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SRINAGAR , Dec 13 2011 (IPS) - Increased education and employment opportunities for women in Kashmir might have brought monetary independence and a degree of empowerment but it also has women ensnared in a vicious trap of domestic violence.
“Women’s education and employment is essential to bridge the gender gap but it has sadly had a negative impact in the form of retaliatory domestic violence, which manifests as both verbal and physical abuse,” B.A. Dabla, a sociologist at the University of Kashmir, told IPS.
The demise last month of 28-year-old Shazia Majeed, the mother of a three-year-old girl, illustrates Dabla’s statement.
Educated and employed as a librarian at the Islamic University of Science and Technology in Kashmir, Shazia was found hanging from a ceiling fan in her room on Nov. 9. Though police suspect suicide, Shazia’s parents believe their daughter’s death to be a fatal case of domestic violence.
Shazia’s father says that his son-in-law, Javaid Ahmad, tortured his wife verbally and physically on a daily basis for not bringing him a big enough dowry. He often threw her out of the house and finally divorced her verbally after she gave birth to a daughter.
But the abuse continued until Shazia was found dead earlier this year.
“I don’t think my daughter would commit suicide – she has been very brave and courageous, though she suffered all through her married life,” Shazia’s father said.
Clash of traditions
According to Hafeeza Muzaffar, secretary of the Jammu and Kashmir State Commission for Women, “As more women gain access to education, they become aware of their rights. They are less likely to unquestioningly tolerate these kinds of abuses, which triggers conflict in the family.”
“I have encountered women who believe it is a husband’s right to beat his wife – this is the kind of society we live in,” Muzaffar told IPS, adding that it will take time for the majority of Kashmiri society to adjust to the changing gender dynamics and for men and conservative women to accept the new role of contemporary women.
“A decade ago, the women of Kashmir were almost universally relegated to the household. When the newly-liberated women come in contact with their traditional mothers-in-law, there is bound to be tension,” she added.
This ‘tension’ resulted in tragedy for Ulfat Jan, a thirty-five-year-old mother of three, from the Seer village of the Anantnag district of Kashmir, who is currently an in-patient at the Srinagar hospital, recovering from a particularly brutal episode of domestic violence.
Last week, Ulfat’s husband Shabir Ahmad, together with his parents, poured kerosene oil on her and set her body ablaze when she protested Shabir’s extramarital affair.
“I had gone to meet the girl who was having an affair with Shabir, simply to ask her to leave my husband. But when Shabir came to know of it, he grew angry,” Ulfat told IPS, struggling to talk through her charred and swollen lips. Her face, legs and arms were covered all over in bloody abscesses, a result of third-degree burns.
“He poured a whole can of kerosene oil on me, lit the stove and left the room as my body caught fire. My mother-in-law tied my arms so I couldn’t run away,” Ulfat said with difficulty.
In order to save the house from catching fire, Ulfat’s brother-in-law pushed her out of the window. “Then my sister-in-law poured boiling rice water over me. I don’t know what happened after that,” Ulfat said.
Some neighbours who intervened on the scene took her to the hospital. Local police arrested Ulfat’s husband and the case is currently under investigation.
Such incidents are just the tip of the iceberg of rampant abuse throughout the Valley.
Back in 2009, Dabla interviewed 200 married and unmarried women for a comprehensive study on domestic abuse and found that 63 percent of the respondents feel discriminated against by their families in respect to their education and employment, among other things.
Thirty two percent of the working women surveyed face condemnation from their in-laws for their work and almost 50 percent feel that their in-laws are jealous of their work, which, according to Dabla, is one of the leading causes of psychological torture; in fact, a full 40 percent of the respondents stressed that they had been victims of emotional and psychological abuse.
Perhaps the most insidious aspect of the accelerating domestic violence is that “Thirty three percent of victims choose to suffer silently without taking action,” Dabla told IPS.
According to Muzaffar, “Eighty percent of cases registered with (the State Commission for Women) relate to domestic violence and we receive at least three or four new cases every day.”
Since its establishment in 1999, the Commission has been tasked with safeguarding women’s constitutional rights, redressing grievances and recommending legislative action to women who have faced discrimination or abuse.
From April 2000-March 2010 the Commission registered 1333 cases from Kashmir, most of them related to domestic violence.
Data from the State Crime Record Bureau indicates that between April and December 2009 the Commission received reports of 83 rapes and gang rapes, 185 cases of abduction, 463 complaints of molestation, 189 reports of sexual harassment, 11 ‘dowry deaths’ and 87 incidents involving cruelty by husbands and relatives.
In just three shorts months, between January and March of 2010, the Commission received 24 cases of rape and gang rape, 73 cases of abduction, 139 cases of molestation and 50 cases of sexual harassment.
Renowned sociologist Peerzada Mohammad Amin told IPS that women are trapped in a cruel cycle of exploitation.
“On one hand, women are encouraged to pursue their education and get jobs but they are still expected to shoulder the responsibility of the household,” he said.
“Even if a woman works full time in her office she still returns home to do all the unpaid domestic work single handedly. When she shows reluctance, she faces confrontation from her in-laws,” Amin added.
Having lain dormant for decades, Kashmir’s Domestic Violence Act was re-enacted on July 12, 2011. On paper, the legislation provides for more effective protection for survivors of domestic violence but its tangible successes are few and far between.
“Many Acts are implemented but remain restricted to paper,” M.A. Wani, a legal advocate in Kashmir, told IPS.
“Our society has forced women to suffer in silence for so long that this Act will have to be fought hard on the ground in order to be successful,” he added.
“What we need is a complete transformation of our society into one that accepts the new status of women and fights to end domestic violence,” Dabla said.
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