With husband in prison, Kashmiri women’s battle for survival is perpetual

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Maroofa had been stitching clothes for the past six hours, without a break, at her house in Nowgam area of Srinagar. The order has to be ready by the night, otherwise, she risks losing the customer — something she can’t afford. 

She has been the lone breadwinner in the family, with four daughters, after her husband, Mehrajuddin Kalwal, a Hurriyat leader, was arrested by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in a “terror funding case” in summer of 2017. He is currently lodged in New Delhi’s Tihar Jail.

Before she could settle down with Kalwal’s arrest, undue bills stared at Maroofa. From school and tuition fees to medical bills of her mother-in-law, who suffered from a heart ailment, Maroofa has been stitching her way through it. “I had no option but to start work,” said Maroofa, her eyes fixed on the sewing machine. “I have to work to feed my family.”

Maroofa is among several other women to take up financial responsibility for the household, after the imprisonment of men, mostly associated with political outfits. Amid an economic crumble in the region, backed by back-to-back lockdowns, and the lack of employment opportunities, desolated wives have been struggling to meet the ends.

“Entire world crushed on us”

With family responsibility on her shoulders, Maroofa said she hardly manages to save money to travel to New Delhi to meet her husband. “I have been two to three times to New Delhi to meet my husband but with little income and too many responsibilities, I can’t afford to bear the expenses of traveling every now and then,” she said.

Kalwal’s four daughters Qurat-ul-ain, Bushra Mehraj, Shafiya Mehraj, and Daiya Batol are also facing challenges in the absence of their father. Qurat-ul-ain, the eldest among the four siblings, told The Kashmir Walla that without a male family member at home, the “women feel so insecure.” 

The arrest has also become a barrier in their education. Qurat said at this juncture, she would need her father’s moral and financial support to pursue a career in education.

“I have never seen my father around during my competitive exams. When I qualified for NEET, my father was not there,” said Qurat. “How long can my mother manage on her own? She is already toiling hard to pay for our studies.”

Two years ago, on 18 January 2019, a light spell of rainfall had covered Srinagar in a sheet of snow, when two children, Suzanne and Sundas Shah, immersed in studies inside their room, heard a cry of help from their mother, Nuzhat Shah, in the kitchen.

Her husband, Shahid-ul-Islam, was arrested in July 2017, alongwith seven other Hurriyat activists, by the NIA in connection with its probe into the “funding of terror and subversive activities in the Kashmir Valley.”

Shahid, whose real name is Aftab Hilali, is also lodged in the Tihar Jail.  

Hearing her mother’s cry for help, Sundas, the younger daughter, rushed towards the kitchen, in anxiety.

“I held my mother and shouldered her into the next room,” the 9th standard student recalled, saying that initially she thought it to be a case of high blood pressure. “But as soon as she leaned back, her eyes widened and her tongue came out.”

Unable to figure out what to do, Sundas called her elder sister, Suzanne, who studies in 12th standard, for aid. With no one to help, the two sisters trying their best to revive their mother started to rub her hands and feet. 

“We can never forget that moment. It was like the entire world was crashing down on us,” recalled Suzanne, sobbing. “It was snowing so we could not even reach out to our neighbors for help.”

Later, Suzanne called her relatives to take their mother to JVC hospital, where a doctor diagnosed her for brain hemorrhage. It was the second brain stroke that Nuzhat suffered in the span of six days. As per the family, the doctors have not ruled out the third stroke, unless the patient is stress free.

In the family of four, Shahid-ul-Islam was the only breadwinner. And in his absence, the mother and two daughters are braving everyday on their own. “It has been the toughest years of my life. I’m fighting all odds-alone,” said Nuzhat.

Following the deteriorating health condition of Nuzhat, on 31 January 2019, Shah was granted custody parole for a week to meet his family.

The two desperate daughters in a fervent appeal had also written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2019 to consider the release of their father. However, there has been no response till date.

As per the family, Shahid continues to be in jail and his trial is yet to start.

“Only God knows”

For Kaiser Bashir, the last one and a half years were full of hardship. Not only has day-to-day life become a headache, her biggest disquiet is the deteriorating health of her husband, Peer Saifullah.

Saifullah, a leader associated with All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), is currently lodged in Tihar Jail too. Saifullah, a patient of brain tumor, was arrested alongside Shahid-ul-Islam in July 2017.

Lacking the funds, Bashir has never traveled to New Delhi to meet her husband.

“It is that five minutes call that every prisoner gets twice in a week that I am able to talk with my husband,” Kaiser said. “I don’t have the means to travel to Delhi. I am hardly able to meet both ends.”

Last time when they spoke, Bashir said her husband broke down because of his despairing situation. “He was sounding so ill. He is not getting any medical care in the jail,” she said.

The trauma of his arrest, Bashir said, is now reflecting on their only son Faisal Bashir, a student of 9th standard. According to the family, Faisal has slowly developed symptoms of depression. 

“He has stopped showing his emotions. He always remains quiet. I’m also worried about him,” said Bashir. “Only God knows how I’m living all by myself.”

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