By Sumiya Shah
SRINAGAR: Clashes and use of suffocating pepper gas and tear smoke are keeping women away from Kashmir Valley’s central Jamia Masjid on Fridays.
For many years, pro-freedom protests have been a norm in localities surrounding the Jamia Masjid, located at Nowhatta in old Srinagar, on Fridays.
After prayers, which have people from across Srinagar gathering at the mosque, youths take to streets and protest against the state.
The government forces often respond with cane charge and by firing dozens of tear smoke canisters. Of late, other ‘non-lethal’ weapons have been added to their armory—pellet guns and pepper gas. And both are being used indiscriminately against the protesters, who shower stones at the forces.
The clashes usually last several hours, with the pepper gas and tear smoke making breathing uneasy for the affected old city populace.
The women who come to pray at the mosque suffer the most.
Haneefa Bano, a resident of Nawa Kadal, said it becomes difficult to concentrate on prayers amid smoke and clashes.
“Every Friday, my family members caution me before I go to the mosque,” she told Kashmir Reader. “At times, bursting of tear-smoke shells near the mosque results in chaos in the space meant for the women to pray.”
Fatima Mukhtar, who has been caretaker at the mosque for four decades, said she has seen the situation turning ugly in the women-only sections of the mosque.
“I have seen women screaming, falling unconscious, and even running out without offering prayers. At times, they rush en masse to the water source to ease the burning sensation caused by these gases.”
The use of pepper gas in the last six years has made the matters worse for the women.
“Even the pleas to police for letting the prayers finish before they react to protests (with pepper gas and tear smoke) have brought us no respite,” she said.
The situation has resulted in a decline in the number of women visiting the Jamia Masjid on Fridays.
Before 2010, the space reserved for the women used to be jam-packed on Fridays, but nowadays their number is only good enough to fill up a few rows, said Azmat Jan, who keeps a check on the women entering the mosque.
Saarah Begum (60), who has been regularly visiting the Jamia Masjid on Fridays, said the situation has forced her to change her schedule.
“Until a few years ago, the norm for me was to go shopping to the nearby markets after praying at the Masjid; I used to go home only after prayer Asr (the evening prayer).
“But now I leave right after praying farz. I even skip the dua, because I have to find a safe route home,” Saarah, also a resident of Nawa Kadal, said.
Most of the women exit through the gate that opens towards the Muslim Park, Rajouri Kadal. This way, they avoid Nowhatta and Gojwara localities where the clashes take place usually.