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Kashmir, Gender and Militarization in

Seema Kazi
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Kashmir, Gender and Militarization in


Compared to contemporary armed conflicts in the Balkans, Middle East, or West Africa, the conflict in Indian-administered Kashmir has received relatively little international attention. If at all Kashmir appeared in international headlines, it has been in relation to the military and nuclear rivalry between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, or the threat of war between both countries. Among the relatively lesser known facts about Kashmir is that it is the modern world’s longest and most militarized occupation (Dorabji, 2011; CIA World Factbook South Asia, 2014), and may simultaneously rank as among the most brutal (Bose 2000; Dorabji 2011; Heyns 2013). Indeed Kashmir’s gender dimensions are a testament to the latter. [Note: For reasons of clarity and consistency this article uses Kashmir to refer to the Valley of Kashmir, also the location of the present conflict. The term Jammu and Kashmir refers to the state as a whole.]

Without diverging into the unresolved debate regarding competing Indian and Pakistani claims to Kashmir, suffice it to state here that India’s claim to Jammu and Kashmir rests upon the decision of its erstwhile ruling monarch Maharaja Hari Singh to accede to India in 1947. The accession was contested by Pakistan, leading to the first India-Pakistan war over Kashmir, and its subsequent partition between India and Pakistan by a United Nations–supervised ceasefire line or Line of Control. The Line of Control has not been accepted or endorsed by the people of Kashmir.

The absence of a popular mandate underwriting the accession, India’s reneging of its promise to hold a plebiscite allowing the people of Kashmir to determine their own political future, its violation of constitutional provisions protecting Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy, and repeated subversion of the democratic process in Kashmir by successive central governments in New Delhi produced simmering resentment and eventually mass rebellion in 1989–1990. Seizing the opportunity to pin down its rival India, Pakistan extended material and political support for sections of a militant-led rebellion against the Indian State. Notwithstanding its rhetorical support for Kashmiri self-determination, Pakistan’s intervention in Kashmir was prompted by a desire to exploit Kashmiri grievances to advance its own interests in the region. Pakistani support for Islamist militant groups favoring a theocratic Kashmir and/or its merger with Pakistan served to erode and mask the secular character of the Kashmiri struggle for justice; it also drew India and Pakistan into a deadly spiral of military and nuclear hostility that completely obscured the essential and unresolved dispute between the Indian State and the people of Kashmir that had in fact produced the revolt.

India’s response to the rebellion centered on extraordinary military mobilization and repression across the Valley of Kashmir. Over half a million troops were deployed to suppress the rebellion. Since 1990 the right to life was suspended, as were the freedoms of speech, assembly, expression, mobility, and travel. Writing of the rebellion in Kashmir in the New York Times Gardiner Harris noted that “India has often responded brutally, at times with almost industrialized slaughter that filled thousands of unmarked graves in scores of secret cemeteries” (Harris, 2014). Tens of thousands of Kashmiri civilians were killed in security operations or went missing even as a substantial part of Kashmir’s population remained permanently scarred by violence, dispossession and psychological trauma. India’s military occupation inflicts daily violence, humiliation, and indignity on the local population, a situation well captured by the academic Sumantra Bose:

"India maintains a huge, occupation-style military and police presence in Kashmir, totalling some 500,000 security forces in all… Checkpoints, cordon-and-search operations, beatings, humiliating verbal abuse, summary executions, rapes and custodial torture have transformed Kashmir…into one of the most oppressive places on earth. A climate of fear is pervasive. The villages and towns are full of embittered, deeply traumatized people, many of whom have suffered unspeakable brutalities, inflicted for the most part by Indian forces and allied militias (Bose, 2000, pp.99–102)."

More than a decade later, there was little change in the nature of the occupation or the depth and scale of its repression. In his introduction to an anthology on Kashmir’s struggle for freedom, the writer Pankaj Mishra summed up India’s siege and occupation of Kashmir:

"Once known for its extraordinary beauty, the valley of Kashmir now hosts the biggest, bloodiest and also most obscure military occupation in the world. With more than eighty thousand people dead in an anti-India insurgency backed by Pakistan, the killing fields of Kashmir dwarf those of Palestine and Tibet. In addition to the everyday regime of arbitrary arrest, curfews, raids, and checkpoints enforced by nearly 700,000 Indian soldiers, the valley’s four million Muslims are exposed to extrajudicial executions, rape, and torture (Mishra, 2011, p. 1)."

Human rights abuse by State military personnel is not only condoned by military authorities, such abuse enjoys Indian executive and legislative backing in the form of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) according impunity to security forces for crimes committed against civilians. By offering a legal carte blanche for the abuse of power by security forces, this particular piece of legislation greatly weakened civil and judicial authority and, by extension, the legal basis of governance in Kashmir. Armed and backed with the knowledge of impunity, Indian security forces are responsible for an overflowing ledger of violence, human rights abuse, and terror against the local population. Kashmir’s grisly and gruesome human tragedy was highlighted by independent international agencies such as the United Nations, whose special rapporteur Christof Heyns noted in his 2013 report, that a total of 2,700 unmarked graves containing over 2,943 bodies had been discovered across the Valley of Kashmir. The report recommended revocation of the impunity accorded to security forces for crimes committed against Kashmiri civilians. The Indian government expressed its intention to conduct investigations but no investigation eventually took place (Heyns 2013, p. 17). The subservience of civil authority to military authority together with the regime of impunity ensures that accountability and justice remain a pipe dream; Kashmir’s toll of death and human tragedy continues.

As is generally the case in conflict narratives, Kashmir’s gender dimensions have been largely ignored or subsumed within normative state- and security-centric narratives. This article focuses on some of the gendered outcomes of militarized occupation in Kashmir. It links the condition of women in Kashmir to the overall militarized context of the conflict: the tragedy of Kashmir’s widows and half-widows is highlighted, as are sexual crimes against Kashmiri women committed by State security forces. Highlighting the gendered edge of a general absence of security or justice for women in Kashmir, the article concludes with a call for greater international attention to Kashmir’s human rights tragedy.


Kashmir’s accession to India was provisional and for this reason its constitutional position within India was not the same as other Indian states. Recognizing Kashmir’s special status, Article 370 of the Indian constitution protected Kashmiri cultural identity and restricted Indian jurisdiction over Kashmir to three areas, namely, defense, foreign affairs, and currency. Over the decades however, India violated the very constitutional protections it had guaranteed Kashmir, with the result that Kashmir came to be ruled by New Delhi rather than by the Kashmiris themselves. New Delhi’s disrespect for constitutional propriety and its attempts to align Kashmir’s politics with its own interests fuelled mass discontent and anger.

The militant-led rebellion drew widespread support across the valley; indeed by 1990 virtually no Kashmiri Muslims wished to remain within India. Led initially by a secular armed militant group (Jammu and Kashmir Liberation front, JKLF) the rebellion lost its ideological and political coherence due to its permeation with rival militant factions supported by Pakistan, and India’s use of renegades (surrendered militants) to target both civilians and militants. India’s killing of JKLF cadres, its cultivation of renegades, and its use of terror, torture, and rape against Kashmiri civilians paralleled Pakistan’s support for a range of Islamist militant groups including the Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) and the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) whose indiscriminate violence and abuse, and ignorance of Kashmiri culture and tradition, evoked public fear and disillusionment. The net effect of both responses was the destruction of the movement’s integrity, unity, and coherence. Kashmir’s indigenous struggle for justice against Indian tyranny thus slipped out of Kashmiri hands into those who had appropriated the rebellion to advance their own interests. As Indian security forces and Pakistan-supported armed militant groups closed in over the Kashmir Valley in a deadly confrontation to wrest control from each other, Kashmir’s struggle for justice and dignity lay submerged within the looming threat of war between both states.

India’s formidable siege of the valley did not, however, blunt Kashmiri resistance. Indeed, New Delhi’s heavy-handed response and its legacy of disrespect for Kashmiri sentiment and aspiration both fuelled and sustained mass empathy and support for the movement. For precisely this reason, the Indian counteroffensive in Kashmir was never limited to Kashmir’s armed militancy; it also encompassed the civilian population. In this respect, Kashmir was no exception to contemporary dirty wars characterized by asymmetrical guerrilla warfare and large scale human rights abuse.

Gendered Violence

Widows and Half-widows

The war in Kashmir was also no different from other contemporary armed conflicts in terms of its gender dimensions: men were subject to enforced disappearance, unlawful detention, extrajudicial killing, and torture, leaving single or widowed women to cope with its tragic aftermath. In this respect the motive and intent of rape in Kashmir was no different from the Balkans and Rwanda, where rape functioned as a cultural weapon of war against women and against the community at large (Kesic, 2000). Kavita Suri summed up the gendered empirical outcome of the Indian offensive in Kashmir:

"The turmoil in Kashmir has resulted in an army of widows who have lost their husbands… There are those women too who have come to be known as ‘half widows’ as their husbands have been missing or have simply disappeared…rough estimates suggest that over 25,000 women have become widows in Kashmir and that there are 40,000 orphans. Dardpora, a village in Kupwara [north Kashmir] has come to be known as the village of widows, as most women of this small hamlet have lost their husbands, most of whom were militants (2006, pp. 86–87)."

There are no reliable figures for the number of widows in Kashmir. Estimates range from between 1,000 to 1,500 half-widows, and between 15,000 to 20,000 widows (Butalia, 2002, p. xii; Grim Realities 2001, p. 4). With the disappearance or killing of male kin, women find themselves unexpectedly thrust into the role of sole parents, sole managers of their households, and lone caregivers of elderly relatives; they find these multiple burdens very difficult to cope with and in many cases these multiple burdens have led to stress-related disorders (Hassan and Shafi, 2013, p. 109).

Moreover, apart from inflicting individual trauma and suffering, widowhood for Kashmiri women is also synonymous with emotional stress, depression, loneliness, and broken families; for women from underprivileged working-class families the loss of a breadwinner can spell destitution.

While both men and women have been victims of direct violence by the State, in the case of women the repression has been sexualized. As Cynthia Cockburn, a feminist scholar, has noted:

"In war…but also in political terror, the instruments with which the body is abused in order to break the spirit tend to be gender differentiated and, in the case of women, to be sexualised (2001, p. 22)."

Rape and sexual abuse is an integral part of the Indian counteroffensive in Kashmir.

Rape with Impunity

India has raped our daughters and burned our houses. What more can India do with us? (Popham, 1999).

Ever since the outbreak of rebellion in 1990 there have been frequent reports of rape by security forces in Kashmir. One of the earliest independent reports on rape by security forces in Kashmir by Asia Watch and Physicians for Human Rights (1991) noted its scale and frequency, and its deployment as a weapon of war by security forces to punish, humiliate, and degrade individual women, as well as the Kashmiri population at large (Asia Watch and Physicians for Human Rights 1991. In Kashmir’s conventional society, cultural constructs of “shame,” “dishonor,” and fear of retributive violence makes it difficult for victims to talk about the crime. Notwithstanding the gravity and frequency of sexual crimes committed by State forces meant to protect citizens, there has been little attempt on the part of the Indian government or military authorities to prosecute the perpetrators. On the contrary, legislatively sanctioned immunity protects security personnel from prosecution for human rights abuse including rape. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) provides immunity to security forces for abuses in what the act terms as “disturbed areas.” Under the act, security forces can indiscriminately arrest citizens, shoot-to-kill, and search and destroy homes without a warrant. No legal proceeding can be instituted against security forces without prior permission from the central government, which is almost never forthcoming. Asia Watch and Physicians for Human Rights had this to say in their report on rape in Kashmir:

"Despite evidence that army and paramilitary forces were engaging in wide-spread rape, few of the incidents were ever investigated by the authorities. Those that were reported did not result in criminal prosecutions of the security forces involved (1993, pp. 3, 6)."

In 1991 allegations of mass rape by security forces in the twin villages of Kunan Poshpora (Amnesty International, 1991) went uninvestigated. An eminent Indian human rights advocate termed Kunan Poshpora as “probably the single largest case of mass sexual violence in independent India” (Mander, 2013). Upon visiting the village he testified to the enduring misery and tragedy of its women:

"Many women wept wordlessly… Without justice, what is the point of living? lamented a village headman. Twenty-two years have passed since that terrible night…Until today not a single person has been punished. How can we live? (Mander 2013)."

A Médicins Sans Frontières empirical study documented the extraordinarily high incidence of rape and sexual abuse since the outbreak of armed conflict in Kashmir: according to the report the number of people that had actually witnessed a rape since 1989 was much higher in comparison to other conflict zones in the world.

Rape by security forces is part of the Indian State’s methodology to demoralize Kashmiri resistance. Islamist militant groups too are guilty of rape, sexual abuse, and violence against Kashmiri women. Sordid and gruesome as the militant record of violence against Kashmiri women and civilians is, it does not compare with the scale and depth of abuse by Indian State forces for which justice has yet to be done.

In 2013 India’s Supreme Court ruled that security forces had the option of trial in military courts not known for impartiality, transparency, or for prosecuting their own personnel (Amnesty International, 2013). Judicial approval for military trial forecloses the possibility of prosecuting perpetrators in civil courts and by extension, the possibility of securing a modicum of justice for rape victims. With little possibility of revocation of the AFSPA, or its privileging of military authority, the Indian State has little to offer Kashmir’s rape victims by way of justice.

Apart from the institutionalized practices of repression such as rape, Kashmir’s extraordinary militarization has generated a climate of fear, insecurity, and vulnerability within the local population that has, in turn, exerted profound influence on women’s lives. Kashmir registered a drop in female education (Manchanda 2001, p. 72); a higher rate of psychological disorders and suicide among women as compared to men (Suri, 2006, p. 86); a rise in female-headed households (Hassan and Shafi 2013; a lack of medical facilities for women due to the flight of female doctors in the countryside (Grim Realities, 2001, pp. 40-41), and a general climate of fear and insecurity among women (Hassan and Shafi 2013, pp. 108-109). The overall context of militarization and repression makes it extremely difficult if not altogether impossible for Kashmiri women to articulate their concerns or take recourse to institutional channels of redress.

In effect, the condition of Kashmiri women has been shaped by a brutal Indian counteroffensive and a catastrophic India-Pakistan rivalry over the territory of Kashmir. India eliminated Kashmir’s moderate and secular intellectual leadership symbolized by individuals such as Jalil Andrabi, Hriday Nath Wanchoo and Abdul Ahad Guru, who condemned the occupation and denounced India’s human rights abuse in Kashmir. The Indian offensive paralleled Pakistan’s targeting of those Kashmiri political leaders such as Abdul Ghani Lone and Mirwaiz Farooq who dared oppose Pakistani interference in Kashmir. Both States were united in obscuring and destroying the secular and democratic core of the Kashmiri struggle; the only crucial difference being that while Pakistan exploited Kashmiri disaffection, it was not responsible for creating it.

Shorn of intellectual and political capital, the Kashmiri struggle for justice continues undimmed but is greatly undercut by a fragmented, ideologically disparate and politically ineffective resistance leadership.

Whither Justice?

The possibility of securing “justice” from a State that has “legalized” suspension of the universal right to life, and accorded impunity to those responsible for rape, murder, torture, extrajudicial killings, et al., is remote, if not altogether absent. Indeed, India has one of the worst records when it comes to accepting recommendations of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC); according to the Council’s 2013 periodic review, India accepted only 67 of the 168 recommendations, one of the worst performances shown by any nation. (Ali, 2013). In a written statement submitted to the 58th session of the UN Commission on Human Rights on Civil and Political Rights, the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre stated that:

"India is awash in legislation that restricts fundamental liberties. Laws purporting to safeguard national security and public order have been employed to counter ambiguously defined threats. Applied over large swathes of the country… [including] Jammu and Kashmir—these Acts contain provisions that are incompatible with the principles that form the basis of a democratic State (UN Commission, 2002, p. 2)."

Kashmiris rightfully feel that justice for Kashmir’s grave, gross, and unconscionable human rights tragedy should move beyond Indian institutions into the ambit of international law. Understandable and legitimate as this opinion is, it is also the case that a contemporary state-centric international legal order (read the United Nations) has seldom expressed support or sympathy with the Kashmiri struggle for justice; nor has it censured India for its post-1990 military occupation of a territory whose status the United Nations itself acknowledges as unresolved. Since 1990 the international community has consistently overlooked Kashmir’s legal and political dimensions to the great detriment of the Kashmiri people and their struggle against the world’s largest military occupation. Ending Kashmir’s crisis is contingent upon international recognition of, and attention to, the struggle of the people of Kashmir for liberty, justice, and dignity—a struggle that has been consistently concealed and submerged by the Indian State’s arguments around “terror,” national security, and sovereignty.


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