Date:08/09/2002 URL: http://www.thehindu.com/thehindu/mag/2002/09/08/stories/2002090800040300.htm
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Kashmir's `steel magnolias'

KALPANA SHARMA


The women of Kunan Poshpora ... three generations

"YOU can never understand our pain," shouted a young woman, head swathed in a black scarf. This outburst came at the end of an hour talking to students, men and women, at the SSM engineering college in Srinagar about the current situation in Kashmir. The young men dominated the discussion; the women, dressed in pastels, sat quietly in the first rows. Until this woman from the back burst forth.

What she said cannot be disputed. No matter how much you read about Kashmir, how many of its people you meet elsewhere, you can never fully understand their pain, frustration, tension, grief, loss and the longing for peace and normalcy. Yet, once there, you sense it in every conversation, in homes, in the market place and even in places unconnected with the troubles.

At the Ziayarat Makhdoom Sahib Shrine, which nestles below the imposing Mughal Fort on Srinagar's Hari Parbat, hundreds of women arrive at an early hour on Mondays and Thursdays to meditate, pray, ask for a mannat. You don't need to speak to anyone. Just sit there, listen to the haunting tones of the intonations on the loudspeaker, watch the pigeons in the courtyard take flight when someone passes by, and look at the faces. They speak of the grief, of the loss that must be a part of every life. There are old and young women, some are crying, some are talking to themselves, some just sit quietly. What are their stories?

Far away, in the village of Kunan Poshpora near Kupwara, separated by a range of high mountains from Pakistan, you sense the same sorrow, although no one speaks of it voluntarily. In this medium-sized picturesque village, with about 300 families, the women seem to live in idyllic conditions. Unlike villages in India, there is no harijan pada or social exclusion. There are poor families, but all of them have roofs over their heads and some land. The village grows paddy, corn, vegetables, walnuts, almonds, some fruit and has a river running past it. There is plenty of water and low voltage electricity. Firewood is available as long as there are women around to collect it. And all the children go to school.

But the sadness in the eyes of the women of Kunan Poshpora is not the consequence of the eternal burden that women must carry, of fetching, carrying and caring, tasks that remain unalterable regardless of location. Their eyes tell a different story; even today they can barely hide the terror and shame of a day in 1991, when Indian Army personnel raped over 30 women from this village. These women were young then. Today, 11 years later, some of them remain unmarried, others have come back to their maternal homes, and all of them are scarred for life.

Young Posha was just five when the incident took place. Today she is an anganwadi worker earning Rs. 800 a month (paid infrequently and hardly ever the entire amount). Yet, she is proud that she earns and says she is luckier than the other girls in the village.

"People come here and promise all kinds of things," she says. "One lady came and said we should get all the women raped in 1991 married off. But nothing happened."

Young women like her continue to carry the memory of what happened to their mothers. "Girls here face a lot of problems," says Posha. "We have to tolerate the taunts of people from other villages when they hear that we are from Kunan. Also whenever anyone from the army comes to the village, all the young girls have to hide in their houses. There are no men around most of the year. Most of them go off to Punjab or Kolkata to sell shawls. They only return in March to help in the fields."

Yet, despite this, the grit and determination in these women stand out. They do not just stand about and wail. The "victims" of the 1991 incident merge with the other women; no one tries to pull them out to tell their story. All the women are getting on with their lives. The younger ones are learning to do the typical Kashmiri embroidery on phirans so that they can find some means to earn. Shamima, just 15 and not yet a matriculate, is teaching pre-school children how to read and write. She is determined to get through although she admits that girls have a harder time than boys do, "because they have to do so much housework".

There is a whole generation of young women like Posha and Shamima in Kashmir who have known nothing else than "guns pointed at them from both sides". What will so-called "normal" life mean for them given their extreme vulnerability? Being a village close to the border, the army keeps an eye on them. So do the militants. And the villagers, particularly the women, have to walk with care.

What you sense in all of them is a hunger to learn and to earn, to be economically independent. After a week in the valley, I came away with a feeling of hope after talking to women like Posha and Shamima. And Dilafroze, a woman in Srinagar who could have lived a comfortable, cushioned life. Instead, after her experience of being targetted by militants, she decided to do whatever she could to help other women. So she arrived in the Kunan Poshpora earlier this year on a mission that failed. Far from being defeated by it, she returned a few weeks later with ideas and funds to help the women help themselves. Single-handedly, she has set up a pre-school for girls, and embroidery classes for young women.

You will see plenty of Kashmir ki kalis in the valley. But most of them are not "wilting lilies", women who throw up their hands in the face of the constant violence and terror around them. Young or old, these women are a Kashmiri version of "steel magnolias".

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