I am sitting amidst four Kashmiri women in Bara Kahu, on the outskirts of Islamabad. Five families, including half a dozen children, are cramped inside this house.
On the outside, it seems as if India-Pakistan tensions have de-escalated. Just recently, officials from both countries met to discuss the Kartarpur peace corridor.
However for Kashmiris, peace remains elusive. The events of and after February 26th have resulted in deaths, injuries and displacement in Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK). The internet is still shut and cell phones are hardly working. Those living across the Line of Control in the Indian-held Kashmir have been caught in the crossfire too.
The women I sit with today have been displaced from a village near Chakotti, which has faced the brunt of firing over the past few weeks. They tell me that the stories of what happens to girls in relief camps and community bunkers are known across Kashmir.
That’s why they didn’t want to move into the temporary shelters set up by the government. Instead, they came here, to Bara Kahu. They are one of the fortunate few families who could afford to do so.
Despite promises, the government has failed to provide individual bunkers to families even in areas that have faced heavy shelling for years.
The communal bunkers, several of which were built by relief agencies like the Islamic Relief in the 1990s, are small dark spaces of about 13x7 feet.
During heavy shelling, anywhere between 20 to 30 people have to cram inside, hoping against hope that a mortar won’t come their way. I am told that it is within these bunkers and camps that sexual exploitation takes place.
These cases, however, go unreported and undocumented. Notions of ‘shame’ and ‘honour’ have pushed generations of abuse survivors into silence.
Women thus remain reluctant to speak about the prevalence of abuse, though I am told it is an open secret. At most they say they have heard that it happened to ‘others.’
No one wants to share their own experiences; for years they have been hushed into silence, told that their ‘honour’, their ‘future prospects’, their ‘respect’ hinges on staying mum.
The ‘dishonour’ rests not so much in the act as it does in speaking about the act. Those whose abuse becomes known are shamed far more than those who abuse.
Some men, however, are more forthcoming. The fact that ‘honour’ is associated with women frees the men to speak about what they witnessed or even engaged in.
Society is structured in a way that even abuse endured by women can often only be spoken of by men. That space too is not theirs to claim.
While women express the general fear and vulnerability they feel, it is men who go into the details of what happened. I spoke to one such man, on the condition of anonymity.
A resident of Neelum Valley, he spoke of the abuse he had perpetrated on women when he was a young teenager in the 1990s. The term he used for all instances he engaged in — from molestation to penetrative rape — was ‘setting’. Larki ke saath setting ho gaye (I got in a setting with a girl) is a common phrase.
While the phrase may denote consent from both parties, what women feel about such ‘setting’ is often ignored, their consent either assumed or not deemed significant.
As the man said to me, “larkiyan tou shuru mein sharmati hi hain” (women are always shy in the beginning). Women’s rejection of men is dismissed as mere shyness or nervousness; they must all be willing, they must all come around to liking it.
However, in other cases he himself admits, “kuch zabardasti bhi karte thay” (sometimes we would force it). He said he had engaged in seven or eight such ‘settings’. Below is an edited excerpt from our conversation:
“Five or six families from the mohalla (neighbourhood) would hide inside the morchas (bunkers) together… during firing, everybody is trying to save their own lives… we are not concerned with who is a man or a woman… but once the firing halts, things change.
“Usually, families who have come from the mohalla to seek refuge in the community bunker stay the night. They are too scared to leave in case the firing starts again.
“There used to be many of us squeezed together… sitting, lying down next to each other in the pitch dark… there would be no light.
“When you’re so close to each other, in this small space, where you can even hear each other’s breath… aap samajh sakti hain kya hota ho ga… (you can understand what would transpire).
“All the senior boys in my school would talk about how many settings they had in bunkers. I did my first setting when I was 15 or 16 years old.
“When the elders would sleep, that’s when it would start… yes, many times the girls didn’t like it. They would pull back, they would try moving away… they were women of all ages… as young as 13 or 14 and as old as 35-40. Some of them were married, they had children…
“In our society no one wants to speak about such things. Even when the elders in the family found out, no one wanted to bring any attention to what had happened.
“They would say ‘inse shaadi kon karega?’ (who would marry them [the girls]?)… if ever there was any noise, a tamasha, the families themselves would try to cover it up. They would say ‘keera kaat gaya kuch nai hoa’ (nothing happened, she yelled because of an insect bite)…”
He tells me that there were a few incidents that did became public.
Once, a man caught raping a girl was tied to a pole for three days as punishment, but the girl became unmarriageable in their community.
“Eventually, she was married off in a far away village, where nobody knew what had happened to her.”
Another girl, who was 'caught' being raped by her cousin, was forced to marry him overnight. “She hated her cousin, she would always be cursing him but her family got a moulvi and married her off to him the same night.”
In cases where girls were impregnated as a result of rape, emotional and physical abuse followed. Taking them to the hospital would give away their identity and so these women were subjected to home abortions.
He tells me of one girl who was operated on at home to abort the pregnancy; the premature stillborn baby was then thrown away by the women of the village, only to be discovered later in the mouth of a donkey.
The recent escalation in firing, the setting up of relief camps and the refurbishing of community bunkers has triggered memories of the abuse endured by many residents of AJK over the past decades.
The women I meet in Bara Kahu demand that bunkers should be built for each home in areas prone to firing so they don’t have to risk their safety any longer.
Their demands and protests have, however, gone in vain so far.
As the conflict heats up again, families are left oscillating between the fear of death from shelling and the threat of sexual violence in what are meant to be communal safe havens.
A few weeks back in Neelum, fellow journalist Jalaluddin Mughal asked a widow why she didn’t hide with her daughter in the community bunker during the firing. She responded: “hum jaan bachayein ya izzat bachayein?” (Should we save our lives or our honour?).
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