Plight of Half Widows in Kashmir

Plight of Half Widows in Kashmir

By Gyanewsar Dayal

Widows in all societies suffer a lot in the perpetual absence of husbands who were once their lifelong partner and mostly sole breadwinner. But many half widows of Kashmir are suffering worse since their husbands have just disappeared with no certainty about their return, dead or alive. Incidentally, Half-widow is a term given to Kashmiri women whose husbands have disappeared and were still missing during the ongoing conflict in Kashmir and they are still not remarried.

Among the devastating effects of three wars and continued insurgency many people go missing every year, in Kashmir, never to be seen again by their loved ones. Family and friends are left in midpoint, while wives live in poverty and despair as “half-widows”, not knowing whether their husbands are dead or alive. Disappearances like these have long been a feature of the conflict in Kashmir, one of the most densely militarized regions in the world.

How Many Have Disappeared

The United Nations estimates that in the last 25 years 100,000 people including security personnel have died and a further 8000 to 10,000 individuals have “disappeared”. At present, the number of half-widows in Kashmir remains unconfirmed. The Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JCCS) estimates there are 1,500 half-widows while other estimates put the number closer to 2,500.

How the Half Widows Suffer.

Half-widows face financial difficulties because they cannot access their husband’s property or bank accounts or even the much needed ration cards since death certificates are required in all these cases. But these are not simply available since their husbands are not officially recognised as deceased. Under Muslim personal law, a person cannot be declared dead until seven years after his disappearance Government support or relief in such cases is only available once more than seven years have passed since the husband went missing. The disappeared person also needs to be cleared of any militant-related activity which is a very difficult process. But those who do manage to receive government assistance have reported corrupt practices. If they do receive a payment, the women often live in poverty as the money is shared or even seized by the paternal family members, or the half- widow is forced to leave for their marital home.

Under Islamic law a widow with children gets one-eighth of her husband’s property and one fourth if she does not have a child. But the half widow gets nothing simply because she cannot prove her hubby’s death.

Can Half Widows Marry Again?

Remarriage for women is considered both taboo and stigma in society. So many do not remarry with the hope that their husband will eventually return one day. Others decide against remarriage, often because they are concerned that a stepfather may not accept another man’s children. Half-widows are also looked at with suspicion that they too might be associated with insurgency and violence. For those women who do want to remarry, the religious interpretations of the rules around remarriage in such cases is very complex. In 2014, a landmark decision reduced the waiting period for remarriage from seven to four years. But here again remarriage may or may not remain valid in case the first husband returns. In some cases if a proper divorce is taken and remarriage is held then the second marriage remains valid otherwise not. In such cases of uncertainties very few men will also come forward to marry a half widow.

Subsequent Kashmir governments have taken steps to support women by setting up empowerment programmes via women’s groups and non-governmental development organisations and Kashmiri women have themselves created self-help groups for victims. But half widows do not get any special attention in any of these programmes which in any case are limited. Other women have become empowered by activism: a mother who got little support to find her missing son created the Association of Parents for Disappeared Persons, for example.

The question remains how so many people have disappeared in Kashmir over the years. In many cases it seems a mystery. Over fifty years old Begum Jaan’s husband Shamsuddin Pasal left home for evening prayers in 1998 never to return again. In the case of Bibi Fatima in 1993 her husband Vilayat Shah, a daily wager, left home in search for work. Fatima in her sixties is still waiting for him after several desperate and futile searches. The two are not sporadic cases and there are many.

It is said that in troubled Kashmir sometimes extremists used civilians as guides. Other times the army uses villagers to lead search operations in the forests. Not many returned to their families. At times they die in cross fire and even used as human shields first to become causality.

Where the Disappeared persons are?

No one, not even the Government has an answer to this question even if so many people have disappeared.

But there are some unnamed mass graves in Kashmir. These men could be buried in mass graves too but no one knows. There was a demand to exhume the bodies and find out through DNA tests, at least the recorded cases of disappeared persons. But in Kashmir that is simply not allowed under Islamic laws. There are emotions attached to it and religion forbids the same. There is a possibility that some of these disappeared persons could be on the other side of Kashmir ruled by Pakistan.

Meanwhile, the half- widows are at the end of their tether and often take out their frustration against visiting journalists. “We have become specimens,” says Bano Begum. Hundreds of people with cameras, mikes and lights have visited our place, interviewed us. But that never helped us in any way. They have “sold” our tragedies. We are fed-up with giving out interviews. Will your report bring back my husband?” she questions in anger-laced voice. Her unending suffering continues in Dardpora – euphemistically named as the abode of pain!