By Maliha Siddiqi
There is a certain beauty in closure. Attaining a sense of completion is a natural psychological tendency. This tendency supersedes the probable outcome of the task be it a likely failure or a much awaited success. There is even a melancholic closure in the very concept of death or annihilation – it brings a culmination to senescence.
Such a closure has eluded a particular assemblage of women in Kashmir: the ‘half-widows’. These are the widows of the men who were illegally picked up from their homes in the very volatile and tumultuous time in Kashmir, mostly around the 1990s and were never returned to their loved ones. These enforced disappearances are humungous in numbers, around 10,000 or so, which has shattered and demobilized thousands of families who continue to suffer from social, mental as well as financial predicaments. The women who were married to these victims have been iconized as a powerful and untameable community, popularly termed as ‘half-widows’.
The issue of enforced disappearances has been mostly analyzed in terms of political as well as legal nuances. A lot of emphasis has been also laid upon tracing the origin of the disappearances – their whereabouts as well as ascertaining the identity of the perpetrators who were mostly ‘faceless’. There is a whole new aspect that remains little explored: the wives of disappeared men as a group whose sufferings are beyond any imagination. They are psychologically disturbed and in a perpetual state of trauma for almost 30 years. Their despair is further aggravated by the constant hope of return of these men that causes havoc on their emotional well-being. There is a logical feeling in them that their husbands will probably never return, given the circumstances that include their state of disappearance and the absence of a recognized agency or individual who picked them up. There are no discernable institutions that could provide valid whereabouts about their husbands. With each passing year, the sinking feeling of hopelessness reinforces their worst fears that their husbands would never return to them.
There are a lot of issues that have affected this community: psychological stress coupled with the unending trauma, financial problems, social stigmas and taboos, etc. When the disappearances first started, the conflict was at its peak in Kashmir valley and no person or agency was to be trusted, given their ulterior motives. Being at their most vulnerable, the ‘half-widows’ were often misled regarding the locations of their husbands. They often landed in places where they were mentally or sexually abused with the promise that their men were holed up there. Anything the women would not consent to would be a factor in delaying their release. Many women claim that the very process drained them extensively out of their financial assets.
Eventually many women lost hope because of the strenuous process and gave up, owing to social constraints or even parental pressures. Many women remarried mostly against their will just to provide a means of wherewithal for them and their children. They were mistreated and troubled in their new homes but kept pulling on for the sake of pure survival. A mobilized society failed to provide opportunities to the community to generate a viable source of income for a group it calls the ‘daughters of Kashmir’. The identity of a woman, especially in Islamic jurisprudence, is lawfully linked to her husband and she is majorly dependent on her spouse for her financial sustenance. Since most women were not very educated at the time and their husbands were the sole breadwinners, it became impossible to sustain the household after the disappearance of their men. Even remarriage of females in shariah is an unclear state of affair that is debated extensively yet heterogeneously by various schools of thoughts. In such cases of enforced disappearance without any usable proof of death, it poses a greater uncertainty to the survivors to be able to claim any bank accounts or financial assets. This has pushed the community into greater distress and they have been exploited of their vulnerabilities. Socially they are not accepted into their parents’ homes after marriage and staying with their in-laws is not really an option as without their husbands, it is considered unceremonious to be living around the male members such as the father-in-law or the brother-in-law. There is an ongoing struggle as these women have become enslaved into the clutches of widowhood yet cannot even be called widows. The uncertainty and vagueness have pushed them into depression and a state of self-loathing.
Even the term ‘half-widow’ can be construed as derogatory as the individual identity of a woman does not hold any importance and all her individuality is compromised as she is only reduced to a wife – a widow. She is expected to carry that tag all her life and mourn endlessly as if her life was consolidated to only a wife and everything ended when she lost her husband. No employment opportunities were charted out by the civil society to provide a sustainable source of income to the community, where they could have worked in a congenial and safe environment without compromising their modesty. This way they didn’t have to remarry under pressure from their peers merely for financial sustenance. The women had to often give consent under duress to resurrect their life.
The ‘half-widow’ community of Kashmir is traumatized, distressed and enclosed into a normative arrangement. The use of enforced disappearance as a war tactic is a serious matter that is prevalent in many parts of the world, including Sri Lanka, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Mexico and has produced communities of loved ones who have braced all odds. They linger to search for their loved ones whom they believe can never be so easily obliterated from the world. They deserve rational explanations and trial of the perpetrators who enforced the disappearance of their men, who just vanished without leaving any trace of their whereabouts. While tracing the victims and denouncing the immoral act of enforced disappearances remain a very central issue, an inevitable and unavoidable step in peace building and conflict resolution should be the safe and sustainable rehabilitation of the ‘half-widows’ who continue to battle a plethora of problems even today.
Maliha Siddiqi has a master’s degree in mass communication from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, and is currently pursuing her PhD. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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