|Mothers and wives of the 'disappeared' have found a voice [Credit: Showkat Shafi]
Parvina Hangar's son was just 16 years old when she says he was abducted by Indian forces. That was almost 20 years ago, and Hangar, a simple woman with an elementary school education, did not know what to do or who to turn to. The pain of losing her son left her unable to get out of bed for months.
Today Hangar strikes a very different figure. She proudly displays the plaque she was awarded as one of 1,000 women nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.
But of much greater value to her is an aging photograph she carries of her missing son Javed Ahmed.
Speaking in Kashmiri, Hangar explains: "The pain of separation is what keeps me going. Until my son returns home, I will not sit idle. I will not give up. I will continue to fight."
She is far from a political figure but has twice seen the inside of a jail after being arrested during protests.
Through her efforts to search prisons across India for her son, Hangar has brought together 450 families of missing persons and forced the Indian government to admit that at least 4,000 people have been abducted in the Kashmir conflict. Human rights groups say the figure is closer to 9,000.
Hangar's organisation, the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), represents a grassroots effort by Kashmiri women to enter a highly politicised terrain from a humanitarian perspective.
"Women have a key role in this conflict," Hangar says.
Many Kashmiri women have been forced to take on the role of sole breadwinner after their men were killed or arrested.
Asiya Andrabi is one such woman. She is one of the most prominent Islamist separatist leaders in Kashmir. Her husband is currently under arrest, facing life in prison, and she is in hiding.
Nahide Nasrean, Andrabi's second-in-command, explains: "What she teaches is from Quran or Hadith so we think that if we obey her that it will be better for our life in this world and in the life hereafter.
"We will continue our fight until we get our freedom. If we do not get it, we will transfer our movement to our next generation."
As in most conflict zones, Kashmiri women have been subjected to violence. According to a study by Medecins Sans Frontieres, Kashmiri women suffer some of the highest rates of sexual violence in the world.
"Sexual violence has been routinely perpetrated on Kashmiri women, with 11.6 per cent of respondents saying they were victims of sexual abuse," a 2005 study reported.
Nasrean says: "We feel if militants are not here, our chastity is not safe."
While not all women share the ideology of Andrabi and her followers, most agree that this conflict has made women stronger.
"This occupation has made us very strong as well. The mother has lost her son. The sister has lost her brother, so I think it has made us strong," says Mehbooba Mufti.
Mufti is the daughter of former home minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and the leader of the People's Democratic Party.
Her party supports the Indian-drawn borders and while her position is strongly opposed in many quarters of Kashmir, what she shares with women here are the personal losses that seem to come with the territory.
"I can feel the pain and think that's where you connect with each other and that's where women were able to connect with me because of their pain and we could relate to each other," Mufti says.
Her family's position on Kashmir came at a heavy cost when in 1989 Kashmiri militants kidnapped her sister, later returning her in exchange for militants who had been detained.
Mufti says her children have also suffered as a result of her activism.
"I am a single parent and I was not there for them at certain points in time when I should have been there and that's something you have to live with," she explains.
Nighat Shafi is the founder and chairperson of Human Effort for Love and Peace and was one of the first people to go out into the villages of Kashmir to build centres, which she calls homes, for widows and victims of rape.
The wife of a well-to-do Indian government bureaucrat, Shafi has sought to bring some sense of normalcy and relief to the thousands of women and children affected by the conflict.
"There is a fight for survival," she says. "I'm trying to do whatever little I can do. I am trying to help in whatever little way I can."
She too was one of 1,000 women nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.
"We have been suffering for a long, long time. We want peace with dignity. We want our girls to walk the streets without any fear, not being exploited," Shafi says.
But this summer, violence has flared up again. At least 11 young people were shot dead during protests and funeral processions. This has led to more protests, stone throwing by protesters and army-wide curfews in many parts of the Kashmir Valley.
Shafi is not easily shaken, but when asked about the recent upsurge in killings, she cannot hide her pain.
Tearfully, she says: "Even if there is firing they have to hit at the legs, not at the heart. How they can hit us on our heads?"
A 'people's movement'
While the women here express very different opinions on the conflict and its effects, their shared pain creates some common ground. There is also a sense that the most urgent need of Kashmiri women today is the restoration of peace and security.
They may not agree with one another on how peace should be achieved, but in this close-knit society the most active women know of one another and are working simultaneously on different fronts.
The women here express a sense of determination that Kashmir's sacrifices should not be in vain.
That is especially true for Zarmooda Habib, a founding member of the United Hurriyat Conference, the leading separatist movement. Habib has spent the last 16 days in hiding, returning home for less than a day to check on her ailing mother.
She does not believe in a Kashmiri women's movement, but a people's movement.
"If women's political activism is not given space and if it is not increased then we cannot say this is a people's movement, then we say it is a men's movement," she says.
Married only to the cause and having spent the last six years in a New Delhi prison, Habib says she will never give up on the cause of an independent Kashmir.
She asks: "If we will not have freedom, then what are we doing?"
Source: Al Jazeera