The “woman” in Indian Society is being referred to vis-à-vis the relationship she has with “the man”. Her identity as a wife, a daughter, a mother, or widowhood attracts attention while her identity as a woman gets clouded. This paper examines the toll women’s lives, living in the valley of Kashmir, take in the absence of a man.
Kashmir, a place we are in “the awe” of its beauty, a space that is commemorated as ‘paradise on Earth’ sadly has a long history of severe brutality and violence owing to the prolonged conflict in the valley. The act of violence has become inherent to the valley, embedded within the society, and is continuously moulding the daily normal lives of the population. The tendency of picturing Kashmir only through its beauty while completely bypassing the brutality of dirty local politics and the pain people have endured shapes the place itself. However, even in such a magnificent setting, one can easily smell the ongoing atrocities and bloodshed from afar. The passing of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in the valley, following the notion of “state of exception”, has created a culture of impunity. The state of exception as put forward by Giorgio Agamben (an Italian philosopher), is a special situation that de-legitimizes law’s control over people’s lives and is secretly related to violence[i]. In situations like this, the exception becomes the new law and justice takes a different turn. The AFSPA provided a fertile ground for the misconducts like Enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, rapes, torture, and so on. The statistics show that in the past three decades around 8000 people were randomly disappeared from the valley[ii] and out of which at least 1500 people were married. This led to “those” 1500 married wives into a state of perpetual limbo and thus forced them to enter a category which today is known as “Half-widows”.
The ‘half widow’ (haven’t been legally accepted yet) is a term used to refer to those women who remain unaware of the fact that whether they are wives or have become widows due to the unexpected disappearance of their husbands[iii]. This leaves them at a tricky intersection which often leads to a disadvantage. When the “man” disappears, the confrontation of survival takes a toll on the “woman”. From demanding justice for their husbands to become the sole breadwinner for the family; to choose between accepting widowhood without any confirmation about the death of their husband and bowing down in front of the state by accepting the grants, the women are subjected to various socio-economic, legal and psychological hardships. The half-widows are also obliged to act in certain societal norms and add more fuel to the fire. It is beyond doubt that the societal and cultural norms shape the lives of men and women they live in. Hence, the importance of influence that society has on oneself cannot be ignored. While talking about the societal dynamics along with the notions and values of gender, the institution of the family can’t bear to stand quietly in the corner. The family seems to be the first point of contact facilitating socialization. Hence, this paper will try to understand the issues problems faced by the half widows with the institution of the family.
NEGOTIATING WITH THE SOCIETY
On a traditional notepad, India is a patriarchal society whose roots can be traced back to its mythology and ancient manuscripts. The families set up in Kashmir are no different. The studies have inferred that the patriarchal nature of Kashmiri families has been the dominant site of social injustices leading to structural violence within the family, the women being the receiver at the extreme end of the chain. In a patriarchal society, the institution of marriage and its virtue play an important role as it makes it so easy for a woman to leave her past and begin a new life with a “new family” which consists of her husband and in-laws who become the primary actors of her new family. It would not be wrong to think that the hardships faced by half widows begin within her so-called “new family” itself.
“The patriarchal gendered structures have continuously reproduced the oppression of the half widows in Kashmir by maintaining a twisted victimhood status of women as their lives are defined around the disappearances of their husband”[iv]. Once a woman becomes a half-widow, she suddenly seems a burden to the family and no one agrees to take her responsibility. In general, such families do not belong to a strong economic background which forces them to be rational towards the half-widows and their children (if any). The in-laws also fear demand for property in name of the husband which will further deprive the family of their survival strategies. “Under Islamic jurisprudence, a widow with children gets one-eighth of her husband’s property and a woman without children gets one-fourth”[v]. Therefore, leaving the half widows on themselves seems a viable option to the families. The money constraint is to be blamed to take a toll on people’s lives in such situations.
The evidence from the society also shows that often women are blamed or considered as the symbol of bad luck or called words like “Panauti” if anything bad happens. The incident of a man disappearing from the family is often shoved in the face of a woman to not want them in their household anymore. Even though the in-laws are against the half widow staying with them, they welcome the children of the half-widows with wide open arms in the sense of “Ankhiri nishaani’ of their disappeared son. Needless to say, this condition is also applicable only if the child is a boy.
The presence of “brother-in-law” seems to be a curse on the half widows’ lives. There possible are two aspects to this trajectory. First, where the brother-in-law happens to be married. This is because the structure of a family tends to have a stable configuration and the presence of a half-widow in the family is often thought of as disrupting its stability. The thoughts around sexuality, economic vulnerability, and power dynamics roam around in such situations. The second aspect is when the brother-in-law is not married. Even though this can happen the society does not approve of it unless they tie a knot with each other.
The sour relationship between the in-laws and the half widows stems from the idea that the wife could only have a good relationship with the in-laws in the presence of her husband and when the husband disappears the wives are not entitled to claim to be a part of the husband’s family going forward. This situation worsens for a half-widow when the marriage was a result of a love affair and not approved by the husband’s parents.
THE DILEMMA OF RE-MARRIAGE
The most appropriate way for many half-widows in present times seems to be in the idea of remarriage. As per Islamic norms, a half widow can get remarried after four years of her husband’s enforced disappearance[vi]. However, the question here comes whether they want to? There have been references where the half-widows are encouraged to remarry for a secure future for their children. There have been cases where half-widows do not consider remarrying as it might have antagonistic results in the lives of their children and on their psyche. There also have been instances where remarrying or not remarrying is not an option for the half-widows but a societal verdict. Often the remarriage proposal is enforced on the half-widows too.
The question that doesn’t seem to get a proper answer is the dilemma or hope of the disappeared husbands to come back one day. “And what if my husband returns?” This dilemma often becomes a reason for the half-widows to not marry again. On a legal path, “The Muslim Marriage Act offers relief to such women who may pursue divorce if the whereabouts of the husband have not been known for a period of four years. And if after the second marriage, her first husband arrives the first marriage stands dissolved”[vii].
The journey of half widows has so far seen a tough road with multiple levels of hurdles. Their experiences have had actors, sub actors, and conditions with their specific roles. “The intersectionality and compounding of these factors is what I call orchestrated-limbo – the fact that the women whose husbands have disappeared are made and expected to live their lives without moving on and continuing to keep alive their husband’s memory and disappearance; not just through the archaic social practices and gendered structures, but also through financial and legal norms that refuse to consider them as individual entities”[viii].
[i] Agamben Giorgio, State of Exception (The university of Chicago press, 2005)
[ii] Hamzah Hassan, “The forgotten women: Half widows of Kashmir (Women months special)” Himachal Watcher, March 10, 2021
Available at https://himachalwatcher.com/2021/03/10/half-widows-of-kashmir-womens-month-special/ (last visited on 25th May 2021)
[iv] Nikita Robinson, “Half widows of Kashmir – A feminist criminology and rights perspective” Deviance Incubator December 1, 2020.
[v] Baba Umar, “The dilemma of Kashmiri half-widows” Aljazeera, October 12, 2013.
Available at https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2013/10/12/the-dilemma-of-kashmirs-half-widows (last visited on 26th May 2021)
[vi] “The other half: For many Kashmir ‘half widows’, remarriage ruling means little” The Indian Express March 02, 2014
Available at – https://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-others/the-other-half/ (Last visited on 26th May, 2021)
[vii] Supra note 5.
[viii] Supra note 2.
9 Ather Zia, “The Spectacle of a Good-Half Widow: Performing Agency in the Human Rights Movement in Kashmir” University of California (2013)