Generally, women’s experiences of armed conflict are multiple, and may be classified as — vulnerable victims and associated with it is their experiences as survivors, peace-builders, and perpetrators of conflict. However, in all these contexts the effect is both negative as well as positive. Conflict may have grave implications for women while at the same time it may create new opportunities for them.
The last decade transformed the sleepy hills and forests of Rajouri and Poonch of Jammu into active zones of insurgency and counterinsurgency. There could be many truths to the story of people inhabiting this part of the state, i.e. the nearly 250 km belt of Jammu-Rajauri-Poonch,that runs alongside the dejure and defacto borders between India and Pakistan. The most dominant of these that attracts popular attention is the euphoria around killings, bomb attacks, massacres etc, and the oppression of the masses either by an alien armed force or by a guerrilla force that manipulated their sufferings to pursue an agenda of their own.
I got a chance to witness the inter-play of all these factors at the ground level under a departmental field work assignment that took us to Rajouri and Poonch for a week as part of a field visit organized by our department at the Jamia. The field visit helped us to witness the multiple layers of the conflict in reality and also led to a realization that how the lives of these people remain shadowed by such stereotyped interpretations which makes us overlook the human face of the problem, the everydayness of the conflict that they live in.
The face of militancy as witnessed by the people of Kashmir Valley and this part of the state are highly different. In this stretch, the militancy level was kept strategically low as it was considered a gateway to the Kashmir valley because of which counterinsurgency operations began much later here. In any of our interactions, one thing amiss was the mention of pre-partition linkages with AJK (Azad Jammu and Kashmir) districts of Mirpur, Muzafarrabad or the western Pujnab districts of Rawalpindi, Campbellpur, Mianwhali etc. Also it was because of this historical linkage, the people in this part of the state could never associate themselves with the ‘Kashmiris’ cause of azadi. Many people felt that their sufferings were because of a cause that was never their own.
Another distinct feature of this region is the high amount of goodwill that the people exhibit towards the army. The extent of it comes off as an implicit consensus among the people who seem to have chosen the lesser of the two evils from the army and the militants and thus do not want to drive away the source of limited infrastructural capacity in the utter absence of a civil administration. Private discussions may reveal some of the personal sufferings of these people at the hands of both the army and the militants, but the fear of a backlash because of such revelations continues to haunt their mind. This is the biggest hurdle that came in way of our quest to unravel the layers of truth in the stories and fables we overheard in our interactions with different people.
However, unfortunately, the women here suffered the same fate as the weaker sex does in any conflict. The women have continued to remain as silent victims of the oppression that functions at multiple levels in their case- state, society and family. Women have continuously been the victims of physical, psychological, and cultural violence as well as economic inequalities. However, they have shown great resilience. They have emerged as survivors by not only continuing with their lives but also providing support to their families in both economic and emotional terms.
It still remains debatable whether survival has meant empowerment in real terms for them. Rather it led to an opposite trend where the militancy did not only preserved the status quo in terms of the patriarchal structure of the community but pushed them further backwards by the constraints their version of Islam placed on the social spaces accorded to women. Muslims constitute as much as 80 percent in this region today. And the women folk from rest of the communities like Rajputs, Dogras, Sikhs or Pandits, if not directly affected by it, were constrained to their homes due to the insecure environment militancy had built for them. Thus, women in conflict situations are located differently depending on their class, regional and religious identities.
A case in point would be of the Pahari Muslims of Behramgala village with which some of the researchers got a chance to stay and interact with them overnight. These women aren’t bound by household drudgery because of their active role in managing the farms and family cattle, and also in economics of the household. However, this necessarily does not provide them with a meaningful say in family decisions which essentially remain a male-dominated sphere.
Education became the biggest casualty for women during the militancy. One of the female students at Baba Ghulam Shah Badhshah University revealed how her elder sisters left their education mid-way because of the fear of militants. Now there’s a positive focus in both the younger generation of women and their parents as they speak of their dreams of becoming doctors, engineers, teachers etc that gives a hope to us and the society that they are unlikely to turn their back on arms again.
It must not be overlooked that much of the mobility that the people enjoy currently is because of the army’s presence, including women. The students at the university and the locals too in the discussions mentioned how it was impossible for them to move out of their homes after 4 o’clock in the evening. Presence of a state agency with codified rules that may be accompanied by a room to flout those is certainly better than the overwhelming presence of non-state actors that follow no standard rules and principles. This has been the common feedback from the locals all through the district. But, due to absence of policies that seek to establish a sustainable peace and intra capacity building of the local security forces to deal with such challenges, such a stability will remain fragile and make the army engagement permanent in nature than a tool of transitional stability mechanism.
Another disturbing fact is the ominous silence when it comes to articulation of women’s concerns in the midst of this exploding violence. This was evident in our visit to Hil Kaka, the region popular for the Operation Sarpvinash. The village Marrah is also known for one of its kind Women Village Defence Councils (VDCs/ Self- defence militia) that it started. The curiosity of knowing these women and hope that the power of the gun would have been translated to a meaningful empowerment in social setting took some of us there with child-like eagerness. But to much dismay, not a single woman was to be seen anywhere around when we reached. The reality, of course, was far less sanguine. As Fazl Hussein Tahir, the man behind the VDCs and a key link for the Op Sarpvinash came to address us, we expressed our eagerness to talk to some of these women. Thinking that we were media persons, no one came to interact with us. After much insistence, we barely got a chance to greet his wife who was also a member of the VDC.
The villagers that we interacted, including their leader Tahir, spoke in a much romanticized manner of the way in which operation was conducted to drive out the terrorists (mostly belonging to Hizbul Mujahideena and Tehreek-e-Ul Mujahideen). The armies of the jehad extracted forced labour, levied taxes, issued permits to graze on mountain pastures, and killed at will. In Hil Kaka, they had communication centres, stores, and even a makeshift hospital to treat the sick and injured. Upper Marrah resident Mohammad Arif reported to the village elders the story of a local woman who said she had been repeatedly raped by Lashkar-e-Toiba cadre and was then killed after being declared an army informer. By 2001, growing extortion and sexual abuse directed at Gujjar women started provoking an armed backlash.
However, due to the conservativeness it was hard to talk about issues of sexual abuse in the absence of their women. There were only subtle mentions of atrocities perpetrated on women as they spoke about other issues at length. One villager present mentioned how they have multiple times asked the Gujjar leaders as they visit them during the elections that they can no longer pacify the people with their promises because the coming generation of Balochi and Pathans origin will never support them. They mentioned that the nearest primary school at Dofali was destroyed by a LeT cadre. The road, literally in shambles, is the only one that was recently built by the army. The lack of infrastructure, a dispensary with no medicine, gives the officials a chance to skip their duties. And since much of these issues could have been brought to light by these women, the disempowerment takes them out from the regular discourse even. Such liberation might have made Marrah a safer place to live in, but safety has not yet meant a better life.
A couplet by Lal Ded summarizes my view:
Whether they cook beef or mutton for dinner
Lalla is destined to stay half hungry
Positing a question related to conflict resolution in terms of gender often helps to cut through political differences. Women’s experiences of operating under multiple pressures and moving in and out of their multiple identities – as daughters, wives, mothers, peacemakers, and in many cases bread winners, probably places them at an advantage when it comes to conflict resolution and peace-building.
[Anjali Chhabra is a postgraduate student in the Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution. She can be reached via email at: anjalichhabra.91 [at] gmail.com]
[Views expressed herein are the author’s own, and do not necessarily represent Jamia Journal’s editorial stance.]