Kashmiri mothers hunt for lost sons
Parveena Ahangar leads a group of women searching for 10,000 missing husbands and sons.
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"If I could bury him, I would have some satisfaction visiting his grave," she says. Ahangar mops Ms. Kowoosa's tears with a cloth and sobs along.Skip to next paragraph
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Among the most frustrated are the so-called Half Widows. Until their husbands are proved dead, these women cannot inherit their property or claim state compensation. Often in-laws throw them out, leaving them to fend for themselves. Islamic law only allows these women to remarry after seven years, but most choose not to in case their husbands return.
Ahangar feels their pain. In August 1990, Indian security forces stormed a relative's house and dragged out her 16-year-old son, Javeed Ahmad. She says they thought he was a militant who had the same name. Thus began her own hunt, so far fruitless.
"I couldn't just sit and do nothing," she says. "My heart had shredded."
By her own admission, Ahangar is an unlikely candidate to challenge Indian authorities. She had a sheltered upbringing as the daughter of a building contractor, married a mechanic at age 12, and immediately set about producing five children. Until her son disappeared, Ahangar largely did housework.
She still remains unworldly. Ahangar cannot read her nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize written by "someone in New Delhi." She is unsure how many countries she has flown to for international human rights meetings. ("Four? Five? Ask my niece.")
But she's savvy in attracting media attention and donations. Ahangar says that public pressure has worked, pointing to a gradual decline in disappearances from 81 in 2003 to none so far this year.
Some government officials have put the total number of unaccounted-for people at around 3,000, but insist that many of those were militants who went into hiding and are not victims of "enforced disappearances."
Authorities consider her group sufficiently embarrassing to periodically break up events and detain her. In recent weeks, Indian security forces have visited the homes of various association members and asked them for photographs and details of the missing so that they can search for them. Rights activists believe the gestures are a direct response to her campaign.
Ahangar's boldness has also raised hackles at the Coalition of Civil Society, an umbrella group that she split from recently over "differences." Representatives there describe a large ego that cannot share the public limelight. At the same time, they praise her organizing skills. "Of course we respect her," says Khurram Parvez, the coalition's program coordinator. "Her presence has motivated other families."
That mobilizing spirit was in force back at the shrine. A young woman shyly approached Ahangar after witnessing the commotion with the irritated man. Her husband was missing. Could Ahangar help?
Ahangar nodded briskly and motioned to a minion to note down details. The other half widows circled the newcomer with hugs. "We'll take care of you," Ahangar said, making an appointment to discuss the case.
• Reporting for this story was funded in part by a fellowship from the South Asian Journalists Association.