MeToo in Kashmir Too Really?

THE new era of MeToo has finally awakened Kashmiris, at least some of us, to the ever present reality of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault in our society. It is no use calling it a madness or a deluge that needs to be contained, as some have dubbed it. It is merely a small sample of reality of sexual harassment present in our society. By ignoring this reality, or not responding to it with wisdom, we are doing a disservice to our own people, men and women alike.

Yes, it is not just a women’s issue. The sooner we realize this, the better it will be for all of us, especially our sons that we need to raise as conscientious human beings. If we train our sons to reject misogyny and patriarchy, hopefully they will never engage in such behaviour, and will stand up to anyone who abuses their privilege and power merely because of their gender. We also need to recognize that sexual violence and assault impacts males as well. It is unfortunate that attitudes towards gender and sexuality in our society leads to silencing of boys and men who are also victims of sexual assault and harassment. Hence this disease must be uprooted for the benefit of all.

As a predominantly Muslim society, it is important to make it clear at the outset that Islam does not permit violation of any individual’s body, nor does it allow silencing the truth or perpetration of a wrong. Every society that has seen women gaining their voice as part of the MeToo movement is working hard to respond with care, so why the silence and detraction here in Kashmir? What does it say about us? And, what credibility will our protest against gender violence committed by our enemies hold after this outright denial of excesses committed by our own? It is all about POWER, make no mistake about it. Abusers do not have any particular characteristics. Abusers can be highly educated, illiterate, religious, irreligious, rich, poor, high status, and low status. What we are witnessing is how male power functions in our workplaces, our homes, and on our streets. The common denominator is power and control of the other, and taking advantage of those they see as weak. Given that the narrative of a woman as weak or crooked creature is rampant in our society, it is no surprise that attitudes towards women leave much to be desired.

Why are women raising their voices now? It is not true that women have been traditionally voiceless. Women have always had their voice, but they have been deliberately silenced by the powerful, for one excuse or another honour, shame, family, and the list goes on. The present mass movement against sexual assault and harassment has helped in creating an awareness and also given strength to those who felt alone in their struggles against the powerful. Indeed, it is easy to blame the new awareness, and daring and bold attempts by a handful of victims as, western inspired feminism, a label that we tend to use to dismiss any discussion of misogyny and patriarchy ruling our society. However, such labels merely act as distractions. Women’s empowerment, another NGOized phrase, is also a term that is thrown around. The underlying implication is that men supported empowerment of women and now these ungrateful women are turning on them. How shameful a demonstration of power and control!

Critical though in this current debate is robbing of women’s agency. A good woman is deemed to be one who stays silent, read PATIENT enduring her abuse and harassment. They are even promised great rewards in the Hereafter, especially if they silently endure abuse at the hands of a spouse. What they do not hear much is that God never supports oppression and oppressors and that it is their religious duty to stand up for justice even if it is against their own selves. Those women who challenge this popular narrative and speak up against oppression and call out their abusers are targeted and stigmatized by men and women alike. Immediately a woman is shamed and her family background, her character, her connections, her upbringing, and even her education, is invoked to attack her. Mudslinging and character assassination are old traits of a society that does not want to face the reality and seek the truth. It is time to move away from this world of drama and come face to face with the reality staring us in the face. Let us not waste any more time in silencing, let us hear out those who have been harmed and find ways to support them.

For those who think that sexual crimes are non-existent in our society and crave documented evidence of crimes against women, here is an eye opener. Even though these documented numbers are merely a tip of the iceberg, the evidence of increased sexual assault cases is still alarming. After the 2017 brutal murder and rape of an innocent child, Asifa Bano of Kathua, the former Chief Minister informed the state assembly that over 4714 cases of crime against women were registered in the state during 2017 alone. That is at least thirteen reported cases aday. Think of the vast majority that were never reported. As per the state Govt. data, the state recorded 2850 cases of kidnapping and abduction of women, 5399 cases of molestation and 1157 cases of eveteasing in 2017 alone.As per the State Women’s Commission, cases of harassment of women has seen a gradual rise and what is worthy to note is that most of the reported cases were about workplace harassment. Are we then to also blame all these cases on a conspiracy theory of western feminism?

In our society, use of rape as a weapon of war has been well established. The women of Kashmir, not unlike Muslim women in other war torn parts of the world, have been victimized and abused by the enemy. However, the enemy within, the family and relatives, and society at large that shuns victims for no crime of their own, remains unspoken. All we need to do is to look at the labels given to women of twin villages of Kunan and Poshpora, the taunts these women and their children have to bear, and the stigma that they cannot shake off for generations.The very same people who cry hoarse when it comes to violation of our women by armed gangs and soldiers are somehow disturbed to hear that some women may have been violated by polite and gentlemanly hypocritical predators in our own community.

For those who have their heads buried in sand, let me shake you to the reality of women’s lives. If you have a sister, a wife, a daughter, try and ask them if they have ever been cat called, if they have felt safe riding in public transportation, or dealing with men in positions of power. I am willing to bet that 100% of the women will have a story to tell. If every Kashmiri woman says MeToo, will we still deny her reality and silence her with labels such as a feminist, a jilted ex, or an ill charactered woman? Or, would we say that all this is happening because women are no longer confined to the four walls of their home, or they are to be faulted for mixing freely with men, or should we blame their style of dress and makeup.

For the alleged perpetrators, saying sorry for the crimes you have committed, yes harassment and assault is a crime, is not enough. You need to be punished for your crimes. Most of all, please do not write sympathetic and supportive statements for the Me Too movement. Your sorry does not absolve you of your crime and certainly does not make you an ally, as sadly, some women activists have dubbed you. An ally is one who does not speak on behalf of women but stands on the sidelines and asks women, what is it that you need from me? An ally first checks himself and evaluates his own persona. He does not live the experience of a woman, nor will he ever understand the lingering trauma. An ally is one who has humility. First, such as person should be willing to learn and then work hard in his own male domain to make a difference. One can never truly be an ally, at best you can be a witness.

Women who are enablers of abuse and harassment, yes there are many of us, need to have a reality check as well. Whether you are a mother, mother in law, a sister, a sister in law, or a friend, do not ever support or cover up dirt for fear of disrupting relations. A criminal is a criminal and must be stopped at any cost. If you close your eyes to the reality and allow such crimes to go unchecked, it will come to haunt you in many other ways. A family member or relative who harms is not worthy of keeping relations with. Indeed, as we have known from some of the stories documented by some brave female journalists in Kashmir, abuse within families and relations is alive and well. The power dynamic is so imbalanced that most women suffer for years in silence.

What about religious leaders?

There are plenty of examples of abuse among religious leaders to relate at the international levels, something that has shocked the Muslim community. In Kashmir, we have had our own share of such instances as well. Anyone who claims that a religious authority because of their scholarship, especially knowledge of the Quran and functioning as a teacher of the Quran would never engage in such behaviour, let us pause and re-evaluate. I know a number of men and women who make excuses for these abusers and have gone to great lengths to instead target the victims. Islamophobia, a subject I research, is no excuse to protect criminals of sexual harassment. The Quran was revealed to end oppression and the Messenger of Allah (saws) would never tolerate an iota of oppression against anyone, particularly women.

Where is the outcry over MeToo Kashmir?

Where is the outcry over MeToo Kashmir? Why a deafening silence, or actions to silence others? We may have no control over elements violating our women for political reasons, but should we also ignore what we do have control over– our homes, our children, our sons and daughters. Where is the education? Muslims often raise great alarm, at least in the west, over sex education classes. Have we ever bothered to look at who teaches our children some basics of protection so they would know what is appropriate and what is inappropriate. If we keep such education, which was never a taboo in the time of the Prophet (saws), out of reach of our children, they will rely on negative sources, be it their friends, or the internet. They will also not know when to say No. What is better, a parent imparting healthy habits to their children, or maintaining absolute silence and covering up for things that may clearly be wrong? How will our children who have not been given the necessary educationbe able to distinguish acceptable and unacceptable behaviour and more importantly, how to guard themselves against predators.

Well, the hackneyed argument why were the women silent so far? We could ask that question of a world renowned psychologist, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who tried to block Judge Kavanaugh’s appointment to the US Supreme Court for sexually assaulting her decades ago. We could also pose the same question to the handful of women in Kashmir who have broken their silence after days, months, or a few years of the alleged incidents. A key realization is that trauma of sexual assault is long lasting. It creates dysfunctional lives. The pain and suffering of the victim and buried memories can never be properly understood by anyone else. Let not the support and understanding these victims deserve be overshadowed by the doubt we cast on their stories. Think for a moment, what would a woman who will suffer so much by coming out, gain by such negative publicity? Who would wish to endure such pain and relive the experience? This is why women never speak.

The most common issue with coming forward with sexual assault allegations is believability. While we do not question or doubt a victim in any other criminal circumstance, we raise a number of issues with believability and veracity of claims with sexual assault. The fundamental question posed always is, why the woman took so long to come forward. This subject has been explored and researched very well and much has been written about why women take so long to come forward. Here is an excellent article where psychologists who specialize in sexual assault, tell us why women take so long to come forward. A few of the reasons emanate from the impact sexual assault has on the woman, including her memory. The trauma and its lingering impact alters a woman’s life and she risks a tremendous amount by admitting that she was sexually assaulted. There is also a very strong element of self-doubt, women trying to figure out what she could have done to bring this upon herself. It shatters her confidence, and as research tells us, predators prey upon those women who have been assaulted once. Regardless, let us reassess why we as a society doubt sexual assault victims. How have we been socialized to view matters related to sexual violence? Why do we stigmatize those who come forward and re-traumatize them by not believing them?

Nothing happened: is another myth floated around in defense of those alleged to have violated women. The underlying assumption is that groping, forcing oneself on another, sexting, and lewd remarks, do not really cause any physical harm. It has been dubbed as just a little ‘shair o shairi’. Shocking! Harassment is not just a physical rape. Any unwanted and non-consensual forcible act against another body is harassment. Sexting, bullying, and making a work environment poisonous is all part of harassment. A sick mind leads to sick actions and all this sickness has a long lasting impact on the victims. Having worked with sexual assault victims, I have seen their lives being ruined and their inability to be normal in their other relationships, especially in their marriage.

It is time we also look into what mechanisms are in place for reporting sexual assault and harassment and what protection and support is guaranteed to the victims? Where are the legal mechanisms for sexual assault? Have we even defined what it means and what it covers? How many women are involved in the decisions making regarding such cases? How many women are in positions of power in offices where such violations occur? What is the record of police forces in solving such crimes, or even bringing any criminals to justice? Perhaps, the very first step would be to investigate whatever happened to the cases that were registered last year. Was there any resolution? It is not helpful to blame the victims for lack of a proper set up for investigating sexual assault crimes. That is not their responsibility and it cannot be another excuse for silencing the victims. Instead, all must invest in creating a sound system for proper follow up and swift resolution of all complaints. Instead of victim shaming taking a strong public stance against all forms of harassment would serve us well. By transferring responsibility of accountability to others, or covering up by burying our heads in the sand, will never help us put an end to gender violence in our community.

Gender parity discourse seems to scare a lot of people in Kashmir. Gender justice and gender equity is seem as an imported concept and those who raise the issues are vilified and ostracized. If one were to examine Islam and the life example of the Prophet (saws), it will be easy to deduce that gender justice is at the heart of Islam, and it was always the preoccupation of the Prophet (saws), including even in his last sermon. Let us not forget that there were revelations in the Quran answering issues related to women and their honour. The Quran stands very clear on ending any oppression against women as well as casting doubt or levelling false accusations against women’s character. All those who are scared of equity of men and women, let me assure you, it is a good thing for everyone, not just women. If we can realign our approach in termsof thinking of our society as a whole, perhaps we will develop a holistic perspective on safety and protection for one and all, regardless of gender. Ending violence and harassment against women is not just a female problem. It is our societal problem and the responsibility to address it openly, without bias, falls collectively on all of us, especially those who hold positions of power and leadership in religious, political, academic, professional and domestic spaces. Time will tell how we rise to this challenge and respond to this evil existent in our society.

What needs to be done:

I humbly submit a few of my thoughts. I am sure many others in our community who have expertise in the local scene and will have other suggestions. Let us put our heads together and get to working on ending the scourge of sexual violence and all forms of abuse in our community.

Let us first understand what is sexual violence?

As per the World Health Organization definition, sexual violence is defined as: “any sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances, or acts to traffic, or otherwise directed, against a person’s sexuality using coercion, by any persona regardless of their relationship to the victim, in any setting, including but not limited to home and work”

First and foremost, as a society, we need to openly embrace that sexual assault and harassment is a reality. We must believe the victims and take their claims seriously and allow due process to take its course to prove someone’s guilt, or innocence. Confidentiality of the process is necessary for the victim and the perpetrator. Everyone has the right to innocence until proven guilty, and all allegations must be investigated fairly and thoroughly. Let us hold our judgement until then.

Second, we must educate ourselves and our children about all aspects of sexual violence. We must stand up and speak out when we see something wrong, be it on the roadside, our home, or office. A society that is vigilant and declares zero tolerance for unacceptable behaviour will need less outside policing. In a place like Kashmir, there is always danger of manipulation of claims of a crime as well as resolution of a crime. This is something we as a community must watch out for. Yet, we cannot always shift blame onto outside forces. We need to own our internal, personal, and societal shortcomings.

For workplaces to be safe and welcoming to men and women:

  • Every organization, however big or small, for profit or not for profit, must have a code of ethics and code of conduct for their employees, staff, and volunteers.
  • Create a mechanism for filing a grievance, be it a harassment and discrimination committee, or any other body that is at arm’s length from the administration
  • Create a set up for addressing a grievance within a strict timeline
  • If all fails internally, a mechanism to involve external authorities with an ombudsperson watching over their work.
  • At least, every employer must for now adopt and implement the Indian Govt. Sexual Harassment of women at workplace Act (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013.
  • For now, let every woman cry out MeToo to support those who are robbed of their voice and silenced in the name of honour and shame.

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Idrisa Pandit

Idrisa Pandit is the Director of the Studies in Islam program at Renison University College, University of Waterloo, Canada.

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