Women rise to the challenge on hills of militancy-infested J&K terrain
26 September 2005
Surankote: In the battle against militants in these far-flung hills of Jammu and Kashmir, women are joining in large numbers and trying to master self-defence. This is the only place in the entire State, where women have picked up weapons to protect their families and even confronted militants. This became a necessity, according to villagers. After men liberated this zone from militant control, the militants made desperate attempts to return there, taking advantage of the hilly terrain where foolproof protection is impossible. In May 2004, a woman, in the absence of her-Special Police officer husband, repulsed an attack by militants. On July 26 last year, three women braved the militant firepower for more than one hour. After the male members were killed in the attack and with no police or security help coming that night, the women fired back at the militants. Half a dozen lives were saved as the militants beat a retreat. Doing a mother's duty More than a year after the attack, the clan members are back at the same hamlet atop the hill. This time there are more women, including those who lost their husbands, who have been trained in the armed warfare and they are ready to battle it out. Begum Noor (37), who lost her husband Lal Hussian, says, 'I was helpless when they killed my husband before me but I would do every thing to protect my three children.' Even those who have escaped the militant onslaught have picked up weapons. Says Rukiya Begum, 22: 'There is no security mechanism which can be foolproof in this terrain and we have to be prepared for the worst.' Till recently the women knew only how to handle the archaic .303 rifles but now some of them have been taught the use of automatic weapons such as AK-47 or even the SLR given to special police officers. Khatun Begum (23), wife of Mushtaq Ahmed, was the first woman trained in these weapons. For men, it is no a surprise to see women learning the use of weapons fast. People in these hills have a centuries-old tradition of egalitarian existence in gender relations. Equal partners Aslam Mohammad, who has trained several women, says, 'Our women have been equal partners with their husbands in almost every activity and are part of decision- making in any household. There is no discrimination between a girl and a boy. And our Gujjar community takes pride in this fact. Our women taking up weapons may have surprised people outside but not us.' According to villagers, the women took to arms not only to protect their families but also to guard their own freedom. For instance, when the villagers were at the mercy of militants, women were told to observe purdah (veil), which was a hindrance to their economic activity and social life. Apart from physical security, the immediate challenge before the community is to improve female literacy, which dropped because of militancy. There is no proper education system in the hamlets, particularly for girls. Even now government teachers coming from an elite background from nearby areas play truant.