Srinagar: Married at 15 to a man more than twice her age, A*, a 19-year-old Kashmiri, had survived miscarriage, physical violence, and mental torture at the hands of her husband. Not well educated and with little support from her family members, who kept sending her back to her husband, A* didn't know that she could have a better life until she found out about Mehram, a group of Kashmiri women committed to helping survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse.
This was one of the several stories that Arshie Qureshi, 29, a co-founder of Mehram, told Article 14 in a recent conversation, explaining that Mehram means ‘a close friend’ in Urdu, and women survivors of abuse in Kashmir were in dire need of a support structure because they couldn't find one in their own families. It was particularly hard for someone like A*, who had no notable skills and had not completed her education.
“When A* approached us, she had not seen or envisioned another way of living,” said Qureshi. “She was not even sure about her age, so we had to figure out if she had been married as a minor.”
Qureshi, pursuing her PhD in gender, law and policy at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University, started Mehram with two Kashmiri lawyers, Subreen Malik and Shehryar Khanum, both in their early thirties. The three women began reaching out to women who they knew needed help but were reluctant to ask for it, volunteering their time and expertise in aspects of legal aid and rehabilitation.
With an office in Rajbagh, Srinagar, Mehra, now two years old and run by three lawyers and 20-25 volunteers, provides legal aid and counselling and carries out donation drives for survivors of domestic violence.
“There was a need to address the vacuum that has emerged between domestic violence and the institutions tasked to address it,” said Qureshi. “It was challenging to reach out to them at first because we didn’t know if they would appreciate us reaching out to them without their consent in this sensitive manner.”
Keeping the small organisation going is a struggle, say its co-founders, who rely on short-term donations from friends, well-wishers and its members.
The Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley, marred by violence and bloodshed since the insurgency began in 1989, is one of the most heavily militarised places in the world.
According to the National Family Health Survey report of 2015-16, 57.5% of women aged 15-19 in Jammu and Kashmir said that a husband was justified in hitting his wife for reasons like disrespecting his in-laws (44%), arguing with him (38%), if the household and children were neglected (37%) or if he suspected her of being unfaithful (25%). The latest report released in November 2021 shows the percentage of women has decreased to 47.6%.
The 2021 report showed that 11% of married women in J&K had experienced physical or sexual violence, with the husband being the typical perpetrator. The 2015-16 report and the 2005-06 report showed the percentage to be 12% and 13% respectively.
According to a research study by the BMC Women’s Health analysing the prevalence of domestic violence in India between 2001-2018, Jammu and Kashmir was one of five states showing a 160% increase in reported crime rate under ‘cruelty by husband and relatives’. The report finds a 53% increase in this category over 18 years.
While speaking about A*, Qureshi said, “When she narrated her story, she spoke about it casually, as if it was normal. We noticed she didn’t realise the extent of what she had faced.”
While Mehram’s co-founders and volunteers tried to make her understand her situation and give her some perspective about domestic abuse, A* returned to her husband and did not stay in touch with them.
“It points to the helplessness of women in Kashmir,” said Qureshi.
What They Do
In the past year, Mehram has registered 150 cases of domestic violence in its database.
Women in Kashmir know about their work through word of mouth. Survivors show up at their office or call them on the phone and then come and meet them, Subreen Malik, a co-founder and Srinagar-based lawyer, said.
In the first meeting, Malik sits down with the survivor to understand her story, asking questions to determine its veracity and the threat level to which the woman is exposed. She then reaches out to the perpetrator to hear his side of the story. Sometimes, a joint session is organised between the two parties.
While the Mehram co-founders note that bringing a survivor of abuse face to face with her abuser is far from ideal, the realities in which they operate—the lack of familial and institutional support for the survivor, a prolonged response from the courts, and the lack of shelter homes—leaves them with little choice but to seek reconciliation if possible.
If the survivor wants to take the matter to the police or the courts, the Mehram lawyers help her draft a complaint. But given how few women want to go to court or file for divorce due to the lack of support, Malik said that Mehram had changed their approach from purely adversarial to reconciliatory.
“We try to facilitate a solution between both parties because in many cases, the woman has nowhere to go back to except the place from where she ran away,” she said.
One woman volunteer, 21-year-old Syed Uzma, who worked with Mehram for a year, said that many women who sought help returned to their abusive husbands after being cast out by their own families and relatives.
Mehras Mir, a 26-year-old litigator working remotely with Mehram while pursuing her post-graduation from Hong Kong University, said she drafts two types of petitions: maintenance and domestic violence.
Mir says she has filed more than 50 petitions before the chief judicial magistrate in Srinagar since September 2021, most seeking protection and action against domestic violence.
The Case Of B
Following the abrogation of Article 370 and the scrapping of the state women’s commission in Kashmir in August 2019, the Protection of Women Against Domestic Violence Act, 2005, was applied with retrospective effect.
This means previous Act orders were put into place, including a provision for a residence order that can be requested from the court if a woman has faced violence and she has been ousted from her house by her husband and has nowhere else to go.
The court would order for her to live in her house and grant a protection officer stationed outside the house 24/7. Yet an overburdened system, insensitive police officers, and absence of support from family members considerably lengthens the process, leading the woman seeking redressal to become re-victimised.
B*, a 62-year-old woman, needed legal aid to battle a two-year court case against her husband’s decision to oust her from her home in June 2020. Her husband, a religious scholar, had refused to let her enter the house after she returned late from a wedding. He decided to marry again. She and her husband did not have children together, and due to her age, there was no one in her maternal home she could reach out to.
Enlisting Mehram’s support, B challenged her husband in Srinagar’s district court for the right to live in their house. A residence order was sought from the court two years ago. The court appointed an investigating officer from the nearest police station to handle the case. B is yet to receive a residence order permit and is currently living with her sister.
The court ordered her to receive close to Rs 4,000 as monthly rent compensation from her husband, which Mehram has challenged as a meagre amount.
Qureshi has previously written about B’s case for Article 14.
“After all of this, the survivor said she wanted the conflict resolved, but the husband was unwilling to listen. We had to file for a court case under residence orders,” said Qureshi. “To see that form of struggle for a woman of her age and experience was heartbreaking.”
It Got Worse During The Pandemic
In May 2020, Mehram, operating through word-of-mouth, without an established structure since 2019, were pressed to announce a formal structure because of the number of complaints they started getting a few months into the Covid-19 lockdown.
In the two worst years of the pandemic, Qureshi recalled receiving six to seven calls daily.
Domestic violence rose by 10% in 2020 as compared to 2019. There were 3,069 cases in 2019 and 3,414 cases in 2020 in Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, according to the National Crime Records Bureau in its 2021 report. Domestic violence rose by 15.3% in 2021 as compared to 2020.
In June this year, Tasleema Bano, 38, was found dead at her husband's house in Bemina, Srinagar. The post-mortem report revealed traces of asphyxia owing to strangulation. Following protests by her family members alleging murder, the police arrested her husband and three other women in the case.
Nighat Shafi Pandit, the chairperson of the HELP Foundation, an NGO providing immediate relief to women and children through livelihood empowerment and education, said that in the past two years, there has been a noticeable increase in distress calls from girls affected by domestic violence.
Data shows that the National Commission for Women received 4350 distress calls in the category “Protection of women against domestic violence” in India in 2020 and received 6,684 complaints in 2021, the highest since 2014. In the state-wise breakup, the helpline received 22 distress calls from Jammu and Kashmir in 2020.
Aman movement, an NGO, in partnership with the union government, set up a distress call helpline in October 2017. They registered 387 domestic violence cases in Jammu and Kashmir from October 2017 to January 2019.
“Every woman is forced to do things she does not want to,” said Shafi. “The parents, under the pressure of society and the fear of keeping their daughter safe amid sporadic shutdowns and health crises, find protection in finding a partner for her, even if their daughter does not want one.”
“The constant threat of uncertainty owing to generations of conflict and trauma has affected the social fabric and led to a vicious cycle of violence against women,” she said.
Forced marriage is considered a tenet of modern slavery, affecting at least 75% of the population globally. The International Labour Organisation, in its 2021 Global Estimates of Modern Slavery Report, has listed “emotional blackmail” as a form of coercion in communities that practise forced marriages.
The taboo surrounding this topic makes it difficult for women to speak up, said Tanveer Ahmad Khan, a Srinagar-based research scholar who has written a paper for the 2020 Journal of Gender Studies on the “Lived experiences of divorced women in Kashmir”.
Khan said that a friend and colleague he bumped into recently on a bus told him that she had left her studies because her parents had forced her to marry a man she barely knew.
“When she described the marriage to me, she spoke about herself as a prisoner,” he said. “Her husband took all her gold, hit her repeatedly, and controlled her movements.”
In his paper on the lived experiences of divorced women in Kashmir, Khan traced the history of the subjugation of women in Kashmir. From being punished for disobedience towards spouses to wearing dirty clothes to symbolise purity, Khan found that women had no agency to shape their lives.
Since the 1930s, when survivors of abuse somehow began to move past the disabling fear and started raising their voices against the abuse, they would find the lack of sensitivity in approaching this topic as a considerable obstacle, Khan wrote in his paper.
Even today, Mir says, when listening to the survivors, she’s noticed that domestic violence is ignored or left unaddressed until it escalates to a severe physical assault. Still, most women do not seek legal redressal.
“Sometimes they just want to talk,” she said. “Sometimes, it also helps them indirectly, especially in cases where the accused act out of confidence that these women do not have support.”
Used Clothes, Informed Decisions
In the past two years, Mehram has started helping women make informed decisions around marriage. They did it with a use-and-return policy for newlywed clothes, clothes that anyone would only wear once during a wedding.
When women come in to borrow clothes, the lawyers and volunteers start chatting with them about their upcoming marriage, drawing out their concerns and apprehensions. These sessions evolved into conversations about women's rights during marriage, how to manage money, and how to resolve conflict.
In March 2022, Mehram moved the Jammu and Kashmir High Court, seeking the establishment of shelter homes for survivors of domestic and sexual violence, seeking gender-sensitisation of police officers, and for judicial officers to grant residence orders to survivors who are not in a position to find residence anywhere else.
The High Court issued a notice to the government through the J&K chief secretary in March this year.
The secretary, Qureshi said, has challenged Mehram's claim of the absence of shelter homes in Kashmir. The case has only been heard twice since March and the next hearing is in November 2022, she said.
The names of A* and B* have not been published at Mehram’s request.
Hameeda Syed is a freelance journalist from Kashmir and has previously written for Newslaundry, Kashmir Observer and Free Press Kashmir.
This report was written and produced as part of a media skills development program delivered by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. The content is the sole responsibility of the author and the publisher.