I am a woman from Kashmir who is saddened but not shocked by yet another incident of molestation of a woman; this time a medical student in Jammu Medical College. We are often told that the number of such incidents have drastically increased which is often blamed on the modern culture and waywardness. The fact is that violence against women has always been a reality but with education and economic independence, more women choose not to bear it anymore and try to voice the oppression, they live every day. It still needs immense courage to come out in public, as more than often the victim is blamed not the culprit. That is why sometimes rape-victims or women who suffer from domestic violence speak up much later in their lives than the actual occurrence and some still never gather that courage.
As we hear about this incident of a medical student, the news from molestation of women over New Year celebration in Bengaluru is still fresh. A few of us discussed how disgusted and angry we felt about that incident, as well. More so how the focus was shifted to the girls in Bengaluru case: their dresses, their behaviours and their being in a party during the night. We, as women, condemn such response to the incident, as it is a dehumanizing practice. Which other crime blames the victim not the victimizer? How often do we discuss the role of the murdered in the murder or the role of a person when looted?
We as Kashmiri women were thinking of expressing our anger and condemnation about the Bengaluru incident a few days ago but then we realized that we might be criticized for supporting Indian women when the memories of killings and blinding of youth in Kashmir valley over the summer are still fresh. Why is it that whatever happens to women is of least important to all the societies? It gets huge but empty media attention but repeatedly, it has been proven that violence against women is not seen as a genuine and serious concern of our society unless it supports any larger political agenda. Some of our friends even asked, why did the women who protested against the gory rape and murder case of the girl who we know as Nirbhaya (2014), not protest against the double rape and murder case of Aasiya and Neelofar in Shopian (2009)? We were silent. But, we later discussed that we do not want to be among those women who show selective outrage and stay silent on certain forms of oppression. Violence based on gender identity anywhere in the world is an injustice to women everywhere whether the violence is institutional or seemingly individual or personal.
When in 2014, a senior administrator molested a nurse, he was given a clean chit and continues to serves at the same 'respectable' position and no stone was left unturned to malign the character of the woman. Ridiculous stories were circulated about her being responsible for it. Her character was assassinated with no limits to shift the focus from perpetrator to the victim, victimising her even more. We as community very easily dismissed what she was saying because she was a nurse. We have narratives about nurses that started in 1990's when we were young children.
If we think carefully, we have certain set images about all the women who speak up or defy a gender norm. In this case, the questions were asked, why will someone at such a respectable position as do such an act? Some of us met the lady, her husband and her child, and spoke to them at length. We tried to offer our advice and counsel, but today we know that the powerful is unscathed while as there are a million stories about the woman. It is not just a story of one woman. How long shall we justify the behaviour of one gender by transferring the blame on a woman's character, clothes or behaviour? It is not simply the result of any sexual desires as one may naively assume but the result of the power difference between the genders, clubbed with the power balance in terms of economics, social respect, political positions and networks, which are again tilted heavily in favour of men. Another reason that these things happen is the social understanding of women being weak, being responsible for her and the man's actions as well and also a weak system of laws and policies that invariably favours the powerful side.
Many of us have tried to bring sense to ridiculous discussions saying that some women concoct these stories. Firstly, it is extremely difficult for a woman to make up such story, as there are social costs involved with it, which harm the woman not the man. In addition, even in an extreme situation, if any such woman makes such a false claim, does that mean we deny hundreds and thousands of genuine cases? By the way, all the laws get misused sometimes, be it RTI or laws of inheritance like oral hibba etc. Let us not draw generalized conclusions from it. Rather, let us try to understand that why are we, as society, in such a compulsion to prove the woman wrong, using one argument or the other?
One young woman among us was asked to leave her job because the colleague who was harassing her was a senior and much more needed in the firm than her, she being a young fresher in the private company. She quit her job and was also told that, from then onwards the firm will not employ women instead of having a strict policy against men for misconduct . Employing women is problematic, I have often heard. Especially in call centres, newspapers etc. Why can't working spaces be made safe for women instead of keeping women out of those spaces? I have struggled at home while growing up discussing with my family how I wanted to be a designer. I was told that good women do not become designers as Fashion industry is an unsafe place. I was very young to argue against it. I wanted to do journalism next. No, good women do not appear on TV. I did TV during my college but not without opposition. Later, when I joined the law department, I was subtly told that law courts are not good places for women. All these professions are not good for women; my parents and well-wishers were not wrong in saying so, but what they failed to explain to me was, why and who is responsible for making these and other spaces unsafe for women? Making these places unsafe is a way to mark the male territories and keeping women away from all the powerful positions of leadership including politics: mainstream or separatist. Many women bravely join these and other highly male dominated professions (read all professions) now and have to bear conversations that have sexual undertones. Trust me, we all do it and we are expected to be polite and ignore it, otherwise we may be branded fussy, aggressive or quarrelsome. Some of the readers might get started with the idea that women should not work and then, women and men should not work together based on some poor understanding of religion. Let us make better arguments in the correct understanding of religion as the time to even register these as sane arguments is gone past. Women must work if they want to; and work or no work: segregation is no solution, respect is, and equal treatment is.
Another publicly known case in the recent past, in which a woman in Kashmir, a doctor, was harassed by her boss, the then health minister. He got away with it by swearing allegiance to the constitution of India! This may sound ludicrous but this is actually, what happened. He proved his loyalty to the nation and as a reward; he was given a clean chit, as well. These cases were reported in just past year or so. There are hundreds of cases that never make it to public as we provide them no support to leave bruised bodies and minds of the victimized women. When we as community treat cases in public knowledge so shabbily and invariably end up supporting the perpetrator, the question arises, How long shall we side with the powerful and fail our brave women who raise voice against the injustice they face? Why do we not support our women, as a community? Are we not discouraging women from reporting crimes against them by doing so? There are instances where we support women like the Shopian case but in that situation, the powerful institutions do not want to deliver justice. The point to consider is that, women suffer, sometimes at the hands of the institutions and sometimes from community's side. It is high time that the responsibility for varying types of injustices to women, especially in Kashmir, is fixed.
We are proud of the Ladakhi Medical Student who has spoken up. We want to say that we are with her. All the women, and also men who understand that talking about gender-oppression is not being anti-men, who support her and agree to the opinion expressed in this piece are requested to join Facebook page: Kashmir Women's Collective or mail their endorsement on: firstname.lastname@example.org. Some of us are have come together to consolidate our small efforts of awareness, advocacy and support activities and in the coming days we shall more visibly support our fellow women and take up other such incidents head-on. Enough of silence!
(In conversation with Qurat-ul-ain, Subreen Malik, Shazlia Qureshi, Shabnam Qureshi, Birjais Zaheera Wani and some more Kashmiri women)