In a society obliterated by violence over the last 23 years, there are shocking tales of children abused by their stepparents which have gone unreported. Saima Bhat talks to the victims to shed light on the other face of our society!
Shazia, 25, was in Class 10 when her father died in a road accident. She was her father’s daughter and used to sleep with her parents. Soon after the tragic accident, Shazia’s mother married her brother-in-law as per the wishes of her family. The marriage was solemnized in the same year and it became a turning point in Shazia’s life.
As the days passed, Shazia’s health deteriorated. She stayed aloof from her parents and was silent all the time. Her parents were worried and they consulted a doctor who advised them to take her to a psychiatrist who made a shocking disclosure about the problems Shazia was facing and what was eating her up internally. “I was 16 when my father died. Since I had a habit of sleeping with my mother and father, I continued this habit after my father’s death. Once I became mature, I realized I was being abused by my stepfather in the nights.”
“He raped me for six long years. My mother was witness to everything” says Shazia in a corridor of Government Psychiatric Hospital in Srinagar, J&K’s summer capital, where she had come for a routine checkup. “When I shared my ordeal with my mother, she asked me not to reveal it to anyone,” she says. Her mother’s insistence pushed Shazia further towards isolation. She now lives with her grandparents. “My mother told me she was afraid of people, that what they would think if they come to know about it. When your mother doesn’t support you in such times, how can one expect any relative or a friend to be a well-wisher?”
“I still wake up at least once in the night to ensure that nobody is sleeping on my side. I prefer to sleep alone. If anything touches my skin during sleep, I feel threatened and shout like a maniac,” she says.
The mistreatment and abuse of children by their stepparents is not a new phenomenon in Kashmir. There are many cases where the behaviour of stepparents has crossed the limit of immorality and reached the extreme end. This is a reason why many widows in Kashmir have not married for the second time and instead preferred to take care of their children as a single parent. As per a report on the widows of Kashmir prepared by sociologists, 95 per cent widows don’t marry again, partly because they can’t secure their children and partly because it is unacceptable to the society though Islam, the majority religion of J&K, allows remarriage.
Bashir Ahmad Dabla, a renowned sociologist who teaches at the University of Kashmir says that not many widows remarry in Kashmir because the traditional notion of remarriage is tantamount to inviting curse. “In most cases, children suffer. We found in our studies that children don’t get proper treatment from a stepfather. Their needs are not fulfilled and their demands are not met which ultimately result in unhealthy marital life. Such children become a source of dispute, a source of discontent, in the family.”
The fear of getting ostracized from their societies stops people from remarrying. Adfar Shah, another sociologist says the problems of re-socialization emerge in the second marriage, “When an adult becomes a stepparent or a child becomes a stepchild or step-sibling, the issues of incompatibility, non-adjustment, lack of mutual love or natural dislike becomes common. There is every possibility of things going from bad to worse.”
Rubeena was five-year-old when her mother passed away. She was the only child of her parents and her father, Bashir Ahmad, who was in ’30s at that time decided to remarry. Bashir married a widow who also had a son from her first husband and the couple mutually decided to live in the house of Rubeena’s new mother.
Baby Rubeena was unaware of the changes that were happening in her life which had direct consequences on her childhood and how she was raised. Things started changing abruptly. When she grew up, she was asked to assist her stepmother in the kitchen. Her new mother used to work at a private company and had very little time to look after household work.
“Initially I was asked by my father to help the mother in the kitchen. I didn’t know that I will be soon asked to take full responsibility of keeping the house clean,” Rubeena says. She learnt how to cook and was given more responsibilities and at a tender age of 10, Rubeena was transformed and her childhood was shattered.
“I used to make sure to complete every work including cooking before the arrival of my mother. But she was not satisfied with my work. She used cooked up stories and complain to my father who used to beat me ruthlessly. I don’t remember how many times I had to clean my own blood from the floor. Once I discovered my broken tooth lying on the floor when my father slapped me. He smashed me against a windowpane. When the children of my age were playing and studying, I had become an ‘unwanted’ child,” she says.
It was not only her father who beat her up. Rubeena has countless scars which have taken a permanent corner in her heart. “When I turned 20, my parents decided to marry me. I thought I may get a respite. But it is an age-old saying; an orphan is never given an opportunity to settle but it is made sure that they suffer more,” says Rubeena, who became a mother to a baby girl recently. She is now living with her parents again because her husband and her in-laws didn’t turn up to see Rubeena since she gave birth to a baby girl. “My mother is happy because I am here again. She has got a domestic help free of cost” says a distressed Rubeena.
Like Rubeena, Saba, 11, a student of Class 5 and her brother, Karim, 13, who studies in 7th grade, too became victims of stepparents. The siblings were left in charge of their father when he got divorced from his first wife and remarried. Soon after the marriage, their stepmother started blaming them for the dispute between their parents. “I don’t know why our father’s wife beats us regularly. When we decide to inform our father about her behaviour, she takes him to a room and tells him lies about us. Then when their father comes out, he starts beating us. I have to do cleaning and washing in the kitchen,” says Saba.
The incessant assaults on Saba by her parents resulted in a temporary loss of her eyesight. When a doctor was consulted, he confirmed that a vein in her head had suffered damage due to assaults. But Saba was lucky and the timely intervention resulted in Saba’s recovery and she got her eyesight back.
A Daughter Tortured
The medical prescriptions of Nadia show she is suffering from depression. “She is 30 but she has not been in a good state of mind since she was 18,” recalls Haleema, Nadia’s mother. Nadia was studying in one of the leading Christian missionary schools where she excelled in sports but was poor at studies. The school authorities warned her family from time to time to take care of Nadia’s studies. Instead, they started beating her ruthlessly.
“Her parents were illiterate and her uncle used to take care of her studies. The family’s approach to improving her grades in studies was wrong. They wanted Nadia to perform on her own without any help of a tutor,” says Nadia’s cousin, who was her batchmate and has now completed her master’s degree.
As Nadia failed to live up to the expectations of her parents, slaps turned to harsh assaults which led to a stage where Nadia failed to clear her Class 7 exam. Her parents used a red-hot iron rod on her back to punish her. However, the punishment didn’t bother Nadia as much as the love and affection her family had for other siblings and she felt sidelined. “I cleared my Class 10 exams but was not able to clear two papers in 10+2 exams. I tried hard but failed. It is giving me sleepless nights,” says Nadia.
Her mother Haleema says they were expecting Nadia to top in her school or at least score 70 per cent marks in exams like her sister and brother did. But she didn’t live up to the expectations of her family and her family, in turn, tried to control her other activities like sports. Nadia reached a stage where she didn’t know what she was doing and was once reported missing from her home in Srinagar and was later found at a bus yard in north Kashmir’s Baramulla. “Locals had reported the matter to the local police station that they have seen a girl weeping in the yard and that she was not mentally fit. It was in the police station that Nadia revealed that she was from Srinagar and gave the cops her family’s phone number” says Haleema.
Initially, her family thought Nadia was pretending to be ‘abnormal’ but their suspicion was soon laid to rest by a spiritual man who had told the family that Nadia’s life was governed by some devils. This superstitious belief delayed the treatment of Nadia. Presently, she is in a better state of mind but she usually remains quiet and is very rarely found conversing with her family.
(All names of victims have been changed)