22 years after Kashmir’s first custodial disappearance, clerics have ruled that women whose husbands go missing — or the Valley’s ‘half-widows’ — can remarry after waiting 4 years. But for many, the ruling has come too late.
The fatwa was out, over several cups of kahwa. On December 26 last year, six religious clerics decreed that Kashmir’s ‘half-widows’ could remarry if their husbands didn’t return four years after going missing.
‘Half-widows’ is a term that came up sometime during the two-and-a-half decades of conflict in Kashmir when men disappeared, mostly in the custody of security forces, leaving behind wives who had no way of knowing whether their husbands were dead or alive.
Twenty-two years after the first custodial disappearance in Kashmir and seven years after the last, a meeting of religious clerics at a Srinagar hotel — an initiative by Ehsas, a civil society group in Kashmir — may have finally arrived at a solution to one of Kashmir’s biggest social problems. But for many of these ‘half-widows’, the decision means little. They have waited decades for their husbands to return and now, it may be too late for them to start afresh.
A muddy road leads to the double-storied house of Ghulam Rasool Parray at Andergam village near Pattan town. This was where Muneera Begum grew up, got married and returned to when her husband disappeared one winter night. That was 18 years ago. She is now 36 and won’t entertain any talk of a remarriage.
Begum was 15 when she married Mohammad Akbar Rather of neighbouring Palhallan village. The couple had been married for three years and had a son Aamir, when in November 1996, life dealt them a hard knock. “We were eating our dinner when some soldiers of 8 Rashtriya Rifles turned up at our house. They picked up my husband, saying sahib (officer) had asked for him,” she says.
Soon, her relationship with her in-laws turned sour. “They started blaming me for what had happened,” she says. “I could not bear the torture. I had to take care of Aamir, so I came back to live with my father.” Aamir was barely a year old then.
“My daughter was only 18 when her husband disappeared. That’s no age to remain single. She could have remarried,” says Begum’s father. But there was no decree then that allowed her to do so.
The only socially acceptable option for her was to marry her brother-in-law, Rather’s brother. Begum’s father tried that. “But her in-laws did not agree to that marriage,” says her father. Aamir recently cleared his Class 12 exams and is preparing for competitive tests. “With Aamir grown up, I do feel lonely at times,” says Begum. “But when I see him, I think my decision (not to remarry) was right.”
In her her half-constructed, unplastered house that has a polythene sheet covering a part of the roof and sheets of paper covering the bare window frames, Dilshada Akhter sits with her granddaughters, talking about how her husband Bashir Ahmad Sheikh left their home one winter morning in 1992 and never returned. It’s a story the girls have heard many times over. “There was light snow that day. He had gone to Batamaloo. There was a crackdown and the Army arrested him,” says Akhter, 56. “Our house was half-built when he (Sheikh) disappeared. We left it as it was,” she says.
Akhter has heard of the fatwa, but dismisses it with a brusque wave of her hand. “Look at these girls,” she says. “They are my granddaughters. And you ask me about remarriage? Does this ruling mean anything for me?” When Sheikh disappeared, Akhter and her mother-in-law went looking for him everywhere, but the search yielded nothing. “Our children were young then. My eldest son was 15,” Akhter says.
The worst wasn’t over for Akhter. Her second son Riyaz died in a road accident two years after his father went missing. “We got to know of his death after 13 days. We couldn’t even bury him,” she says, shuffling her way back to her cot and sinking into it.
Mania Tancha’s is one of the last custodial disappearance in the Valley. In the summer of 2005, the 40 year-old-Gujjar had taken his cattle out to graze when he was allegedly picked up by the Army. “We do not know why he was picked up,” says his wife Jana Begum.
Begum was 35 then and had to work as a manual labourer to bring up her five children. Her eldest daughter Shabeena was 18 years old then. She was married two years later. Begum hasn’t heard of the fatwa and says she doesn’t even care. “How does it make a difference,” she asks. “I can’t think of re-marrying.” Her son Omar Mukhtar butts in: “We are mature enough to take care of our mother. We do not want her to re-marry.”
Human rights groups in Kashmir say there are more than 1,500 ‘half-widows’ in Kashmir, their husbands having mostly disappeared in the custody of security forces. With the state not acknowledging their disappearance, these women don’t figure anywhere in the Jammu and Kashmir government’s compensation scheme for people killed in the two-decade-long conflict.
There are varied opinions among religious clerics about the time a woman should wait before remarrying if her husband has gone missing. According to the Hanafi school of thought — the most dominant and the most rigid — women have to wait for a period of 90 years before they can marry again. Other scholars from the Shafi, Hanbali and Maliki schools see this as impractical and favour a smaller waiting periods — from a year to four years. Some scholars say that if a missing husband hasn’t left any sustenance for her wife, she can remarry without waiting.
December’s meeting was crucial because it managed to arrive at a consensus on an issue where almost everyone initially stuck to his opinion.
“I am of the opinion that if the woman is of marriageable age and if her husband hasn’t left any means for her sustenance, she can re-marry immediately without waiting,” said Mujahid Shabir Falahi, representative of the Jamat-e-Islami. Another religious scholar, Showkat Ahmad Keng of the Anjuman Himayat-ul-Islam, wanted the waiting period for ‘half-widows’ to be reduced to one year, citing a decree by many of the scholars from Deoband.
“We have to keep in mind the circumstances (under which they have disappeared),” he said. “The Indian ulema are of the view that the waiting period should be one year. We should also go by that.” Finally, the scholars agreed on a four-year waiting period.
But for many ‘half-widows’, the questions won’t end with this. “Even if we assume that the fatwa brings some of us a sense of closure, what about our children? They will never know what happened to their father,” says Naseema, 30.