Kashmiri Women Considered the Night Their Friend, Then Militancy Happened

My grandmother asks me who I am. I tell her my name and then the names of her children.

This ritual of asserting their relationship with my grandmother is performed often by her children and grandchildren. But the memory of this reintroduction is quickly devoured by her dementia. So, I introduce myself again and again.

But the one thing the dementia has not eroded is her memory of ‘home’. My grandmother wants to go home.

Once she is sure that she can trust me, my grandmother lifts the curtain and turns to me, “The night is moonlit. We can go to our home tonight.”

A few years ago, when she still remembered things in a sequence, she told me how the women of the house would travel on horses on moonlit nights to visit their relatives. The night, she told me, ensured she was wearing a purdah (screened/protected). She had said this many times before, and it always felt odd to me.

Women traveling alone? In the night? I have known the night to be dark and full of terrors. I couldn’t see how a veil of darkness could ward off the evil lurking within it.

My grandmother’s idea seemed peculiar to me, for I have been conditioned to believe that the night is filled with demons, devils and dangers. For those who have grown up in Kashmir in the last three decades, the ongoing conflict has changed the meaning of darkness. What signified the safety of purdah to my grandmother is nothing but a threat to me.

I talk to my mother about women, the night and traveling. She grew up in the Kashmir of the 1970s and 80s, when things were rapidly changing. Where my grandmother relied on home tutors for her education, my mother had had the freedom to go to school and college. Then, women didn’t require the shield of the night.

The ruthless shift in the 1990s changed all that. The night became unsafe for men and women alike. When the guns started roaring in the valley in the early 90s, the very idea of venturing out at night died along with the valley’s silence. Stories of soldiers picking up local men, night raids and assaults on women poured in from all over the state. Fear permeated the land.

One fateful event in May 1990 served as the final nail in the coffin of ordinary Kashmiris’ relationship with the night. Paramilitary forces attacked a marriage procession in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district, injuring many people and gang-raping the bride and her aunt. Night-time marriage processions stopped after that.

I was born in 1993, when militancy was hitting its peak in Kashmir. And so, I grew up with stories of bomb blasts, encounters and raids. My memories of traveling to Bandipora, where my paternal grandparents’ lived, are full of visuals of men in olive clothing and jackboots, wearing metal helmets and carrying guns. Waiting in long queues to be frisked outside army camps remains a gloomy memory.

Everyone felt vulnerable. Everyone wanted to safeguard their lives. But women had the dual responsibility of safeguarding their honour in addition to their lives. Women’s bodies had been used to ’cause humiliation’ and ‘instill fear’ on many occasions.

In 2017, mysterious cases of braid-chopping popped up all over Kashmir. By October 16, 2017, a total of 105 cases of braid-chopping had been registered with the police. The local male population was whipped up into a frenzy, treating anyone and everyone as suspicious, ready to lynch someone who appeared like he might be a braid-chopper.

Observing these events from a distance, I was perplexed by the men’s reaction. They were ready to kill for the sake of women’s honour, but in my years of traveling through Kashmir, none of these men had ever raised their voices against eve-teasing. I felt as if a woman was the holder of everyone’s honour as long as she was within the confines of her home, once outside, she was no one’s responsibility.

Needless to say, it’s a form of ownership that drives men to be so worried about braid-choppers. Women’s safety becomes everyone’s priority. And in the pursuit of this safety lies the irony. What exactly is society protecting women from? The night, which used to be a safe time for women to travel by themselves, has now become unsafe, declared so by invisible forces.

The night itself can never change, but people can and they did.

Society’s used the anonymity of darkness to create and then exploit women’s vulnerabilities, forcing them into invisibility. When the night meant seclusion, people encouraged women to travel by moonlight. When it started to mean inclusion, that same darkness was declared unsafe. The only one who seems to remember a different time is my grandmother.

Sana Fazili is a freelance journalist based in Delhi.

Featured image credit: Arfi/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0