‘Hello, Please Help Me’: Why Distress Calls Ring This Kashmiri Lawyer

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Advocate Mehreen Zafar

Pandemic lockdown has already exposed the dark underbelly of the globe in the form of the growing domestic violence cases. In Kashmir, the designated lawyer to handle such cases is sharing some shocking details.

By Hirra Sultan

IT was still wee hours of the morning when Mehreen Zafar’s phone started ringing. As she received the call, a lady on the other side started crying and beseeching her for help.

She told Mehreen that her name was Sania. In order to celebrate Nauroz, she had visited her parent’s place for a couple of days in March this year but got stuck there due to the sudden implementation of COVID lockdown.

Somehow she managed to travel back to her husband’s place but her in-laws vehemently denied her entry, on the grounds of her being infected with the virus.

This was not the first time she faced harassment at her in-laws. She, along with her children, has been facing domestic violence at the hands of her husband for many years now.

Mehreen is a lawyer at district court Budgam and has been nominated by the court to handle cases for women in distress and at the receiving end of domestic violence.

Since the pandemic hit, there has been significant increase in the domestic violence cases worldwide with Kashmir being no exception to it.

The lady lawyer told Kashmir Observer that the situation in many places is quite grim.

“Things are getting out of our hands,” she said. “It’s beyond all reason why women should suffer even inside the safety of their homes. All the associated lawyers have been receiving a lot of calls and queries. Our phones remain engaged all the day long. There’re harrowing tales of what is happening with people out there. From physical to mental abuse, to denying maintenance and custody of children, people are putting women through a lot.”

Another call, just a minute later, was from Shairil.

Shairil has been married for six years and has two kids. Since her marriage, her in-laws have been harassing her, to the point that they even tried to strangulate her to death.

Even though she survived, she had to listen to abuses and corrosive remarks against her.

Her husband along with her in-laws continuously subjects her to domestic violence which even caused her a miscarriage during her first pregnancy.

He’s “involved in an extramarital affair” and in order to hide it, her in-laws have defamed her in society, saying she’s characterless.

In order to escape from the everyday ordeal of violence and humiliation, she left to live with her sister but is being denied the custody of her children.

Shairil has lodged a police complaint against the accused, but there has been no action so far. She wants justice for herself and her children but due to the official apathy, her pain persists.

To add to the miseries, her husband wants to divorce her and her in-laws have also filed a case against her. She’s so distressed that she wants to commit suicide and end everything in a single go.

As the call ended, advocate Mehreen looked lost in some thoughts.

“What you’re noticing is just the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “Every day we listen to stories of abuse and ill treatment.”

She went on to narrate the case of Ambooj.

Ambooj had complained that she’s staying at her maternal home for the last one year. She was married on September 25, 2017 and soon after her husband started torturing her for one reason or the other, even threatening her with suicide if she didn’t comply.

Also, during her pregnancy, he would harass her and force himself on her, and would even forcefully feed her certain drugs so her pregnancy might be terminated prematurely.

All this caused her tremendous mental stress, making her bleed even during her pregnancy. Her husband did not bother to take care of any expenses, neither during, nor after, her pregnancy.

Ambooj delivered the child in consultation with a private doctor as she had multiple complications.

As she went to her maternal home after the delivery, her husband does not want her to come back home and constantly threatens her to hand over all the gold she was gifted at the time of marriage so that he may marry someone else and indulge in drugs.

Caught in bad marriage, Ambooj only wants the rights of her son safeguarded.

Even more disturbing case is that of Abida.

Abida was married in February last year. Within a couple of days, her husband and mother-in-law started torturing her for land as dowry. Her husband even spent all the money in her bank account.

The case gets even more interesting as the family had lied that the groom is a jeweller by profession but was actually a salesman at someone’s shop and had even quit that job.

Abida had called the lady lawyer because her husband and mother-in-law were threatening her with divorce. She’s facing social, mental and emotional harassment at her in-laws and is disturbed by this thought and even has her doubts that her husband is involved in an extramarital affair with her sister-in-law, brother’s wife.

Her husband intends to marry this lady, so is forcing Abida for a divorce and has stopped having any kind of physical relationship with her for past six months.

Abida’s husband tried to beat her the previous day as well but she’s scared to talk to anyone about her issues and apprehensions.

Even her parents do not listen to her as they’re being influenced by her sister-in-law and hence she’s facing this trauma all alone. Her husband has even retorted to threatening her about being sent to a mental asylum in order to get rid of her.

Inside the lady lawyer’s chamber, the phone kept ringing. Next on line was Isha.

Isha has been married for eight years. Her husband began harassing her within a couple of months after their marriage and does not even let her be in contact with her parents, neither allowing her to visit nor letting them come over. She’s not even allowed a phone.

Her husband constantly tells her that this marriage was not with his consent and on this pretext, talks to other ladies.

Isha has two children and yet is not provided any kind of financial support by her husband. Her needs are catered to by her parents. She has had family counselling many times but that didn’t improve her husband’s behaviour.

When she confronted him about the ladies he talks to, he slapped her. She has previously complained against him and now wants to file for a domestic violence case.

Advocate Mehreen talked about Mehak, a blind woman who lives with her mother and two sisters. Her sisters are also blind.

“She said that her brother and sister-in-law beat her and use abusive language against her, owing to her blindness,” the advocate said. “Her father has passed away and her brother wants to own their house. Mehak’s mother has already handed over their land to him but now he wants ownership of the house too.”

Mehak’s sister-in-law was related to them before marriage hence they agreed to the match but after marriage the behaviour of their sister-in-law changed. Her brother lives separately but sometimes he comes over and starts beating everyone.

“Mehak told me that her brother beat her yesterday after which she complained in PS Kupwara but till now no action has been taken,” the lady lawyer said. “They’re helpless and in dire need of help.”

However, Iteba has an altogether different story.

She’s a maiden and is facing domestic violence—verbal, mental as well as physical abuse—at the hands of her parents and brothers from March 2019.

Her parents want her to marry at the earliest, even without considering whether the match is worth and hence leave the household. This has caused Iteba tremendous mental trauma.

On March 19, 2020, a family was coming to see her but due to the sudden COVID lockdown the programme was postponed which became a new reason for the domestic violence against her.

“She said she’s being maltreated by her parents, the reason being her younger brother who instigates her parents and the youngest brother (a drug addict),” advocate Mehreen said.

Iteba, she said, is being insulted on everything she does and has absolutely no idea what to do about it.

“Due to being confined in homes together and not allowed to venture out, people are feeling cornered,” the lady lawyer continued.

“After a few days of rest and relaxation it becomes difficult for a huge majority to come to terms with this confinement. It often leads to anger and frustration, which is quite normal. What’s unfortunate in this scenario is that women are becoming targets of these anger bouts and suffering at the hands of their companions.”

Insha’s case is a typical representation of this lockdown anger.

Her husband harasses her for trivial issues and matters, and keeps shouting at her. He mostly remains irritated and angry with her and would not let her make calls even though she works in a hospital and has to remain available on call.

She has been married for 14 years out of which she spent 9 years with her parents. Her husband refuses to contribute anything towards household expenditures and in turn misbehaves with her.

Insha shifted back with her husband in 2018 with hopes that the distance and the presence of a child would change the scenario but is facing the same issues.

Since her husband is a government-employed teacher, she does not want any form of police action but is in dire need of family counselling.

Sabina has a similar story to tell.

She got married in December 2019 and within a week her husband started fighting with her. He blatantly told her that he does not love her and keeps talking to some woman over phone and internet. This has led her to believe he might be involved with someone.

Some home investigation revealed that he claims to love the woman after they started talking over social media platforms. He had even hidden the fact that he is married.

He does not provide Sabina with any financial support either. Even though she is four months pregnant, she’s constantly subjected to mental harassment since her marriage and now has been sent to her parents in March. No one has either come to take her back or asked her to come back on her own even though she wants to.

Even though there has been no physical violence against her, Sabina wants her rightful place at her in-laws and a constant maintenance.

Lawyer Mehreen also mentioned that all cases are not related to marriage and in-laws.

“In many cases it’s the victim’s own kin and kith that violates the sanctity of their relationship,” she said. “Like Mehak and Iteba, Rehana is also facing violence and harassment at the hands of her own maternal grandfather.”

Rehana’s father shifted to her wife’s home instead of following the tradition of a lady relocating to her husband’s home.

For a good many years they lived together and now they’ve even constructed their own house. Rehana has 4 more sisters and the eldest one was kept at her grandparents so she may take care of them in their old age.

“Rehana’s grandfather used to beat and harass all of them and now that they live separately, he hasn’t left bossing around them and keeps interfering, making sure he controls all strings of their life,” the lawyer informed. “He would not let them decide for themselves either. They’ve never complained before as they didn’t know whom to turn to for help.”

Mehreen is not merely concerned with receiving the distressed calls. Before she can initiate any action, she has to cross-verify all the claims and with the lockdown it becomes difficult.

Another lawyer, Nausheen Bhat, however, shared that a lot of domestic violence cases are false allegations.

“Women are not as naïve as they used to be a century ago,” she said. “Not only men, but women also have extra-marital affairs and sometimes have married only under parental pressure. These women later falsely accuse their husbands of domestic violence so they can attain a divorce along with some monetary benefits after which they marry their boyfriends.”

In many other cases, Nausheen said, the women are merely playing power games so that their husbands would do whatever they say.

“This whole issue has become a nasty business,” she continued. “Nobody can be trusted without proper background verification.”

In a case, she faced a couple where the lady claimed that she’s being tortured by her mother-in-law. After some tantrums and a lot of drama they started living separately.

Everyone felt things are improving and everything is settled when the lady fought with her husband, mid-road and spewed venom. She alleged a lot of things, which even her husband was ashamed to retell. Her husband is shocked that after everything that he sacrificed to be with her, she would repay him this way and not even care to keep things private.

In a similar case, another lady is headed for divorce because of her extra-marital affairs.

Her husband was quite generous and forgave her mistake, and was ready to live with her normally when the family got to know that she has other relations. That was the deal breaker.

Mehreen had to face this difficulty quite early in the lockdown phase.

“I was approached by an NGO working for children,” she recalled. “They claimed that they needed to bail out a child from custody as he has been falsely accused. As I put out appeals and everything, I came to know that the child has been held under charges of rape, which the NGO hid from me. A lot of people hide such information and cause us a lot of embarrassment. I had to write back to them and refuse any association or assistance in the case.”

The sad part is that this is not merely something triggered by the lockdown. This is something that goes on even when things are normal.

A lot of people suffer either because they’re too naïve to understand what is happening, have been fed patriarchy so badly that they do not even think about raising their voices or seeking help, or think that they themselves are to blame for these circumstances, Mehreen said.

“The cases mentioned are like a needle in hay,” the lawyer said.

“There’re numerous cases of violence, slander, cheating and neglect, enough to fill up a whole room. Just by mentioning a few might bring them justice or might show hope to someone in need but this is not how things will improve. We, as a society, have to raise our voices against the wrongdoers, irrespective of their gender. Till we remain in denial, call ourselves a pious society and turn our eyes away, people will continue to suffer one way or the other. We also need to reinstate the Women Commission as lawyers cannot attend to every query and concern of women suffering from everyday life.”

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Hirra Sultan

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