A Woman’s Place: Beneath the Man in Kashmiri Society

A Woman’s Place: Beneath the Man in Kashmiri Society

Laws prohibiting gender biases cannot make a difference unless they are alien to the collective consciousness of society. What needs to be fixed is the disparity that exists in minds.

Dr Meer Safa Altaf

Gender justice – a prerequisite for empowerment and an egalitarian society – has been something desired, especially by women, ever since human civilisation came into existence. But the will to actually make it happen came only in the medieval Arab world through the divine teachings of the holy prophet (saas) and thereafter towards the late 18th century via the human rights declaration charter. Gradually it became an indispensable part of human rights and a condition for social justice. But gender justice cannot be achieved by just addressing issues like education, employment, freedom of expression, etc. The first and foremost need is to challenge the regressive notions guiding the existence of a particular gender in a social setup. This can be achieved through gender sensitivity, i.e., being considerate of another gender’s feelings and needs. Gender sensitivity can be used as a two-pronged approach – addressing both the genders simultaneously while also making one gender sensitive towards the issues of the other. This can be very effective compared to the feminist activities and movements that contest gender biasness with focus only on women’s issues, which instead of solving the problem has further polarised society.
As for women in modern-day Kashmir, they underwent a certain degree of change in their consciousness about their role and status in the early decades of the 20th century, mainly due to the introduction of modern education, an emerging political consciousness, and the Naya Kashmir Programme (1938-39) which provided equal rights to all irrespective of gender. Successive governments safeguarded rights of women which consequently led to a qualitative impact as women achieved a fair degree of social mobility via education and employment. As per a study by Dr Nazifa Alvi titled ‘Women’s Problems in Srinagar and Pulwama Districts’, 88 percent of women interviewed between the ages of 18 and 40 said that education was a must for both genders, indicating a progressive change in their thinking. However, in background of this development there is still an insignificant change in their societal status as strong discrimination in families continues.
In contemporary Kashmir, the issue of gender justice does not arise from religion or government in crucial human development areas like education, employment or health but from the way the 21st-century woman is being treated and expected to live as per the conditions acceptable to our conservative society. Despite being an abode of Sufi and Reshi movements for centuries, our Muslim majority society hasn’t been influenced by religious injunctions guiding gender treatment. Sociological and psychological studies reveal that some of the strongest forces behind persistent gender gaps are harmful culture-based stereotypes about male and female which lay down gender-appropriate behaviour. These norms demand women to be nothing more than passive, inhibited, non-aggressive and self-effacing members of society.
Irrespective of the human rights guaranteed by both religion and the state, the misogynist cultural restraints have reduced women to second-class citizens, a greater part of which has been surprisingly contributed and endorsed by women themselves. Regardless of how much education girls receive in our society, women have been traditionally known to condition their daughters not to be assertive or outspoken as it goes against the established ideas of femininity in society at large. In contrast, sons are brought up without any such reservations. Daughters are reminded to eat whatever is provided to them without expressing their likes and dislikes so as to supposedly prepare them for post-marriage life, while when it comes to sons their tastes for food are duly considered. Furthermore, daughters talking about their marriage or even expressing their wish to get married are a taboo, sometimes to the extent that their character becomes questionable.
Lately, misogynist tendencies have resulted in extremely ironic demands. With the changing socio-economic scenario women are expected to be perfect homemakers as well as fat-salaried employees. This doubled demand is deteriorating their physical and emotional well-being. Given the current grim unemployment scenario, irrespective of gender, this situation has become even more onerous.
There are many reported as well as unreported cases where married women have been maltreated for want of their salaries. It often takes the form of domestic abuse or even divorce. One such complaint was registered at the Rambagh women’s police station in 2015. According to the renowned Kashmiri sociologist, late Prof Bashir Ahmad Dabla, some of the known identified problems which women have been suffering include – being ignored in decision making, dowry demands, lack of health facilities, denial of financial assistance on part of close male relations, etc. Looking at the latest sex ratio, which is 889 females per 1,000 males, it is clear that the preference for sons is still very much a reality. Women who do not give birth to sons are made to feel that they have missed the whole purpose of life.
According to a 2002 survey by Dr Nazifa Ali, out of 450 women interviewed, 52.5 percent were not happy in their families, 80 percent revealed mal-treatment in the form of domestic violence, and 85 percent complained they had no role in decision making regarding education or health of their children. As per a 2015 report in IPS (Inter Press Service) titled ‘Kashmiri Women Suffering a Surge in Gender-Based Violence’, Gulshan Akhtar, head of Srinagar’s Women’s Police Station, claimed to have received 7 to 10 cases of domestic disputes on a typical day involving violence towards the wife. A decade ago, Prof Bashir Ahmad Dabla opined that violence has risen simultaneously with women’s shifting socio-economic role in traditional Kashmiri society. He observed that with more women leaving home for work, there are men in the household who feel their financial hold weakening, a cause for conflict as they do not feel comfortable with women acquiring a more independent economic status.
Laws prohibiting gender biases cannot make a difference unless they are alien to the collective consciousness of society. What needs to be fixed is the disparity that exists in minds. Therefore, no amount of welfare programmes, be they spiritual, political or economic, can beautify the ugly picture unless both the genders are sensitised and encouraged to participate together in bringing about change. Fundamental changes in social attitudes are need of the hour to achieve some degree of gender ju Kashmiri Women Suffering a Surge in Gender-Based Violence’, stice. In a household, youngsters acquire and imitate what they see their elders doing. So, it is important for them, for parents especially, to share household chores as well as outside chores, participate equally in financial matters, and take decisions together. Both sons and daughters should be taught the basic life skills which can become the basis of creating egalitarian relations between the two genders. More egalitarian the family, lesser will be the gender conflicts.

The writer has a doctorate in Islamic Studies with specialisation in women’s studies, gender issues, and Iranian studies.

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