Day Sixteen | Women, gender-based violence, and resistance in Kashmir

Seema Kazi

Kashmir_valley_beautiful_flowersPhoto reproduced from Wikimedia

On 5 August 2019, the Indian government annulled Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status and split Indian-administered Kashmir into two federally-administered territories.  Astonishingly, the promotion of women’s rights was invoked as one of the discourses to justify the revocation of Kashmiri autonomy, whilst at the same time there have been widespread reports of gender-based violence by Indian troops. 

In the run up to the abrogation, the central government mobilised a million troops across the territory of Kashmir in parallel with the unlawful arrest of over 4,000 civilians (especially young boys), widespread use of torture, sexual molestation and harassment of Kashmiri women, together with a climate of extraordinary repression against the local population. Curbs on the media have restricted public access to information on Kashmir.

In addition to these measures, the central government imposed a crippling communications blackout: internet, landline and mobile services were cut off; Kashmiris could no longer stay in touch with each other or know what was happening to them, or indeed about them in Kashmir, or in the world at large. Landline and mobile services have since been partially restored but the ban on the internet continues. 

Kashmir is the world’s oldest unresolved conflict in the world. Partitioned between India and Pakistan without popular consent in 1948, the territory of Jammu and Kashmir in India, or Kashmir as it has come to be known, transformed into an international dispute between both states. The attempt to contain a political conflict through military means has been synonymous with large-scale human rights abuse by state forces including high levels of gendered violence over seven decades.

As Kashmir transformed into the world’s most militarised region, the challenges of Kashmiri women were multiple and daunting. A report by Médecins Sans Frontières on women’s health in Kashmir noted that Kashmiri women were subject to high levels sexual and gender-based violence including rape. Indian security forces were indicted for rape and sexual assault. In February 1991, army soldiers allegedly raped more than 30 women in Kunan Poshpora. In July 2019, a UNHCR report affirmed that no progress in the investigation had taken place even as the state authorities continued to thwart the survivor’s struggle for justice.  

In addition to forms of direct violence, the conflict has extracted a deadly and tragic price from Kashmiri women by way of, among others, the loss of the family breadwinner and male kin, large numbers of widows and half widows, the emergence of female-headed households, threats to women’s bodily and sexual integrity, a rise in women’s economic vulnerability, especially of underprivileged women, a mental health crisis among Kashmiri women, and the social exclusion and marginalisation of widows.

In 2019, gender has been deployed in political discourse around the abrogation of Kashmir’s autonomy. Among the justifications for rescinding Article 370 was ‘gender inequality’ in women’s property rights. Proponents of revocation argued that the Article disallowed Kashmiri women married to non-Kashmiris from inheriting or holding property in the state. This particular argument however was factually incorrect. A 2002 High Court ruling affirmed the right of Kashmiri women marrying non-Kashmiris to own property. Another key public justification for rescinding Kashmir’s autonomy was the stated ‘backwardness’ of Kashmiri women – a claim belied by the consistently superior social indices for women in Kashmir as compared to their counterparts in India. 

Apart from the instrumental use of women’s rights to legitimise state action in Kashmir, the ruling party’s post-revocation statements have been infused with racist and sexist metaphors. Members of the ruling party hailed the removal of Kashmir’s special rights as an opportunity for greater Hindu access to (Muslim) Kashmir’s land and Kashmiri women’s bodies. A ruling party legislator declared his party workers were excited they could now get married to ‘fair Kashmiri girls. Nivedita Menon, a feminist academic, underscored the imperialist, sexist and misogynist sub-text underpinning the revocation of Kashmir’s autonomy: ‘These are proclamations of conquest and plunder, and reveal the real intention behind the abrogation of 370’.

Kashmiri women’s resistance

Notwithstanding the relentless siege and brutality, the breakdown in civilian life, and the violence and torture, Kashmiri women such as Anjum Zamrooda Habib and Parveena Ahanger have publicly resisted the Indian occupation. Anjum Zamrooda works with families of political prisoners while Parveena Ahanger has  transformed her personal tragedy of a disappeared son into a larger civic movement for public accountability for the disappeared. Women’s resistance, however, is often not given the attention or importance it deserves. Kashmir is no exception to this trend. Recent research affirms the multiple and continuing resistance by Kashmiri girls and women across generations in the wake of post-5 August developments: as decoys, militants, stone-pelters and street protestors. 

Women’s individual and collective support for the Kashmiri struggle for justice and freedom  continues despite formidable odds. A ground report documented women’s spirit of resistance in the wake of the abrogation of Kashmir’s autonomy: a young woman in the capital city of Srinagar said she could not think of anything but ‘our Azaadi  (freedom)…we hardly care about any pellet or bullet’. The report further noted the numerous women-only rallies in Srinagar; it also described how young women took to patrolling Srinagar’s rebellious Anchar neighbourhood with men in order to thwart police raids. Rehana, a teacher said:

 Our fight is bigger than Article 370. The abrogation of the article stripped us off our identity, however our battle is older than this. We are fighting for Kashmir’s liberation and until that is achieved we will keep fighting, even if it takes several months or years.

Hafsa Kanjwal, a Kashmiri scholar, points out that India’s revocation of Kashmir’s autonomy has refocused world attention on Kashmir as a political dispute. For the first time in 50 years, the UN Security Council held a closed door hearing on Kashmir. UNHCR reports on Kashmir in 2018 and 2019, recent US Congressional hearings on Kashmir, and the statements of US Democratic Party Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn acknowledging Kashmir as a disputed territory awaiting the implementation of UN resolutions indicate a discernible shift in international political and policy discourse. A recent US House of Representatives resolution called on India to end the communications blockade and mass detentions in Kashmir.

When or whether international opinion forces India to allow Kashmiris the right to determine their political future, as promised to them in 1947, remains to be seen. Kashmiri feminist scholar Hafsa Kanjwal spiritedly maintains:

‘the inability or sheer refusal to see the writing on the wall…has marked India’s position on Kashmir. But the unravelling of this position is giving way to a new movement – one that can no longer be contained.’

Seema Kazi is Associate Professor of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies in Delhi. Recent publications include Gender and Governance: Perspectives from South Asia (Zubaan Academic 2019), and Between Democracy and Nation: Gender and Militarisation in Kashmir (Women Unlimited 2009; Oxford University Press 2010)

Day Sixteen |When the law against violence becomes violent

Rachana Johri, Bindu K.C. and Krishna Menon

Resisting Violence

Image of WISCOMP’s Resisting Violence annotated bibliography, reproduced with permission. Original art work by Linda Carmel


A critical question for feminists to ask when women turn to the law is whether a legal victory is always a triumph of the feminist worldview. Violence against women is ubiquitous in patriarchy. It pervades virtually all spheres of lives, happening most often in relational spaces. Without questioning the necessity of the law, it seems that the work of feminism must include a detailed analysis of the many moments in which women experience violence such as sexual harassment at the workplace and at educational institutions. 

Every violent act – whether it is a comment on the looks of a classmate, persistent messages from one student to another, or rape – constitute violence. Must all these be treated within a legal framework? And is ‘punishment’ the only imagination of justice? Perhaps more pertinently, does ‘punishment’ belong in a feminist approach to justice?

Feminists have had a rather contentious relationship with the law, and thereby with the state. In India, for instance, feminist campaigns have reposed great faith in the ability of law to initiate and establish equality and freedom on the one hand; on the hand, feminists have doubted and been skeptical of the very foundations on which modern legal systems are based. Consider the two moments where feminists in India have engaged with law – the Mathura custodial rape case and the infamous Delhi bus gang rape case. 

The Mathura rape case (1972) was undoubtedly a watershed moment in India; it signalled a radical shift in the focus of the women’s movement and feminist politics in India, and its engagement with the law. In 1974, the Committee on the Status of Women in India published its landmark report – ‘Towards Equality’ – and demonstrated an abiding faith in the ability of legislation to act as the major instrument for ushering in changes in the social order. 

The Supreme Court of India belied this faith when it pronounced its judgment in the Mathura rape case. Mathura was a sixteen year old girl who was raped by two policemen who were on duty.  She fought a courageous battle in the courts only to find that the Supreme Court of India cited the absence of injury marks on her body and her failure to have raised an alarm as evidence of consent for sexual encounters.  Following the judgement, sustained feminist campaigns resulted in many substantive changes in Indian criminal laws as passed in 1983.

In response the Mathura case, an Open Letter to the Chief Justice was authored by teachers of law at the University of Delhi Upendra Baxi, Lotika Sarkar, Raghunath Kelkar and Vasudha Dhagamwar. The letter represented a thrilling moment in the history of women’s movement and its long battle on the question of violence.

Thirty two years later came the Delhi bus gang rape case. This was a brutal and aggravated sexual attack perpetrated against  a 23 year student traveling home on a bus after an evening out with her friend. It horrified people across India and, indeed, the world.  She and her friend fought back only to be beaten mercilessly with iron rods, resulting in grave injuries that finally resulted in her death.  This incident resulted in  angry protests in the city of Delhi and elsewhere, compelling the government to review the existing legal framework – a process that resulted in further changes in the law.

Just months later, the Justice Verma Committee Report was released in response to protests across the country. This report laid the foundations of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 2013, and became an occasion for feminists in India to engage deeply with the nature of law and the crime and punishment matrix. 

Law is not static; it is best understood as a process that unfolds rather messily and haltingly. While the legal dispensation might nudge along progressive change, its ability to render justice remains limited. While the law might nurse implicit emancipatory potential, it harbours within it the seeds of what might be called a ‘carceral’ and aggressive feminism that is hostile to conversation, dialogue, mediation and conflict resolution. The power of the legal statute combined with a rigid and unimaginative invocation of identity politics, can result in nasty and bitter and – dare we say – violent use of the law.  What do we do when groups of feminists argue with each other, and use the power of law to settle disputes? Can the law, as Pratiksha Baxi asks, translate sexual agency and desire into juridical categories?

Feminists in India have reflected upon other conceptions of justice and indeed the impossibility of justice within what is essentially a masculinist legal paradigm (see also Menon’s Recovering Subversion and Sethi’s commentary ‘Why the Mahmood Farooqui Judgment is Deeply Flawed’).  It is this kind of questioning that has led feminists in India and elsewhere to value emotions and account for the specificity in each instance, rather than be guided solely by universalising frames and principles based on ‘reason’ and empirical evidence. Such an orientation towards questions of legality and justice  would be concerned with setting limits to the use of law. It would value friendship, compassion and relationality as frames within which to examine the question of justice. 

Do these two approaches have to be pitted against each other? As feminists we would caution against the setting up of yet another unfruitful binary. It is only through the difficult task of feminist engagement with the law, legal processes, legal institutions, legal education and the legal profession that the distance between these two approaches will be creatively negotiated. We see the sixteen days of activism against gender-based violence as yet another significant initiative in this direction.

Krishna Menon is Professor of Gender Studies, is and currently Dean of the School of Human Studies, Ambedkar University Delhi. Some of her recent publications include Social Movements in Contemporary India (SAGE Texts 2019), ‘The “Right” Music: Caste and “classical” music in south India’ in Discourse on Rights in India: Debates and Dilemmas (Routledge 2018). 

Bindu K.C. is Assistant Professor in gender studies at Ambedkar University Delhi. Her teaching and research expertise are at the intersection of gender studies and English literature.  

Rachana Johri is a Professor at the School of Human Studies, Ambedkar University Delhi, where she teaches psychology, psychosocial studies and gender studies.