#Aftermath || The Power of Solidarity: Women in Kashmir in Pandemic Times

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The Power of Solidarity: Women in Kashmir in Pandemic Times

By Dr. Sehar Iqbal


Sehar Iqbal is a gender and development expert with 15 years of work across South and Central Asia. She has a strong academic background in interdisciplinary studies, specialising in Development Economics, International Relations and Sociology. Her research specialisations are gender mainstreaming, community- based program development and M&E.


 

In Kashmir any new day can bring a life changing event to your door. A killing can lead to protests and shut your college for months; a wrong turn on the road home can lead to pellet injury and a lifelong disability; an outing with friends can end with one of them arrested. With such unpredictability around every corner, the women of Kashmir have come to rely on two things- adaptability and solidarity. From social entrepreneurship that empowers women victims of conflict to donating wedding clothes to orphaned girls on their weddings- we’ve done it all. And mostly while being restricted to our homes. So the COVID 19 lockdown came as no surprise- after all we are global experts on lockdowns, frenzied buying and stockpiling food and fuel.

So how did the women of Kashmir react to the lockdown? When many people were looking inward, they looked outward- out of their homes and into their neighbourhoods. Families in need were identified, their addresses and phone numbers diligently recorded, women with independent incomes quietly send grocery kits to needy neighbours. But soon it became apparent that the problem was too big. Families dependent on daily wages, families of craftsmen, families headed by widows or the differently abled needed long- term help. Doctors fighting COVID 19 in designated clinics had little or nothing in the way of PPE. Rural areas with high incidence of COVID cases had dedicated doctors but no support equipment in hospitals.

We needed a bigger plan.

So we reached out to each other. WhatsApp groups were formed, representatives from NGOs were added for sectoral and area coordination. Neighbourhood volunteers carefully gathered account details of families in need from the lists made initially and recorded them in google spreadsheets. Cases were forwarded to NGOs on a daily basis and these organisations provided monthly food packets to their assigned geographical. Women-led NGOs like the Autism Welfare Trust and The Sajid Iqbal Foundation started massive donation drives in urban and rural areas respectively. And all this at 2G data speeds!

The food provision was going well but the shortage of PPE was worsening. We started getting calls from female medics who had been deputed to COVID clinics. “They have given us porous gowns in the name of PPE and we are working with pregnant women who are one of the highest risk categories. We need help.’ But this problem was more difficult to solve as there was a nationwide shortage of PPE and severe restrictions on inter-state movement. So we reverted to the age- old Kashmiri mainstay- household industries. Boutique owners in Srinagar who would normally craft bridal couture repurposed fabric stocks and started making face masks for medical staff. But in 12 days we realised we needed to ramp up capacity.

Seher woman pic 1

Pic 2: Masks being made at our all- woman Self- Help Group. Photo courtesy: The Sajid Iqbal Foundation

My organisation (the Sajid Iqbal Foundation) repurposed our two craft based self-help groups in Pulwama to make four ply masks (and cloth bags for ration deliveries). Rigorous social distancing was observed. The girls involved got paid regularly and the masks were washed, dried, packed and kept ready for distribution. We also placed mass orders for PPE suits with Jehangir, a local boy who had earlier been manufacturing protective clothing for pesticide spraying in orchards. The PPE suits he made for us there were excellent- non-woven and non-porous.

Seher PPE pic

Sample PPE Kit (excluding mask). Photo courtesy: The Sajid Iqbal Foundation

Women professionals (activists, lawyers, government officials, teachers, etc) started sponsoring us for batches of PPE to be sent to medical institutions in their own areas. Payments were digitally made and meticulously recorded. Thanks to these donations we were able to buy out the entire first two batches of 200 suits from the unit and distribute the same to 32 tertiary and secondary care government hospitals at provincial, district and sub district level. While delivering PPE we observed the severe shortage of breathing support equipment in sub district hospitals and accordingly dispatched oxygen cylinders, concentrators and mask sets worth 2. 2 lakh rupees to in-need hospitals. Here also, a Kashmiri woman officer, working in the State Industries department helped us to meet the manufacturer of all this equipment and organise deliveries right from the factory.  By cutting out the middleman our financial resources were able to stretch further and benefit more people.

Meanwhile the month of Ramzan came and a lot of individual donors (male and female) started getting in contact with women activists to sponsor food kits. We started adding individual donors to our Whatsapp groups. Every day a list of the names of family heads from disadvantaged families with a short description of their requirements was put out in the groups. Donors would adopt whom they could after which the case identifier would message the address and bank account details of the family head to the donor in charge privately. The donor would then transfer money directly to the account or send food kits to the family (if they lived in the same neighbourhood). NGOs continued to adopt cases as well and coordinate to meet multiple needs. For example if a family in need in my area of operation needed food items and had a family member who needed dialysis, I would take care of the food delivery and pass the details on to Athrout (A helping hand), another NGO that run a dialysis centre who would then arrange the patient’s pickup in an ambulance, treatment at the centre and medicines. For pressing needs like major surgeries for poor patients separate Whatsapp fundraisers were created, crowdsourcing large amounts from multiple donors.

All woman Facebook groups like Yakjut (United) also did an excellent job signposting government and private resources for pregnant women or women and girls seeking medical treatment as well as dos and don’ts during the lockdown period. They also organised mass donations of clothes for orphaned girls getting married during this period.

Seher camp pic

Migrant worker family being provided monthly food rations, Kokernag. Photo courtesy: The Sajid Iqbal Foundation

The women were active and the men weren’t far behind- they participated equally in Whatsapp groups, NGO coordination and as individual and collective donors. According to collective civil society estimates food and cash donations totalling a staggering Rs. 35 crores were raised through social media and Whatsapp (this figure does not include in -kind donations). At first glance this figure may seem high but (for emergency cases) as high as 49 lakh rupees were raised in a single day through crowdfunded donations by individual local residents.

The proof of these figures lies in the fact that not a single starvation related death was reported in the whole of Kashmir valley. Even migrant workers were provided food kits and medicines as required. Women and men in Kashmir had pulled off this remarkable feat by working together.

As COVID 19 devastates livelihoods and economies all over the world, each day we are reminded that there is a lot more to do. But through adaptability and social solidarity, women in Kashmir will rise to the challenge.

 

 

 

Corona Challengers: Sadia Mufti

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Necessity is the mother of all invention! The adage is being put to test during lockdown period, across the globe. As we battle the Corona pandemic, we are also getting to hear and see stories about some remarkable contributions by people.

At Prajnya, we wanted to specifically share stories of women change-makers that we come across. Stories of nurses, doctors, teachers, social workers, entrepreneurs, volunteers, et al, who are working, against all odds, to make a difference. We hope these stories will inform and inspire you to do your bit, even if that means just staying at home (which seems to be the biggest help you could offer at this point in time). Because, the change, truly, begins with YOU.  

We begin our ‘Corona Challengers’ series from the Valley of Kashmir where Sadia Mufti, 28, is a popular fashion designer and owner of Hangers, a boutique in Srinagar. This time, it’s not kurtis or khaftan she has innovated upon, but personal protective equipment. “We presented samples of personal protective equipment to experts in Kashmir Valley hospitals, and they have been approved for mass production. Our triple-layered masks have already been approved,” Ms. Mufti told The Hindu.

Her personal protective equipment is different from the routine supply. “It has a boot and a hood, which covers the face except the eyes, in one piece. The stitch is in such a way that it is easy for medicos to put it on.”

She said she wanted to be productive in this time of crisis. “I am fortunate enough to have the resources,” she said, getting ready to stitch over 2,000 pieces in the coming days.

Scores of women tailors have volunteered across the Valley to help in the mass production of triple-layered masks.

Peerzada Ashiq, Coronavirus | Women warriors join battle against virus in Kashmir, The Hindu, March 30, 2020.

Women IDPs in Kashmir: Article

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Salman Nizami, A tragic tale of three Kashmiri women, The Pioneer, August 21, 2011.

Jabina, Fatima and Saleema are victims of the cycle of violence that has left a trail of misery in Jammu & Kashmir. They have lost their land and men. Once well-off and happy, they now live wretched lives in a village far away from what used to be their home.

For the rest of the report: http://www.dailypioneer.com/362353/A-tragic-tale-of-three-Kashmiri-women.html

Women contest Panchayat elections in Kashmir: Article

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Aditi Bhaduri, a friend of ours, was in Kashmir prior to the Panchayat elections there, and she spoke to some extraordinary candidates who just happened to be women. Read about Sharifa Begum, Parveena Begum, Hasina Begum, Rosie Begum and Zeba Begum, and their most unusual choice in these apathetic times: to contest elections! And in an area where violence is pervasive. Inspiring!

Aditi Bhaduri, Panchayat Polls in Kashmir: Ordinary Women, Extraordinary Courage, The Sentinel, May 14, 2011.

Article:Women’s activism in Kashmir

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M. Saleem Pundit, “What is making the ordinary Kashmiri woman so angry that she is out on the street, throwing stones at police and leading the mob?” Times of India, August 8, 2010.

“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.”

Women, war and peace: Madhu Kishwar in TOI

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Whether women are seen as inherently pacifist or not necessarily so, is one of the important ways in which schools of feminist thought differ. The essentialist view is that women as mothers must naturally be pacifists and nurturers (ergo, well-suited to caregiving careers and care-related portfolios). The liberals would differ with this view accepting that you cannot generalize.

Another feminist debate is about women participating in war. If you take this liberal view that women are not inherently pacifist or warlike, then the question is: should they be able to take on combat jobs in national armies? They do in insurgency groups, of course. But this remains an issue as armies around the world adapt to the new workforce.

In the following article, Madhu Kishwar writes about the inclusion of women in army units as a confidence-building measure.

Madhu Kishwar, “Women can win the war on war,” Times of India, June 13, 2010.

“Amid reports that the Americans are using female marines in Afghanistan to gain access to local women and thereby swing the population to their side, there are suggestions that India could do the same in Kashmir. But, recruiting a few women to control human rights abuses in Kashmir would be like applying band-aid to a deeply-infected wound. Kashmir requires a political solution, not a military one. Band-aid solutions evoke disdain rather than inspire confidence. “

…”Cosmetic changes to the Army’s image cannot be a substitute for determined efforts to find a political solution acceptable to diverse sections of Kashmiri society. People will have faith in “boli” only when it is backed by a responsive polity and a government that has the ability to deliver what it promises.”

Our bodies, your politics

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In one week, two stories about the abuse of power and violence against women and both in Kashmir.

The first is the story of the two girls whose bodies were recovered from the river. Traces of semen were found on the girls, although the doctors doing the post-mortem have ruled out murder. 

People out on streets in Shopian, Kashmir Watch, June 4, 2009. 

The second is of a 15 year old who was repeatedly abused by a constable. 

Ishfaq-ul-Hassan, Another rape, murder rocks Kashmir valley, Daily News and Analysis, June 8, 2009.

Indulge me and let me refer you to an article I wrote last year for New Indian Express and posted on this blog.