numbers of missing at between 1,000 and 3,000, say they are now planning to provide relief to Kashmir’s widows and “half-widows”.
Sonia Gandhi, head of the ruling Congress party, recently said violence in Kashmir has left deep wounds.
“For the past 20 years Kashmir has suffered a lot, the situation has not only left external scars but wounded many hearts and minds,” Gandhi told several thousand women at a recent women’s rally in Srinagar.
“It is prime responsibility for all of us to heal these wounds.” But the wounds might never heal without information on the fate of the missing husbands.
“I have decided not to marry again but to bring up my children,” 30-year-old Naseema, another “half-widow” said. Naseema’s husband, Mehjaj-ud-Din Dar, vanished after he was arrested by the army in 1998 in Srinagar.
“Where is my husband? How is he? The question is always haunting me,” said Naseema, crying.