Women’s bodies as battlegrounds: Social media discourse and the weaponization of rape in Kashmir

Google Trends data shows searches in India for “Kashmiri girl” surged on Aug. 5, when the India revoked Article 370.
Google Trends data shows searches in India for “Kashmiri girl” surged on Aug. 5, when the India revoked Article 370.

Tweets are not just empty words, but a reflection of the violence continuum that Kashmiri women are subjugated to.

By Hana Fatima

Following any major event in Kashmir, the chasm of social media serves as a preliminary gauge of public opinion surrounding the event. The revocation of Article 370 by India’s BJP-led government was no different. The revocation put an end to the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, which had allowed the territory to create some of its own laws, and maintain a certain level of sovereignty. Now, Kashmir will have to abide by the Indian constitution after years of having its own. Many Kashmiris believe that the move is an effort to change the Muslim majority demographics of the region, by allowing non-Kashmiris to buy land in Kashmir, among other scrutinized measures.

After the constitutional change was passed, Twitter users identifying as Indian men took to the platform to celebrate how the constitutional provision might be to their perceived benefit.

“Congrats India, now unmarried boys can marry these smart girls from Kashmir after 370 removal”

Another tweet read, “Every Indian boy’s dream right now: 1. Plot in Kashmir 2. Job in Kashmir 3. Marriage with Kashmiri girl.”

In line with the sentiments of the tweets, Google Trends data shows searches in India for “Kashmiri girl” surged on August 5, when the Indian government passed the revocation. This type of fetishization of Kashmiri women is not new. But how can the same men who aspire to marry Kashmiri women, simultaneously support their violent oppression? The answer is: with ease. Women’s bodies have been battlegrounds in Kashmir since the states of India and Pakistan came into existence, after a violent partition in 1947. Since then, India and Pakistan have fought two wars over Kashmir. In parallel, Kashmir was wracked by an anti-India insurgency movement starting in 1989, which led to mass casualties and disappearances of Kashmiris.

The unrest in Kashmir began close to 70 years ago, going through intense periods of violence, and has yet to cease. Kashmir is one of the most heavily policed and militarized places; the conflict has left 70,000 dead and 8,000 as estimated by local human rights group known as the Committee of Concerned Scientists. Over the years, the rape of Kashmiri women by Indian forces has become a means of collective punishment against the entire population. Human Rights Watch has identified two main scenarios in which Kashmiri women are subject to rape by Indian forces: during search and cordon operations for Kashmiri militants and during reprisal attacks by Indian forces after military ambushes. Although Indian human rights groups and the international press have reported on the widespread use of rape by Indian security forces in Kashmir, there are no reliable statistics on the exact number of rape and sexual assault cases.

One of the most horrific incidents of gendered violence in the region is the Kunan Poshpura mass rapes. In 1991, Indian army soldiers raped between 23 and 100 Kashmiri women during a search and cordon operation. Almost 29 years later, the Indian state has refused to acknowledge the crimes, while the survivors are left with little to no avenues to pursue justice. By contrast, the 2012 rape and murder of a young medical student in Delhi sparked immediate public outcry and mass protests, while Indian politicians promised to bring the perptraters to justice. The dissonance between the reactions to these two atrocities prompted a group of Kashmiri women to publish a book with personal accounts of the women who were raped in the Kunan Poshpora incident. Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora? (2016) revealed a harrowing truth: this crime remains at the forefront of the collective trauma endured by Kashmiri women, but it is a trauma largely ignored by the Indian government.

The culture of impunity for Indian forces has not been abolished or even reduced since these rapes took place. Perpetrators find a safe haven in the Indian halls of power by way of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, colloquially known as AFSPA. The parliament of India passed AFSPA in 1958, to maintain public order in ‘disturbed’ areas. According to Human Rights Watch, AFSPA “allows any soldier or officer to fire upon groups of five or more people or anyone suspected of having a weapon, arrest anyone without a warrant, and conduct home invasions.” Given the draconian nature of the act, has been described as a breach of international human rights law by members of the international community. In 2012 the UN asked the Indian government to revoke AFSPA, which India has yet to do. The intersection of gender and conflict in Kashmir is a messy one, and cannot be discussed without including the legislation that sets the tone for the relationship between Kashmiri civilians and Indian forces.

We have yet to see the long-term consequences of the constitutional provision, but if previous patterns of unrest are any indication, Kashmiri women face an added layer of brutality at the hands of Indian forces. Although Kashmiris have been tested to the limits by intense militarization, thousands of troops are being deployed following the revocation, in addition to the approximately 600,000 troops already stationed in the Valley. The Indian government’s track record with its response to the Kunan Poshpura mass rapes, among other incidents, has made it clear that the bodily security of Kashmiri women falls outside of their responsibilities.

The tweets following the constitutional provision illustrate how societal conceptions of Kashmiri women are shaped and skewed by political agendas. Following the revocation, Manohar Lal Khattar, chief minister of Haryana, was quoted as saying: “Some people are now saying that as Kashmir is open, brides will be brought from there.” The process of dehumanization required to carry out horrific acts of violence, such as rape, begins with how both politicians and civilians talk about Kashmiri women. The language used on Twitter and elsewhere are part of what social scientists, Scheper-Hughes and Bourgois, call the violence continuum. According to this theory, political violence is directly linked to structural and symbolic violence, and all forms of violence legitimize one another. In the case of Kashmiri women, the symbol of being a fetishized and submissive bride is imposed upon them, paving the path for physical acts of violence such as rape. In other words, these tweets are not just empty words, but a reflection of the violence continuum that Kashmiri women are subjugated to.

By speaking plainly about an unrequited desire for marriage on social media, the message is clear: Kashmiri women are no longer an unattainable marital conquest for civilian Indian men. Military personnel or not, Kashmir is within reach, due to the strong relationship between militarization and a right-wing political agenda that has reached its culmination point. In essence, both Indians and the international community cannot feign surprise when the bodies of women bear the brunt of occupation. The weaponization of rape begins at how a society talks, or tweets, about its most vulnerable.

(Hana Fatima is a contributor.)

3 Comments

  1. A well-written article about a very important topic! Great work Hana :)

  2. Zahra Ansari

    Really important and underreported topic! Thanks so much for covering this.

  3. This is a very insightful and thought provoking piece. Free Kashmir!

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