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(From left) Kashmir Women’s Collective members Mantasha Binti Rashid, Enus Khan and Subreen Malik at a consultative workshop on gender issues, held in Srinagar. Photo: Kashmir Women’s Collective
(From left) Kashmir Women’s Collective members Mantasha Binti Rashid, Enus Khan and Subreen Malik at a consultative workshop on gender issues, held in Srinagar. Photo: Kashmir Women’s Collective

Kashmiri women get a platform to narrate their untold stories

Kashmir Women's Collective currently provides legal aid and counselling in individual cases of violence

Srinagar: Somewhere between the worn-out poster image of a silver jewellery-bedecked woman in a pheran rowing a shikara on the Dal Lake, and a college girl in burqa throwing stones at armed forces, lie everyday portraits of Kashmiri women, often ignored as trivial in the larger scheme of things.

In a place going through a conflict, gender, it’s always said, can wait. But untold stories do exist. And to give a platform to the stories of women, stories beyond the immediate impact of the ongoing conflict, and stories of violence inside the four walls of a house, a group of women in the Valley have formed the Kashmir Women’s Collective (KWC). It is inspired by the Combahee River Collective, an organization of black feminists in the US from the 1970s and ’80s, which was critical of both white feminism’s exclusive focus on gender discrimination against white women, and the black community’s exclusive focus on racism against black men.

“The Combahee River Collective started talking about issues of black women because they believed that issues of gender were getting sidelined in the larger fight against racism. I kind of found a similarity between what happened then in 1970s there and what is happening now in Kashmir with regards to women’s issues. In politically volatile places, women’s issues take a sidestep as they are thought of as being too inconsequential," said KWC founding member and gender activist Mantasha Binti Rashid.

Rashid, who studied gender and policy at State University New York, has been nurturing the idea of forming such a collective for a while now. It was the series of molestations in Bengaluru and Delhi around New Year this year and conversations that followed the incidents, that made her wonder whether if anybody knows the stories of Kashmiri women beyond the common images and rhetoric.

“As a woman, I was outraged by the incident but then I thought, does anyone show outrage (in India or elsewhere) when we suffer here in Kashmir? Does anyone even know our stories? There was an absolute absence of space where women could talk, discuss or share their sufferings, leave aside solving them. An absence of societal or even governmental and non-governmental support to women, made us think of starting KWC," says Rashid.

Like much of India, Kashmir too is a patriarchal society, but it manifests itself in different ways. While many Indian states struggle with child marriages, in Kashmir, women are getting married later than women anywhere else in the country, according to an April The Indian Express report. Unlike Indian states where female foeticide is a huge concern, the practice is not as prevalent in the Muslim-majority state since Islam says a father with three daughters will go to heaven. However, Kashmiri women are often dependent on the men in their families for things as basic as work after marriage, choice of attire, choosing a spouse, or the right to movement outside the home.

Recently, a series of cases of domestic violence emerged in Kashmir. One was of a 32-year-old woman working in HDFC Bank in Sopore town, who committed suicide in April this year. She left a note in which she named a cluster head of the bank as responsible for her death. KWC, which was just a month old then, tracked the case, met her family, wrote to the bank asking for the removal of the man and also sought financial compensation for the family. Five months later, the family received a compensation of Rs14 lakh. Rashid calls it KWC’s success, but adds that in many cases, they have had to face disappointments. “No one believes that people can help without ulterior motives. We have to explain our intentions all the time. There is a general mistrust of NGOs," says Rashid.

From a senior member in the judiciary that the group met to a shopkeeper they had to deal with, questions have been asked as to why Kashmir needs such a collective, and if they really believe the rights of women are denied.

“Most women-related cases don’t get reported. And out of the 1% that do, 0.99% are fictitious, and so, everyone from the magistrates to police are wary of any conversation around gender rights. All this is happening while the 99% of cases of abuse are unreported, and continue to happen in the backdrop," says Subreen Malik, Srinagar-based advocate and founding member of KWC.

KWC, with 11 women and six men members—all volunteers across fields—currently helps in individual cases of violence by providing legal aid, counselling and some small livelihood arrangements.

“Such collectives are important not only to offer a succour to women who have suffered, but also to provide a space for women to be able to mobilize, to collectively understand patriarchy and all forms of violence against women, and to know how to fight the insidious misogyny around," said Vasanthi Raman, social scientist retired from the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, New Delhi.

The group has so far conducted a women’s consultative workshop, a police sensitization workshop bringing in 50 investigative officers from almost all police stations in Srinagar, and a book release on transgenders in Kashmir, among other activities.

As of now, KWC is financed by its members and some well-wishers, but funding will be an issue when more cases come to them and when Kashmiri women start trusting the collective with their stories.

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