Thursday 26 January 2023

‘We have no one’: The women and girls sold as brides in Kashmir


Arsheeda Jan* speaks fluent Kashmiri with an accent that suggests it is not her first language. The 43-year-old is originally from Kolkata but now lives in a two-room wooden home on the banks of the river Jhelum on the outskirts of Srinagar city. Her eyes fill with tears as she describes how she arrived in Kashmir more than two decades ago.

Her parents died when she was a child, she explains, and she and her four siblings were sent to live with relatives. “We were very poor,” she says.

When she met a middle-aged Bengali woman who promised her a job in a shawl factory in Kashmir, Arsheeda saw an opportunity to earn some money. She was 13 years old.

“She told me that will provide me with a job in Kashmir and we have to do embroidery on shawls. I had no idea where Kashmir is,” Arsheeda recalls.

She didn’t tell her siblings about her plan.

When she reached Kashmir, the woman, who was herself married to a Kashmiri man, kept Arsheeda in her home for a week. During that time, Arsheeda says she did all of the household chores in the belief that the woman was going to help her build a better life for herself.

“I kept on asking her ‘where is the job?’ Then one day a man and his father arrived with a bearded man who was supposed to do my nikah (marriage contract).”

A photo of a woman looking outside through a window indoors.
Arsheeda has had no contact with her family since she was trafficked two decades ago [Rifat Fareed]
When Arsheeda cried, the cleric explained that he could not marry her against her will and left. But the family found someone else who was willing to do it.

“The agent threatened me that if I raise my voice she will kill me. I was very scared,” she says.

Still just 13, Arsheeda was married to a labourer nine years her senior.

“When my husband entered my room for the first time, I was shivering. I tried to flee many times but failed. Then I became pregnant. I gave up on the idea that I can ever leave this life,” she says.

Arsheeda, who now has four children, has had no contact with her family in Kolkata since she left.

“When there is a fight with my husband he asks me to leave and pay the money for which he bought me,” she says.

Pointing to a scar on her forehead, Arsheeda explains: “My husband beats me sometimes and he taunts me.”

When her husband is violent, she says she tries to take shelter in her neighbours’ house but that they are unwelcoming. “[They] inform my husband,” she explains. “Some neighbours assume I have slept with many men, that’s how they think I landed here. They don’t understand …”

“Everyone looks at me differently. I still feel alien.”


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