Growing up in a South Asian household with prominent patriarchal standards, I have been asked on numerous occasions to stay silent. I have been trained to always serve elders and guests first. I have been urged to always say “yes” and ask no questions or protest with my opinions on a cultural or social topic. Despite these expectations, I choose to be the trailblazer in my family and community. I choose to pursue a path in social justice and entrepreneurship, calling for women’s voices to be amplified and represented in leadership positions. Over the past two years, I been able to channel this activism through social media and speak against the atrocities that the people in Jammu and Kashmir have faced for decades. However, they do not have the luxury to continuously speak up on social media or in the streets without oppression and violence from India. This means that various media outlets from India, Pakistan, and Kashmir have created their own narratives about the people in Kashmir, and these narratives distort the truth on the half-widows and widows of the Kashmir valley.
Indian national media rarely report on the conditions of Kashmiri widows; many suffer from PTSD or depression. Some widows are victims of rape by the Indian armed forces. Others wait for news of missing husband or son–their disappearance is an ongoing tragedy. As the women grieve, the media blames the conflict on the ongoing political war between India and Pakistan. In comparison to Pakistani national media, there is minimal to almost no coverage on widows in the Indian media. Indian media on the widows is generally centered on how the Indian administration has developed initiatives to improve the widows’ lives.
In contrast, Pakistani national media highlights the plight of Kashmiri widows, but, unlike India, Islamabad is very nationalistic and indirectly blames India for the atrocities committed against the widows. Similar to Indian media, Pakistani media historically has and continues to apply a masculine perspective to its stories by concentrating on the violence in the war between India and Pakistan rather than concentrating on the lack of rights for Kashmiri women, the real participants of this ongoing conflict.
The majority of the over 400 news channels in India are owned by weapons dealers and large businesses who have ties to the Indian administration. It has been suspected that many of these executives have been disseminating Hindu nationalist propaganda through their media outlets in return for millions of dollars. Similarly, the Pakistani government has imposed restrictions on media outlets by censoring online content against Pakistan and pressuring them to spread positive stories on initiatives against Islamist militant groups. More importantly, the Indian government enforced restrictions on media in Jammu and Kashmir, causing many newspapers to be removed, photojournalism to be prohibited, and restrictions on internet services on cell phones.
As a result, Kashmiri journalists have resorted to writing for independent publications and social media to document the women’s stories.
Kashmiri media is more holistic in how it creates the narrative for Kashmiri widows. Many articles, photographs and posts on social media illustrate the brutalities that these widows are facing, but they also explain some of positive strides they have and continue to make. In a FreePressKashmir article, the story of Maryam and other widows dealing with the hardships that come with being a widow is explained in vivid detail. The story focuses on how these women struggle to receive help from community members, raise multiple children, and suffer from mental illnesses; the story also illustrates how some women overcome these challenges. This and many other articles not only touch on the issues faced by widows but also provide specific context and examples from actual widows.
Readers outside of the region are likely to view the women of Kashmir as strong and courageous because of their effort to improve their lives and the lives of their children. This is only one part of the whole story.
The inspiring work of Kashmiri activists, some widows themselves, speak of widows’ lack of autonomy through social media and blog posts. This has shaped a peaceful, hardworking, and empowering narrative of the women in Kashmir. The Kashmiri photographer, Showkat Nanda, who personally lost a brother from the numerous militant attacks in the 1990s, started photographing widows and half widows in Kashmir for American newspapers, namely, The New York Times and The Washington Post, to share their stories with the world.
Nanda started taking photographs and videos of widows for a long-term documentary project called “The Endless Wait.” Nanda’s project is focused the how they widows survive.
The complexities and various emotions of widows’ lives are illustrated through two starkly different photos of women whose sons disappeared: one is crying and the other is laughing. Through this human approach, “Nanda’s work is likely to cause the Indian, Pakistani, and Kashmiri public to view Kashmiri women with a sense of empathy for their current lifestyles as they mourn and wait for their husbands and sons to come back home.”
Nanda’s documentary offers a positive view of the widows–the women still have hope that their husbands or sons will return. With this impression, the public sees these women as resilient.
The government of India should pass legislation that permits various media outlets to independently report on regional issues in Jammu and Kashmir. The goal should be to focus on the human element of war and include the stories of Kashmiri widows.
Most importantly, India needs to stop its communication blackouts and allow the people to engage online freely. Blocking the voices of Kashmiris from sharing their stories of war is likely to create more violence.
After all, censorship distorts the truth.
Opening the media will allow more women to speak out against real time shootings and other violent acts committed by the Indian security force against Kashmiris.
Similarly, the administration of Pakistan should amend the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill (PECB) to restrict authorities from censoring online media coverage of operations supporting Pakistani militant groups. This can limit overtly masculine and nationalistic lenses in media and favor a gendered lens of dialogue.
During this time of social unrest, it our responsibility to educate ourselves, speak up, and act. We can keep these stories alive by sharing on social media and engaging in dialogue with friends and family about the conflict in Kashmir. To stay current on events in Kashmir, you can follow these Kashmiri journalists: Showkat Nanda, Masrat Zahra, Gowhar Geelani, and Peerzada Ashiq.
Guest blogger Sri Varre is a young human rights activist and researcher. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org