India - Kashmir's Half-Widows Struggle for Fuller Life

The wives of men who have disappeared in India's Kashmir conflict gather each week holding photos of their husbands in a protest. The "half-widows" are unable to collect pensions or remarry without official word that their husbands are dead.

Half-widows of Kashmir

SRINAGAR, India (WOMENSENEWS)--Nearly 17 years ago, Tahira Begum fought with her parents to marry her sweetheart, Tariq Ahmad Rather. The two families were not on good terms at the time, but in the end the marriage went through.

Today she's fighting a very different battle: for help confirming that her husband, who disappeared while traveling on business to New Delhi in 2002, has been killed in the ongoing war in Kashmir, the disputed border region between India and Pakistan.

Now 35, Begum became one of the thousands of Kashmir's "half-widows," wives whose husbands are lost in the limbo between missing and confirmed death.

"From that time I have been visiting every police station and every army camp in the state for the hope of finding any clue," Begum says tearfully of her efforts to find her husband, a civil contractor with a federal hydroelectric company. She says some people said they saw her husband in army custody, but she has no proof of anything.

Indian-administered Kashmir has been a flashpoint between India and Pakistan since the end of British colonial rule in 1947. During the current insurgency, which started in 1989, many people have vanished, presumed killed or imprisoned without trial or record. The death toll in the current conflict amounts to somewhere between 40,000 and 90,000, depending on the source.

During the last 15 years the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, an organization of the relatives of the disappeared in Kashmir, claims that about 10,000 people have been subjected to enforced disappearances by state agencies, mostly taken by armed personnel. Of the disappeared, they say between 2,000 and 2,500 people were married, and almost all were males.

"There are organizations fighting for land, water, rights, money, freedom, et cetera," says Parveena Ahanger, chair of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, based in the Kashmiri summer capital of Srinagar. "We are fighting to obtain just a piece of information about the whereabouts of our disappeared relatives."

Ahanger's son Javid Ahmad Ahanger was picked up by security forces on Aug. 18, 1990, when he was 16; since then she has not heard from him.

India denies any connection to the abductions and says fewer than 1,000 people have disappeared. It says most of the missing have gone to the Pakistan-administered side of Kashmir for training in guerrilla warfare. The Indian administration has confirmed 135 such missing persons as dead.

Seven-Year Limbo

The wives of the missing often can't remarry. Not only do they lack proof of being widowed, their observance of Islam often means they must wait at least seven years before taking another husband.

The Indian government's policy is to deny the half-widows any relief before the expiration of seven years. At that point they can receive the standard relief offered to widows who have lost husbands to the insurgency; either a one-time grant of between $1,000 and $2,000 or a monthly pension of about $10.

To date the government has provided relief to 400 half-widows. Activists estimate there are between 2,000 and 2,500 such women.

Nearly all the half-widows are from lower-income families and were entirely dependent on their husbands, activists say.

During the seven-year waiting period, the women's rights to their husbands' property are often threatened, says Pervez Imroz, a human-rights lawyer who spearheads the Human Rights group Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Societies, based in Srinagar.

Property Rights Denied

Women grieve after deaths of villagers in Kashmir conflict.

Imroz says the half-widows are often denied any share of their husbands' property by their in-laws. Some in-laws may recognize their property rights, but still restrict or infringe upon them in various ways.

"With their husbands gone missing they have been left in the open sky," Imroz says. "The government is making just the tall claims and the situation is almost as similar as it was some years ago."

Imroz's group has started a couple of training centers for half-widows and other women hurt by the region's militancy. The group is also documenting the history of Kashmir after the insurgency period and plans to provide a detailed account of the number killed and injured, the amount of damaged property and other measures of the human toll.

The coalition has withstood at least two direct armed attacks on their activists in the past five years, during which two of their female workers were killed.

Imroz was shot in the back during a 1995 attack and survived an assassination attempt in April 2005. His attackers are not identified but activists say it is dangerous to raise charges and questions of human rights violations such as those suffered by the half-widows. Many nongovernmental organizations avoid discussing the half-widows for fear of official reprisal.

Park Demonstrations

In a public plea for help in attaining information about the missing men, the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons organizes a group of about two or three dozen half-widows--including Begum--to assemble at a central public park in Srinagar on the 25th of each month for a sit-in protest.

Those who turn up have been missing their husbands for as long as 17 years. Many cry openly. As they hold photographs of their husbands in their hands and the names printed on their white headgears, the women have become an embarrassment for the authorities, who often break up the demonstrations.

The women put a foundation stone in a graveyard as a group memorial in April 2005, but within hours the police destroyed it.

"It is a hard situation for them," says Peerzada Arshad, a local journalist, who has covered the plight of the half-widows extensively for national newspapers. "The wives of missing husbands known as half-widows can't re-marry as the death of their husbands has not been confirmed, the children can't differentiate themselves between the two categories of orphans and non-orphans, and the grandparents long for a resolution, for one moment of a complete family."

Fahmeeda Bano, 37, lives in a remote village of Kupwara south of Kashmir and has visited almost all the police stations and army camps in Kashmir. Still, sorrow haunts her. Her husband was picked up by the Indian army 14 years ago.

"If my husband is alive I want to see him," she begs. "I want the authorities to tell me where he is. If he has been killed let them hand over his body to me."

Haroon Mirani is a Kashmir-based freelance journalist who has covered the region for the past five years.

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