Srinagar: In a congested lane in Amdakadal, Hawal, ‘Aunty’ is an infamous name. So much so that merely walking towards her house makes people look askance at you. And that’s because Aunty is a drug dealer.
This 80-year-old woman has been in the ‘trade’ for almost a decade and is the destination for many drug users. “I have had customers from every corner of Kashmir, from even well-to-do families who are ready to spend big amounts on drugs. I deal mostly in brown sugar and cannabis,” she says in a matter-of-fact way.
One of the facts not so well reported in Kashmir is that the number of female drug users is rising. Asked about this, Aunty says, “There are a lot, and the number will increase. Though they don’t openly come here to buy drugs; they often send men to buy stuff for them, but I know who it is for.”
Sharing some of the anecdotes about women substance abusers, Aunty tells the story of a brown sugar addict who had taken to drugs because of issues with her father. “One day, when I was out of stock, and she came and asked for the drug, I told her to come back after a day, but she had such a craving that she cut her arm with a blade.” Another girl she remembers, who came to her because the drug of her choice wasn’t available with another ‘madam–supplier’ like Aunty, was wearing a veil. “She must have been just 18, and was from a well-off family. For a drug of 50 rupees, she would give me 500 rupees.”
People in the colony resent her business. Says Shabnam, Aunty’s daughter-in-law, “Every year, the neighbours used to warn us of dire consequences. But Aunty never listened. And last year the neighbours tried to burn our house. After many apologies and promises, they spared us.” Since then, Aunty has wound up her business, but the people are still suspicious. “The boys here keep a watch on us. Even if we want to sell drugs, we cannot because of the fear,” Shabnam says.
The phenomenon of female substance abusers may still largely be under wraps in Kashmir, but the counsellors at the police control room’s stress management helpline receives calls from such girls almost every alternate day. “I have never seen female drug abusers coming to de-addiction centers because of the stigma attached to it. But we do get calls every other day,” says Irum, a counsellor.
The reasons for girls taking to drugs are varied too, though relationship troubles and family issues are a major cause. A few months ago, Irum says, a girl called to reveal that she’d started taking drugs after being influenced by a ‘dope song’ from a Hindi movie, ‘The Shaukeens’. “When I counselled her,” says Irum, “she told me that if celebrities take drugs and live happily, why couldn’t she.”
“But a failed relationship is one of the most common reasons. There was this girl from a Syed family, who was in love with a person from a ‘Dar’ family. Her family was against the relationship and she took up drugs. I tried to counsel her and her family as well. But nothing has worked,” Irum says.
There are cases like that of Maliha Farooq, who was two years old when her father died. Her mother later remarried – a person with whom she had an affair before marrying Maliha’s father. And soon, Maliha found life in a new home troublesome. She felt she was being scolded for even small things and that even her mother was neglecting her.
Later, when she was in the 10th standard, she started a relationship with a boy, Sabir, who was 12 years older than her. “I was seriously in love with him. He would take me to Vivanta after my school and we would drink vodka and have fun.” But Sabir was also a drug user, and soon Maliha picked up the habit. One day, after they had developed intimate physical relations, Sabir disappeared. “I got to know from one of his friends that he had married outside Kashmir.” Maliha was able to get over that but not kick the drug habit. “I am not an addict, but yes I am a user,” she says.
“Though the ratio of male addicts is higher than females,” says Yasir Arafat, project officer at the NGO, Society for Promotion of Youth and Masses (SPYM), in Srinagar, which runs a de-addiction center, “the simple reason for that is that boys have easier access to drugs. They can also stay out till much later than girls, and so have more space and time to indulge in their addiction. Many girls are in the experimental stage of drug abuse, where they use drugs out of curiosity or because some friends are doing so.”
Says Arshid Hussain, a psychiatrist, “We cannot escape the fact that girls experiment with drugs. And to combat this, we need to spread awareness amongst youngsters in schools, colleges and in their homes. Parental guidance is very important.”
A survey conducted by a UN agency in 2008 showed that out of 70,000 drug addicts in Kashmir, 4,000 were women. There has been no survey since then, but most experts say the number could easily have tripled since.