April 2, 2017
SRINAGAR, INDIAN-ADMINISTERED KASHMIR — Akhtar brought a refrigerator, a washing machine, a television and gold jewelry to her marriage. But before the week was out, Akhtar’s family says, her husband’s family demanded more, more, more.
Akhtar, whose first name is being withheld out of concern for her privacy, worked as a hospital lab technician before the wedding, but her husband forced her to quit to focus on household tasks.
Her husband’s family soon complained that Akhtar didn’t keep the kitchen clean; she didn’t tidy the rooms. There was shouting and there was hitting, over and over, day after day, on and on, until her husband doused her with kerosene and lit a match.
It’s a story that police in this mountain region know well, and they’re hearing it more often these days. It’s too early to point to a clear shift in the data, but police and women’s advocates say abuse against new brides is on the rise, often because grooms and their families are dissatisfied with the dowries they receive from brides and their families.
The State Commission for Women has received more reports of abuse each year since its inception in 2000, says Nayeema Ahmad Mehjoor, commission chairwoman.
The number of domestic abuse reports to the commission jumped from 161 in 2011 to 194 in 2013, she says.
INSIDE THE STORY: Abused women in the Kashmir Valley, where domestic violence is on the rise, are often afraid to discuss their plight, and they remain with their husbands to avoid stigma. A reporter learned patience as she searched out those few who would speak, and when she allowed one pain-racked woman, who had been burned by her husband and in-laws, to tell her story in her own time. Read the blog.
But the biggest increase in domestic violence cases came in 2016, when a curfew kept Kashmiris on lockdown in their homes for more than two months. The curfew was in response to protests that broke out throughout the region after Burhan Wani, a separatist leader, was killed by government forces.
There were 342 registered cases of cruelty by a husband in 2016, according to data provided by Srinagar’s crime branch, which police officials say is an uptick over previous years.
“The men were confined to their homes due to which the increase in violence was witnessed. The commission was open and we heard a lot of women,” Mehjoor says.
Such violence is so common that the Women’s Police Station in Srinagar’s Rambagh area, the Kashmir Valley’s lone station dedicated to serving women, hears seven or eight reports of it every day, including regarding women who have been torched by their husbands or in-laws, says Gulshan Akhtar, the station house officer. But few of those women formally register their cases due to the stigma associated with domestic violence, so those cases are never investigated.
Even in a region where domestic abuse is often unreported, police at Srinagar’s crime branch documented six “dowry deaths” in 2015, and another six in 2016. Data from years prior to 2015 wasn’t available, but in this case, too, police and experts say that’s an increase.
And a growing number of women are coming to Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital because they’ve been burned. Often, the women don’t immediately explain their injuries, says Dr. Shabir Iqbal Khan, head of the plastic surgery department. Some women even blame the wounds on accidents caused by clumsiness, a claim Khan says he sees through every time.
“A person cannot burn herself and get 50 or 60 percent burn injuries,” he says.
He says he now sees about four or five women each month who have been “burned down” by their in-laws.
Just over a year after she married a local businessman, Akhtar says, her mother-in-law and sister-in-law held her down while her husband set her on fire in October 2016.
She thought she was going to die.
“I was on fire. I was burning. I was crying. I was in pain,” she says. “And they all stood there and watched me burn.”
But, her mother and brother sensed something was wrong. They’d heard from Akhtar the night before when she sneaked a phone call to signal her distress. When they arrived, they say they saw her on fire. They wrapped her in clothing to extinguish the flame and rushed her to a hospital, where she stayed for more than a month to treat the burns that covered 60 percent of her body.
Akhtar’s husband, along with his father, mother and sister, were jailed for two months then released. Their case is ongoing in Srinagar’s lower court.
If convicted, they’ll face between three and 10 years in prison.
Raihana Maqbool translated some interviews from Kashmiri and Urdu.