Wande Magazine: Kunan Poshpora mass rape is a well known case. How difficult was it handling a case of this magnitude?
Essar Batool: Initially it was difficult because I had to face my family. I had already said yes and then I told my family that I was going to do this kind of work. They were aghast. They were afraid. My sister straightaway said to my mother, “You know she is standing up against the Indian army. You should not be surprised if she is killed someday, or abducted.” They were really afraid and kept asking me why did I have to do this? But I was quite firm. I told them that I had taken a stand and they shouldn’t worry.
I did have certain bouts of fear where I used to think, what will happen if I am really abducted? Abduction and killing is not that an issue with a girl as is the idea of being abducted and raped. It’s always at the back of your mind. This scenario of rape and torture was in my mind for the first few months, especially when we went to Kupwara because there was this huge intimidating presence of the Indian army, as they used to come to the court for hearings. But after a while it felt liberating. I felt my fear vanishing. I knew I was doing the right thing and that was enough motivation to continue.
WM: How did the rape and torture survivors come across to you in the beginning and how do you look at them now when you have spent considerable time with them?
EB: In the beginning I was very apprehensive about how to approach them. When I met them for the first time, I felt equally responsible for being part of the society that considered them somehow different. But when I saw them for the first time, I was like – what the hell was I thinking? Why did I think they would be different? They are normal people. At first there were many instances when they broke down while recalling their traumatic experiences. It breaks your heart to have them recount those incidents again and again.
We come from a background with the perception where we think rape is not a shameful act for women, not for the victim but for the perpetrator. But we do not understand that they cannot think like that because they have been made victims of the hypocrisy of our own society. Because of the dominant narrative that is present in the society that even if a rape is not a woman’s fault, the consequences are hers to bear. At that time I thought from that perspective but then over the years when I saw them and continuously talked to them, my perspective began to change. We chatted about things, we talked and laughed. I have realized that they are fighters. I have said it so many times. They are true fighters. They do know that it was an incident that happened but they have not made it the centre of their lives as we would like to have them do. We usually think, 'oh she is a rape survivor; she should only concentrate about rape because that’s what happened.' No. That incident doesn’t have to define her.
The problem is that whatever problems they are facing; it’s because of us not because of them. They chose to fight. They chose to resist. They chose not to kill themselves in shame. But what did we do as a society? We want them to be the crying women, to evoke pity among us. It’s something we are forcing them to do. So there is this huge difference I have seen. I no longer believe that they are ashamed. I feel that. It was a wrong perception to start with. I thought they would be ashamed. They are not ashamed. They do cry and they will cry because it was their own private space which was violated. For a woman her body is like her territory. If she is raped, it’s a very disturbing fact. Even in buses here you will experience this. I remember the first time I got molested in a bus – I cried at my home, I did not eat because I thought I was dirty. It’s something to do with the image of our own body. We are very protective of our bodies. The mores created around this perception force the girl to feel bad about herself and feel guilty as well.
I am equally guilty of thinking this way about them, but then I saw it was a completely different ball game altogether. They were not ashamed. In fact I think people actually wanted them to be like that. But they did not. So that’s one huge difference between what I had thought about them, what the stereotype was and how did they actually turned out to be.
WM: How did this case and your interactions with these women change you at a personal level?
EB: It did. Before this I did not think it was possible for a woman to be this brave. We have come across cases where we read about rape survivors and we read about some of them who have put up a brave fight but to meet such women and interact with them – it’s a huge difference. As I said, I laughed with them, talked about their daily lives. It changed me so much.
They are harassed every day. The army does not leave the village. It’s still there and harasses them and humiliates them. They live in continuous fear of something else might happen but they still have not given up, they still aren’t broken. That is an inspiration. It’s been an inspiration for me. I inspire to be brave like them. They are role models.
WM: Do you feel the enormity of this crime and the cause of justice have been lost or diluted by the politics of this place and the fact that everybody has tried to use it for pushing their own discourse over Kashmir?
EB: I think yes. The media, the successive governments – and everyone has used the name of Kunan Poshpora to push forth their own image to boost because we attach a lot of emotional quotient to Kunan Poshpora. What happens is that when you talk about Kunan Poshpora, people are like ‘O brave sisters, you are talking about Kunan Poshpora, about our women. Wow.’ I do not know if they have read what we have done but only the mention that we are talking about Kunan Poshpora is enough for them to believe that we have done something without actually seeing what we have done.
That is what everyone does. The successive governments come and stick to rhetoric. Media comes – they just go and do stories and then disappear. So of course yes, the politics of this place is obviously been a factor in creating hurdles because the state has been the huge part of the cover up – every time, not just once. And it does not matter what government it was. The state as an idea has always been part of the cover up, part of the dilution of this case. Everyone has till now exploited their feelings to further their own benefits.
WM: How would you assess the response of the society and the resistance leadership towards cases of sexual violence committed by Indian armed forces in Kashmir?
EB: I think it’s been pretty much the same; pretty much as the perpetrator wanted it. I have been maintaining it for long that patriarchy is one tool that the oppressor has exploited time and again. Even the leadership or the society, they always react with that typical phrase – hamari maa behno ki ismat chali gayi or ismat reazi. I do not understand. Why you are saying that? Do you mean to say that now these women have been raped, they are devoid of any honour or any respect? This is the problem. I think this has been the case with every sexual violence incident even with Asiya-Neelofar rape and murder case. The outrage was based on society's collective honour that had been attacked. It was not said that it’s a tool which is used to break women’s resistance. It was like our honour has been attacked. This should not have happened. So in some ways I see us as promoting those patriarchal norms so bad and to the advantage of the occupier. It’s the same with leadership. I think leadership could do a better role in dispelling these notions, in changing basically the terminology and the way these incidents are reported and narrated. That’s a huge factor.
WM: When we talk about rape whenever it happens in our society, we usually reference the rape survivor with her relation with men such as our mothers, our sisters etc. Do you think cases like this, Kunan Poshpora or any other case of rape committed by Indian army against Kashmiri women provide an opportunity for the society to reflect on how it sees and constructs women?
EB: Absolutely. I remember at the Jaipur Literature Festival in India I said that we (Kashmir) have a patriarchal society but not as bad as outside. Someone actually messaged me and asked me what I meant by that, accused me of taking sides and of potraying my society as less problwmatic than it was. I said I somehow believe that. I believe as a society we are less rigid and that means we might be open to change. It’s not that we are rigidly patriarchal. We are patriarchal, there is no denying that, but I think we are a little less rigid.
We have not been as kind to women’s resistance as we could have been. But we have been there. We have appreciated the struggles of women. In that way yes, I think this is a huge opportunity – this case or cases like this, these present an opportunity for people to rethink and reflect on what we are saying and how we should say it because whatever we do should not support the occupier and the oppressor. Because that’s what they want. They have given us a narrative and we are blindly following it. I say if we hate the occupier so much, why inherit their qualities? If they are patriarchal, we should take ourselves towards being less patriarchal by the day. I think most of the role that can be played in this regard is by younger people. Because our academia is so full of sexism and misogyny. They are not the people who I would expect to change this narrative. I think it’s for us – the younger generation to sit, reflect and create a new discourse, create a new narrative and create a new language where we can see women as only women not as women who belong to men. Because that’s what the occupier does, sexual violence against women is used to break men, because women do not break very easily. Sexual violence against women is used to break men but sexual violence against men is used to break men only, you see? We need to understand this. The day we disassociate women with the honour, the izzat and as they say in Afghanistan the nang namoos of the community, we will actually see that the occupier, the oppressor will have one weapon less. Because honestly, they are scared of women as well.
In our book also, we have shown that women have resisted in so many ways. Indian media has always shown Kashmiri women as those weak creatures – weeping and wiping their tears. But it’s not true. During the protests, we see how many times there have been women pelting stones. During crackdowns women have been throwing Kangris on Indian army men. It’s not just one way of resisting. There are so many ways of resisting and women have been doing that. It’s upon us to look upon them as human beings who resist equally.
Someone told me that I said that resistance has no gender, but you know it’s always gendered. What I meant is that resistance is a universal language. It should not be seen as Oh men are resisting – very good. And oh women are not resisting, what are they doing? We still hold the old idea of women, who can only resist when they serve men who are in the battlefield. In those old war novels, you will have women who are told that they can contribute towards war if they treat wounded men in the battle. I don’t see why we have to do that. I don’t see why we have to say that yes women should resist like the way back in the nineties, carrying messages to militant, carrying food to militants.
It’s this narrative that we have to change because we are again seeing it from a very patriarchal prism. I will tell you about an incident. During 2008 mass uprising in Kashmir, everyone was protesting. We protested in the college. Inside the college it was fine, but after the college hours were over, some girls went outside and protested on the road. Some men said tauntingly, “Azadi will come in short time, now that these girls have come out to protest.” I don’t think these girls would ever go out again to protest. The need of the hour was to join the protest, even if you had to stand behind them. But they did not. They made fun of those girls. The whole patriarchy came into play again, “Yim chi kaori, yim kithken draayi sadki peth (They are girls, how did they come out on streets).”
WM: When you talked about our society not as rigid as outsiders like to believe, it certainly throws some light on the fact that this is a movement, a movement of constant flux and change, do you agree with that?
EB: I do. I see a lot more acceptance among people towards women taking over. For me the society now is not as rigid as I saw it during my school going days. In my own life, I have been a rebel always. I have always questioned the gendered roles, why do boys get to do this and girls don’t? At that time I remember there were such notions about what women can and cannot do. About women leaders even. Today, it’s changing, especially with youth who are opening up to newer ideas.
Most of our structures are controlled by the occupation; the most important among them being education. People come out programmed from the educational institutions. But now the trend is slowly changing. More people are starting to read and imbibe stories from other places and that actually gives them a more universal sense. I would say we are not very rigid. We are constantly changing. It might be two steps forward and one step backward, but it’s happening.
The movement for Azadi is a movement based on constant reflection and thought.
WM: How do you think the society should respond to acts of sexual violence, now that some work is done about the politics and sensitivity of talking about rape?
EB: I think we should first of all stop talking about rapes as stealing of honour. We should stop using these words – ismat rezi or behurmati. The funny thing is we are afraid of even using the word rape. Rape does not take away the honour and the dignity of a woman. Modesty has nothing to do with rape. Modesty cannot be outraged. We should stop using the clichéd and wrong phrase, ‘They outraged her modesty.’ We should completely stop using this language and terminology.
The first step we should take is disassociating the honour of the whole community with women. Why would you burden a woman so much? Why would you put the honour of whole community on her and make her vulnerable to such incidents. Why are we making our women so vulnerable? We are telling the occupiers that our honour lies with women’s bodies. We see women as bodies.