The angry housewives setting Kashmir ablaze
- 16 August 2010
- From the section South Asia
Whenever there are protests demanding "freedom from India" in her crowded neighbourhood in Srinagar, Firdousi Farooq makes a point of participating, her four-year-old son in tow.
Joining such demonstrations in Indian-administered Kashmir these days is fraught with risks.
Security forces have often fired on stone-pelting protesters, killing over 50 people, mostly teenagers, in the past two months as the valley has been convulsed by what most locals call a fierce peoples' "uprising" against India.
So what makes a mother of three hit the angry streets of Kashmir?
Ms Farooq's eldest son, Wamiq, was killed in January when a tear gas shell fired by the police exploded on his head.
The 14-year-old top-of-the-class student, who loved watching cartoons and dreamed of becoming a doctor, had stepped out for a game of cricket.
The police report describes him as a "miscreant who was part of an unlawful assembly", at which the forces had fired tear gas shells in self-defence.
Very few - including his neighbours, lawyers and journalists - believe this.
Sitting in her home in the crowded old city, Ms Farooq says she had decided to hit the streets after her son's "murder".
"Why should I not protest? Why should I not pick up a stone? I am doing this in the honour of my martyred son. I am doing this for azadi (freedom) from subjugation and repression," she says defiantly.
Firdousi Farooq is just another addition to the burgeoning army of women who have been taking part in the protests in Kashmir this summer.
You see them on the streets; you see them in the pictures.
Young and old, middle-class and poor, mostly dressed in floral tunics, they defy the armed forces, pelting stones at them, shouting slogans and singing anti-India songs. When night falls, some of them even lead protests with their children.
Out of more than 50 people killed in the latest round of violence, three have been women.
Yasmeen Jan, 25, was standing near a window inside her house in Batamaloo on 6 July, watching a demonstration wind by when she was hit by a bullet allegedly fired by security forces.
"Mummy maey aaw heartas fire" (Mummy, my heart has taken fire), she told her mother, turning away from the window, before collapsing on the floor, dead.
Fifteen-year-old Afroza Teli took a bullet in her head during a protest demonstration in Khrew village in Pulwana district on 1 August. She died later in Srinagar.
Angry Kashmiris set fire to an irrigation office, a revenue office and a court building after her death. A police station and a police vehicle were also set on fire.
Aisha Shiekh, a 55-year-old housewife and resident of Srinagar, was allegedly hit by a stone flung from a sling shot by the security forces when she was walking with her granddaughter to buy milk on 7 August. She died from her wounds a day later.
This is not the first time that women in Kashmir have come out in droves to protest, but their numbers and impact appear to be greater than ever before.
"This time the intensity of protests by women is more. You can also see more women protesting. Women have borne the brunt of the Kashmir conflict, and it is not surprising that they are at the end of their tether," says Kashmiri journalist Afsana Rashid.
As Bashir Ahmed Dabla, who teaches sociology at Kashmir University says, Kashmir's women have "seen their children husbands and fathers being killed in the conflict, and routinely humiliated by the security forces".
Studies have shown there are up to 32,000 widows of the two-decade-long conflict in the Kashmir valley, and nearly 100,000 orphans. Another 10,000 men have allegedly disappeared during the conflict, says a rights group.
Then there are some 400 "half-widows", whose husbands disappeared in the custody of troops or police. Women have also been the target of rape by the security forces.
"Women have been compelled to come out and protest because of the injustice and repression," says Professor Dabla.
Parveena Ahangar, a softly spoken housewife turned feisty activist, has been making a regular trek from her Gangbugh residence to the city's downtown every month, to protest against the disappearances during the conflict.
Ms Ahangar's son Javed was 16 when he was picked up by security forces in 1990 from the family home. He never returned.
The indefatigable woman has travelled around the world to highlight her cause, leaving behind her husband, debilitated and out of work after 10 surgeries, and her remaining three children, including a daughter.
"As long as I am alive, my struggle with go on. I want a simple answer from the authorities: Where did these men go?"
The coming out of women in the Muslim-dominated Kashmir valley has been helped by the fact that they have been traditionally freer than their counterparts in many parts of the world.
They have not observed the purdah, or faced religious or cultural segregation from men, say sociologists. Men and women have always worked in the farms together, prayed side by side in mosques and participated in religious congregations.
They have traditionally played an important role in the neighbourhood citizens' committees, preparing food for their protesting menfolk and taking the injured to hospitals.
The pro-freedom movement has also thrown up a number of women leaders - both fundamentalists and liberals.
"Kashmiri women are among the most politicised women in the subcontinent," says Professor Dabla.
Zaitun Khan, a 20-something homemaker, is one of them - she remembers participating in "peaceful" protests when she was in college, but is now determined to hit the streets to demand freedom.
Her brother Fayaz Ahmed Wani, who worked as a labourer in the floriculture department of the government, was hit by a bullet fired by the forces and killed while on his way to work on 6 July.
Mr Wani was 29, and left behind his wife and two daughters.
"I will go and join the protests now," says Ms Khan.
"He never protested or threw a stone in his life. But he died. How many more men will have to die? I want to go out and protest and demand freedom. Freedom to live."