Book- Garrisoned Minds: Women and Armed Conflict in South Asia
Edited: Laxmi Murthy and Mitu Varma
Publication: Speaking Tiger
Price: Rs 499
As a journalist one has covered and read stories galore about rape, atrocities by the armed forces and militants and suppression of women in the name of religion, caste, but reading Garrisoned Minds underlines the brutality all over again.
So disturbing are some of the essays that it is not possible to read them at one go. The book follows 12 journalists across the conflict zones of South Asia—Pakistan, Nepal and India (Kashmir and the Northeast). The impact of 13 long years of war in Afghanistan is evident in neighbouring Pakistan.
The editors, Laxmi Murthy and Mitu Varma, have done well to begin each section with the historical context of a conflict. It is a bold book because it names and exposes the armed forces as well as extremists who tortured and raped women. For women, breaking the silence has severe consequences and without support, few women dare speak out.
Shazia Irram Gul documents that in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan childbirth during conflict increases risks for mother and child, intensifying psychological disorders. Under Taliban control, women of FATA could not cultivate their fields, go to the markets or take sick children to doctors. They were forced to wear burqas, and stay indoors. Their young daughters were forced to marry Taliban militants.
Farzana Ali’s essay on life in the Swat Valley reflects on dancing girls who were killed, their ghungroos silenced because the Taliban considered them un-Islamic. It was the end of the openness and diversity that once marked the Swat Valley. Inflammatory broadcasts by a Taliban commander discouraged girls’ education, called polio immunisation un-Islamic and bombed music shops. Between 2008 and 2013, 18 people were killed for involvement with dance and music in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and FATA.
In Quetta and other parts of Balochistan, violence against women has been rising but cases go unreported due to fear and intimidation. The silence was broken when two women were reportedly buried alive in Naseerabad district, infamous for tribal disputes. The perpetrators were arrested and convicted. Naseerabad and Jaffarabad are also known for honour killings. Balochistan has the lowest female literacy rate in Pakistan with 2.3 million children, largely girls, out of schools. To dissuade women from higher education, institutions of learning were targeted. Syed Ali Shah and Shaista Yasmeen’s essay reveals the humanitarian crisis in Balochistan, impacting all spheres of women’s lives.
The section on Nepal has some heart-warming stories of women Maoists—their turbulent lives and efforts to find political space. Jwala Kumari Sah struggles to be a Maoist and cope with pregnancy and babies. She became a state minister for land reforms when peace returned but maintains it was easier to be a war-time Maoist, always on the run, than being a peace-time politician.
The essays on Kashmir and the Northeast are compelling. The lives of many women and their children were shattered as men joined the Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen, a pro-government counter-insurgency group of the 1990s, to aid Indian forces in Kashmir. With the demand for azaadi in the air, the Ikhwanis were intensely hated and seen as traitors. When they died it was a “widowhood of shame” for their women, who were ostracized and boycotted.
‘Shadows of a Dark Night’ tells the story of Farida, whose husband became a militant in the Nineties and became the commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen. She never saw him thereafter but unable to lay their hands on him, the Army went for his family. One day, a contingent of the armed forced descended on the family. That night Farida and her 14-year-old sister were raped, a trauma they still relive daily.
In the Northeast, particularly Manipur and Nagaland, women and children are caught in the tribal and caste conflicts of the dominant groups as well as the Indian armed forces. As Sanjay Barbora, a sociologist from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati campus, points out in his introduction to the section on the Northeast, “[Writers] Thingnam A Samom and Yirmiyan A Yhome join a small but articulate group of women writers, whose description of violence and its effects on everyday life have added a textured quality to the discourse on conflict.”