Despite the challenges that beleaguer Kashmiri women muckrakers, they continue to display courage in the face of ongoing political repression and societal prejudice.
Azra Sofi (name changed), 21, is on the verge of succumbing to pressure from her parents to let go of her childhood dream to be a journalist. She is relentlessly trying to convince her parents to let her continue pursuing journalism, but she isn’t sure how long she will be able to resist the pressure.
Fear of being targeted by Indian authorities and remarks from extended relatives makes her parents reluctant and more concerned. “Sometimes it ends up with an argument with them but if conditions worsen, I have no option other than giving it up,’’ she says.
Rather than preparing for an entrance exam to enrol in journalism school she was preparing to confront her parents. But intervention from her father’s friend settled the matter and she was allowed to pursue her dreams. But still, things aren’t going easy for her as she is being taunted and criticised for a bad decision to opt for this path, “this pressure is disturbing my mental peace," she said.
Journalism is far from a friendly pursuit in disputed Kashmir – and especially so for women. Women journalists face a conservative society that thinks women are only born to be confined within four walls. Insulting comments from bystanders, intimidation, fear of reprisal from authorities and misogyny are among the major concerns for parents who want to shield their children from the career.
“Choose a career where you won’t have to wander outside, the only best place to work for women is indoors,” said one father to his 21-year-old daughter.
Quratulain Rehbar, 26, is an independent journalist (also a contributor to TRT World) based in Kashmir and was recently called upon by the authorities to share her personal details. She was told that they were doing a verification of journalists from her area. Her phone kept continuously ringing for three consecutive days and was constantly questioning: “You write for what? Where do you stay in Srinagar? How much do you earn?”
“It made me feel like I am in trouble,” a distressed Qurat said.
Earlier this year, Qurat was among hundreds of Muslim women including prominent journalists, activists, and politicians who were listed on Github app (Bulli Bai) for auction. “Bulli Bai” is a derogatory word used for Muslim women in a local slang. This incident triggered her anxiety and she started suffering from panic attacks.
“The fact that I live in a deeply conservative society where something like this could ruin a woman’s life. As a Kashmiri woman, I know how people would take it,” she wrote in India Ahead about her ordeal. “On one hand you have to keep working and on the other you have to be cautious about what you write. Anything could land you in trouble,” she said while speaking to TRT World.
Harassment, intimidation, arrests and physical assaults on Kashmiri journalists have intensified since Jammu and Kashmir lost its special status in 2019 when the Narendra Modi government abrogated Article 370 that had granted the region a degree of autonomy.
According to data compiled by local news portal The Kashmiriyat, 49 Kashmir based journalists were subjected to 32 incidents of harassment and intimidation. The report stated that these incidents of harassment ranged from the snatching of ID Cards, physical assault, summons, First Information Reports, arrests and raids at their residences.
In 2021, in an interview with the Economic Times a top police officer in Kashmir Zone said: “There may be some unfortunate incidents which happen on the ground especially at encounter sites, where police are under pressure and our priority is to save human lives. If any journalist is hit by a stray bullet, who will be blamed? Yes, questioning and summoning is done sometimes to get clarified,” the report said.
Mashkoora, 22, a trainee reporter with a local news outlet was giving a piece-to-camera when a pedestrian started yelling at her, “Hey you Maggi hair, ye kis movie ki shooting chal rahi hai“ (Hey you Maggi Hair, which movie is being shot here) and started laughing loudly.
At the time, she failed to muster the words to respond and her body started trembling. She couldn’t share this experience with her parents or relatives as she knew they were already worried and this might push them over the edge and stop her from continuing in journalism. Staying strong and encouraging herself is the only option she’s left with.
“Complete your degree and we will fix your marriage, this field is dangerous and brings shame to a girl,” one mother tells her 21-year-old daughter sternly. Her daughter is enrolled in a journalism course at a local college in Srinagar.
Unlike Azra and other girls who struggled to get into a journalism course, Sauliha and Numa didn't need to do much to convince their parents. But their parents do make sure that any ordeal faced by any Kashmiri woman journalist becomes a topic of conversation.
“Every time if there is any attack on journalists I do know that the topic is going to be raised on the dinner table. Especially my mother keeps on lecturing me to avoid doing stories that may cause any harm to me,” Sauliha recounts.
Apprehensions among parents grew to fever pitch when a young Kashmir based female photojournalist Masrat Zahra (a contributor to TRT World) was booked in April 2020 under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) for "uploading Anti National post with a criminal intention to induce the youth and promoting offences against the public tranquillity” on her social media accounts.
When Jammu and Kashmir lost its special status in 2019 a senior broadcast journalist, Shahana Butt, was amazed and totally frustrated as she couldn’t figure out what was going on. Communication channels had been brought down, the whole region was cut off from the rest of the world and Kashmir was turned into a military prison.
“I would laugh and say oh my god have we been reduced to the radio generation?” she said.
As a journalist Butt felt helpless and had several doubts in her mind. “Is it worth pursuing journalism as a career, you are being told what to report and what not to," Butt asked.
For her and several other journalists, it was challenging to contact their offices and colleagues. “After 5 days of the abrogation, my colleague visited and informed me about a government set media facilitation centre. I was shocked to see 2 to 3 computers provided to 250 journalists. It was pathetic to see ourselves being treated like beggars."
Female journalists like Butt and Quratulain contributed with the same dedication as their male colleagues. They risked their lives and went in the field where roads were brimming with paramilitary troops, keeping a tight watch on every movement.
“I used to walk on foot for so long to report the stories, as I didn't have my own vehicle,” Qurat said. Families were distressed as they had no idea of the wellbeing of their loved ones or their whereabouts, while they were out reporting.
In its latest annual report Human Rights Watch (HRW) said: “UN experts raised concerns over abuses in Kashmir, including arbitrary detention of journalists, alleged custodial killings, and a broader pattern of systematic infringements of fundamental rights used against the population.”
Last year, Masrat Zahra alleged that her parents were assaulted by police in Srinagar.
“High on power, cops of JKP thrashed my parents in Batamaloo today around 5pm. My father's ID card has been taken away by cops and when my mother tried to intervene, she was also thrashed. One fails to understand how an elderly couple deserved this high handed behaviour of JKP," she tweeted.
Earlier this month, an investigation done by The Wire, revealed that two prominent Kashmiri Journalists Masrat Zahra and Quratulain Rehbar were among the 20 most abused women journalists targeted through the Tek Fog app. The browser based app is used by India’s ruling BJP to infiltrate social media platforms to spread misinformation, target female reporters and hone in on anyone it deems an opponent.
Despite growing tensions in the valley, young female journalists are determined to work on the frontline. Kashmiri women have also been successful racking up several international accolades and awards for their coverage.
Being women journalists in Kashmir is challenging in and of itself, but they continue to work amid the harassment, intimidation and prejudice of its conservative society.