LONE HARIE, Indian-administered Kashmir – On wintry afternoons, Shareefa Begum sits in her home and sings an old, warm song of yearning. “Tsolhama roshay, roshay / Walo myani poshay madno …” (You stole away with furtive gait? / Come back to me, O’ lover of flowers, my sweetheart).
The song is by Habba Khatoon, the celebrated 16th-century Kashmiri poet known as the Nightingale of Kashmir. It’s a loving ode to her husband, Yusuf Shah Chak, the last ruler of Kashmir, who was captured by the invading Mughal emperor Akbar and banished to Bengal, never to return. Like Khatoon, Begum too sings in memory of a love lost forever. She is one of hundreds of thousands of Kashmiri women whose husbands have been killed in the 70-year territorial conflict between India and Pakistan. And her pain is doubled: She has lost two husbands to the fighting.
The conflict in Kashmir has left behind at least an estimated 32,400 widows, according to research by the late sociologist Bashir Ahmad Dabla. The Indian government has put the figure much lower, at 8,611. But contradictory statistics matter little to the women themselves, who are often left alone to suffer poverty, harassment and humiliation in the devastated, deeply patriarchal region.
“My husband was not a rich man, but he would treat me like a queen,” says Begum, who is 37, but whose sunken cheekbones and distant eyes make her seem much older.
She married Abdul Aziz Sheikh, a tailor, when she was 14, and by the fall of 1994, when armed insurgency against Indian rule in Kashmir was at its peak, they were planning to build a new house in a sleepy village in the border town of Kupwara, 125 miles north of Kashmir’s capital, Srinagar. Then one day, after his cup of nun chai (traditional salt tea), Sheikh left the house to fetch wooden planks from nearby Dardpora forest. It was the last time Begum saw him. Just 19 years old and mother to a one-year-old son, Begum became a widow for the first time.
It’s a story familiar to many Kashmiri women whose loved ones left for college or work and never made it back home. Those men are referred to as “disappeared” and number 8,000 to 10,000, according to rights organization Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP). In 2011, a government human rights commission found more than 2,000 corpses buried in several unmarked graves in Kashmir. The APDP contends that many of the disappeared may have been buried in these graves.
The day after Sheikh disappeared, local Indian police delivered his body to his family. Begum decided to not look at him. “I kept believing he would come back to fulfil his promise of building a new house,” she says.
The police told her that Sheikh had been a militant and that he was killed in an encounter with the Indian army. But Begum says her husband was not involved in the fighting and believes he was executed by Indian government forces who covered their actions with false allegations. She had no way of lodging an official complaint, however, because she was all alone and had a baby to breastfeed and take care of. “To become a widow is very humiliating,” says Begum. “In a moment, I lost everything. Only pieces of my broken soul are left.”
In a recent report, the United Nations addressed the plight of widows in many parts of the world, saying that a woman’s social status is often in big part dependent on her husbands. When a man dies, the wife he leaves behind no longer has a place in society, the report continues. To regain their place in the community, widows are expected to marry one of their husband’s male relatives, sometimes unwillingly.
“One only gets respect in a society when you are with a man,” Begum says. People would yell at her in the streets and accuse her of being carefree now that her husband was gone. “After my widowhood, I become easy prey to taunt.”
Begum finally agreed to marry her brother-in-law, Ghulam Mohammad Sheikh, a Pakistani-trained militant who was running local operations for a Hizbul Mujahideen rebel outfit. “It didn’t matter that he was a militant,” she says, blankly. “My first husband’s death made me believe that death is everywhere here.”
Begum says the Indian armed forces continued to harass her, this time because of Ghulam. One day, an hour after he left the house, the army barged in and began to look for him. When they couldn’t find him, they smashed a hole through the attic ceiling, as a warning.
“They put a huge lock on the door,” says Begum. “We were dragged out of the house.”
The officers only gave her back the keys after she pledged never again to harbor her husband in her home. “They said if I did, our house would be burned down,” she says.
Ghulam and Begum started to meet outside of the house and eventually had two more children, Najma, now 18, and Faisal, 15. “I fell in love once again,” says Begum. “I was oblivious and didn’t know it would be short-lived, that my garden would be burning again.” Ghulam was killed in a gun battle with the Indian army in 2002.
According to the U.N. report on widowhood in conflict, millions of widows endure extreme poverty, ostracism, violence, homelessness, ill health and discrimination in law and custom. “Abuse of widows and their children constitutes one of the most serious violations of human rights and obstacles to development today,” it says.
“I felt like I was in exile,” says Begum.
Her family told her she should marry a third time, but she refused. Instead, she started to take on small household jobs to supplement the 3,000 Indian rupees ($44) she receives annually from the Social Welfare Department’s widow fund. Finding a job wasn’t easy, she says. Some potential employers told her they worried she would attract danger, considering how both her husbands had died, while others thought she was a bad omen. She says when she finally got a job, she had to prove herself every day for fear of being fired.
Her eldest son, now 22, had to drop out of school and find work as a laborer. But last year, Begum enrolled him in school again. “I didn’t want anyone to pity my children,” she says.
What is most important for Begum is that she is not defined by her widowhood. “I am not going to give up,” she says. “I hope I don’t lose the courage to raise my children. I want them to feel like they have a father.”
This article was reported with the support of the International Women’s Media Foundation, through the Howard G. Buffet Fund for Women Journalists.