How Omission of Commission Left Kashmir Women in the Lurch

Sanika Athavale , 20 Aug 2020
Photo by: Abid Bhat

After the abrogation of Article 370 last summer and the subsequent passing of the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act 2019, seven important commissions in the erstwhile state were dissolved. Among them was the State Commission for Protection of Women and Child Rights (SCPWCR)—serving the interests of the marginalised gender. Its dismissal has left several Kashmiri women in a lurch. 

ONCE done with festive feeling of band, baja and bharaat, Isha Mir, 35, realized that she had just landed in a bad marriage. Her husband turned out to be “apathetic and abusive” from the word go. Neither does he let her be in contact with her parents nor does he allow her to meet them. She’s not even allowed a phone.

Her husband constantly tells her that this marriage was not fixed with his consent and on that pretext, talks to other women. After eight years of their marriage, she has two children with him and is not provided any kind of financial support. She has had family counselling many times but that didn’t improve her husband’s behaviour. When she confronted him about the women he talks to, he slapped her. She has previously complained against him but now she wants to take it to the court. But to her chagrin, the courtrooms in Kashmir are already crammed with countless cases during Covid times.

Her trouble equally comes from the order of October 23, 2019, that wound up the State Commission for Protection of Women and Child Rights (SCPWCR) from the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. It has left many women like her hanging by a thread.

What’s even worse is that with the dissolution of the SCPWCR, the ongoing cases of 270 Kashmiri women, which had reached the turn towards the final judgment, have been transferred to the National Commission for Women (NCW) headquartered in New Delhi.

Speaking about the role and authority of the NCW, Vasundhara Pathak Masoodi, the last chairperson of SCPWCR, recently said, “Just because we have a Supreme Court, it doesn’t mean that all the state-level cases will directly come to it; for that, you have different high courts for different states and UTs. Similarly, we should have a body in every state and UTs.”

Masoodi explained that if a woman from Delhi wished to register a case at the NCW, she would not be able to because there is a separate commission in place there. “NCW only takes up the cases of NRIs or people who are settled in different states of India. Besides, NCW monitors the functioning of the commissions of other states and UTs as well.”

But 10 months after the NCW overtook the obliterated SCPWCR, the ‘shifted’ files seem to have been lost in transition.

“Ever since the SCPWCR, or the women’s commission has been erased from Kashmir’s administrative system, women in need have been using every option imaginable for working towards ending their miseries,” said Sabreena Bhat, a Kashmiri writer who writes on gender issues.

“There was a body, some support that Kashmiri women could fall back on in the event of a crisis. Many women were almost on the verge of getting justice, before the legal change spoiled their fruit of perseverance.”

Even former chairperson of the SCPWCR, Nayeema Mehjoor admitted to having received several distress calls from the women she had interacted with during her tenure with the now-defunct body.

“After August 5, I received almost 15 distress calls every month and interestingly, most of the callers were women from North Kashmir,” she said.

In her years as the chairperson, Mehjoor had formed a network of 10,000 female volunteers – who continue to help her or the distress callers she refers to them.

“I had resigned from my post disgruntled by the invisible handcuffs. When the Kathua rape case happened, I was helpless. The same was my state when ‘braid chopping’ was rampant in Kashmir,” the journalist and former People’s Democratic Party (PDP) member told Kashmir Observer. Mehjoor stated that games of power kept her from freely expressing herself and speaking out on issues.

Arshie Qureshi, the co-founder of a new homegrown women’s cell called Mehram, informed that since its inception in June 2020, the new cell has been receiving an average of 3 cases per day related to gender-based violence/issues.

“Once the state commission was dissolved, a lot of pressure was put on the other resources and avenues that were working for the same cause,” Qureshi told Kashmir Observer

However, this has happened in the case of women who were aware of the options other than the commission, constituting a tiny minority within a minority in Kashmir.

“The women’s commission was known to women,” she said. “It was an avenue that they could use. Not having one any more obviously points to the lack of a support system for them. Also, it is pertinent to mention that when the perpetrators know that the women do not have a support system, the abuse they inflict aggravates.”

In the absence of a watchdog-like body for her issues, a woman named Sharifa who wants freedom and justice for her two kids from the clutches of her torturous in-laws has been running pillar to post for some redressal. Recently, she reached out to a female lawyer with the hope to obtain some help.

Since her marriage in 2014, she said, her in-laws have been harassing her to the point that they even tried to strangle her to death. She survived but she has had to listen to abuses consistently.

Sharifa said her husband also subjected her to domestic violence which even caused her a miscarriage during her first pregnancy. “He was involved in an extramarital affair,” she said, and in order to hide it, her in-laws have tried to defame her in society by calling her characterless.

She had lodged a police complaint against the accused but there was no action taken. She hopes for justice but due to the official apathy, her pain persists. Also, to add to her plight, her husband wants to end terms with her and her in-laws have also filed a case against her. She is in such deep distress that sometimes she wishes to commit suicide and have everything end in a single go.

Elaborating on such incapacitation of Kashmiri women, Sabreena Bhat, too, noted that, “Even if Kashmiri women (generally speaking) did not visit the commission enthusiastically for solving their problems, just knowing that they had an option was enough support.”

Since women in Kashmir are bred in a highly patriarchal society, going out of the bounds of their homes to report instances of domestic abuse or violence was a very big thing for them, she said.

“But at least they had the option,” she stressed. “Now, without the existence of such a body, we’ve nowhere to go. It goes without saying that this move has affected women and their safety a lot.”

Notably, in the two-month period of the ‘world’s strictest’ COVID-19 lockdown, announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the eve of March 24, Jammu and Kashmir reported 16 cases of rape and 4 cases of molestation.

Needless to say, since these victims do not have a statutory professional body to seek support from, they are “left in a vacuum of sorts” as per Dr Touseef Rizvi, a psychology professor at Kashmir University.

“For the perpetrators, there’s nothing to act as a deterrent,” Dr Rizvi told Kashmir Observer. “Previously, they knew that their female housemates had the option of availing the services of the commission and that did serve as a deterrent.”

In absence of the commission, Arshie Qureshi’s Mehram, the organisation working to provide legal aid to women suffering from gender-based violence, has stretched the duties of the employees beyond the stated purpose now.

“We also need to provide psychological support to the victims and brainstorm about different ways in which we can engage with society to start a dialogue about these issues,” she said.

Last year, when all the communication lines were severed in the valley, social impact workers had trouble in helping and identifying victims of gender-based violence. In a few rare cases, the women would manage to come to them with their problems. If they knew the residential address of the worker, they would directly come to their homes. Some who managed to get their hands on a landline would try to reach out to their “Kashmiri sisters” placed outside of the Valley to narrate their ordeals.

“It’s important to know that women only use such ‘third-party options’, for redressal, when all the other options that are immediately accessible to them turn out to be useless,” Qureshi further explained.

“Whenever there is an incident of violence, the family members try to resolve it at the familial level. If that does not work, then it is taken up at the community level. When they cross and exhaust all these avenues they turn to bodies like ours.”

The victims who come in are generally very confused and nervous about the consequences of their complaints with the third-party. Torn between giving their abusers a ‘second chance’ and their innate wish to ‘move on’, the victims reportedly have a hard time choosing from the variety of redressal options placed in front of them by professionals at these non-governmental organisations.

“This is where the ‘counseling’ part comes in,” Qureshi continued. “Our legal professionals explain all the options to the complainant. She may file a court case, or an FIR with the police, or get us to intervene with the abusers or her own family which may be acting as a barrier. We negotiate and single out the best solution and help the victim’s case.”

Sometimes, these women are also presented with all the options and then given the time to think and choose the one they deem best. “Our job is to assure them that ‘we are here for them’ as long as they want help,” Qureshi said.

Backing Qureshi’s views and women welfare work, Sabreena Bhat said that in spite of SCPWCR’s presence in the past, women preferred to reach out to NGOs, like Mehram, for their issues.

“Be that as it may, the final destination for the files that such NGOs would compile would be the SCPWCR’s office until it was functional,” the writer mentioned.

At the end of the day, the NGOs would send all the troubles and complaints back to the apex office for its perusal. But now, with the body no more, all of the pending and existing cases that were stocked in the former state’s folders are in the NCW office.

Calling the NCW a “disaster”, Qureshi narrated her personal ordeal with the central body. “Somebody I knew had been incessantly harassed and there was a threat to her life. The police in Srinagar refused to file an FIR, so I had to contact the NCW for help. I kept calling on all numbers that were displayed on their website but no one picked up. I remember spending a good 2-3 hours on this. Finally, I took to Twitter and tagged the NCW and wrote my complaint online.”

It was only then that the NCW responded to Qureshi assuring her a reply after a short while. “This happened in the last week of May. The point of reaching the NCW was to get my contact’s case registered in absence of any local help,” she said.

Ironically, the NCW redirected her complaint, via email, back to Kashmir, to the SP’s (Superintendent of Police) office. Qureshi even went to check on the status of the case at the office but was told to go to another ‘office’ where the complaint was supposed to have been sent.

“Why do I have to go around from one office to another when the NCW had clearly said in their email that the complaint was sent to the SP? The SP’s office had asked me to go to a few places with the printout of the original email. What I am trying to underline here is that the process with the NCW is not at all streamlined and I do not even have an update on my complaint till now,” she sighed.

In the email, the NCW had stated that Qureshi’s complaint was a time-bound issue and the police must respond within 30 days of its filing. But even after the passage of a lot of time, she does not have an inkling about its status. “I followed up too, but it was of no use.”

Hameeda Nayeem, a prominent civil society member and retired English professor based in Srinagar, maintained that she had always dismissed the commission as “she never thought that it had ever resolved anything.”

She said that the SCPWCR only had “nominal and cosmetic value” in the Valley. “Woh bas daastaan sunte the, mujhe nahi lagta kaam kuch hota tha” (they would only listen to our stories, and I do not think that they ever did much).

“How will they?” she questioned, “It has all been a business appointed and conducted by New Delhi in Kashmir. Through these commissions they barely ever resolved the issues of women and only sought to achieve control over the population,” the fiery professor said.

Discussing the next possible course of action in Kashmir, Nayeema Mehjoor believed that it was foolish to make another commission after wiping out the old one.

Interestingly, Rekha Sharma, the chairperson of the NCW, while speaking to the media a while back had said, “Jammu and Kashmir will have its own Women’s Commission once the elections will be held in J&K and an Assembly will be constituted.”

“As an old officer in the administrative setup, I do not wish to see another commission but the reinstatement of Article 370,” Mehjoor, the ex-commissioner, said. “The dialogue between women can only begin once the special status is back and not without it.”

But until the political processes kickstart, the biggest issue remains the inability of victims to free themselves of the abuse, even when they wanted to, Sabreena Bhat said.

“Kashmiri women are unaware of their rights,” she said. “The general response by a Kashmiri woman, bred in this society, to her husband shouting at her would be: ‘if not at me, then at whom will he shout?’ I know women who are highly qualified and very outspoken in their professional field but are married to physically abusive partners and keep their mouth shut about it.”

In her view, young girls need to be educated and taught the basic difference between protecting the family’s honour and protecting themselves.

“In Kashmir people follow a lot of traditions and customs. These things are given more importance than religion at times. Outsiders paint the Kashmiri society as religiously extreme, but they do not know that when it comes to cultural traditions, Kashmiris overlook even religion,” Bhat shared.

She also asserted that the common perception: ‘mard toh mard hai, woh kuch bhi kar sakta hai’ (a man is a man, and hence he can do anything) is “the real rot in the system that needs to be ripped off” before any more discussions on women’s rights can be conducted.

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