IMPOVERISHED, HARASSED AND ALONE
The song is by Habba Khatoon, the celebrated 16th-century Kashmiri poet known as the Nightingale of Kashmir. It’s a loving ode to her husband, Yusuf Shah Chak, the last ruler of Kashmir, who was captured by the invading Mughal emperor Akbar and banished to Bengal, never to return. Like Khatoon, Begum too sings in memory of a love lost forever. She is one of hundreds of thousands of Kashmiri women whose husbands have been killed in the 70-year territorial conflict between India and Pakistan. And her pain is doubled: She has lost two husbands to the fighting.
The conflict in Kashmir has left behind at least an estimated 32,400 widows, according to research by the late sociologist Bashir Ahmad Dabla. The Indian government has put the figure much lower, at 8,611. But contradictory statistics matter little to the women themselves, who are often left alone to suffer poverty, harassment and humiliation in the devastated, deeply patriarchal region.
“My husband was not a rich man, but he would treat me like a queen,” says Begum, who is 37, but whose sunken cheekbones and distant eyes make her seem much older.
She married Abdul Aziz Sheikh, a tailor, when she was 14, and by the fall of 1994, when armed insurgency against Indian rule in Kashmir was at its peak, they were planning to build a new house in a sleepy village in the border town of Kupwara, 125 miles north of Kashmir’s capital, Srinagar. Then one day, after his cup of nun chai (traditional salt tea), Sheikh left the house to fetch wooden planks from nearby Dardpora forest. It was the last time Begum saw him. Just 19 years old and mother to a one-year-old son, Begum became a widow for the first time.
It’s a story familiar to many Kashmiri women whose loved ones left for college or work and never made it back home. Those men are referred to as “disappeared” and number 8,000 to 10,000, according to rights organization Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP). In 2011, a government human rights commission found more than 2,000 corpses buried in several unmarked graves in Kashmir. The APDP contends that many of the disappeared may have been buried in these graves.
The day after Sheikh disappeared, local Indian police delivered his body to his family. Begum decided to not look at him. “I kept believing he would come back to fulfill his promise of building a new house,” she says.
The police told her that Sheikh had been a militant and that he was killed in an encounter with the Indian army. But Begum says her husband was not involved in the fighting and believes he was executed by Indian government forces who covered their actions with false allegations. She had no way of lodging an official complaint, however, because she was all alone and had a baby to breastfeed and take care of.
Domestic and international human rights organizations including the Amnesty International have documented a number of harrowing accounts of civilians being killed in staged or fake encounters by the Indian army and police in Kashmir.
A stack of hay lies on the leafless tree against a hazy sky in the backyard of her house, symbolizing her loss. Heaps of firewood are scattered on the mud floor with fallen leaves. Birds sing ardently, mocking the winter. Begum is braving the cold and hanging her just-washed clothes on a long wooden stick fitted between the two pillars of a small porch. She struggles to give the wet clothes a wring so that they are not frozen.
“To become a widow is very humiliating,” says Begum. “In a moment, I lost everything. Only pieces of my broken soul are left.”
In a recent report, the United Nations addressed the plight of widows in many parts of the world, saying that a woman’s social status is often in big part dependent on her husband’s. When a man dies, the wife he leaves behind no longer has a place in society, the report continues. To regain their place in the community, widows are expected to marry one of their husband’s male relatives, sometimes unwillingly.
“One only gets respect in a society when you are with a man,” Begum says. People would yell at her in the streets and accuse her of being carefree now that her husband was gone. “After my widowhood, I become easy prey to taunt.”
Begum finally agreed to marry her brother-in-law, Ghulam Mohammad Sheikh, a Pakistani-trained militant who was running local operations for a Hizbul Mujahideen rebel outfit. “It didn’t matter that he was a militant,” she says, blankly. “My first husband’s death made me believe that death is everywhere here.”
Begum says the Indian armed forces continued to harass her, this time because of Ghulam.
“The snowfall would be his favorite time to be around,” she says. “But, now the same flakes scratch the deep wounds in my heart.”
One day, an hour after he left the house, the army barged in and began to look for him. When they couldn’t find him, they smashed a hole through the attic ceiling, as a warning.
“They put a huge lock on the door,” says Begum. “We were dragged out of the house.”
The officers only gave her back the keys after she pledged never again to harbor her husband in her home. “They said if I did, our house would be burned down,” she says.
Ghulam and Begum started to meet outside of the house and eventually had two more children, Najma, now 18, and Faisal, 15. “I fell in love once again,” says Begum. “I was oblivious and didn’t know it would be short-lived, that my garden would be burning again.” Ghulam was killed in a gun battle with the Indian army in 2002.
“I couldn’t even grieve,” she says, feeling numb.
In situations of armed conflict, women are forced to take the place of their husbands as the latter join the fighting or get killed, according to the United Nations.
To pull herself together again and build a new life after her two losses was not easy for Begum.
Widowhood deeply affects the physical safety, identity and mobility of women, wrote the International Committee of the Red Cross, Geneva, in a 2001 study Impact of Armed Conflict on Women. “Women are left entirely without social status in their community when they lose their husbands, especially in patriarchal societies,” the report notes.
The socio-psychological trauma of being widowed twice pushed Begum to loneliness, poverty and more pain.
“I have always seen the poverty of love,” she says. “It is really hard. There are no words to explain what it is like not having your spouse next to you.”
Thousands of such widows in the region are witnessing severe predicaments-economic as well as psychological-as they work under extreme conditions to raise and safeguard their children.
The widows, according to the United Nations, remain “absent in statistics, unnoticed by researchers, neglected by national and local authorities and mostly overlooked by civil society organizations.”
According to the U.N. report on widowhood in conflict, millions of widows endure extreme poverty, ostracism, violence, homelessness, ill health and discrimination in law and custom. “Abuse of widows and their children constitutes one of the most serious violations of human rights and obstacles to development today,” it says.
“I feel like I am in exile,” says Begum.
Her family told her she should marry a third time, but she refused. Instead, she started to take on small household jobs to supplement the 3,000 rupees she receives annually from the Social Welfare Department’s widow fund. Finding a job wasn’t easy, she says. Some potential employers told her they worried she would attract danger, considering how both her husbands had died, while others thought she was a bad omen. She says when she finally got a job, she had to prove herself every day for fear of being fired.
Her eldest son, now 22, had to drop out of school and find work as a laborer. But last year, Begum enrolled him in school again. “I didn’t want anyone to pity my children,” she says.
For many years, Begum had to use her trousseau dresses as quilts. But, she is determined to support her children throughout her life.
“My children would always enquire about their fathers,” she says. “But, I didn’t tell them anything. I didn’t want this to get to their minds.”
Her in-laws and relatives have snapped connections with her and accused her of having outlived her two husbands, a ritualistic taunt that women receive in traditional societies where they are blamed for miseries facing a family.
Begum’s misfortunes of her life continue to stigmatize her today.
“I can’t smile openly or wear new clothes to make myself look good,” she says. “We have to be physically alive but within there is silence and death.” But Begum doesn’t want to be defined by her widowhood. “I am not going to give up,” she says. “I hope I don’t lose the courage to raise my children. I want them to feel like they have a father.”
Reported with the support of the International Women’s Media Foundation, through the Howard G. Buffet Fund for Women JournalistsPhotos by Aliya Bashir