Female protesters pile on pressure in Indian occupied Kashmir
By Izhar Wani – 8/5/2010
SRINAGAR, India — "We are out on the streets with a message -- kill us before you kill our young boys and girls," says Rehana Ashraf, a female teacher in Indian Kashmir.
It is a stance which makes the security forces deeply anxious as they battle to suppress a surge of violent protests against India's rule of the Muslim-majority region.
An increasing number of women have been involved in the demonstrations, during which at least 45 people have been killed in the last eight weeks.
Most of the victims are young men who have died in gun fire as security forces try to enforce curfew orders that have brought ordinary life to a halt.
Each death -- particularly those of two women so far -- has triggered further angry protests and an equally strong response from Indian paramilitary troops and police.
"Under such circumstances, you can't expect us to remain silent," said Ashraf, 49, who lives in the region's main town Srinagar with her two young daughters. "We want to send out a message that we are not weak."
Young men have always led the street protests and stone-throwing in Kashmir during 20 years of rebellion, but that is changing.
"We have lost our patience. They have killed our sons and brothers. How do you expect us to be mute spectators?" 41-year-old Mehbooba Akhter, a mother of three teenage sons, told AFP.
Akhter, a Srinagar resident, said she has been taking part in the wave of anti-India protests, which began when a 17-year-old male student was killed by a police tear-gas shell in Srinagar on June 11.
Hundreds of women and girls, many in colourful salwar kameez dresses, have since been regularly out on the streets chanting "we want freedom!" and "blood for blood!" Some carry sticks and stones.
Dealing with female protesters is a fraught challenge for the police and paramilitary troops struggling to control the protests, which India says are instigated by hardline groups supported by Pakistan.
"Putting women and children in the front of rallies is a deliberate attempt by separatists to put us on back foot," Prabhakar Tripathi, spokesman for paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), told AFP.
"They know we won't confront them," he said.
Many women who do not directly take part in rallies carry drinking water to the protesters and also direct youths down escape routes as they flee from baton charges, tear-gas and gunfire.
"It is not the responsibility of men alone to protest against injustice. We women have to be in the forefront to fight it too," said Shamima Javed, 38.
"I am joining protests to express my solidarity with those women who lost their sons and daughters."
Other women believe they should not become involved.
"I am against protests. They affect education and the livelihoods of thousands," said Haleema Akhter, a retired woman in the southern town of Pampore. "But even my own 40-year-old daughter and her children are not willing to listen."
Syeda Afshana, a leading columnist and lecturer in the main Kashmir university, says the increasing female presence reflects the sense of injustice felt by Kashmiris.
"Out on the streets, women are making their minds felt," Afshana told AFP. "By pelting stones, they are expressing their collective anger."