Invisible combatants !

In times of conflict, violence, and militarisation, women are often the worst affected. They are left to suffer in silence, but if one cares to listen, their stories are replete with instances of strength, courage, and resilience which help them carry on with their lives under the shadow of guns.

Panos South Asia, a media support organisation for the region, selected and trained 12 young and mid-career journalists to bring out the voices of women in militarised zones. Some of these stories have been published in Garrisoned Minds: Women and Armed Conflict in South Asia, edited by Laxmi Murthy and Mitu Varma. The book concerns issues that women face in the militancy/extremism-hit Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), Balochistan, and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) of Pakistan, post-conflict Nepal, and struggles in Kashmir and the northeast of India.

The book is divided in four parts based on geography and each section begins with the historical context of the conflict written by a senior journalist/analyst, before the stories themselves.

Militancy in KP and Fata and the resultant army action caused one of the largest displacements in the history of the country. Along with the psychological impact, it also exacerbated women’s suffering as access to health and education facilities were almost non-existent; for instance, giving birth during displacement increased the risk of maternal death.

Talibanisation in Fata and KP gave rise to religious extremism. While men were forced to grow beards and shun Western dress, women faced more severe restrictions: mobility and social interaction were curtailed, access to healthcare and education was denied, and travel without a male escort was prohibited, even if it meant losing their or their child’s life.

Stories of survival from women in some of the world’s most dangerous places

The Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) discouraged girls’ education, called polio immunisation un-Islamic, and bombed music shops. Families of dancers and musicians in Mingora were forced to either give up their profession or leave. The impact of the TTP’s clampdown on culture is aptly portrayed in the article ‘From ghungroos to gunshots’ by Farzana Ali, which gives a harrowing account of the ghastly murder of a dancing girl, Shabana, and the plight of young performers in the city.

In strife-ridden Balochistan, faced with poverty, unemployment, malnutrition, and illiteracy, militarisation and counter-insurgency have made it difficult for women to undertake daily tasks, but despite being hidden away and facing discrimination, and having to cope with sectarianism and terrorism, they are not ready to give up. For instance, even in the face of the risks of bomb blasts and suicide attacks, Hazara girls are determined to gain education.

In many cases women participate in the battle against oppression. In Nepal, a large number of women joined the Maoists or the People’s Liberation Army as combatants, but even though they refused to ask for privileges to deal with female physiological conditions such as pregnancy and childbirth, and fought side by side with men, they had to face discrimination within the Maoist army during the conflict. To be taken as equal they gave up feminine clothes for combat dress, shunned make-up and cut off long hair, but with the advent of peace, age-old traditions reasserted themselves and pushed women back into subservient roles.

Conflict in India-held Kashmir is off and on in the news, but mostly in terms of the number of casualties. The sufferings of women are hardly discussed. The story of Dilshada, a “widow of a renegade” as she calls herself, aptly illustrates the misery of the widows of Ikhwanis (militants-turned-spies for the Indian government), who are ostracised by their families and community for being the wives of counter-insurgents. Dilshada not only endures the discrimination of being a widow, she is shunned by her community and family as militants killed her brother in revenge for her husband killing one of their associates. In the attack which killed her husband, Dilshada was also injured and still has a bullet lodged in her ribcage.


Rape is frequently used as a weapon of war and women’s bodies, linked to ideas of honour and shame in patriarchal societies, often become the arena for psychological warfare. However, few women dare to speak out as breaking the silence has severe consequences. In ‘Shadows of a dark night,’ Zahid Rafiq narrates the story of two sisters who were beaten and raped by Indian soldiers. Besides bringing to light many cases of rape by soldiers in the region he also delves into the Kunan-Poshpora case of 1991 where over 30 women from the villages of Kunan and Poshpora were allegedly raped by security personnel while their men were taken away for an “all-night interrogation.”

To add to their woes, the women do not get justice even when they try; their rape and death are not considered significant. As an angry Kunan-Poshpora mass-rape survivor asks, “When someone [a man] was killed by the soldiers, we all called them martyrs … Why then were we not seen as martyrs?”

The women do not get justice even when they try; their rape and death are not considered significant. As an angry Kunan-Poshpora mass-rape survivor asks, “When someone [a man] was killed by the soldiers, we all called them martyrs … Why then were we not seen as martyrs?”

The use of sexual violence as a tool to humiliate and subjugate women is also seen in northeast India. We are reminded by Thingnam Anjulika Samon, in ‘The art of defiance’ that because of the deep stigma around sexual violence as well as a structural impunity for perpetrators (laws such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958, allow Indian armed forces to act against the country’s own citizens in areas deemed to be disturbed and violate human rights with impunity), few cases have been successfully prosecuted and fewer victims have received justice.

However, after suffering in silence for years, some women have gathered the courage to break free and through “collective memorialisation” decided to put up resistance. “They wave the white flag, walk through the jungles to negotiate with hostile militia, strip naked to expose the brutality of the Indian Army, weave shawls to commemorate a young woman whose life was snuffed out in the grandiose project of ‘national security,’ demand to know where the state has forcibly disappeared their husbands and sons, and go on a fast for the repeal of a draconian security law. In doing so, they stand up and insist on being counted in any nation set to emerge from the debris of decades of conflict,” writes Murthy in her introduction to the book.

In ‘This road I know,’ Yirimiyan Arthur Yhome narrates an incident when the bodies of two elderly women were carried by women for burial as the army didn’t permit them to be buried according to tradition. She mentions another instance where a woman was forced to give birth in a village ground and was denied any medical attention. Her observations bring out the trauma of what a garrisoned mind endures.

As implied in the title of the book, using the analogy of a garrison, the ultimate exertion of power — violence and excesses against women — is an attempt to capture their minds. Just as those living within a physical garrison live a life away from the real world, the women whose lives are psychologically controlled by the military or militancy are forced to live a make-believe life.

Garrisoned Minds, on the one hand provides a comprehensive history of crimes against women in South Asia; on the other it provides an insight into some of the women’s movements that were the result of these crimes.

The Article First Appeared In Dawn

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