Kashmiri women have been in the news for several weeks now. It is not the kind of development women anywhere would welcome, and certainly not the women in Kashmir. The sex scandal that has rocked Srinagar, resulting in public demonstrations and trashing of the house of the ringleader of the sex racket in full view of television cameras, has become so politicised that it is difficult for people outside the State to comment on it.
Why not, asked a prominent Kashmiri, Prof. Hameeda Nayeem in a recent article. "Where are the women's groups, women's commissions, the NGOs across India which champion the cause of women's rights? If Jessica Lal's murder and its subsequent trial becomes a national issue - and duly so - why doesn't an organised, officially sanctioned abuse of Kashmiri girls elicit a single statement from anywhere across India? The argument that Kashmir is an integral part of India cannot be used only for political convenience. There is a need to relate to the people of Kashmir and their tragedies too", she writes (Indian Express, May 11, 2006).
Have women's groups held back because the scandal is embedded in the divided politics of Kashmir? That could be one reason. But the sexual exploitation of women by people in power is not just a women's issue. It needs to be addressed by society as a whole, and of course by the State. In the past, women's groups from outside Kashmir have intervened; a team went to investigate and report on the alleged rape of women in Kunan Poshpora in the early 1990s. There have been other reports by non-Kashmiri women on the impact of conflict on the lives of women in the valley. However, Prof. Nayeem is right in one sense; an intervention by women's groups from outside the valley might shed a different light on the issue. It would also ensure that voices of ordinary Kashmiri women would be heard. Perhaps for that reason alone, a Mission Kashmir should be mounted.
Catalyst for discussion
Voices that were not heard before are now audible through a new women's magazine that was recently launched in Kashmir. Called She, the first issue states on its masthead that it is a magazine "addressing issues of Kashmiri women. Our aim at She is to create an understanding of the problems of women today ... Our hope is that this magazine will serve as a catalyst for discussion in society".
Perhaps the most intriguing article in the slim, 16-page inaugural issue is on dating and teenagers. The author has spoken to many young Kashmiri women and some of their remarks reveal another side to life in Srinagar that does not come through when the only images you see are of angry people on its streets. "Dating is a nice time pass", one student told the writer. "In Kashmir, there isn't much to do. All we do is watch TV and movies. From this we learn that being in love is fun. Your boyfriend buys you chocolates and teddy bears and you get to tell your friends. Being in love is entertaining."
The article also reveals that young boys and girls meet in the booths of Internet cafes, the one place that they can escape prying eyes. The owners of these Internet cafes apparently do not care so long as the couples pay the rate of Rs.20 per hour for using the computer. Another modern device that is useful, say the students, is the mobile phone. "My friend SMSes her boyfriend throughout the day. They talk in the evening and she doesn't have to worry about someone picking up another phone extension", says a student.
It is also evident that television and cinema are making a big impact on the minds of young Kashmiris, as on young people everywhere. Speaking of girls who are willing to disobey parents to pursue relationships, one girl says, "It's not our fault. This is what we learn from the movies. Boy meets girl. Girl's family is against the marriage. Girl runs away with boy. They live happily ever after." The writer, of course, does not endorse any of this and ends by pointing out that relationships take a toll on emotional and physical development. "Dating is not as fun and easy as the movies make it out to be", she writes.
A different context
Why should an article on teen romance and dating be considered worth a comment? Because even something that we see as quite routine needs to be viewed against the background of conflict in the valley and developments like the recent sex scandal that has led to a demand that beauty parlours be closed and that girls cover up in public. As Prof. Nayeem points out in her article, one of the women's groups in Kashmir is "seeking to identify the scandal as part of the moral degradation of Kashmiri society. This gives a bad name to the women of Kashmir", she writes.
We can only hope that a magazine like She survives and flourishes in Kashmir, not because it is particularly revolutionary and path-breaking but because it represents an important step towards creating a space for debate and discussion about women's rights and roles. We hardly ever hear the views of Kashmiri women, barring exceptions like Mehbooba Mufti. More publications that encourage Kashmiri women to express their points of view on society and politics would have a positive impact not just in the valley but elsewhere too as it would provide a different perspective on developments in that troubled land.