In violent Kashmir, more obstacles to marriage

Wedding plans are crimped as the valley braces for Round 2 of state elections Tuesday.

Cars decorated with plastic flowers often outnumber campaign vehicles on the streets of Kashmir's state capital in the run-up to controversial elections. It is wedding season in the Himalayan valley – marked by cool weather and fruit-laden apple trees.

But mounting tension in the disputed region, as it prepares for Round 2 Tuesday of state legislature elections, has had families rushing to complete marriage formalities.

"We have no spare time in this business now," says Nazir Ahmad Khan, currently a manzimyore, or middleman, for five or six couples. Small and unassuming, he dashes between families to smooth an often long and fraught process. "But people are preferring the settlement [be] moved forward, as they don't know the situation after the election."

Violence accompanies almost any political activity in Kashmir. In this case, separatist groups who reject Indian control of the country's only Muslim-dominated state have called for a poll boycott, and militants have sought to enforce this with violence. More than 30 pro-India political workers have been killed since election dates were announced in August.

Srinagar, poised to take part in the second of a total of four rounds, is considered the very heart of boycott territory with strong proseparatist feelings. That many of the city's men have taken to the gun or to political activism in 13 years of insurgency has cast an even bigger shadow over recent marriage seasons – the challenge of finding suitable husbands.

"It was very difficult for us to locate [grooms] because we have lost the youth," says civil servant Muhtaj Rahim, hard at work last weekend supervising arrangements to celebrate the marriages of his two daughters.

Back in 1974, Mr. Rahim's own match took just two to three months to arrange. "For one of my daughters, it took one and a half years to find a husband. Some people search for years. So many have been killed, and [for] some no whereabouts, no dead bodies."

Government figures put the number of deaths related to the violence – most of them young men from the valley – at 35,000. Separatist groups double that.

As a result, "the rates go high," adds Rahim. "Grooms when they are now in less number, dictate from their side – not in my case, but in many others. They are dictating gold, even a house."

The head of the sociology department at the University of Kashmir, Bashir Ahmad Dabla, agrees.

"The girls become the victims, the boys who are available become a real commodity and they start demanding things, and like the Indian subcontinent, they are demanding dowry."

High unemployment with the collapse of industries such as tourism also has economic considerations taking precedence over family status when parents choose matches. Doctors and engineers top wish lists scribbled on the small scraps of paper that Khan keeps in his pockets, ever on the lookout for prospective spouses.

For Khan, that means his traditional duty as the manzimyore to thoroughly vet a family's background and "Caste" is less important these days.

"[Families] are not going so in-depth. A cursory glance to check he can feed his spouse and they leave all other aspects," Khan says with a hint of disapproval.

While the poor economy means that educated, working women have a competitive edge in marriage, widows – especially those whose husbands died fighting for the separatist cause – fall to the bottom of most potential husbands' wish lists.

Take Zubaida Khanum, who lost her husband in 1996, in what authorities called an "encounter." The 25-year-old doesn't think she'll marry again; she's concerned how a second husband would treat her daughter.

But that's not the only reason. "Nobody accepts a widow who has had a mujahidhusband," she says. "There is pressure from security forces and they think 'If we marry this widow we will have many problems.' "

It wasn't always that way. In the early stages of the insurgency, says Professor Dabla, "people felt proud to marry his daughter or his son to a person who had sacrificed his life for azad [freedom]. But later on it became such a situation that people felt it a liability."

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