By Sheikh Mushtaq
SRINAGAR, India, (TrustLaw) - In a sprawling field surrounded by snowy Himalayan peaks dozens of Muslim women gather every month to stage a sit-in in this India-controlled region of Kashmir.
The women wear white head-bands, carry photographs of their spouses and hold placards reading, "Where are our loved ones?" Often, tears roll down their faces.
They are Kashmir's "half-widows" and they are demanding to know the whereabouts of their missing husbands. These are men who have disappeared from this volatile region bordering Pakistan during the two-decade-old conflict which has killed nearly 50,000 people.
“If they are dead, tell us and end our pain," said 35-year-old Hafiza Bano, whose husband went missing after being arrested by security forces seven years ago.
"He was arrested by uniformed men in 2004. To find any clue I visited every security camp and police station but all (was a) waste," she said.
Rights activists say at least 10,000 people, almost all of them young men, have disappeared in the revolt-torn region and accuse Indian security forces of murdering many of them in "staged killings" to earn cash rewards.
Among the missing are militants, former militants, civilians and Kashmiris who were working for security forces.
Officials put the number of missing at between 1,000 and 3,000 and deny the accusations, saying the men crossed over into Pakistan to join militants based there who are fighting Indian rule in Kashmir.
A heavily militarised Line of Control divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan. Both claim the scenic region and have fought two wars over it.
"We are not asking for the sky," said Parveena Ahanger, founder of the Kashmiri rights group Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), whose son went missing in the early nineties.
"We are fighting for a small (amount of) information about the whereabouts of our missing loved ones so that we can live rest of life in peace."
LIVING IN LIMBO
According to Islamic faith these women, most of them from poor Muslim families, cannot remarry for at least seven years after their husbands go missing. Activists estimate there are between 2,000 and 2,500 such women.
Many of these women have been forced to leave their in-laws' homes, and are not eligible for government compensation for widows, nor can they claim the husbands' property without proof that their husbands are dead.
"Our problem is aggravated by the divide among (Muslim) scholars over whether we can remarry," said Rashida Begum, whose husband went missing while on his way to home from work six years ago.
"Some allow remarriage if a woman's husband is not found after seven years, but others say the woman has to wait for three months only."
A senior official, who did not want to be named, said at least 450 "half-widows" have received the relief from the government.
"We have identified more such widows and we are confident that in next few years all of them will be rehabilitated."
But psychiatrists add that it’s not just a lack of rights that "half-widows" suffer, but also serious emotional trauma.
"These widows and their children suffer from post-traumatic distress syndrome. They need regular counselling," said Syed Abinah Nawaz, a doctor at Kashmir's only psychiatric hospital.
But many say almost no psychiatrist is available for the weary widows who have to spend a "fortune" to search for their missing husbands.
"Being a (half) widow is a big curse. They live in constant pain ... in limbo," said 60-year-old Hajira Bano, the mother of one half-widow.