Commentary

Is harassment of women becoming a new normal in Srinagar?

A recent Facebook post by Ivana Perkovic, a tourist and a travel blogger from Amsterdam regarding the harassment(s) faced by her at Dalgate, sparked debates about the safety of women tourists in Kashmir.

Good Kashmiris versus bad Kashmiris, Kashmiris versus Indians, and various other relevant or irrelevant issues.

Ivana, in her post, shared her experience of eve-teasing, catcalling and stalking by the Dal lake, the famous tourist spot in Srinagar. Being a female solo traveler, she has been harassed numerous times in her life.

“But this place just makes me feel so unsafe and uncomfortable, I’m not even leaving my guesthouse today,” reads her Facebook post.

This is a sad truth faced by a lot of women, especially in regions like South Aisa where patriarchy is widely prevalent and women are seen as commodities, omnipresent for the male gaze, and enjoyment.

Being a woman from India, I have been subjected to this male gaze, a brush of hand by a co-passenger here and there and various other forms of cheap thrills from our beloved male counterparts.

When I came to Srinagar, I was warned by a well-wisher to be aware of the male gaze. Calling it a stupid generalization and demonisation of an entire race, I brushed his warnings aside. And I was right. It was a stupid generalisation and a politically incorrect statement.

My office booked a hotel for me in Dalgate, by the Dal Lake for the first few days. The overjoyed me, in the presence of such scenic beauty thought of strolling by the Dal one fine evening. Within two minutes of my presence, I was made aware of my womanhood.

Determined to enjoy the beautiful sunset and the crimson peaks of the mountains surrounding the lake, I chose to ignore the catcalls and stalkers. The feminist in me kept on whispering in my ears, “Reclaim the space. Do not let the men take away your space.” Armed with my newly boosted feminist confidence, I settled down near ghat number eight.

A car slowed down in front of me. Some youth gave me a bemusedly perverted look. Then another, then another. I lost count. I lost count of the whistles, the honking and the men who thought they could sit next to me and keep on commenting on my body.

My tolerance was dwindling. “Why even am I tolerating this?” Within a few seconds, I got my answer. A youth, in a yellow bike, noticed me. He slowed down and came to a standstill right in front of me. He kept staring at me and my whole body with such a temerity that I couldn’t help but cast a nasty look, which I thought would work as a deterrence. It had an opposite effect.

The guy seemed emboldened by my look and more amused. I remembered what Orwell had written in 1984, ‘Ignorance is Bliss’.

My peers, relatives and society in general were not so wrong when they applied the Orwellian approach in their daily lives regarding these sorts of harassment. Since then, I have been harassed, stalked, catcalled a number of times.

I chose to tolerate, rather ignore them.. A society (by society, I mean the South Asia) where victim blaming is the norm. I don’t want to do anything which might ‘encourage’ the men.

The reactions on Ivana’s experience; one would find a whole range of ideas and subsequent debates. I will point out few of the issues highlighted out by well-wishers, critics and cynics.

Firstly, any issue in Kashmir or related to Kashmir must have a link to Aazadi, separatism, terrorism or Islamophobia!

What is the link between Azadi and harassment? By linking the two separate incidents, one is not only diluting the experience of a woman, but also trying to delegitimise the cause and struggle of the Kashmiris. Both of which are harmful in their respective ways.

Some Indians pointed out that Kashmiris are Muslims, and hence terrorists, and thus they treat women in this degrading fashion. My dear countrymen, did you forget the Nirbhaya rape case? Did you forget Kamduni or Park Street and numerous other cases?

Not so long ago, when I was a student in Delhi University, I faced similar sorts of harassment in the Indian Capital. Catcalls, stares and comments about my body is not a new thing.

Growing up in Kolkata, my first instance of harassment was in a public transport where a middle aged man started rubbing his private parts against a completely clueless 12 year old. My body was sexualised at the age of twelve and it happened in a supposed ‘one of the most liberal and progressive’ places in India.

The second point raised was by one Spanish traveler who shared her experience of always being welcomed by Kashmiris. “I have spent 9 days living in this paradise (Kashmir), sometimes wearing Kashmiri clothes, without covering my head, sometimes with my jeans full of holes, and all I can say is that I have not met people more hospitable than them. Every one invited me to their houses, they gave me juices, chocolates, they smiled at me. I cannot say the same thing about New Delhi, where when sitting on the stairs the men came from upstairs just to take a look at my cleavage,” she said.

I personally don’t want to contest that because I have been lucky enough to be welcomed with open arms by many Kashmiri families. One cannot generalise and say that if one woman had a bad, or good experience, all women should have the same experience. From auto drivers to shopkeepers, everyone has been welcoming. But that experience doesn’t, in any way, and shouldn’t, take away from what Ivana has been through.

Not all Kashmiri men are assaulters. Similarly, not all are epitome of ‘good’ behaviour. One’s experience of harassment or the lack of it doesn’t disregard the other’s experience. If you talk to Kashmiri women traveling in public transport, the overwhelming majority will tell you that the problem has started appearing, and if it isn’t addressed it will only keep growing, and diversions, whataboutery and counterallegations will only make things worse. Kashmir to me has been a society open to listening.

The Spanish woman vocalised her disgust and tried to highlight the bigger issues in Kashmir. My question to her is, why should some perverts hide behind a ‘bigger cause’?

The fighting for freedom of a society doesn’t give legitimacy to criminals, or harassers, and let them act the way they are. It doesn’t give them a freeway to make women unsafe in public places.

Expectedly, on the other hand, some Indians are trying to delegitimise the struggle for freedom by highlighting this issue of harassment.

Just because some deranged men are on loose, and the public grievance system is faulty, doesn’t mean that the whole cause is problematic. Talking about the gaze, the way the Indian army looks at women in public places is nothing less than harassment either.

An Indian woman who has visited Kashmir as a journalist also reinforced the same point that the Spanish traveler made. “My experience as a solo traveler there has been the opposite! In all my travels around India, Indian administered Kashmir is one place which NEVER made me uncomfortable,” she said.

Thirdly, someone added that this is a story that “sells”! My dear friend, you are so in tune with your Indian counterparts when you comment that a harassment story sells.

Yes, living both in India and Kashmir, I can vouch for my statement. When you try to dismiss someone’s assault and tag it as a sell-able story, you are basically a part of the same misogynist club that you think is only present in India.

Ivana has been through something that is so real, a lived experience of a lot of Kashmiri women as well, that to bring it out in public, exactly like the argument that India ‘worships women’, threatens the fairy tale narrative of Kashmir as a place which respects women.

Yes, that might be generally true, but there are men who are doing a fine job in creating a disturbance in this narrative. These are present in all societies. They are present in Cambridge as well, as I have experienced while I was a student there last year, and a society isn’t judged by the lowest criminals it has, but how it provides justice to those the crime is committed against, and how open it is to listening to them.

Their courage to share their story with the world is hard to digest and their voices are curbed. Harassment is a real issue and instead of coming together to find a solution for it, the way Ivana’s account is dismissed, diluted or used as a tool for political rivalry shows that some minds think alike.

Ivana was flooded with people apologising for the behaviour of a few around the Dal lake, and this is a problematic place, as per my own experiences.

Ivana added, “Judging the whole of Kashmir for what happened in Srinagar would be ridiculous and anyone who reads the post carefully (read the last sentence) can see I have passed no judgement about Kashmir as a state. However I stand by my statement about Srinagar. Getting stalked 5 times within the span of a couple hours is not a one off incident.”

Victim blaming and diverting the real issue of harassment, to various other issues, are indicative of the fact that women’s issues are not dealt with the same gravity one would delegate towards other ‘bigger issues’.

Their safety, security and comfort is the last thing in the minds of people.

But, how would people react if Ivana’s harassers were from the armed forces? 


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