Kashmir: A look at the Kunan Poshpora rapes

Butt and Natasha Rather, along with three others, co-wrote the book Do you Remember Kunan Poshpora'?, published earlier this year [Urvashi Sakar/Al Jazeera]
Butt and Natasha Rather, along with three others, co-wrote the book Do you Remember Kunan Poshpora’?, published earlier this year [Urvashi Sakar/Al Jazeera]

Twenty-five years have passed since the 1991 incident in which Indian army soldiers allegedly raped between 23 and 100 women in Kashmir’s Kunan and Poshpora villages during a search operation.

The Indian army has denied the accusations and a delayed investigation of the incident concluded that the allegations were “worthless” and no one was prosecuted for the alleged crimes.

But, in 2013, a group of 50 women, including the authors Ifrah Butt and Natasha Rather, petitioned the Supreme Court of India to re-open the investigations. Since then, a reinvestigation was ordered and the Kashmir High Court ordered that victims be paid compensation. The state government and army have mounted efforts to stop these orders.

Al Jazeera spoke to Ifrah Butt and Natasha Rather who, along with three others, co-wrote a book, Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora? published earlier this year.

Butt and Rather, both young women in their twenties, spoke about the impact of militarisation on Kashmiri Muslim women and men, political solidarities, about Kashmiri women who inspire, and the issue of self-determination in Kashmir.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length

Al Jazeera: How and when did you learn about the Kunan Poshpora rapes?

Ifrah Butt: I had a faint idea of the events of Kunan Poshpora, but it was not something which we talked about because it is taboo to discuss rape in Kashmiri society. We were documenting cases of sexual violence at Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society when we learned about the full details.

At that time, people were on the streets in India, demanding immediate justice for a young woman who was raped in Delhi in December 2012. We wondered why nobody had sought justice for the Kashmiri women who were raped more than 20 years ago.

Al Jazeera: How has the conflict in Kashmir affected women and their participation in the public sphere? 

Natasha Rather: Before the conflict escalated in the late 1980s, girls were encouraged to attend college, work and occupy high positions. But they were forced to drop out due to the conflict.

During the conflict, women helped [fighters] with meals and shelter, and acted as their couriers.

Increasing instances of rape were recorded after the armed uprising began in the 1990s and incidents like Kunan Poshpora made women more aware of their vulnerability.

Rapes were humiliating for the entire Kashmiri community and demoralising. As a result, women were made to cover their faces and wear burqas. Their movements were restricted.

But after a point they had to go out and work because the men were being killed, or were in jail. There are hundreds of half-widows in Kashmir – women whose husbands disappeared. 

Since the year 2000, more women started working. Now, many own big businesses, boutiques and beauty parlours, and are in the bureaucracy.

But the result of militarisation is that [Kashmiri women] dread men in uniform. We won’t enter a park, if we see them sitting even far away, or walk down streets where there is an army bunker.

Butt: Kashmiri women have been abused both by militants and Indian security forces. Militants also used rape, especially if women were caught as informers. For example, in the 1990s, a Kashmiri Pandit [Hindu] nurse was raped and shot for being a suspected police informer.

Similarly, there are instances of Indian security forces raping female members of a militant’s family as a way of punishing the fighter.

Women were raped on both sides.

Rather: Incidents of sexual torture and assault against men and boys have been recorded. But many such incidents go unreported because the victims fear shame and dishonour.

Butt: Also, I think, men started thinking that they could not take care of the women after incidents of rape and sexual assault against women by military and paramilitary forces increased.

Al Jazeera: What is the situation of Kashmiri women with regard to employment, marriage and sexual freedom?

Rather: Government jobs or education and banking jobs are considered the best for Kashmiri girls. Some families express discomfort about women working with men. Caste and class considerations can be important in selection of partners, but such ideas are slowly changing, especially among the middle class.

There is complete silence around premarital sex since Kashmiri society considers this to be a disgrace and dishonour.

Butt: We have the liberty to choose our partners, that is, husbands, but we cannot cohabitate with a partner if unmarried. Premarital sex is a big no. Sexuality and related issues like rape or even harassment are not discussed.

Al Jazeera: During the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits during early 1990s, women from the Pandit community were reportedly raped. Has the violence against them been forgotten?

Rather: Rape of a Kashmiri Pandit woman is as condemnable as of a Kashmiri Muslim woman.

Butt: There were some incidents of rapes committed by militants in the 1990s. Such incidents, too, need documenting.

Al Jazeera: The outrage around the 2012 Delhi rape prompted you to delve into Kunan Poshpora. Do these other incidents in India also affect you?

Rather: The 2012 agitations demanded that the culture of silence [over rape] be broken. It seemed to be an apt time for talking about gendered violence in Kashmir.

Events in India do impact us, especially movements led by the people. But while most other agitating groups do not want freedom from India, Kashmiris want self-determination.

Butt: Events from all over the world impact us, be it Palestine, Syria or Yemen. We express our solidarity with every oppressed nation and groups like the Dalits or tribal groups. We do it by writing about it and expressing ourselves on social media.

Al Jazeera: Are you indicating that Kashmir needs freedom first, and only then can social problems like patriarchy and caste be dealt with?

Butt: We can solve our problems only if we are alive. We saw how young boys and girls were killed since 2008. There are massacres, and if this continues, there will soon be no one left to deal with the other social problems.

Once we get freedom we will work for a perfect nation. But when our existence is in peril, we cannot think of anything else.

Rather: The right to self-determination precedes everything else. When India was waging its struggle for freedom, did it wait to eliminate caste biases, religious intolerance or patriarchy?

This piece has bee republished from AL JAZEERA NEWS

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