The world celebrated International Women’s Day a couple of days ago (March 8) with a litany of speeches of denial of rights and need for empowerment. But for hundreds of women in Jammu and Kashmir, they do not mean much. In Kashmir hinterland, the idea of women empowerment is an enemy’s tactic. Some 70 km from Srinagar, in any direction, the words women empowerment are seen as undermineing Kashmir’s rich and centuries-old culture.
This is not just the perception of the elderly, even the educated men and women agree with the view.
Hajibal, a sleepy hamlet in north Kashmir’s Baramulla district is as remote as it is backward and seems a 19th century hamlet. Boys study here and so do girls. What makes this village different is that people are grounded in culture, locals tell Deccan Herald. “We have a problem with women empowerment. Basically, it is not so,” Sajad Ahmad, a student of Hajibal, who studies at Government Degree College Baramulla, said.
“Our women are far more modern than those who brag about women empowerment. If a woman wears tight trousers, they call it women empowerment but thankfully we don’t,” the 22-year-old Sajad, who studies sociology, added.
Elderly persons in the village encourage educating girls but would not allow them act like women gone astray. “We are clear on the matter. We want our daughters to study and become doctors and teachers. But the way women empowerment is practised, we would never let that happen,” 67-year-old Muhammad Sultan says.
Asked what they make of the term women empowerment, Sultan said: “Their (Western) version of women empowerment is a devastating concept. If a woman is devout to her culture and the religion we practice, she would never let loose her hair in front of other people. But they encourage such a practice and say it is freedom.”
The village is nestled on a mountain peak with pastures and forests all over. Here, everything seems untouched. The fresh milky-white water gushes down a stream which then goes into river Jhelum at Drangbal, almost seven km down the hill. The Jammu and Kashmir Government is of late planning to put the village on the tourist map.
“If such a thing happens here, we would quit the village,” said a local, who runs a shop in the main market in Baramulla. “Not because we are conservative, but because they want to bring devil to this place,” he added.
The opinion that women empowerment is a tactic to undermine culture of people radiates probably from every hinterland of Kashmir with the view remaining rigid as a belief. In Sunarwani area of north Kashmir’s Bandipora district, people are against women empowerment. “We do not need to take women empowerment the way they are taking,” said Tariq, who recently got a job in state’s education department as a teacher. “We are neither against the education of girls nor do we accept their sort of women empowerment. I would feel proud if my sister is an educated so that she can differentiate between good and bad but I would never let her do what is not allowed in Islam. I don’t think she needs to wear pants to be called an empowered woman,” Tariq added.
“Let me put the idea of women empowerment in context,” said Shagufta, a government school teacher in Bandipora. “It is not a tactic but we are letting it become a tactic in the hands of those who want to ruin us, both culturally and morally. The idea of women empowerment is in Islam as well. But what we do here in its name is shameful. We should understand properly what it means. At least it doesn’t mean we should loosen our hairs, wear tight clothes and ride a scooterette,” she said.
Milieu in regard to women empowerment in hinterland is much different than it is in Srinagar. What is seen taboo in former is openly being practiced in the latter. Experts link Srinagar’s environment with some shocking incidents that have taken place in the past like acid throwing on a girl’s face recently.
“We may end up seeing Srinagar as an out-of-culture place. We are very much confused with the term women empowerment and in Srinagar it is highly misunderstood. If we knew what it actually meant, we would not let our daughters roam in parks and hotels in the guise of being in school and colleges,” Asima Hassan, who teaches sociology at a Government Degree College here, told Deccan Herald. “It is hard enough to be a woman in the present circumstances, but being respected by society as a woman with a professional career is even harder,” she added.