Kashmiri Women: Concerns, Milestones & Solutions

Ather Zia

For the last 16 years Kashmir has been embroiled in a fulminating manifestation of a turmoil that has been simmering since 1947. The issue is protracted and violent, which has taken a massive toll on human lives. Women amidst the mayhem have been equal recipients in the suffering.

While on one hand women have become more visible in a deeply patriarchal society, on the other, they have rarely been the pivot of a sustained and constructive documentation and discussion in media or academia. There have been disparate attempts  towards studying the multidimensional issues of victim hood and empowerment, forced and catalyzed by the prevailing circumstances; however the overall picture of their emergence has been elusive.

It is important to make efforts towards garnering a consolidated view about the emergence of Kashmiri women, their unique history, and the travails and tribulations faced by the them and the resilience with which they not only sustain but also improve their lot.

It is also important that the situation of women in Kashmir should not be presented in a vacuum, but needs to be viewed in context of the dismal political violence that engulfs the valley. The shaping of the lives of  Kashmiri women, for good or bad, is deeply rooted with Kashmir polity and is a reflection of the society at large.

Kashmiri women have always been an active component of the society. Much of their social, educational and professional growth has seen a steady increase over the years; most of it can also be attributed to the benign patriarchal norms of the Kashmiri society. Barring the elite and clergy classes where the womenfolk lived an orthodox and sheltered life, often because they could afford such “non-visible” lifestyles (although there are exceptions); common Kashmiri women from middleclass and the lower strata’s have always been a part of a bustling social and economic scenario.  Most of the women across the valley have always been engaged with the historic cottage industry of spinning (Pashmina and other famous yarns). This vocation was pursued within the confines of their homes, in tandem with tending to house and children, never leaving the premises except to procure raw material.

Within the trader and artisan class there existed a unique form of gender equity, born of a complementary relation between the men and women as they pursued their family trade. While fisherwomen took care of selling the catch after men procured it; as the male bakers did the actual baking, women were responsible for selling. It is not unusual to find numerous eulogies to the unique contributions of the tradeswomen; tributes to their beauty, industriousness, and wit in Kashmiri literature and folklore are replete. In rural areas, women have always been counted as sturdy worker, tending farms, cultivating rice, and raising cattle.  Other professions that women have been historically involved in are embroidering, carpet weaving, vegetable vending besides being the traditional birth attendants as well.

In the years following partition and burgeoning political strife in Kashmir, there were quite a few women visible on the political firmament, mostly by the token of their family affiliations. Sheikh Abdullah’s wife, Akbar Jehan was a Parliamentarian and a former activist. Women like Zainab ji, who came from a political family was an educationist and a social worker; as was Mahmuda Ali Shah, a progressive leftist and the first principal of Government Women’s College. Ordinary women like Zoona, possessed enough bravado and social respectability to be active in the Quit Kashmir Movement of 1946. Numerous lady doctors made their mark, becoming synonymous with skill and compassion adding worth to the competence of Kashmiri women.  The arena of  arts and literature, law, police, journalism, administration and entrepreneurship has seen a steadily increasing representation while the Kashmiri society, as dexterous as ever has grown around the travails and setbacks thrown up by the conflict and oppressive administration.

The recent years have seen an increase in visibility of women in professional fields, as well as a swift change in their conventional roles has come by. While economy, globalization and media can be the factors responsible; the catalytic effects of the raging conflict on the lives of women cannot be negated. Conflict can “push women into the public sphere, nudging them to carve out a space for themselves and their humanitarian demands such as locating the ‘disappeared’ men (Butalia, 2001). There is indeed an apparent and tragic correlation between women’s increased participation in the workforce (from white-collar jobs and high-end careers, to rag-tag vocations) and the absence of male breadwinners (who disappeared or were killed) forcing them into finding financial sustenance and other spaces of responsibility which were left gaping open in their small close-knit society.


Most Kashmiri women have no doubt been active components of their society; however in the recent years the normal segue into social and economic mainstream has been catalyzed by conflict. Women seeking jobs and educational opportunities is not just a proverbial means for achieving gender development, but it is often an issue of survival and sustenance. Many women have been forced into the forefront by the dire insecurity they live in.

The unpredictability that prevails over their homes, hearths and lives is gut wrenching. They do not have the luxury of mothers, wives, daughters living in free parts of the world to worry only about mundane or normal things but they also have to tackle issues of life and death, day in and day out. Their spectrum of responsibilities has stretched from nurturing their families, becoming shields for their men, who inevitably are the direct targets in the combat, to the traumatic and sudden assumption of responsibilities when a male member is either killed, imprisoned or missing. Moreover, as a matter of routine, they are pushed into taking over from the men during “crackdowns“, “cordon and search operations“, “area sanitation,” etc, where they become responsible for getting their houses searched, talking to belligerent armed forces, while the men folk are rounded up for identification. In the earlier days of turmoil, it was not unusual for women, be it mothers, sisters, or wives to accompany their men so that they would be subjected to less harassment. With time this trend changed as women too began to come under increasing surveillance.

As pained mothers, daughters, wives women began to protest publicly in sit-ins or clashes with the police looking for their disappeared or arrested loved ones. Making rounds of courts, police stations, talking to strangers, policemen, politicians; what in the past was an anathema in a deeply conservative society became an accepted norm. True, very little traditions can be adhered to in situations when mothers are rummaging through razed buildings looking for bodies of their sons or home-bound wives suddenly have to venture out to arrange sustenance for her orphaned brood.

No doubt, this new found role of consolidating a traumatized society and in many cases, becoming the main breadwinners, can contribute to a speedy gender mainstreaming in Kashmir to a large extent like the World War II did for women in West. This trend can at some level be perceived as a  reverse means of achieving social empowerment by virtue of its interaction with outside world and independent decision making, economic empowerment, and interpreted as paving way for gender empowerment as the world understands it. While this phenomenon may be used for emphasizing the inherent strength of Kashmiri women it can hardly be used to glorify them since the circumstances fueling it have taken a massive psychological and social toll on the population. The persistence of negative security and the emotional trauma are the implicit and explicit costs paid by all Kashmiri women today. There is a glaring evidence that the suddenness of bereavements, general and sexual violence has given an immense rise in psychiatric and psychosomatic illnesses in people. Doctors at the government psychiatry hospital say that women comprise more than the sixty percent of the patients they examine currently. Experts opine, “Women have to bear the brunt of every tragedy. They have to support the family after death of their husband, father or son or brother. Their injuries are more than physical (Jeelani, 2002).”

Nevertheless, between the two most recognized faces of Kashmiri woman-hood, with Asiya Andrabi, a hardliner separatist at one end, and Mehbooba Mufti with her father’s pro-Indian legacy on the other; common Kashmiri women have supported the pervasive will for resistance and held onto their lot with grace and great resilience. Not only are they tackling their day to day problems, they are also pursuing a progressive role in the society ridden with political strife and violence.

The rate of literacy for Kashmir is not indicative of a massive growth but there are positive aspects such as the total number of 0.4 lakhs of students in general education at the university level where there are 14083 females; a number which has increased  almost six fold since 1950-51 when it was only 2669. The literacy and professional development scenario may not be at par with other parts of South Asia, there is no doubt that it is encouraging considering the disadvantages in Kashmir.

As more and more Kashmiri women are getting education and jobs, there are indication of a heightened clamor for their participation, as a new vision for solving Kashmir issue gears towards finding an intellectual solution to the long protracted problem.


The active social and economic roles are not new to Kashmiri women; it is only that the circumstances catalyzing them are tragic and emotionally ravaging. In the circle of combat against India, the counter-insurgency operations by the India army, para-military forces, police and surrendered combatants, according to some estimates, the death toll amounts to somewhere between 70,000 and 1 lakh or above, depending on the source.

It has long been argued that the major acts that governs military action in Jammu and Kashmir, especially the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, is unconstitutional and violates international humanitarian law. However, the Indian Supreme Court has, “upheld the validity of the law, but in view of the potential abuse of human rights has laid down some detailed guidelines for its use“. Nevertheless, a fact finding mission states, “we believe this is a ‘lawless law’ which violates both the Constitution and international law  (Chenoy, 2000).”

In the prevailing conflict in Kashmir, many people have vanished, presumed killed or imprisoned without trial or record. Humanitarian organizations claim that more than 10,000 people have been subjected to enforced disappearances by state agencies, mostly taken by armed personnel. The government figures are nor clear not consistent. Former Chief Minister, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, received severe public backlash in 2003 when he claimed the number to be a mere 60.

However, former Law Minister Muzaffar Hussain Baig claimed that 3744 were missing of whom 135 were declared dead and that “the number of disappeared could be even more (Bukhari, 2007)”.

In 1994,  Parvez Imroz, a lawyer activist in association with Parveena Ahangar a mother of a 17 year old boy who disappeared in custody of the Indian forces, started the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), an organization of the relatives of the disappeared.

APDP took the mantle of vigorous protesting and searching for the disappeared. Parveena, now the chairperson of the 13 year old organization, is a gutsy Kashmiri mother, who has vowed to continue searching for her son and other disappeared people.. She has suffered beating, intimidation and harassment but continues networking and representing her cause world over; as she did at the Philippines-based Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD). Parveena and other members in the organization have carried on their crusade even after suffering a huge setback when in July 1998, unidentified gunmen killed the Vice Chairperson Halima and her son. The organization suspects pro-government militants, but none have been booked so far.

The APDP members meet on 25th of every month to protest in a sit-in, where little semi-orphan children and women can be seen holding placards and wearing headbands with names of their vanished relatives; such protests have “become an embarrassment for the authorities, who often break up the demonstrations.”

In April 2003, APDP went on a hunger strike when the then Prime Minister Vajpayee visited Srinagar. On World Disappearance Day and World Human Rights Day, the APDP manage to hold protests and sit-ins even with the draconian laws barring public meetings.

The organization has also pursued constructing a memorial for the disappeared, which finally saw light of the day in 2006. Earlier in April 2005, it was dismantled by police soon after it was erected.  This gesture, for the people in Kashmir is a symbolic tribute to their loved ones and manifests resilience, defiance and courage in face of oppression; and one that has women on the forefront.

Of the disappeared people, APDP and other humanitarian organizations claim that approximately 2500 people were mostly married males. This phenomenon has given rise to a new social group, called “half-widows”, who have no proof of the missing and also have to wait for seven years before remarrying. Not that marriage again is a problem with these women. According to a recent study titled, “Impact of Conflict Situation on Children and Women in Kashmir“, conducted by Dr B A Dabla of the Department of Sociology, University of Kashmir which  reported that “ Even with the provision of remarriage in Islam, most of the Kashmiri war-widows do not remarry to ensure social security of their children. As per research reports only 8 per cent of the estimated number of war-widows have remarried or intend to remarry while 91 per cent have not remarried and decided not to marry. 65 per cent of the remarried women kept their children with themselves and their new husbands did not object.”

According to a study 87 per cent of the widows were supporting their orphaned children. At an average the women have three to five children and 86 per cent of the them are either employed or sustained by relatives, neighbors and NGOs.

In a surprise revelation about the mental health of women whose husbands have disappeared, Dr. Arshad a leading valley psychiatrist says, “usually in depression patient is left with no desire to live but these women amazingly have expressed a strong will to live, they exhibit a strength unknown in depressive patients perhaps for the reason that they believe that their husbands are alive and their heart refuses to accept the fact that they might not be alive. A woman whose husband has disappeared even after 9 years believes he will come back and she longs to live for the day (Jeelani, 2000). The education of the children is on the top priority of the widows and irrespective of their economic status they want to give quality education to their children.

Many women however, live in “the state of disturbed bereavement”. Majority of female patients suffer from Major Depressive Disorders, almost 50% have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Experts believe that the sudden assumption of male responsibilities, psychological trauma of both reported and unreported sexual violence, and the overall stressful environment may be largely contributing to the worsening mental health amongst women. Although receiving psychiatric treatment was a taboo in Kashmiri society, the recent years have seen increase in the number of female patients. Moreover, the rate of suicides in Kashmir is higher at 15-20 per 100,000 per year. This year the State hospital in the valley recorded an alarming number of 100 cases in the month of May. It included cases of  “deliberate self-harm, serious attempts at suicide, and  complete suicides”. The most telling statistic is that out of these 100 cases, 83 were women and only 17 were men. “The very same hospital has also registered 50 cases of suicide attempts till June 13 including 15 cases in the  first four days of June” (Akhtar, 2007).


While human rights situation in Kashmir is dismal on all fronts; the incidence of woman being raped with impunity are growing at an alarming rate. The issue with rape unlike killings or disappearances is that such incidents are covered up not only by the administration but also ignored by the society for the stigma it entails for the victim and her family.

Incidents of rape have come become mere headline grabbing statistics which most of the times sink to the bottom of the sea of collective memory. The social stigma of rape silences entire neighborhoods, sometimes for the sake of the girl or the family, out of cultural bindings and most of the times for the safety of their own lives.

Between the earliest reported cases of rapes and molestations, till this date, there are huge numbers of unreported incidents, “given the social stigma and fear of retribution by the State. The government of India has been quick to deny and cover-up most of those cases which do get reported“. In October 1992, the gang-rape of nine women at Shopian was thrown out after being investigated “by army and police, the very units charged with the crime, despite solid medical evidence to the contrary; no independent investigation by an impartial agency was carried out. The reported mass rape of over 20 women at Konan Poshpora in February 1991 was also handled in a similar evasive manner; the complaint was not investigated in a timely manner by an impartial agency and the medical evidence was dismissed without good cause; one of the victims who was nine months pregnant during the incident delivered a baby with a fractured left arm; Governor Girish Saxena who denied the incident admitted to mass rapes in the past by the Indian forces however. “ (Raman, 2002)

According to Dr. Maiti a Professor of Political Science at Rurdwan University, West Bengal in India, “rape continues to be a major instrument of Indian repression against the Kashmiri people while the majority of casualties in Kashmir are civilians.”

In November 2004, when a ten year old girl and her mother were raped by an army major, it received a lot of international and media attention because of incessant local protests. However the aftermath was non-action on the part of government and stigmatization of the victims.

With victims reluctant to come forward, documentation of these cases becomes impossible. Failure in documentation of these cases has worsened the situation and as such there is no specific data regarding the  number of rapes and molestation cases that have taken place. However, in 1994 a fact finding team led by a Mumbai based journalist Ritu Dewan found that the “incidence of rape is higher than what is reported because of the associated stigma associated with it.”

The extent of indifference from international organization towards this looming problem is apparent in the recently released reports which pinpoints to “the instances of custodial killings, disappearances, shootings and arbitrary detentions, in the region, but the words ‘rape’ or molestation’ do not appear anywhere in the report“ despite a marked increase in incidents of rape; whereas in their earlier reports they have acknowledged the occurrence of rapes in Indian administered Kashmir. Many social activists attribute this  aberration to the fact that state media and human rights groups do not pursue such incidents adequately making it hard to international groups to discern actual ground realities.

As of writing this, new incidents of sexual harassment are being reported with increased frequency. In March an Army jawan tried to rape a woman, Adoora, Kulgam; then  April 17 gang-rape of a teenage girl in Pahalgam was followed by several incidents, including a case against two soldiers of the Territorial Army (TA) on the charge of raping a 17-year-old girl in the Chingus, Rajouri. On June 23rd Greater Kashmir reported paramilitary molesting a disabled girl in Chairwan by the CRPF troopers. Within just 3 days of this incident, two Army men of Military Intelligence unit of 57- Rashtriya Rifles barged into a house and tried to rape a 17 year old girl.

For women especially in remote rural areas the situation is worsening everyday. It is also difficult to collect information about anything, especially regarding an incident like rape because of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and other legislations shelter the perpetrators. These acts also make prosecuting military staff difficult.

In a survey by Medicins Sans Frontiers (MSF), 11.6% of interviewees said they had
been victims of sexual violence since 1989. Almost two-thirds of the
people interviewed (63.9%) by MSF had heard over a similar period
about cases of rape, while one in seven had witnessed rape.

In a historical context the phenomenon of using rape as an instrument of terror is not new and the absence protest and social struggle makes it frightening for the victims as well as the entire society. Many experts believe that there is an inherent problem in dealing with rape; even in the Geneva Convention rape and molestation is implied and not explicit leading further to rape not being properly represented at international level.


Although the extreme resilience shown by Kashmiri women in face of dire circumstances fuels their march towards greater participation in society, it in many ways is a losing battle if the solution for Kashmir remains elusive.

While women’s emergence  needs to be seen in a positive light, the violent and politically dubious realities cannot be negated.

The question is whether anything can be done to alleviate the problems of Kashmiri women and enhance their broadening role in the society?

The answer to this can only be derived from resolving the Kashmir issue. Anything other than that will be a palliative cure.

The ailments, be it social or emotional that afflict women in Kashmir have their roots in the political situation and until that is not resolved, nothing much can change for good or long.

Take the case of rapes committed with impunity and the silence that surrounds these incidents, at both social and administrative level; it is quite rational to suggest mobilizing and educating people, setting up rehabilitation centers for the victims that will be a much needed step towards easing the situation. Although, it may provide some interim relief for the victims but it will change nothing as far as the larger political policy which encourages and shelters perpetrators of these crimes is concerned.  Women will continue to be raped and harassed as long as the incidents send a message of oppressive might to threaten people into coercion.

Similar is the case of the struggle to find the disappeared people. These efforts  may gain international recognition as unabated protests continue against the atrocities but till the overarching policy of terrorizing people into submission does not change course, the Indian security forces will continue unleashing “torture, disappearances, arbitrary detentions and summary executions, which are concealed as “encounter killings (Human Rights Watch, 2006). No doubt a quest for bringing the human rights violators to justice must be continued but the list of victims should not be expected to stop growing as the political theatre demands such methods of coercion continue to be utilized against Kashmiri population.

The Asian director of Human Rights Watch, Brad Adams, told the press in September 2006, “Kashmiris continue to live in constant fear because perpetrators of abuses are not punished. Unless the Indian authorities address the human rights crisis in Jammu and Kashmir, a political settlement of the conflict will remain illusory.” This statement would hold true, if we were to say, “unless a political settlement of the conflict is not sought solving human rights crisis in Kashmir will remain illusory”, since that is why they exist in the first place.

 The question of Kashmiri women is deeply interweaved with their land; like the soil of Kashmir they continue to yield harvests although bloody and continue to shelter nameless corpses even when burdened; continues to birth the beautiful four seasons amidst the embattlement and chains.

The maelstrom that forces women’s spirit to rise above their human faculties, aiding them in keeping the social fabric intact and taking the course of progress; no doubt the same element is inherently responsible for their physical and emotional vulnerability in comparison to their male counterparts. So, as the women in Kashmir continue  to combat and overcome challenges prevalent in their homeland, unless Kashmir’s resistance to occupation does not bear tfruit, the tortuous roads they travel will continue to grow longer and dark.

 This article was published in Kashmir Affairs (London) – 2007.


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