Hidden Heroes of the Kashmir Valley: The Resilience of Widows and Half-Widows

The hidden heroes of the Kashmir valley are the women, the widows and half-widows, who have struggled to survive in a protracted conflict. For 70-plus years, these women have endured incredible hardship and lived with the tragedies of war, often with no support from their local governments. 

Brief Background

A divided Kashmir valley. India controls most of the land through occupation and militarization.

Since the Kashmiri conflict’s inception, it is estimated that over 70,000 people have died, with over 4,000 believed to be missing or in illegal detention. The number of widows and half-widows is expected to surpass 15,000. Special laws such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1990 and the Jammu and Kashmir Safety Act of 1978 have created structures that obstruct the normal course of law, impede accountability, and jeopardize the right to remedy for victims of human rights violations. Allegations of such violations entail torture and custodial deaths, rape, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions. In this ever-lasting conflict, the women suffer when they learn that their men are dead or have disappeared, the latter term is a reference to men who have been likely killed by the Indian Army.

When men suddenly disappear, then the women become “half-widows” and these women live in “limbo” as they wait for news of their husbands. 

Half-widows in Indian-held Kashmir mourn the disappearances of their husbands. Source: Kashmir in Focus

Today, there are an estimated 40,000 widows. The exact number is unknown. What is true is that numbers of widows and half-widows is likely rising because the conflict continues with no end in sight. 

Human Rights Abuses

On August 5th of 2019, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah revoked Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, thereby removing Kashmir’s previously autonomous status in relation to the Indian Union. This has resulted in Indian security forces over-regulating and arresting Kashmiris, primarily Kashmiri men, for the smallest of suspicions. Many of the missing persons are believed to have been kidnapped and even killed by Indian security forces.

The families, particularly the wives of arrested or killed men, are left in a permanent state of limbo, unable to discern whether their spouse or relative is still alive. The wives of the missing are forced to raise their children as single mothers while experiencing severe and complex psychological, social, economic, and legal problems.

Violence, Rape and Psychological Trauma

Women’s stories about living in Kashmir are tinged with pain from men’s disappearances, which give way to a plethora of psychological, social, and economic issues. These abductions have continued for over two decades to the present day, but these women, ceaselessly searching for their husbands, face intimidation and threats from the Indian authorities when they attempt to obtain information.

The first-hand experiences of Kashmiri women with trauma have directly contributed to their development of mental health issues. A report by the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society says that women constitute 62 percent of the patients visiting the Government Psychiatry Diseases Hospital. Due to the vulnerable position of widows and half-widows, many are taken advantage of, left to cope with their experiences of rape in solitude as the reporting of rape is discouraged by social stigma. The lack of any assured rehabilitation mechanisms leaves many widows emotionally damaged, psychologically traumatized, economically unstable, and even physically crippled in some scenarios.

Cultural and Religious Barriers

In addition to physical and sexual violence, the widows and half-widows must face a multitude of cultural barriers when trying to reestablish any semblance of stability in their lives. In public spaces, they are not fully accepted as having to take on the role of the sole bread earner, nor as becoming the head of their household, thus are left with limited options for maintaining their children’s survival as well as their own.

The widows of men who have been killed and whose bodies have been obtained are comparatively better able to cope with their loss having completed their burial rituals.

In contrast, half-widows are stuck in permanent limbo, stuck between choosing to risk the insults and threats of an insensitive society, or to live a life of misery working menial jobs and confronting exploitation in the form of unfair wages.

Neelofar Hamid in the film, Half-Widow, portrays a woman whose husband was violently abducted by Indian soldiers in the middle of night. Source: Renzu Films

Economic Deprivation

The economic vulnerability faced by half-widows and widows is indubitably their most debilitating challenge.

Economic relief in the form of ration cards or the transfer of a husband’s assets and wealth are difficult to acquire as these processes necessitate a death certificate, which half-widows would not possess. To make matters worse, most of these widows and half-widows are illiterate and lack skills or training that would help them to earn a living on their own, and the absence of their primary breadwinners leads to their dependence on in-laws or parents for their economic needs, with their property and custody rights remaining undetermined.

Take the story of Zamruda, who was widowed sixteen years ago after a group of Indian army men came in the middle of the night and took her husband, whom she never saw again. After she became a half-widow, she realized that she needed to secure a living to feed herself and her child. and began working in people’s homes.

Despite her health worsening, she continues to work in the hopes of supporting her child’s future education. Since half-widows’ husbands are neither defined as dead or as living, they often find themselves in a catch-22 situation. They do not qualify for the social support that may be given to widows, and are gridlocked by the religious restrictions that prevent them from remarrying.

Solution

The phenomenon of enforced disappearances must end in order to protect the emotional, economic, and physical wellbeing of Kashmiri women. There must be pressure on all authorities within the Kashmir valley to hold themselves accountable and maintain their obligation to upholding human rights. This can be achieved by having an accountability mechanism for Indian and Pakistani authorities in their respective occupied areas of the valley that establishes investigations into all civilian killings, disappearances, and incidents of sexual in order to bring the wrongdoers to justice.

Furthermore, a broader rehabilitation framework is needed for those who have already been widowed or half-widowed. This entails establishing mechanisms that would allow for rehabilitation, counseling, and legal aid for these women. In a piece on conflict-affected women in Kashmir, prominent Kashmiri journalist, Afsana Bhat, wrote that “Self-reliance should be the core component of any rehabilitation mechanism,” as many women have become dependent on receiving external aid as opposed to acquiring their own means of making a living.

Kashmiri women have served as the crucial backbone of Kashmiri society, nurturing, and raising its families, a task that has become more challenging for widows and half-widows to do single-handedly. Bringing those who have deprived these women of their beloved husbands to justice would help to provide these female heroes with the closure and assurance they need to move forward from their painful pasts.

Guest post by Naya Ahmed, a human rights activist and young scholar. You can contact her at: inayaahmed@gwmail.gwu.edu

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