The Half Widows in Kashmir
While men in conflict zones are celebrated, decorated, and revered for their heroism, women and children are often just referred to as the bystanders of the discord. These nameless and unmentioned beings are only reflected in statistics. As a Kashmiri Pandit (Hindu) woman I have seen the scars of the conflict and their lasting impact—physical as well as emotional—right after the conflict in Kashmir erupted in early 1990. The first and the last victims of war are always the women and the children and, due to this, they are also the torchbearers of change and progress. In a feature film I am working on, Half Widow, the struggle of the main protagonist, Neela, is a symbolic reminder of this reality of conflict.
I am amongst the very fortunate to have lived and experienced my early childhood in Kashmir before the militancy started.
The memories of that peaceful time have always served as a refuge and an anchor in my psyche that has kept me hopeful throughout the ongoing turbulent conflict. Our family moved to the Jammu (Hindu-majority) part of the region in 1985; however, we visited Kashmir (the Muslim-majority territory) every now and then. In the summer of 1989, we could hear the whispers of dissent and felt that something was about to happen. It was a hot summer, yet one could feel frigidity in the atmosphere despite the heat. From the eyes of a child, it felt as if Kashmir had transitioned overnight. Right before our eyes, we saw this beautiful valley turn into a battlefield.
I was in my early teens when the exodus and the genocide of Kashmiri Pandits (Brahmin community) occurred. Some of our relatives fled Kashmir due to threats from militants, and some left after a family member was killed. After the initial shock and recovery phase waned, the feeling of rootlessness started to take its toll. That was the beginning of the emotional decay.
Yet, once the dust of the chaos settled—or maybe people got used to living with the chaos—I was amazed to see a strange sense of resilience descend upon us all. People who I thought would not survive were trying to move on and find new meaning in life. Indeed, history shows that human beings are inherently survivors.
Born in Kashmir, the beautiful valley of love plagued by decades of tragedy, I didn’t get many opportunities to explore life outside the doors of my home. Constantly under curfew and forbidden to leave my home, my childhood in Kashmir was anything but normal. Frequent bombings, curfews, lockdowns, and human rights abuses in the Valley kept my siblings and me fearful. I witnessed the deaths of my close friends as well as acquaintances in the unending political upheaval in my homeland.
Perhaps to escape my troubled reality, as a child I took up the hobby of watching movies. This hobby turned into a lifelong passion and love for making films. Another realization that I had as a youngster is that conflict resolution to the world’s most intractable disputes does not lie in civil protests or militarism, but in the investment of our energies toward personal development, education, and community growth. As a filmmaker, I contribute to this realization by bringing to light sensitive and overlooked issues. In my upcoming directorial feature film, Khalid, I am hoping to educate the world about the injustices faced by the half widows in Kashmir.
Half widows, as the term suggests, are women who do not know if their husbands are dead or alive. Thus, these women spend the rest of their lives waiting in hope that their spouses will return.
The Kashmir conflict began in the early 1980s. In the three decades of the conflict, estimates of disappeared, arrested, and abducted men have reached as high as 8,000. Merely on the basis of suspicion for conspiring against the authorities, people are picked up, never to return home. These people include young men, teenagers, children, many of whom have no part in the conflict. They are innocent but have become victims. They are not involved with any organization or party. Yet, these are the many—sons, brothers, husbands, and dear ones—who never return.
The label “half widow” highly disturbs me, it is a stigma. These women are not half; they are complete people with dreams and aspirations, and the right to live their lives just like anyone else. They have the right to know what happened to their husbands so they can try to move on with their lives.
Yet these half widows remain stuck in limbo. There is no refuge or safety net for Kashmiri women whose loved ones have disappeared. Losing their source of income and protection, half widows often have nowhere to go. For those who do have family that takes them in, without knowing the fate of their spouse, how can they move on psychologically and begin anew? How long are supportive families able or willing to provide for these women? From a legal standpoint, in the absence of a male figure whose existence is unknown, these women’s marital status also hinders them from seeking new relationships and possibilities.
As Kashmiri society entangles itself in the cobweb of these plaguing questions, it tends to forget that, beneath all the trauma and pain, there is a human being that intuitively is seeking out a reason to keep going. Kashmiris do not acknowledge half widows’ humanity and, if they do, they do not know what to do with them. While government programs offer minimal shelter and, sometimes, temporary employment, they do not include justice for a long-term solution. These women are mostly ignored, their voices unheard, and they live with decades-old pain. Is this fair? Do they not have the right to know what happened to their husbands and children? Do they not have the right to locate the bodies of their loved ones so as to gain closure and mourn properly for their lost relatives? Do they not have the right to find resolution in their hearts and to move on with their lives?
In my film Half Widow, we critically examine the status of the overlooked and beleaguered population of half widows. The story spans several years of the turmoil and angst endured by the people of Kashmir along with the small wins and hopes that keep them alive despite the harsh realities they encounter on a daily basis.
In a place where everyone is a victim, the story of our protagonist begins after tragedy strikes and she can no longer look outside for strength and validation. Neela, a Kashmiri housewife, loses her sense of self when her husband is disappeared. Her maddening reality restarts every day with the hope that her husband will come back, that she will able to build her home again and live a normal life like the others around her. But she never gets what she desires. Her husband is long gone. Her younger brother, Zakir, is the only beacon of light in her life. He stands by her every day, keeping her hope alive. Zakir knows that if he turns his back on Neela, she might give up on her life. He will never let that happen, and so Zakir supports her through all the ups and downs they both face.
Years later, Neela encounters journalists who want to tell her story, which triggers emotions that she worked so hard to mute. She resolves that no one has the right to tell her story; no one should write about her husband except for Neela herself. But she is confronted with a stark reality: she is illiterate. For the last ten years, she has only waited for her husband, letting life pass her by.
Neela’s predicament and process is something I witnessed while growing up in Kashmir. Education helped women and children who were trying to bind the broken pieces of their former selves together. But the women, especially, had to struggle to access these resources.
Neela realizes the value of education, that she will not be able to write her story without it. She accepts this challenge and the fact that her husband is never going to come back. Neela also understands she has the ability to set an example for others in her same tragic situation, and so she decides to make a difference. She will learn to read and write so she can tell her story. But is it too late for her to go back to school?
Stories like Neela’s need to be told, especially now, when so many people are experiencing loss and displacement in the world. In order to survive they will need to look within for answers and strive to find meaning in a life that is so filled with sadness. While war and conflict zones are ridden with sorrow, we also find human stories of real courage and valor.
The film is inspired by Parveena Ahangar, the Iron Lady of Kashmir. She has been an advocate for heartbroken women of Kashmir throughout the conflict. For the last 25 years, every tenth day of each month, those identified as half widows of Kashmir have assembled with Parveena-ji at Pratap Park in the middle of the bustling city square of Lalchowk in Sringagar, the capital of Jammu and Kashmir. Each month they ask the same questions: “Where are our husbands? Where are our sons? Why hasn’t anyone done anything about it?”
In 2015, I joined one of these rallies and had the honor of meeting Parveena-ji. Over the years, she has not budged in her demand for justice: she speaks on behalf of the half widows in Kashmir. In 1994, she helped to found the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), which organizes efforts to seek justice and get information on the whereabouts of missing family members. The Iron Lady of Kashmir also opened a shelter for half widows where they receive help in seeking jobs, and rehabilitating their hearts and minds.
But more people should be supporting these women. Government policies need to address and help half widows to move forward with their lives. As a society we need to find the best possible approach to bring healing and peace into their hearts so they can live again with honor and dignity.
Half Widow gives me the extraordinary opportunity to present Kashmir to a worldwide audience with the unique, powerful voice of a storyteller. My film aims to authentically portray Kashmiri culture, instilling in the viewer the same hope I have for justice and peace in the region.
The film is currently in production. The goal of my team is to create a community of individuals who connect with the story and will help support the film. But Half Widow is not just a film, it is a change-making narrative with two goals: to bring some peace to the hearts of half widows in Kashmir, and to embolden Kashmiri youth to create a Kashmiri film industry that documents the stories and art of the Valley.
Editors’ Note: Half Widow is a feature film starring Kashmiri local actors, including Neelofar Hamid (who appeared in the Sundance Award-winning film Valley of Saints), Shahnawaz Bhat (from Harud), and Mir Sarwar. The film is directed by Danish Renzu, produced by Gaya Bhola and Danish Renzu, co-produced by Rhonda Leal, Farzana Ali, and Farooq Renzu. Women’s Voices Now is the film’s fiscal sponsor.
More details about the film can be found HERE.