Kashmir has long experienced conflict. Since 1989, a full-blown insurgency has ravaged this beautiful land. Pakistan claims that India has occupied a Muslim-majority area that rightfully belongs to Islamabad. India maintains that the then state of Jammu and Kashmir legally acceded to India in 1947. With two nuclear-armed neighbors at odds over Kashmir, tragedy has stalked the land.

In recent years, radical Islamists have been on the ascendant in a land historically known for tolerant Sufi Islam. Arguably, the ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Hindus in 1990 set in motion an inexorable trend. Now, the separatist movement that wants an independent Kashmiri state has been supplanted in many places by those who want union with Pakistan or even an ISIS-style caliphate.

In such an environment, calling out sexual predators in Kashmir is not easy, especially if perpetrators are Islamists. Victims are often targeted by Islamists for being ‘pro-state’ (read pro-India) and disloyal to the Kashmiri cause.

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Mantasha Rashid. She is the founder of Kashmir Women’s Collective (KWC), a gender advocacy group. In October, 2018, KWC named “multiple men in Kashmir – from political analysts, media personalities, editors, journalists and bureaucrats, to political workers – of sexually inappropriate behaviour.”

As Severyna Magill noted then, “KWC members [were] individually and collectively vilified by a smear campaign, insidiously circulated by the friends of those named.” KWC KWC received a torrent of threatening emails and messages attempting to silence them. 

Here, Rashid speaks about what inspired her to start KWC, its mission and purpose. She goes on to explain the origins of #MeToo in Kashmir, the major milestones accomplished by KWC, patriarchy and religious conservatism in Kashmir, excesses by Indian security forces, the politicization of gender-based violence in Kashmir, and the complications that arise when women speak out.

Vikram Zutshi: What was the inspiration behind KWC and what are key milestones in its journey? 

Mantasha Rashid: KWC is inspired by Combahee River Collective, a black women’s organization from the 1970s that worked to address racism and sexism against black women in the US through intersectional feminism. 

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While doing a master’s program on gender and sexuality in the US, I realized that we needed to have such an organization in Kashmir. We started in 2016 and registered as a trust in 2017.

From the outset, KWC has been providing legal and psycho-social support to victim-survivors of violence in Kashmir. We also do capacity building, training workshops for students, police, teachers and religious preachers on the issues of gender rights, sexual abuse, harassment at workplace etc. Hence, the focus is educational: we provide support services and advocacy on issues pertaining to gender. 

 Zutshi: How did #MeToo start in Kashmir? The journalists and writers in your #MeToo allegations have stayed studiously silent. Is there another list of offenders that KWC plans to release? Also, do you see any chance for due process to take its course and bring perpetrators to justice?

Rashid: #MeToo is not indigenous to Kashmir. As you know, it is a global movement. KWC began after an informal discussion about the #MeToo movement in our KWC office. Volunteers who were young girls revealed some disturbing details. They told us about prominent men hiding their marital status and luring young girls on the pretext of marriage or guidance in career, internships, academic references etc into inappropriate relationships. When we asked them as to why young girls like them did not shame these men in public, they replied that if they revealed their identity, their families would not accept their revelations and, once their experience became publicly known, their families would be shamed. Kashmir is a small, closed and conservative society where social consequences for women who speak out can be serious. On hearing this, we felt that KWC could act as an interface between these young girls and society. It would collect the stories of these girls and publish them while safeguarding the identity of the girls themselves.

We decided that under no circumstances shall we reveal the names of these girls. The girls reposed their trust in us. They gave us their narratives on the condition that we would protect their identities. The status, credentials or political association of these men were of no consequence to us and we can say with certainty that it didn’t matter to those girls either. 

Our #MeToo movement was centered on women’s experiences and did not pay any heed to the accused men’s families, professions or politics. Unfortunately, some people tried to taint us as pro-state and pro-India voices. Had that been the case, the list of names we compiled would not have officers from state and central services, journalists and even a woman who was the aunt of a girl and had abused her since childhood.

When you ask if we intend to release any more narratives, we would say no. We could not release a few narratives because many women were threatened and withdrew their consent. They apologized for letting us down but their wellbeing is our primary concern.

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Zutshi: How many cases of sexual violence do you attribute to Indian security forces? Did any of the victims receive justice? 

Rashid: There are some cases in public knowledge like Kunan Poshpora. A few like that of bride Mubina have been documented by Nyla Ali Khan and in the book edited by Urvashi Butalia’s edited book, Speaking Peace: Women’s Voices from Kashmir. From what I know, no convictions have been made so far in any cases involving Indian security forces.

Zutshi: How is KWC tackling endemic issues like domestic abuse, sexual violence and mental health conditions? How challenging has it been to get institutional support for your efforts? 

Rashid: It is immensely challenging to hear the stories of abuse and violence at any time of the day, through messages and phone calls as well as in person too. Also, we are a network of volunteering women who do their respective jobs and professions. This makes it quite hard for us. Burnout and time management stress are common. 

My PhD is about violence against women and its findings clearly show that these issues are neither recognized nor understood through the lens of gender-based violence. Instead, they are seen as aberrations, or as individual cases in isolation. A larger policy and action framework is missing despite there being a women’s police station in Srinagar. Its functioning will baffle you as the police focus is on mediation even after clear incidents of physical violence in marriage and even dowry.

As far as institutional support for KWC goes, thus far we have never approached any institution for any support. We have not taken any government or private funding. A few of us donate our time and some money to support and run KWC. We are a non-partisan and objective group with absolutely no political or religious affiliation. We have a few lawyers and counselors who volunteer their services for our network. We refer cases that come to our attention from time to time to these specialized volunteers after our primary intervention. 

Zutshi: How does the ingrained conservatism of Kashmiri society prevent victims from speaking out? What could be done to make the process easier for them? 

Rashid: Kashmir is a closed society and the political conflict has only added to social insecurity. Whenever an issue of gender-based violence or the rights of any minority group are referred to in any social context, it is perceived through the regional political binary lens. The nuances and even facts are often stripped out, reducing the issue to a pro-state or pro-separatist view. 

This is dangerous for any discourse. Such a binary lens shrinks the space for any genuine voice of support or advocacy for gender or minority rights. Also, patriarchy is a global reality, just its manifestations are varied and diverse for different cultures. Even in the US, for example, there are different wages for men and women for the same work. For that matter, black, hispanic, and white women have different experiences because patriarchy is often clubbed with racism.

How will things be easy for women in Kashmir? I think through women’s education to begin with and a lot more social change thereafter. You may find it surprising that an SUV-driving woman who earns no less than nearly $1,900 (Rupees 150,000) per month (a relatively high figure in Kashmir) comes to seek support from us at KWC. Her problem is that her husband is uninterested and neglectful, both financially and emotionally. The lady has no option but to seek a divorce. However, she and her parents are in a fix because she has three sisters who are yet to be married. If this lady divorced her husband, that could potentially cause problems for her sisters in finding suitable grooms.We have a big challenge: how do we deal with such societal attitudes? And it is not an isolated case, such archaic stigmas are widely prevalent in Kashmiri society. 

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A lot needs to be done both at an institutional level and at the community level by taking major stakeholders on board. It may come as a surprise to you that, even though a shelter home for women in distress is mandated by legislation on domestic violence, it does not exist on the ground. In its absence, we have housed women in our KWC office for months altogether. There’s a lot that needs to be done. 

Zutshi: Finally, what role does the decades-long Kashmir conflict play in enabling predators and what are some possible solutions?  

Rashid: In a political conflict any issue is dovetailed to anti-state and pro-state, anti-freedom movement or pro-freedom movement narratives. It is nearly impossible to break free of these larger regional political narratives and advocate for any social cause. However, we at KWC largely feel that we have achieved our objective. We simply wanted to create a space in public discourse where these sensitive issues of discrimination, bodily violation, and violence against women are accepted, recognized and  addressed seriously.

Whether women  or girls took their cases to courts, received apology, or their allegations were contested was the second step which didn’t directly concern KWC. Our job was just to be a platform for stories of young Kashmiri girls, to shield them and to protect their identity. 

Sadly, the fact remains that no institutional actions were initiated against the accused by their respective offices. They did not even investigate serious allegations and check on their facticity.

#MeToo is not only a women’s issue but a societal issue of dignity and safety of half the population. Data from the World Health Organization (WHO) reveals that “across their lifetime, 1 in 3 women, around 736 million, are subjected to physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner or sexual violence from a non-partner – a number that has remained largely unchanged over the past decade.”

The reason for such alarming WHO numbers is that largely power is disproportionately titled in favor of men. #MeToo was a symbolic gesture of channelizing women’s rage worldwide to tilt this power imbalance, however little its outcome may have been. I strongly feel that #MeToo was necessary and many more such movements are essential for progress.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.