The horrifying rape and murder of a young girl in Kashmir valley’s Kulgam district in the last week of October is a grim reminder of the increasing violent crimes against women in Kashmiri society. The unfortunate victim was kidnapped and gang-raped by two local youth two weeks earlier, and after battling for survival in the hospital, she died last Friday.
This incident is not one of its own. Tragically, for many years, sexual violence against women in Kashmir has steadily increased. Collectively, we are still coming to terms with the tragedies of our many “Nirbhayas” (bravehearts), and the complete denial of justice to them. Then each of these particular acts go beyond the precincts of our imagination. Still each such incident is a murder of all women, in fact, of our society as a whole. If this brutal act does not provoke our conscience, nothing will. Ironically, these crimes are growing with the rising levels of education and literacy. Hence they are a tragic testament to how badly Kashmiri society is failing women. As unfortunate and shocking is the media choosing to ignore this gruesome news as well as the protests that took place in the victims’ native place.
The Bharatiya Janata Party government, like on all other fronts, has completely failed to take steps to prevent violence against women which recur with alarming regularity in the Valley and indeed in the rest of India. Far from being able to ensure safety of women, this government, in some instances, provides a cover to politicians, journalists and bureaucrats to get off the hook even after their involvement in crimes such as molestation and sex-exploitation rackets are discovered and made public.
Although the accused in Kulgam have been arrested, it has emerged that the police and local administration were too slow to react. No official from the administration visited the victim during her time in the hospital, nor provided her any help and support which may have saved her. The law dictates that they do so under the circumstances. On the contrary, according to the victim’s family, which is an ordinary Kashmiri peasant family, the victim’s brother was thrashed and locked up for some time when he protested against the hospital authorities for their lack of due attention and care towards her.
The BJP and its hand-picked bureaucrats in the state continue to harp on “governance” in the aftermath of the abrogation of Article 370, but this case should remind people of the pathetic law and order situation in the Valley and the failure of the administration to protect ordinary citizens, especially women. Its apathy in light of such a sensitive case seems reflective of the BJP model of governance which was visible in Uttar Pradesh during the rape and murder in Hathras. If anything, the tall claims of “Beti Bachao, Beti Padao!” have been punctured.
In Kashmir, just like the rest of the country, one more complication is that many incidents of violence against women go unreported. As a result, such dreadful acts continue to perpetuate. But we can no longer afford denial or lose this crucial issue in the cacophony of other “issues” surrounding Kashmir. The safety of women and crimes against them are a critical challenge before our society, and we need to rise to the occasion and make society liveable for women. Living in denial or resorting to conventional patriarchal exculpation is not an option, for that will only aggravate an already bad situation. We need radical introspection at all levels. This begins with making the executive correct the serious flaws in the criminal justice system, whose flaws can no longer be allowed to let perpetrators off the hook. Until now, in almost all other such cases in Jammu and Kashmir, perpetrators have never been punished. We still await justice in all those cases.
While legislative complacency and slowness of judicial systems must be addressed to protect fundamental human rights of women, it is also time we look inwards, at our latent patriarchal attitudes that enable abuse and violence against women. We can do a genuine favour to ourselves as a people by conducting an honest appraisal of ourselves. It would lead us to conclude that in our social realm, women are objectified at all levels. Our society perceives a woman, both at conscious and unconscious levels, as an inferior entity on whom masculine powers can be enacted and exercised freely. She is seen as a family member or as cog in a larger society. A woman has to carry the burden of its sense of modesty and morality while men can enjoy leeway in most matters. This is the thinking that informs our sensibility.
The protracted conflict and violence in Kashmir magnify the suffering of women even more because they are already vulnerable. Scholars have explained how conflict zones facilitate an environment for gender violence of all kinds. In a society like Kashmir, where rigid patriarchal customs prevail, the presence of violence can further entrench those values and exacerbate crimes against women. Recent experience does tell us that Kashmiri women are victims both of patriarchy and the brutal conflict, and their existence has been as hard as it can get. Scholars have called it a “cruel double disorientation” in which the conflict and patriarchy complement each other to exacerbate repression of women.
Like any entrenched patriarchy, Kashmiri society enforces on women idealised versions of womanhood, which women must attain no matter their conditions or circumstances. As experience has shown, this ideal is instrumentalised to oppress women. It is apparent that hollow codes of honour are formulated by masculine society to reduce women to cultural markers. It is in the name of honour and “ideal womanhood” that sexual predation and brutalisation of women is permitted, and this too is true of all societies. This is revealed when people on public platforms resort to victim-blaming instead of demanding justice when Kulgam, Hathras or other such incidents take place.
In 2014, newspapers in Kashmir had reported about women being abused in public for being “responsible” for the massive floods that had wrecked the region. In those reports, many young girls narrated the trauma from being publicly taunted. Surely things cannot get more absurd and irrational than this. This preposterous instance is a potent reminder of the psychological abuse of women. The most unfortunate part is that such attitudes legitimise acts of violence in the public and private spheres. Sometimes, even if a woman dares come out in public to name her male oppressor, it is belied by a society which resorts to victim-blaming. These regressive traditions need to be done away with along with distorted and often misinterpreted religious dictums. Any cultural discourse invoked to repress women needs a radical questioning. All of society has a moral responsibility towards this. Running away or living in denial is not going to help.
The author is a blogger and writer based in Kashmir. The views are personal.