Women often become the collateral damage of power struggles, political gains, security paradigms and resistance. Most often choices around these ideologies and actions are dominated and controlled by men. Women become unwilling partners of decisions which have grave repercussions on their lives and relationships. The worst part is that even while they struggle to negotiate vulnerable spaces, their roles and identities, their experiences and stories remain unheard.
The truth of this reality hit me last week. Even as the world celebrated International Women’s Day, I spent a quiet evening, far from the world of Facebook and Twitter, with Hanifa Begum in Poonch, a remote border town in Jammu and Kashmir, India, listening to her poignant story. Hanifa, 56 years old, shared the pain of being separated from her daughter Naseema Akhter, who lives on the other side of the border in Pakistan. “Dou mulkon ke ladai mein iss maa parr kya guzri hai woh Khuda hee jaanta hai,” she said. “In a war between two countries, Almighty alone knows what this mother has gone through.”
It is a collateral damage. The Line of Control, a disputed border that divides erstwhile Kashmir into India’s Jammu and Kashmir and Pakistan’s Azad Kashmir, is witness to the birth of two nationalities, piercing through villages, homes and families. The conflict overlooks the human dimension wherein women have paid the highest price.
Hanifa’s trauma started when her daughter married Aziz, the younger son of Bashir Ahmed Bhatt. Bashir and his brothers were popularly known as the saviours of Poonch, and had fought with the army to protect their land. But Bashir’s elder son Afzal joined the militants in 1989 and went across to Pakistan for training, a decision that changed the lives of three families.
“The army and police started troubling Bashir soon after,” says Hanifa. In fear of being harassed and tortured, Bashir’s family trekked across the rough terrain of the border in 1991 and slipped through to Pakistan. Naseema was carrying her one-year-old son. They had to leave behind Bashir’s daughter, who was already married to a man in Poonch. Hanifa herself did not have to leave, since she was not of Bashir’s family. With the Line of Control a closed border, these family members were separated.
Afzal died in an accident in Pakistan. But Bashir and his family, declared as fugitives, could not go home to India. It was only 16 years later, when a bus service started between the two Kashmirs in 2006, that Hanifa could travel across to Pakistan and meet her daughter.
But due to border controls, Naseema cannot travel the other way, to see her relatives in India. She could not even go back for her father’s funeral. And even Hanifa’s ability to visit is uncertain. Earlier this year, when Hanifa submitted her papers for a visit to her daughter, she found that travel across the Line of Control had been stopped because of a case of narcotics smuggling.
Hanifa sighed and tears rolled down. For her, the boundaries of nations, religions and politics do not matter. “Why should women who are not party to decisions men take, become victims of war and conflict?” she asks.
Why should women be punished for something they were never a party to? Would it not be possible for the governments on both sides to allow women a special consideration – perhaps on the next International Women’s Day – to meet their relatives across the Line of Control?