Deadly Romance, Domestic Violence and Death in Kashmiri Marriages

By Dr Shazia Malik

A heart-wrenching image of an injured Muslim married woman, Zahida Bano, lying in a hospital reportedly after getting beaten up by in-laws at Baramulla just a day after Eid was being circulated on social media recently. The 28 years newly married woman soon died and was buried along with her hopes, dreams, and pangs. In her death, Kashmiri men and women saw an avoidable murder, a criminal offence. Though the headlines continued using the term ‘Domestic Violence’ for the offence, the unwritten part said her in-laws were not among us, they were not humans at all and deserved punishment, probably not for domestic violence-a symptomatic of the more general oppression on women in a patriarchal society, but the murder. This anger is not new, nor such bruised images of victims of domestic violence. Though all forms of violence against women is a global phenomenon, the surge in domestic violence cases in Kashmir, has emerged as a grave issue for women in last 15 years. The anger of the common masses translates into protests only when they hear about the death of domestic violence victims- ‘officially recognised’ crimes against women.

Lately, a women-only, private Facebook group called @Yakjut Kashmiri Ladies has been instrumental in creating spaces fairly comparable with consciousness- raising groups of second wave feminism. Within this group, women from different backgrounds discuss their domesticity issues, child-raising issues, dealing with abusive relationships, work experiences, etc. violence in the conjugal homes abuses in Kashmir is reflected in most of the discussions and debates on this page regularly, which appears to have only revived in recent years. The stories reveal that an important part of the power relationship between spouses and their families is related mainly to dowry related issues and older gender order. Surprisingly domestic violence is not a priority area of research in Kashmir among the major disciplines. We hardly know about the violence within the family, there is no information about the nature and kind of violence that is perpetrated against women in Kashmir within the family or community. We know almost nothing about the structural patterns of violence that are culturally specific. Even though features like, wife-beating, economic abuse, and psychological abuse are some recognized sub-themes under domestic violence in academic circles; it hardly translates into the ‘collective anger’ or ‘collective shame’ enabling resistance to patriarchy. What I figured out while working as a women’s studies scholar in Kashmir is that patriarchy is never seen as a potential source of oppression for women in Kashmir.

While patriarchy may not be the overarching cause of all abuse, it is an enormously significant factor, because in traditional patriarchy males have a disproportionate share of power. Many abusive men, in order to maintain their fragile sense of masculinity, use physical force to keep their wives in their proper place. However, Kashmir has seen the emergence of a ‘new patriarchy’ to control women in public as well as in private domains. Gender violence in Kashmir has a social context that is informed by shifts in perceptions of gender identities, and the role of women in marking/ preserving community honor. It is also tied to the shifts in the organization of the family and household, for the tensions that emerge in the outside, public/ political spaces create new anxieties, leading to a renewed assertion of masculine authority in the spaces of the household. The unprotected social and political environment has turned women vulnerable to violence from their own community.

Why don’t women speak up?

Even though the images of women are changing and apparently, she is as never before, represented as more active with ideas and purposes of her own and women seem to have become more individualized in the age of economic specializations and social media outlets. It is annoying for them to bear violence and discrimination on a daily basis due to the misuse of social and cultural values and religious norms in the Kashmiri society. The irony is that this violence is a highly stigmatized issue as society often blames women for the violence that they experience. This form of violence is so regular and normalized in our society that the majority of women consider it a ‘normal’ act. Clearly then, married women have more reasons to remain silent on issues of violence till the matters get worse. While we have a lot of legal measures assuring an escape from domestic violence under various law enactments such as Domestic Violence Acts 2005 and Section 498A etc, a growing consensus is being formed that women mostly misuse these provisions and frame false charges against their in-laws. While there is no denying the fact that a negligible number of such cases were proved false, the blame is not entirely on women. It is mostly the male lawyers who frame the charges in that way to make their case stronger. Another counter to domestic violence against women that is being offered widely these days is that men also are abused in domestic spaces by women. Again, it is agreeable that domestic violence is experienced by both men and women, and no one deserves domestic abuse irrespective of their gender. Yet women and men are differently vulnerable to domestic violence. Men’s violence and coercive control is linked to wider social norms and messages that support men’s control over their female partner. No such social acceptability is granted for such behaviour in women. There are social norms that continue to grant male entitlement, that grant men control over

female behaviour, masculinity is linked to the legitimate use of violence, whereas violence is not legitimized by femininity. Domestic violence is the leading cause of death and injury for married women. Clearly then physical violence, as well as other forms of aggression is used as a method to ensure obedience from women. Unsurprisingly, an overwhelming majority of women who experience physical or emotional abuse in conjugal relationships do not report it to the police. While men retain their primary relations (mother, father, sisters and brothers) after their marriage, women usually become the 'other’ while taking up the new roles and attempting to embrace the family of their husbands as their own. Unsurprisingly owing to the social stigmatization the victims are sensitive to the judgment they fear from others, whether they are suffering domestic violence. Sometimes women have difficulties in revealing embarrassing and humiliating details and might choose to remain silent. A domestic violence victim may stay silent because of various other situational factors. However, when they speak up, their vulnerability increases most often. Women often lack a support system that could sustain them financially and emotionally both in times of crisis in relationships, consequently, they are at the receiving end. Another major factor is that women are threatened that children will be taken away from them if they think of isolation from the abusive husband. The economic dependence of women on their abusive husbands and in-laws also prevent women from accessing legal redress. As we go more into the issue of domestic violence-it turns more and more complex than it is perceived generally. Despite the fact that domestic violence cannot be seen as an issue of gender only, it is an important analytic category in understanding the domestic violence against women. Other identity markers like religion, class, caste also play a vital role in determining how the victims of domestic violence will be treated. Likewise, illiteracy and poverty also serve to restrict the access of victims of domestic violence to legal remedies.

The Way Ahead

The anger and protest directed towards an individual act of killing a married woman appear to be an unjust action because domestic violence is not even considered the bone of contention in Kashmir. Even though the last few years saw frequent killings, burnings, suicides, and severe wife-beatings, there is no acceptance of the fact that patriarchy is responsible for such actions by powerful men. Domestic violence more preferably intimate partner violence is also not to be simply understood as a violent act in a private setting rather it is a pattern of behavior in a relationship that is used to gain or maintain power and control over an intimate partner. We need to, first of all, acknowledge domestic violence as a problem and own responsibility for the oppressive actions against women as a community. Since Kashmir has seen repeated cycles of violence due to the presence of decades old armed conflict, our community, and the support

systems legally available for women such as police and judiciary are less likely to approach them for redress, because of their inherent violent natures experienced by the common masses. In addition to this an atmosphere of global Islamophobia also prevents the members of the community at large to accept the fact that issues such as domestic violence exist in our society. As a community, we need to build strong indigenous spaces to support the marginal sections, especially women. Combating domestic violence requires us to collectively promote structural changes. We need to challenge social norms surrounding domestic violence through properly organizing ourselves not against the individuals but against the system of patriarchal oppression that normalizes humiliating women on a daily basis which eventually results in heightened violence in the later phases. There is a dire need of feminist organizations that are capable of collaborating with other forms of organizations fighting different kinds of oppressions in the valley. Once women have a reliable and understanding support system and they are able to confide their grievances without the fear of being judged, women will definitely speak up. She will be strong enough to leave the abuser and prioritize her own life and happiness which she deserves.

Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer

  • The author is Assistant Professor, Women’s Studies Center, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Kashmir, Srinagar, J&K 

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