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No women’s land

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WOMEN IN WAR: Kushal Rakshak, an ex-guerrilla profiled by journalist Deepak Adhikari in the book, faced discrimination and abuse within the Maoist army.

New book looks at the combined oppression of women caught up in the subcontinent’s conflicts

In most modern wars, a majority of those killed, maimed, disappeared or displaced are civilians. And even among them, it is women and children who are most vulnerable. Women have also joined the fray to fight oppression.

And yet, news reportage of battles tend to focus on the operational strategy of the military, interviews with generals and commanders in the field, and weapons used in what are called ‘theatres’ of war.

Indian journalists Laxmi Murthy and MituVarma have put together a collection of stories by women caught up in war to shine a light on a subject that few war correspondents visit. Garrisoned Minds: Women and Armed Conflict in South Asia, uses the work of local journalists who worked with mentors to produce chapters about women affected by militarisation in Kashmir and the Indian Northeast, Nepal, and the frontier tribal regions on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan.

Civilians are always caught in the crossfires of insurgencies, sectarian or ethno-separatist conflicts, but it is women who end up bearing the burden of ensuring not just their own survival but of their families, while at the same time protecting themselves from sexual violence.

In her introduction, Murthy analyses the patriarchy and nationalism that drive conflicts with their masculine character as a violation of the feminine construct of the ‘motherland’ — as if men always need to ‘conquer’ territories. The victimisation of women in wars, therefore, is not a by-product of conflict but an inherent part of the conduct of war itself.

In his introduction to the Nepal chapters, Deepak Thapa looks at how women came to be such a large part of the Maoist guerrilla force. Doubly downtrodden, rural women were easy recruits to Maoist mobilisers. However, as Deepak Adhikari shows in his profile of one guerrilla, they faced discrimination and abuse within the Maoist Army during the conflict as well as after. Indeed, reading the subsequent chapters by Sewa Bhattarai, one cannot help wonder if the commitment of female guerrillas to the cause of revolution was stronger than that of their male leaders. In her chapter, Darshan Karki looks at the status of Madhesi women who again face the combined oppression of an uncaring state as well as from male members of their conservative households.

In a chapter on Kashmir entitled Widowhood of Shame, Shazia Yousuf profiles the wife of a renegade militant who spies for the Indian security forces and is injured on the day that he is killed. Besides suffering the discrimination of being a widow, she is also ostracised by both communities. Together with another chapter by Zahid Rafiq, the book presents us the human side of the Kashmir conflict and a look beyond the so-many-killed-yesterday-in-Srinagar headlines from the region.

Garrisoned Minds: Women and Armed Conflict in South Asia Edited by Laxmi Murthy and Mitu Varma Panos South Asia and Speaking Tiger, 2016 272 pages, Rs 800.
Garrisoned Minds: Women and Armed Conflict in South Asia
Edited by Laxmi Murthy and Mitu Varma Panos South Asia and Speaking Tiger, 2016
272 pages,
Rs 800.

The Indian Northeast was finally in the news briefly recently because Irom Chanu Sharmila decided to end her fast-unto-death after 16 years protesting rapes by Indian security forces. It took her long sacrifice for India’s national media to take notice. But we see in two chapters in the book the kind of abuse Irom was trying to highlight with her hunger strike. Writes Sonjoy Barbora in the introduction to the chapters: ‘In amplifying the experience of women in conflict in Northeast India, one is able to find a better understanding of the shortcomings of modern state-making and nation-building in the geographical margins of the country.’

Another forgotten conflict in the subcontinent that is suddenly being thrust into the headlines is Balochistan. Four chapters in the book deal with Pakistan’s restive border with Afghanistan, and how geopolitical and tribal rivalries have fuelled a conflict without end. But even the reportage that we get to see rarely look at how the women of the region, already hidden away and facing discrimination and persecution, are coping with separatism, sectarianism and terrorism.

We find the theme of double discrimination here too in a chapter by Muhammad Zafar about the Hazara Shias who fled religious persecution in Afghanistan to settle down in Quetta, only to face the violent wrath of Pakistan’s Sunnis. Hazara womenfolk bear the brunt of the violence, widows having to take care of families and girls dropping out of school.

Like other chapters in this book, No-woman’s Land by Shazia Irram and Shasta Yasmeen reads like an anti-war novel. They portray both the tragedy of war, and how women find the strength to survive, protect families and hope for a better future amidst atrocities during wars waged by men.

By Kunda Dixit