by Shazia Yousuf
When I met Taja Begum in the winter of 2009, I could tell she was dying soon. Taja, 75, was skin and bones. Every time she spoke, her trembling hands went up to soothe her tired chest. She took little sips of hot water in between long pauses. Still, every word she uttered was followed by a hum.
Taja’s weak body carried a strong soul. She used the medium of poetry to communicate with her son after he was killed by Indian soldiers. With a mother’s bruised soul, she cried on paper and wrote poems of grief and loss. I had known many Kashmiri mothers dying in grief, but Taja was the first mother who, someone told me, survived on it. I pitched the story for the magazine I worked for and went to interview Taja. Writing a feature was just an excuse; I wanted to sit by her side and listen, as Taja read verses from her book.
The day I met Taja at her home in Tral Village, she had not slept for three nights. A poem was structuring itself within her.
The two decades of Kashmir conflict has left almost a 100,000 people dead. Most of them bread-earning young men who left behind their mothers, wives, sisters, and children. Thousands of women live lives of poverty and depression. There are around 800,000 people in Kashmir who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and most include women who witnessed someone dying in their immediate or extended families.
The year of 1995 came as a hailstorm in Taja’s life. The people she was closest to died one by one. First her brother; days later unknown gunmen killed her husband; and afterwards her mentally challenged son Nazir Ahmad Shah was killed by Indian soldiers.
When the tragedies struck one after other, tears failed Taja. “When mourning did not ease my pain, I asked my family to take me to the grave of my son. And it was when I hugged his grave, my first couplet arrived and I felt better,” she told me.
Nazir was 30, an agricultural graduate who had been living in seclusion and composing poetry. Though people called him mentally challenged, his mother thought he was a mystic and was connected to God. “My son chose poetry to communicate with his God and I chose poetry to communicate with him,” the poetess mother said.
Taja lived an anxious life. Verses came to her without premonition. “It is tiring for me, especially during nights, but then I think of my son and how he was killed and the mother in me gets up and writes,” she said. She was working on her second book when we met. Her first book Wilzaar (grief) is considered the first documented grief of a Kashmiri mother who had lost her son to the conflict.
Taja died without seeing her second book published. “She wrote till her end. She wasn’t sick or anything but just died one day,” her grandson Imran Farooq tells me.
Women, like Taja, find a way to grieve. They take refuge and seek comfort in things other than crying and wailing over their loss and loneliness. Their grief gets manifested in unimaginable ways.
Since Shareefa Bazaz lost her only son Aijaz Ahmad to the bullets of Indian soldiers, she showers her motherly love on the grave of her son. She and her husband Mohammad Shafi Bazaz take care of the graveyard where their son lay buried. Almost every other day, the couple leaves early in the morning to comb the city market for fragrances for their “garden.” The rest of the day is spent de-weeding and decorating the martyr’s graveyard at Eidgah Srinagar.
Aijaz Ahmad was 23 when he lost his life on Parimpora Road in Srinagar. With his death, the couple lost their only son who they had thought would expand their family and give them grandchildren. But this did not happen and Shareefa felt lonely and far away from her son. “One day I asked my husband to take me to the graveyard. I caressed his grave as I would caress him. I felt much better,” remembers Shareefa. “This was the closest I could be to my son.”
The occasional visit became frequent. “Had he been alive, I would have been busy with his career, marriage, and kids. But he is dead and I have only his grave and memories. I want to give this graveyard all the love I have for my son.”
Shareefa has made new friends around the graveyard. One friend has made a small shed in his backyard for the couple to leave their gardening equipments and the whole neighborhood around the graveyard wears a festive look on the birthday of Aijaz. “Our kids may forget their own birthdays but they do not forget the birthday of their Aijaz uncle. They get so much to eat,” says a neighbor, Abdul Qayoom.
The couple has taken the responsibility of maintaining the whole graveyard, including the graves of foreign militants who died while fighting Indian occupation in Kashmir. “Just because their families are not here, we cannot let weeds grow around their graves. They laid their lives for our independence,” Shareefa says.
Some women, like Parveena Ahanger, have transformed their personal tragedies into full-fledged movements at a mass level. The night of August 18, 1990 changed Parveena Ahanger forever. Her son, 16-year-old Javaid Ahmed Ahanger, was picked up by Indian soldiers from his aunt’s house.
Parveena wailed and tore her clothes, while her neighbors protested, shouted slogans, and blocked roads seeking the whereabouts of Javaid. When Javaid did not return, most of them gave up hope, except for Parveena, who began her search afresh. A lower middle-class woman who could not read or write, Parveena searched in all the Indian jails, interrogation centers, and detention centers to trace her son. “I have been searching for decades now but I am not tired. I will fight till my last breath,” Parveena says.
During her search for her son, Parveena stumbled upon many parents who wandered in the same labyrinth of uncertainty. She decided to unite them in a common battle and formed the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) in 1994. Three thousand families registered themselves under APDP and became one.
“We share our pain with each other. We cry and console and tell each other not to lose hope and continue the struggle,” she says. “We all have the same illness. We all long for the same thing.”
Popularly known as “Iron Lady of Kashmir”, Parveena took the matter of custodial disappearances in Kashmir to an international level. She traveled to dozens of countries, attended conferences, and spoke about the human rights violations in Kashmir. For her activism to trace 10,000 disappeared men, Parveena was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
The different ways in which Kashmiri women exhibit their grief were discovered in extreme loneliness and misery. Kashmir, like most of the South Asian societies, is patriarchal. Men go out to earn and understand the world. Women stay indoors, do domestic work and raise children. Culturally women have always remained absent from decision-making. Politics has never been their business. When it comes to their political ideology, they dutifully take it over first from their fathers or brothers and then from their husbands. When tragedy befalls a Kashmiri woman she fights a lone battle. Society paints her as a victim: a militant’s wife, a civilian’s mother, a renegade’s daughter.
The past two decades have seen a huge increase in mental health disease in Kashmir. Women are most of the psychiatric patients. The suicide rate of women is much higher than men’s. A study conducted by Dr. Bashir Ahmad Dabla, a noted sociologist at the University of Kashmir, revealed that 62 percent of the suicides in Kashmir are committed by women. There are no mental rehabilitation centers for affected women and the lone psychiatric hospital in Kashmir is always overcrowded.
Experts are warning about the catastrophic shape of women’s health in the valley. Due to the increased levels of conflict-related stress, infertility is affecting thousands of Kashmiri women. The most recent National Family Health Survey indicates that 61 percent of currently married Kashmiri women report one or more reproductive health problems.
In Kashmir a woman is voiceless; the only language she knows is the language of tears. In the patriarchal society, her grief is nothing more than a moving front-page picture. Her lone cries often go unheard in the commotion of war. More women like Parveena, who can metamorphose the lonely struggles of Kashmiri women into a strong woman’s voice, are needed.
About the Author: Shazia Yousuf was born in downtown Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian administered Kashmir. When she was three, armed war broke out in the valley against Indian occupation. Her childhood only reminds her of empty classrooms, bolted doors, friendlessness, and untold stories. When she grew, she wanted to be a storyteller. She did her undergrad in biology and her Master's in Mass Communication and Journalism from University of Kashmir. In January 2009, she joined a local news magazine, KashmirLife as correspondent and began writing features about Kashmiri women and how the war changed their lives. She won a Ford Foundation International Fellowship in 2011 and she went to Boston, United States to do another Masters in Print and Multimedia Journalism at Emerson College. She returned to Indian administered Kashmir in the summer of 2013 and began writing women features for magazines and online news portals exclusively for women. This summer, she was awarded the Panos South Asia fellowship for her project on Women in Militarization, and will be writing about Kashmiri women and their perspective of war.