Sitting by the window sill of her one-story house in a remote village in Srinagar district, Begum Jaan recalls that fateful morning when she saw her husband Mania Tancha for the last time. She says with a sigh, “We were having nun-chai when army officers of 28 Rashtriya Rifles knocked heavily on the door and dragged Mania out of the house. That was the last I saw him. It has been more than a decade now; I have no clue about his whereabouts or whether he is dead or alive.”
Dilshada Sheikh used to live in a small dilapidated single-storey house in Sheikh Hamza colony on the outskirts of Srinagar. It was June 16, 1992, the fourth day of Eid-ul-Adha. Like any other day, her husband Bashir Ahmad Sheikh, a painter by profession, left to buy some paint from Maisuma and disappeared. On that same day, there had been an incident of firing in Lal Chowk and eye-witnesses claimed that her husband was picked up by the Border Security Force (BSF). Almost 24 years after her husband went missing, she breathed her last on March 31, 2016.
Zoona Begum lives in a village of Anantnag district. Her husband Mohammad Abdullah Dar was allegedly picked by the Indian forces on April 12, 1992, and she has been waiting for his return since then. Her voice breaks and tears roll down her cheeks when she says, “I have become old now, I am not sure if I can recognise him now. Every time I hear a knock, I ask my sons to see if it’s their father at the door.”
The story of these three women is very similar to the story of at least 2000-2500 women in the conflict-zone of Kashmir. They are known as ‘half-widows’, a term used for referring to women whose husbands are believed to have been either abducted by the Indian security forces or killed but there is no confirmation of what may have happened to them. Though the number of ‘disappeared’ as estimated by the state authorities is not more than 4000, other estimates put the number to be much higher, anywhere between 8000 and 10,000.
Kashmir is the world’s most militarised zone. Women have been the worst sufferers of the septuagenarian conflict. Be it as direct victims in the Kunan Poshpora rape case, Shopian rape case, in the recent case of 2016 wherein a school-going girl of Handwara was allegedly sexually assaulted by an army man or as indirect victims as in the case of half-widows who are subjected to a life of ambiguity and misery.
The pattern and the consequences of the disappearances are similar in most of the cases. It begins with a man’s alleged arrest, denial of acknowledgement of the arrest, unending searches in jails and army camps and a life of abject penury for the family members. ‘Denied’, a report published by Amnesty International has mentioned how in the 1990s the General Administration Department (GAD) sent an official notification to police stations directing them not to file any FIR against the army, thereby protecting the armed forces from judicial scrutiny and accountability. Even if an FIR is registered, it gets registered as a ‘missing’ or an ‘abduction’ case, thereby totally negating the possibility of state involvement.
This denial is the beginning of the life-long predicament of these half-widows. Begum Jaan says “Army men would often come to our house in a drunken state; I had to flee to my brother’s house in order to save my honour. They would often threaten me with dire consequences if I continued with the search of my husband. They even burnt all the documents I had.”
Zoona’s son Pinto (name changed) adds, “Initially they acknowledged that our father was with them, and would say they would release him, but after a year, they were in complete denial. A few years back, I along with other members of Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) went to a university in Delhi and when I came back, army men barged into our house and refused to have arrested Abba. They even tried to bribe me.”
After the disappearance, the responsibility of earning bread for the family is transferred to the women. They are pushed into public spaces which are dominated by men. Most of them are illiterate and hence need to resort to menial low-paying jobs like stitching and working as domestic workers. The families are pushed into a life of poverty, due to the disappearance of the breadwinner.
Begum Jaan says “When my husband was alive, we lived an ideal life. My children went to school. He would buy them sweets but after he disappeared, there were days when we didn’t even have a proper meal. I started working as a domestic help and earned hardly 150 rupees a day. My son too dropped out and works as a daily wager now. His father wanted to educate him but luck had something else in store for us.”
Pinto who is a shopkeeper now, says with a gloomy expression, “Our father had promised us he will buy us white fleet shoes. He wanted us to become doctors and engineers and would have enrolled us but before he could do that, they took him away. We wouldn’t be living in debt, had he been alive.”
Amongst the half-widows, 98% have a monthly income of less than ₹4000 and 65% of the half-widows live in houses with minimum amenities. The provision of relief by the state authorities is contingent on the proof of death obtained from district authorities and if provided, the family of the victim gets an ex-gratia relief of ₹1 lakh and employment is provided to one family member as compensation to the kin. The government scheme hasn’t been able to help the half-widows as much because to apply for the benefits, they have to wait for five years.
Unlike the widows who get 1/4th or 1/8th (if they have children) of their husband’s property under the Islamic law, a half-widow gets nothing till her husband is declared dead. All the assets are either sold to fund the search for the husband or to sustain the family. Zoona says “My elder brother would sell the land I’d inherited from my father, so as to feed our mouths. What other option did he have? Today all these Yateem Trusts collect money, but when my kids were orphaned, nobody was there but Allah.” Nasreen, a half-widow from Srinagar district, is still fighting with her in-laws for property rights for her children.
The desolate living conditions and emotional trauma of half-widows manifest into severe psychological and health issues. Most of the half-widows are suffering from depression, phobia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and emotional instability. Sadaqat Rehman, assistant professor in clinical psychology at Srinagar’s psychiatric hospital, says: “Many half-widows coming these days are hypersensitive and show signs of depression. We treat them with cognitive behavioural therapy.”
The disappearance of Dilshada’s husband not only took a heavy toll on her mental health but her youngest son Reyaz also developed severe mental health issues as he struggled to cope with the sudden disappearance of his father. Dilshada too developed diabetes, hypertension, and thyroid post her husband’s disappearance. Her monthly medical bills would often amount up to ₹3000 which at times became difficult for her sons to arrange. “Had I not found APDP, I would have died because of high sugar levels. It’s because of the medicines they (APDP) provide, I am alive.”
Though the Islamic law encourages remarriages, there wasn’t a consensus between various sects on the issue of remarriage of half-widows. In 2013, Islamic scholars ruled that the half-widows can remarry after four years of waiting from the day of the disappearance.
Not many half-widows remarry though. Some fear the societal stigma while others are concerned about the fate of their children. When Dilshada had started considering remarriage as an option, she was worried about her children’s fate. Many people around her told her that she will understand the dire consequences of remarriage when tries to get her kids married. Nasreen, a half-widow from Srinagar district, didn’t remarry because she had a girl child. She says, “My in-laws were willing to take the responsibility of my son Abid, but not Shahnaz. They had already lost their father, had I remarried Allah knows what all my daughter would’ve faced.”
The issue of remarriage has another aspect of ‘guilt’ attached to it as many half-widows feel guilty if they move on with their lives. The women also fear the exclusion from the social networks that they are a part of as the society is unwilling to accept their choice of remarriage. Many half-widows would change their attires when they would go for searching their husbands. Most of them donned ‘burkhas’ as they feared harassment from the army men and also because they wanted to retain their image of a ‘good’ woman. Nasreen says, “When you don’t have a man in your house, you need to be extra careful about how you dress or who you talk to, as you become more vulnerable to character assassinations.”
The societal role in the case of half-widows is limited to that of empathetic spectators. Only in a case of few half-widows, the society has come forward to help them financially but in most of the cases, the society’s role in helping the victims is minimal. Begum Jaan says “After the disappearance of my husband, the attitude of my neighbours towards me changed. None of them helped us financially. It was only some people from a nomadic community nearby who would guard my house and also provide my family with ration and clothes.”
The fear instilled by the disappearance also disallows many people from coming forward to help victims as they think they might become the next targets of the forces. Zoona says, “Nobody helped me. Even now, when someone like you comes to meet me, they think I get money or something. Little do they know that I am in a huge debt.”
The living conditions of these women are deplorable. Their faith in the Indian state apparatuses has totally disappeared. Dilshada said to me, “I’ll get insaaf for sure, if not here than in Allah’s court but I don’t know if I’ll be able to witness that.” APDP for them is no less than a messiah as the state has totally failed in addressing their grievances. APDP not only provides them with legal, financial, and material support but also helps them overcome the fear of the state. Pinto says, “Since the day, we joined APDP, I feel secure for now I know there are people who will raise their voices for us if army does anything to us.”
On the 10th of every month, they gather at the Pratap Park with placards that read, ‘Where are our beloved?’ to commemorate their struggle, and seek answers and justice from the State. Deep inside they know they will never see their husbands again but that ray of hope never dies. That last ray of hope keeps fuelling their strength to fight their daily battles. When I ask Nasreen, why is she still hopeful, she smiles and says, “Na-umeedi kufr hai.”(Hopelessness is a greater sin).