Women of Kashmir and Drug Addiction

Recently, the Inter Press Service reported on the female drug addicts of Kashmir. Very little help is available for these women. Torn between international politics and local customs, women in Kashmir have become the victims of badly administered policy. As a result, their social standing, psychological welfare, and general health have greatly suffered as have their communities.

Many Westerners think of Kashmir as somewhere near Pakistan and Afghanistan where a bunch of terrorists may hide as they force their
women into hijabs. Although this image has been imposed onto Kashmiri women, their ancestry shows a different face -- and, for me, a very personal one.

My paternal grandmother was from Kashmir, but she didn’t grown up there. Along with the rest of my family, my great grandparents on both sides emigrated to Kenya mainly through forced British displacement when labor was needed for imperialist colonies. However, my great grandmother brought her customs with her and relatives of mine always reminisce of Kashmir being the Switzerland of Northern India. The women of Kashmir had equal rights with men and over 100 years ago they also had equal decree to land rights. This was sophistication heaven, so women like my grandmother were connoisseurs of perfume, with the Kashmiris adopting Persian methods of pressing roses for face oil and perfume. Different types of brewed teas were standard in most households. Many people, literate and illiterate, recited poetry in mixed gender settings. There has always been an influence of types of medicinal drug use. My grandmother talked about seeing men smoke hookas as a relaxing ritual. Herbs such as opiates were also used medicinally, and she talked about squeezing poppy seeds for the milk, which would then be boiled and used as a remedy to ease aching joints. When did ritual turn into the hardcore drug use found throughout Kashmir today?

In 1946, Kashmir, along with many other lands in the area, was torn apart by partition. The British didn’t just leave India, they left it with many problems and huge scars, none deeper than the open wound left between Pakistan and India. Many of these disputes over land have caused great financial rift and the women have borne the main brunt of conflict. Kashmiri society traditionally had values embedded around family life and education. Most women chose and wanted to get married and raise children, with education also being an option because many women from this region were successful academically. Although such values do remain, they are now mixing with an increasing religious presence from both Muslims and Hindus. These values, which were once liberating and provided stability, have ended up becoming more stifling and simultaneously chipping away at women’s rights. Women are now under pressure to perform academically under difficult financial circumstances as well as hold the role of being a wife and a mother.

Sexual Violence Surges

A 2005 study done by Medecins Sans Frontieres reveals that Kashmiri women are also among the worst sufferers of sexual violence in the world. Rape of women between the ages of 13-80 has been well documented. The ever present military presence in that regions has exposed women to rape mainly from soldiers, who are immune from prosecution.

Therefore, it is no surprise that already oppressed women under dire cultural restraints are suffering mentally and physically. Many of them are turning to substance abuse in increasing numbers. In general, drug addiction from heroin spanning from Afghanistan and crossing the border into Pakistan and India has steadily been increasing. There are clinics that have sprung up to address this issue but none in Kashmir actually treat women. In a culture were addiction is already a massive social stigma, women face a double battle, unable to receive professional support and risk further isolation from their families.

The situation has become so bleak that the very women who live in Kashmir do not have basic human rights. This is a major travesty and it is hoped with further awareness and pressure from the international community that the women of Kashmir are able to access basic support and slowly rebuild their personal health and communities.