Hoping Against Hope: Half Widows of Kashmir in Lockdown

Habla Begum with her children

At a time when a new book titled ‘Can You Hear Kashmiri Women Speak’ is presenting female voices of the valley, many strife-battered women are silently braving the everyday lockdown trauma in Kashmir. Among them are half widows whose endless wait is escalating due to existential crisis created by lockdowns.

By Arshi Qureshi

BEFORE abrogation of Article 370 last summer, Habla Begum as a half widow of Kashmir used to get Rs 1,000  monthly assistance from some welfare body. But after the political and pandemic lockdowns were enforced in the valley, she has been struggling to survive despite some Samaritans actively managing destitution in the strife-stricken society.

“Last summer’s crisis followed by coronavirus made it tough for us,” Habla Begum, sounding sullen, said. “My son is an electrician. He doesn’t get work regularly. We’re struggling to manage amidst this lockdown.”

There’re many social welfare bodies that help these women financially but due to the successive lockdowns in Kashmir, many of them aren’t getting the much-needed support.

As the home crisis is deepening for these struggle-hardened half widows of Kashmir today, their troubled past is only returning to haunt them behind the gloomy walls of their home.

“There were times,” Habla’s daughter, Muskaan, recalled her family’s 22 years of unending agony, “when I used to stay hungry at home and wait for my mother the entire day to come back and feed and cuddle me, while she ran pillar to post in search of my father.”

Daughter of a disappeared man from Sopore, Muskaan is a college student and one of those thousands of children who were never fortunate enough to meet their father. Her mother is one of the 2,000-2,500 “half widows” in the conflict-torn region.

Half widows are the women whose husbands disappeared but are not declared dead. These men have disappeared but their muffled cries are still heard in every household of Kashmir.

Muskaan was six-months old when her father Abdul Majeed Guroo, a plywood businessman, was picked up from his house.

“On the morning of 22 December 1998,” Muskaan’s mother, in broken Urdu, recalled, “I was away with my elder daughter to buy some medicines. When I returned home, my mother informed me that the army took away my husband for some inquiry at around noon, and promised to send him back by 4:00 in the evening.”

She waited for him till 5:00 pm that day, before plunging into the never-ending search campaign for her better half. Even after losing her youth, possessions and comfort, she’s still waiting for his homecoming.

Muskaan helped her mother as she struggled to explain the exact chronicle of the ill-fated day that haunts them even after twenty-two years. The memories of that fateful day in 1998 are still fresh in Habla’s mind.

“Three to four uniformed personnel had come to our house and asked my father to accompany them to the police station,” Muskaan translated for her mother. “When he asked for the reason, those men blindfolded him and took my father to an undisclosed place in their van.”

Habla searched for her husband for years, running from police stations to the district court but her pleas went unheard.

“I begged at the doors of every authority promising me his return, but till date he’s yet to come back home,” said Habla in a bland tone.

After militancy erupted in Kashmir in 1989, thousands were killed and disappeared in the region. Kashmir has been classified as the world’s most militarised zone. Many commentators call the conflict zone as a chamber of secrets, buried with mysteries and tears of women whose sons, husbands and brothers have vanished without a trace.

“My five children would wait for me the entire day, while I went out in search of my husband,” Habla continued to voice her anguish.

“On most days, I would return at night. We’ve spent days without eating as my husband was the only earning member of our family.”

Habla like many other half-widows is not educated enough. She has spent most of her life running from one jail to another trying to find answers for which she has only received false hopes as a consolation. She eventually became the sole bread-earner with sudden responsibilities of bringing up her children.

After her father’s disappearance, Muskaan’s uncle sold off their plywood machine to help Habla financially. One by one they started selling off all the other items of their house.

Habla’s son, now 26, had to leave his studies and work in warehouses to help his mother.

But all these years, Habla has gone through a lot of struggles. She did everything she could to help her kids. She got her elder daughters married and continued financing Muskaan’s studies. She doesn’t want Muskaan to face difficulties like she has been facing due to lack of education.

On her part, Muskaan didn’t know about her father’s fate until she was 15. Whenever she asked about his whereabouts, her mother would tell her that Abdul is working somewhere outside Kashmir. “I lived with this false belief for a long time,” the daughter said.

But Habla’s guarded secret eventually ended when her daughter returned tearful from her school one day. “Tumhaare Abbu ka intakaal hogaya hai, woh kabhi nahi ayenge wapas (Your father won’t come back. He has died),” she was told by her friend.

That day, heartbroken Muskaan demanded answers from her mother.

Habla then narrated the entire unfortunate incident, and said that as a mother, she was just trying to protect her.

Muskaan doesn’t even remember her father. Had she been told the truth, her mother said, she would’ve lived in trauma like thousands of other children in Kashmir.

But now, the sensible daughter wants to be her mother’s support. Years of search for her husband has made Habla physically weak, yet she’s the strongest woman Muskaan has ever seen in her life.

Habla hasn’t still given up on her fight. With a lump in her throat, she hoped that her Abdul will return to her someday.

When I asked her why she didn’t remarry, she instantly responded, “I got many proposals after my husband went missing, but I rejected each one of them. I was concerned whether my next husband would accept my children or not.”

Many of these half-widows do not remarry in the hope that their husband will return someday.

Inshallah,” Muskaan said, her voice quivering with excitement, “one day I’ll be able to see my father’s face and cook for him.”

According to a report published by the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) in 2017, at least 8,000 people have disappeared in Kashmir since the militancy began in 1089.  Among them is Hafeeza Begum’s Ghulam Nabi.

Before becoming a battered widow, Hafeeza was a 20-year-old shy bride, when her husband disappeared in Punjab during a trade trip.

Years of struggle has taken a toll on her. To feed her children, she kept working in fields and financed her daughter Tabassum’s education. In lockdown, the family today is silently suffering.

Hafeeza Begum

Earlier, some NGOs would help Hafeeza’s family financially, but since last Eid, her family hasn’t received any help.

“This time I took a loan from a neighbour to submit my MA fees,” said 27-year-old Tabassum. “Ammi remains ill most of the times. I don’t know what has happened to her. She’s mostly tired now.”

Behind her falling health is her years of agonized search and wait for her husband Ghulam Nabi Baba, a cloth merchant from Kupwara.

In November 1992, he disappeared in Punjab. And later, the family was told he died in a “cross-firing”.

Even Kupwara police informed Hafeeza about Ghulam Nabi’s death after a few days of the dreadful incident.

At that time Hafeeza was pregnant with Tabassum. She ran from one police station to another, filed an FIR, but all in vain. Hafeeza waited for her husband’s body but never received it.

All these years, however, she hoped that maybe, one day, her husband will return and see his younger daughter’s face.

With time as Tabassum learned about her father from her relatives, her mother fought hardships, battled depression and yet never gave up her hope. Like others in her conflict-torn tribe, she mostly found herself alone in her struggle. Her agony, however, doesn’t end there.

Since half widows can’t prove the death of their husband, they remain ineligible for widow welfare pension scheme. They face enormous financial difficulties, as they’re ineligible for ration cards and the bank accounts of their husbands. Disappearance of their husbands marginalised their economic status even more.

“Ammi is very strong, she never gave up on Abbu, she still awaits his return,” Tabassum continued. “I’m waiting for the day my father will return, that will make me the happiest person on this earth. I’ve never seen him. I don’t even know how he looks. Hum har din khuda se dua karte hai ki hamari musibat khatam hojaye (We beseech Allah every day to end our agony).”

But as there’re often no records of such cases, many half widows of Kashmir grapple with a host of issues. Over the year, however, Kashmiri women have overcome the trauma and risen like a phoenix — like Nagina Begum.

Nagina’s son Firdous was 7 when his life was disrupted after his father was subjected to enforced disappearance in 2006. His father was a special police officer (SPO) in Kashmir police.

Nagina Begum with her children

14 years ago, Nagina’s husband got a call from some army officers, she said. He followed the order and left home.

That was the last time Nagina saw her husband. After that, she searched for him everywhere — from the DC office to army authorities but of no avail.

Army ke log bolte thhe ki police ke paas jao, aur police ke log bolte thhe ki army ke paas jao (Army men would ask me to go and enquire about your husband from police and police would ask me to check with army),” recalled Nagina.

When his father disappeared, Firdous was studying in an army school and staying in the boarding facility. For a week, nobody informed him about his father’s disappearance.

“I never imagined that our happy life would suddenly come to an end,” Firdous said. “We slowly lost everything.”

From Gulmarg, they shifted to Latifabbad, a small village near Baramulla.

Nagina would spend her day and night in search for her husband and simultaneously look after her six children. She didn’t lose her hope and will. She fought in court and kept on banging the doors of authorities and asked for justice.

“I still believe my father will return,” Firdous said. “I was really young when I last saw him.” And soon he had to leave his school to support his family.

Firdous sometimes works at an apple orchard or in warehouses. The perks they used to enjoy were snatched from them in one swipe.

“My mother doesn’t get any pension,” he said. “So I would mostly work at an orchard, but due to the pandemic lockdown, the business has come to a halt which has affected us tremendously. Now, my uncle helps us at times.”

Today, even as lockdowns are escalating trouble for these conflict-torn families of Kashmir, their resolve for the reunion remains their lasting hope.

“I still look through my window in hope that someday I might catch a glimpse of my loved one,” Nagina concluded.

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