Caught in Limbo, the Half Widows of Jammu and Kashmir

New Delhi: In the securitised narrative that drives most media coverage of Jammu and Kashmir, the state is a place of big battles, battalions and borders, of boys fighting with their toys. However, the parallel struggles waged by civilians, particularly women, never receives attention in ‘hard politics’ reportage. Even the women’s movement, with its nationalist overtones till the 1990s, is guilty of ignoring one of the most tragic consequences of the conflict in J & K – the proliferation of widows and so-called ‘half widows’.

The violence that has marred Kashmir, particularly since the onset of the armed insurgency and counter-insurgency in 1989, has produced some 20,000 widows and 1500 ‘half widows’. The latter are a haunting reminder of the thousands of married Kashmiri men reported ‘missing’ or ‘forced into disappearance’ either by the security forces or militant organisations. Their wives live a liminal, socially condemned life. They do not know whether their husbands are alive or dead, and even if they are assumed dead, they have no “proof” of this. Coupled with the painful and endless wait for their husbands and for justice, the life of a half widow is often much worse than that of a widow.

This is powerfully conveyed through a new study by Paul D’Souza, in collaboration with the AMAN Trust, titled “Vulnerabilities of Half Widows of Jammu and Kashmir: Role of Judiciary, State, Civil Society and Community”, which was launched at the Indian Social Institute, New Delhi on June 5. The launch was followed by a discussion with scholar activist Sehba Hussain and Dr. Syeda Hameed, former member of the planning commission, moderated by Urvashi Butalia, founder of the feminist publishing house, Zubaan Books.

The study is based on responses from 150 households of half widows spread across nearly 140 villages and towns in Jammu and Kashmir, and painstakingly notes the multiple vulnerabilities they face across five dimensions-  social, economic, gender, cultural and health. Roughly 92% of half widows experience moderate to high vulnerability across all dimensions, especially on account of their gender (71%) and economic status(67%).

The sudden loss of a breadwinner, juxtaposed with abandonment by in-laws, social ostracism, having to look after children, and the lack of property rights or access to pension relief forces these women into a masculine ‘public domain’ to struggle for their rights. However, as Soudiya Qutab has pointed out in a 2012 article in the Sociological Bulletin, lack of formal education and skill training limits their options to labour-intensive jobs, or worse still, begging, endangering both their security and health. The illiteracy rate among the women D’Souza interviewed was 94%.

The most sensitive revelation of D’Souza’s study is the oft neglected psychological vulnerability experienced by half widows, as captured in the words of Dr Yuman of the psychiatric department of a government medical college-

“The burden of managing daily life is so high that their own mental health becomes the last priority. Their life is so much overburdened that they feel helpless. I don’t think stigma matters for them. Stigma matters to a person who has everything perfect in her life and who feels that something like this can bring negativity. For a person who has lost someone very close, the stigma is not important; other responsibilities matter. When all the time they struggle, they don’t find time for themselves.”

Most women in fact believe that physical, sexual and mental harassment is a part of their fate, and do not seek help, even though, as D’Souza’s study reports, 21% of the women indicated mental disorders, and being continuously depressed.

On the positive side, women receive support from close knit social networks (more parental than in-laws) in searching for their missing partners, and in approaching the judiciary and government offices. However, this is restricted to the initial months, and is often followed by complete isolation. If they are too assertive, they are stigmatised as the wives of militants and treated with suspicion by both state and family.

The report notes that the police registered first information reports (FIRs) in 77% of cases. However, 51% of the respondents in D’Souza’s study felt the police were unsympathetic and only 50% finally received ex gratia relief. Moreover, as Sehba Hussain argued, simply registering FIRs should not be mistaken for official responsiveness. Under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, there can be no prosecution without Home Ministry approval. Only 28% of the respondents were aware of the State Human Rights Commission.

Syeda Hameed added that the state’s primary offence is in failing to stop the mass disappearances, as well as in providing the whereabouts and bodies of the missing men, who have been taken away, often by the state. She asserted that unless AFSPA was removed, all other measures would only bring surface relief.

The decision of Muslim religious bodies to allow half widows to remarry after a four year period was hailed last year by the media. The state, by contrast, requires a person to be missing for seven years before they are declared dead. But marriage by itself is no alternative to the lifelong scar caused by the disappearance of a loved one, and may only reinforce the commodified status of women as objects to be married off.

Solutions so far have only come from within civil society, in the search for agency beyond victimisation. The Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), an organisation of the relatives of disappeared persons, for exmple, helps to bring closure and provide support to hurt parties.

Note: Juliette Robert has a series of photographs on Kashmir’s half-widows here.