“SRINAGAR: Kashmiri women traditionally evoke contradictory images in the world’s consciousness: a dimpled Sharmila Tagore coyly rowing a shikara on the Dal Lake in Kashmir ki Kali; a group of burqa-clad women thrashing the owner of a beauty parlour in the heart of Srinagar; an ashen-faced woman standing alone by a broken window, watching a funeral procession out on her street. But the prevailing image of the last few weeks is of women walking the Valley’s roads and shouting slogans against the Indian forces.
“Last week, as the government in Delhi was busy blaming “outside” forces for provoking young children to throw stones at police and paramilitary forces, the women came out of their houses on one Srinagar street, bringing their pots and pans with them. They beat on the utensils, used them like cymbals and ran down the street, picking up stones and taking aim at a column of troops. The scene was replayed on other streets. The women — mostly housewives and young girls — had emerged from their homes to throw stones at the security forces and burn government jeeps. For a change, the police, which has felled 51 people in almost as many days, couldn’t fire their SLRs.
“Is the Kashmiri woman’s new ‘movement’ all that new? Not really. Kashmir’s women have been coming out onto the streets since 1990, when the insurgency began in the state. But this is the first time they have chucked stones, burned vehicles and led demonstrations against the police. In the years the militancy was at its peak, the women in villages, towns and cities across the Valley routinely emerged from their homes to shout slogans for “Azaadi”.
“In those years, the separatists and their sympathizers would use the women as human shields, preventing decisive action by the security forces. Every time, a militant was arrested, a sympathizer would run to a mosque and use its loudspeakers to ask the women to come out in protest. “Maajan, benan cho wanane yawa ki tem neran sadakan pat (Mothers and sisters are requested to come out on the roads for protests),” was the message that reverberated through the Valley in the 1990s.
“In this unquiet summer of 2010, the scene is a bit different. There are no urgent announcements from the mosques but the women are coming out in large numbers, on their own. They are not serving as human shields. They are leading the stone-pelting crowds. As the roads outside their houses boil with rage, many mothers and sisters have become street-fighters, joining husbands, sons and brothers in the demonstrations that have been erupting for weeks.
“Asiya Andarabi, the separatist leader, believes part of the reason is because Kashmir’s women can no longer ignore the death and mayhem outside their homes. “Every woman is affected by the turmoil here. Hundreds of Kashmiri women have their husbands in jails. Their husbands have been killed by security forces. So their anger is genuine,” says Andarabi, who founded the separatist Dukhtaran-e-Millat or Daughters of the community.
“Many in the Valley share this anger. Parveena Ahangar, who heads the association of parents of disappeared persons, says the women have suffered the most during Kashmir’s tumultuous years. “My son was picked by the BSF men in early 1990s and since then his whereabouts are not known. Who can douse my anger?”
“Ahangar, who lives in Batamaloo in Srinagar, travels to Lal Chowk every couple of weeks to join dozens of women in a sit-in protest to “remind the authorities about the missing persons”. “I have dedicated my life to Kashmir’s struggle,” says Ahangar, who is haunted by the memory of her son.
“ut it is more than the trauma of the past. The continuing presence of heavily-armed Indian soldiers seems to have triggered a deep and fierce anger. Rozy Salim, 40, joined the protests two weeks ago, saying she could no longer bear the security forces going berserk in her locality every now and then. “Let India read the writing on the wall and realize the anger of Kashmiris against the occupation of Kashmir. They should allow the Kashmiris to decide their fate as per the UN resolutions,” she says.
“In the last two months, thousands of young boys have taken part in protests against police firing. Most of the protests ended in more police firing. Their mothers are worried and fearful their sons will be injured or shot dead. The worry has provoked them to anger. Jana Begum of Rawalpora went out to protest last week after her 22-year-old son was picked up by police for taking part in a street rally. “We will demolish every symbol of the state as our sons are being targeted by the forces,” she says. Jana’s neighbour Fatima Khan says she stands by Jana and other women whose sons have been picked up by the police for pelting stones at them.
“Though many agree that the sight of women throwing stones is an indicator of the people’s rage at the state, some say there is nothing unusual about it. “Women here come out to protest against electric power and water shortage as well,” says Ghulam Mohammad Dar, 60, a resident of Pampore. But even he agrees that the sight of the security forces beating women with sticks and opening fire to stop them in their tracks is a new low for Kashmir. “It’s something I haven’t seen before,” Dar says.
“These ugly scenes may be playing themselves out in Srinagar’s working-class neighbourhoods, but middle-class women are affected too. Many say they are moved by the daily pitched battles between the people and paramilitary forces. Dr Shameem Dar says that the fact “the Kashmiri women are forced to come out on the streets when forces arrest or use excessive force against the stone pelters, is a reaction to the use of force against their sons and husbands.”
“How long can this go on? Now, the guns are being trained on the women too. Last Sunday, Afroza Teli was hit by a bullet as she stood in a protest on a road at Khrew. Another woman Fancy Jan died last month from a bullet that hit her as she looked out of her window. In Kashmir today, women seem ready for the good fight, facing bullets on the streets and at their windows.”