Thousands of families, from every section of the society, lost their sole male breadwinners over the past three decades, shifting the burden of looking after them on to the frail shoulders of their women. Left to fend for themselves, they fought against odds to bring up their children and take care of the elders, if any. Waseem Dar meets some of these bravehearts to understand their complex struggle in a man’s world
Pahalgam, in South Kashmir, is draped with snow and tourists from outside can be seen rejoicing. A few kilometers away is Grandhwan Ashmuqam, home to Naseema Akhtar, 35, a half-widow whom fate has brought back from Kupwara, located on the other side in north of the valley, not far away from the Line of Control.
She returned to the village, in March 2016, to feel nearer to her only brother residing there and her three sisters who have been married off within their paternal village. Naseema was married to Syed Anwar Shah of Vilgam Dolipora, Kupwara in 1997. The family later shifted to Nishat, Srinagar for sometime.
Anwar, then in his late twenties, would switch between wall painting and driving an auto-rickshaw to feed his family. One morning in 2002, Anwar left for Jammu for his work and never returned. The long search that followed proved more challenging then due to the non-availability of phones and ended in failure.
“My brother-in-law would advise me to stay home as he himself kept looking for his brother for months together. He would himself deal with the police while the search continued,” says Naseema, in her typical Pahari accent.
Shazia Anwar, 18, Naseema’s only daughter, dropped out of school due to domestic problems when she was in her seventh class. She was just 18 months old when her father disappeared. The only way she remembers him is through a photograph, now made into a large portrait. She stays home while her mother goes to the neighborhood for menial household jobs like winnowing rice and cleaning utensils on wedding ceremonies.
“Who knew destiny had this in store for us? I would do all kinds of household chores anywhere I was asked to but that doesn’t seem to last. My bones are giving way. My hopes dangle between my daughter and my aching back,” Naseema said. She has developed orthopedic and chest problems something that is too early for her age.
Naseema’s only property is her two-room house constructed on a hillside. The location is worsening her health condition. The land was inherited by her from her father and the small house was built with assistance from the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons. Though unable to join the organization’s sit-ins held on the 10th of every month, she doesn’t miss visiting its office every now and then. The organization has also been instrumental in helping her foot the hefty medical bills incurred every month.
Misra Begum is busy operating her sewing machine, unmoved by her ringing phone. She is surrounded by stacks of unsewn clothes in one of the rooms meant exclusively for her work. Opposite to her is sitting her mother, with the duo exchanging the hookah at intervals leaving the room filled with smoke.
Misra, 43, is the widow of Mushtaq Ahmad Mir, a militant-turned-salesman, who was killed by unknown gunmen, on July 23, 2005, while on his shop at Lalchowk Anantnag. The family faintly remembers his killer as some gunman who was later arrested by police.
Mir had been convinced by his two brothers serving in the army to surrender for the sake of his increasingly dependent family. He later served two-year imprisonment at Kathua Jail. One of his sons contracted jaundice when he was just 2 years old.
Originally hailing from Nunmai Yaripora, Kulgam, the family had migrated to Misra’s paternal village, Sangam, Anantnag eight months before Mir’s killing.
Working as a tailor for 14 years now, Misra single-handedly feeds her two daughters, son and her ailing parents. The third daughter, Bisma, got married last month.
Mir’s is not the only such killing witnessed by the family. Misra’s sister, Shameema, was also killed by a gunman, back in 1996, when she refused him access into her house and the two entered into a scuffle, as told by the family.
Sameena, Misra’s niece from her dead sister, comes running announcing the just-declared 12th class results of two of Misra’s children, Roshni and Burhan, both securing distinctions. This lits up Misra’s face. She leaves her seat and gets up quickly to hug her son, her hope and the family’s future breadwinner.
“Had your father been alive today, he would’ve been more than happy. He had just started to dream big about you when he was snatched from us. May you succeed in life and that alone will bring to an end our misery,” prays Misra with tearful eyes, caressing his son’s head.
Wazeera Akhtar is serving food to her children who have just come back from school. Abu’al Jibran, Abu’al Kalam and Abu’al Aala are sitting in a row in the kitchen while their sister Ummi Suha, sits opposite to them. The three sons study in nursery, sixth and eighth classes, respectively while Suha, the eldest among the siblings, studies in the high school.
Akhtar, 35, is the wife of Hafizullah Mir, a well- known Hurriyat (g) activist who was killed by unknown gunmen on November 20, 2018 during his visit home after a long time. Hafizullah served as a private school teacher at Srinagar besides working for his organization.
This family of five lives in Badooda Achabal, Anantnag, in an austere hut with two rooms, the only asset left behind by the activist. The family says they were never helped seriously by any organization, not even the one Hafizullah used to work for.
Though helped by her brother at times, Akhtar’s main source of income is her 2 Kanal apple orchard earning her a meager sum not sufficient for running her family. She, however, prefers silence to complain about her fate. “This is not just my story. Who am I to complain when whole Kashmir is caught in the same fire,” said Akhtar.
The midday sunbeams its light onto the porch and Rukhsana Akhtar, 30, is sitting there with her two children, Aman, 5 and Arwa 3. Sitting beside is Fatima Banoo, her mother-in-law, asking the children to repeat the words after the local muezzin. The place is the same where Rukhsana saw her husband Firdous Ahmad Kuchay walking for the last time.
Kuchay was killed at Wangom Shopian on 21 September 2018. He was kidnapped by militants that morning from his residence at Zawoora Shopian. “My son had just returned from the masjid. He was a namaaz guzaar, a Quran khwan (He prayed regularly and read the Quran). They just came and snatched him from us,” said Fatima, her voice getting frailer with every word she adds.
Kuchay, 32 then, after being recruited in Jammu and Kashmir Police as SPO in 2009, got confirmed as a constable in 2015 and was posted at Kakapora Railway Station during his last days. A local friend of Kuchay who was recruited along with him had to resign from the services soon after his killing due to the fear created.
Kuchay’s father, Abdul Gani, is too elderly to work for the family. His wife stays home to take care of him and the two children while Rukhsana works for them. Owning a single-storeyed house and some land, she manages all the things for the family.
“I used to work for the local Anganwadi for Rs 4000 per month but that too I had to leave, recently, to become eligible for employment under SRO. Things work on my little savings for now but I’ve to keep striving. My responsibility is that of their son’s now,” said Rukhsana, pointing towards her parents-in-law.
Icicles hanging from the roof drip over Naseema Akhtar, standing obliviously near the entrance of her small two-room house at Laroo, Kulgam. She is visited by her elder sister from Katrusoo who has been her guide after every hardship that befell her since her young age.
Naseema, 40, is mother to Talib Maqbool Laway, one among the seven civilians killed in a blast during a gunfight on October 21, 2018. Talib was a BA 1st-year student at Government Degree College Kulgam. He was going to write his first paper a few days after his killing.
Burdened by responsibility as the only male member, Talib, 18, would go for apple-picking in the neighbourhood to earn for his family and meet his educational expenses. Talib’s father, Muhammad Maqbool Laway, committed suicide 16 years ago after what the family says “being demoralised by non-disbursement of remuneration against their land acquired by the government”.
Naseema works as a helper in the local Anganwadi center against a paltry sum of Rs 1800 per month. “They too don’t pay the money every month. Sometimes it takes months together or even a full year to get my dues released,” Naseema says in a soft tone.
Though never visited by any government authority, the family is occasionally helped by local Auqaf Committee, neighbours and relatives and they are all praise for it. But what keeps the family going is their small apple orchard measuring 2 kanals. The trees were, however, heavily damaged due to the recent snow and this concerns them much.
Naseema’s sister says Talib would visit her at Katrusoo to help them with apple-picking. Besides her is sitting Naseema’s only daughter Sumaira Maqbool who she is hopeful of getting a job. Maqbool has matriculated recently.
Four kilometers from Naseema’s house is Bohgund where lives Masrat Begum, 45, with her paralyzed husband and their only daughter. Masrat is the mother of Muhammad Mansoor Dar who was killed in the same blast which killed Talib.
Muhammad Mansoor Dar, 28 then, had completed his Masters in History from Maulana Azad National Urdu University and would work with a local cable network for Rs 5000 per month. Married with 2 sons, one of them was born posthumously on the Eid-ul-Fitr following Mansoor’s killing. He would as told by his father, often appear for job interviews and recruitment rallies for police and army.
Shaheena, Mansoor’s wife, went to live with her parents at Devsar, Kulgam along with her two sons. Despite no plans to remarry, she is reluctant to come back.
Ghulam Muhammad Dar, Masrat’s husband, was afflicted with paralysis six months before their son’s killing. He would run a small readymade garments shop in the Kulgam market until then. Later the business was carried on by Mansoor for six months before his killing.
Operated upon already once and supported by crutches, Ghulam Muhammad is skeptical about another surgery due to financial problems.
Though helped by relatives at times, the family depends upon Masrat for making the two ends meet. She works in her 2 Kanal orchard along with Aafia Jan, her daughter.
Finding their land insufficient for a living, Masrat is looking forward to starting the readymade garment business. Once the business is established, Masrat plans to bring her dead son’s two children back home.
“After all, they are our own children. Raising them is what we owe to our martyred son. We’ll bring them someday,” said Masrat determinedly.
Wazeera Banoo is sitting with her two daughters, one on each side, with a long tablecloth, spread over their legs. They are piercing it with needles to embroider it with multi-coloured designs. Towards the other side of the room lies a sewing machine fixed on a wooden platform.
Wazeera, 46, is the widow of Ghulam Nabi Bhat, 35, a militant-turned-farmer, who was killed by unknown gunmen on 28 September 2001. He was found drowned in a local stream after being kidnapped from his residence at Khelan Gund Musa, Pulwama.
Bhat was affiliated with Hizbul Mujahideen during the early days of militancy. He surrendered after his marriage, was imprisoned for some time and subsequently released in 1992.
Wazeera lives with her four children in a one-story house constructed in 2014 after selling her inherited land. The two daughters, Ruqaya and Shoky, both in their early twenties, dropped out after class 9 to support their mother in educating their two brothers. The trio does needle and embroidery work, earning them a meager Rs 60 per sq. foot.
Zeeshan and Kifayat, Wazeera’s two sons study in BA 1st year and class 11 respectively. Two kanals of paddy land and occasional help from her neighbours and relatives keep the family going. She wants her two sons to follow their SRO 43 case and get some job to free their mother from her worries.
“There was no one educated enough in our family to follow the case. I had kept the document file safe for this day,” said Wazeera. “Zeeshan has grown conscious now and has started to do what we needed him for. May God end our search for support to lean on.”