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July 22, 2022 7:10 pm

Poetic Lament Over Perpetual Pain—Kashmiri Women in Freeze Frame

Almost three decades later, a lone warrior, Munawara struggles to raise her only son facing a lot of challenges but is relentless in seeking justice in the courts to punish her husband’s killer.

Inside her Srinagar home, Munawara Sultana hymns poet Mahmod Gami’s famous 16 century masnavi“I call out to you, O my Yusuf, come! You are still young, do not go!”

The lament became a rallying cry in the valley—especially through the turbulent times of 90s—for thousands of the grieved and distressed mothers, wives and families searching for their lost sons and husbands.

“My husband, Gowhar Amin Bahadur was a shopkeeper who was taken away by the Border Security Forces (BSF) in full public view to a cowshed in Batamaloo and killed in cold blood,” Sultana says with a struggle-battered face.

“I was a newlywed wife with dreams and my marital bliss was cut short exactly about four months and seven days after my wedding during a crackdown at Srinagar’s Batamaloo Bazar.”

The event that followed on April 7, 1993 turned 22 years old Munawara’s life completely shattered and crushed with heaps of immeasurable sorrow when her husband’s lifeless body was found lying with gunshots in his chest and head at the Police Control Room, Srinagar.

“They fired at his head from behind but with those two bullets they not only killed him but also took away our lives, mine and my yet to be born son back then,” Munawara recounts fighting tears.

Her son, Anees Gowhar was born five months after the ill-fated incident.

Amidst the troubled of the nineties in the valley, a single mother and battered widow, Munawara’s journey is an exemplary one of continuous fight, determination and resistance.

“I went along with my family members to the police station to lodge an FIR. But the police refused to lodge an FIR at that time,” she chronicles her anguish. “After that, I went to the CJM and through a court directive got an FIR lodged. BSF says they caught two militants and ammunitions. But even to date, the said ammunition has neither been recovered, not seen. How would they prove my Gowhar was a criminal anyway? His only crime was serving drinking water to the young and old gathered at the bus stop who were exhausted in the heat during the crackdown.”

Almost three decades later, a lone warrior, Munawara struggles to raise her only son facing a lot of challenges but is relentless in seeking justice in the courts to punish her husband’s killer.

“I had an innocent newborn whose father got killed and never to come back again,” she says. “With no earnings, my paternal family looked after us. My father made sure Anees did not discover or miss the absence of a paternal figure. I had to become a father, mother as well as lifelong friend to my son. I was very young back then and got many marriage proposals but for Anees and the memories of my gone husband, I choose not to.”

She couldn’t hold back her tears flowing as Munawara talks about her father who became the biggest backbone and now has passed away too a year back.

“I had to sell off my jewellery, purchased an auto rickshaw and the driver used to give me 100 rupees each day as rent,” she says. “Through the darkest days, my family stood up for me and with their help I could even construct our own house and educate my son really well.”

In her slain husband’s memory, Munawara has named her blue three-storey house—Aashiana Gowhar, an abode of Gowhar.

Hers is a story of hope against all odds. Munawara fought her own battle and as a message to all the battered mothers and wives, she strongly says, “Losing much to terror, I have first hand experienced that hatred and violence only increases pain. Stones and guns do nothing. We need to seek justice and fight for our cause in solidarity. Issues will get resolved, if we talk, sit together and see the real problems and get one’s voices heard. Everyone calls us and our young boys and men as militants and terrorists but they are more than welcome to visit here and I am willing to take them from one house to another personally showing them the actual image of our shared pain and realities to the world.”

Though it can be said Munawara found some closure but thousands in the valley still are living with open wounds of loss and mourning of their disappeared ones not knowing whether they are to be found ever or even alive, though in some instances their corpses are found years later.

In the early hours of 18 August 1990, 16-year-old Javaid Ahmed Ahangar disappeared after he was picked up from his house by troops. He forever vanished in that night raid on Dhobi Mohalla in Batamaloo, Srinagar.

“Nothing but death will end my search,” says Parveena Ahangar whose endless hunt and long desperation for her innocent son’s whereabouts weaved way to Kashmir’s oldest human rights movement and international organisation, The Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons(APDP) against enforced disappearances in Kashmir.

Since 1989, APDP says, Kashmir has witnessed over 8,000 cases of enforced or involuntary disappearances.

According to the report, The Structure of Violence by Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), there are more than 7000 unmarked mass graves located in far off regions of the valley where many of the missing are feared to be tortured and killed and buried.

A young mother’s vulnerability and mad grief led Parveena to search for her abducted son who was a class 11 student back then for days to months from police stations to army cantonments, to interrogation centers, to military garrisons, to hospitals, to morgues and finally reached the courts asking a simple question, “Where is my son?”, which no one had any answer.

The gut-wrenching desperation and individual search opened Parveena’s window which led her to doors of thousands of families, wives and widows, and distressed parents whose loved ones were picked up during night raids or in broad daylight, especially during the heightened years of the 90s and were never seen again.

It mirrors the image of shared pain and struggles against increasing military violence who are surviving with hoping a return of their lost ones and this has resulted into consolidating a rare collective movement of resistance and “radical departure from traditionally private rituals of mourning, they create a spectacle of mourning that combats the government’s threatening silence about the fates of their sons, husbands, and fathers,” as Professor Ather Zia writes in Resisting Disappearance: Military Occupation and Women’s Activism in Kashmir.

Over 32-year-long efforts, Parveena’s story is about an illiterate Kashmiri woman who was married at the tender age of 12, and never even stepped out to Lal Chowk—Srinagar’s trade heartland tucked barely half a mile from her residence—but the maddening love and pain of her disappeared son and the quest for justice and struggle made her known as the “Iron Lady of Kashmir”.

Parveena, whom everyone lovingly calls Jiji, has come a long way taking the collective movement mainly led by women at its helm and their agonized voices of the valley’s custodial disappearances heard locally and internationally across cities and places such as London, Geneva, Indonesia to name a few.

From M. Zahiruddin’s 2001 book, Did They Vanish in Thin Air? to Danish Renzu’s critically acclaimed 2017 movie “Half Widow”, the question of disappearances and plight of the Kashmiri women and half widows in particular have been documented by a few in the recent years through books, ethnography poetry, and photography, and films.

But what makes such resistance and protests unique in the larger milieu is the Kashmiri women’s active participation, who were mainly limited to the domestic sphere earlier, in the shared movement of memory and survival.

This gendered struggle of the Kashmiri mothers and widows becomes more important to understand the impact and dynamics of gender and trauma in a conflict zone which isn’t often talked-about but has transformed the face of an entire history of resistance.

There are tales and thousands of tales coming from the hamlet of these women’s endless wait and longings, such as of Mughal Mase, who waited for twenty years until her very death searching for her only son, Nazir Ahmed Teli, a 25-year-old teacher who disappeared from Habba Kadal, Srinagar on September1, 1990 with no trace ever to be found.

“Early morning I would set out, searching at detention centres, army camps, I would return exhausted , I couldn’t cook, without eating I would take my hukka, puff and puff at it until my heart burnt. I have been through so much, I am enveloped in anguish,” recounts the aching mother in filmmaker Iffat Fatima’s 2009 documentary, Where Have You Hidden My New Moon Crescent.

“When I miss him, I want to tear apart rocks and mountains… it is a deep sorrow…I crave to see him at least once,” cries Mughal Mase in the documentary which is a tribute to a brave mother who single-handedly raised and nurtured her only son after the husband divorced and left them.

In Baramulla’s Rafiabad, Nayeema Khatoon’s aching head still gets recurring dreams of her husband, Taqir Nabi who disappeared in 2003.

“Tariq used to be very popular in our locality for his humour and easygoing nature and we led a very normal, happy life,” Nayeema says.

“Around 2001 when we got married, tensions were running high in the valley but never in my dreams I thought my husband would become a victim and just vanish never to come back again.”

Tariq had no relations with any politics and guns, the half-widow laments. “My husband was a small time fruit seller in the local mandi and both our families had economic hardships. A cousin of mine promised him some business favor but never did I think that ill-fated trip to Srinagar would punctuate our entire lives,” recalls Nayeema in between her tears.

Four days later, no news of him, Tariq’s elder brother and cousins rushed to the police station but of no use. “They even refused to acknowledge my husband’s existence as if we were talking about some imaginary person,” says Nayeema. “Out of utter helplessness, I started bribing policemen, middlemen or any local folk who promised to share even any little information about him.”

The wait and her desperation turned from days to months and now years have passed, she has cried herself to sleep and even collapsed crying in between her namaz.

Refusing to be a liability to her family, Nayeema started reaching out to some NGOs with the help of a friend, who was a government employee.

“Around 2010,” she says, “I got myself involved in the packaging of apples for a local grower and managed a measly income. I somehow convinced myself my husband will return back soon and for him I should keep myself busy so the days pass soon as loneliness eats you up too. Since we had no children, I took the responsibility of raising the youngest daughter of my sister.”

Though now over almost two decades later, her heart is slowly losing hope, Nayeema in a choked voice asserts, “I might have to wait forever to meet my husband but whenever I hear any news of bodies of men found injured with bullets or maimed or killed lying, my heart shrieks. Now what to do with a woman’s heart, I can only pray to Allah that my Tariq does not meet this fate and that he is lying down somewhere peacefully.”

But since Munawara’s Gowher has long met the brutal fate of conflict, she is now consoling her heart with Mahmod Gami’s masnavi“I call out to you, O my Yusuf, come! You are still young, do not go!”

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