When Handwara girl left education after her face was unveiled
Ess Ahmad Pirzada
Those were the scorching days of June and July. Winds soaked with heat and flared up with humidity would leave people crazy and drenched in sweat. In such harsh conditions, nothing could be more miserable than the routine of leaving your home at 7 in the morning. One would have barely mourned for not having breakfast in the morning, had we been able to earmark a slot for lunch. This said and done, we would willy-nilly adjust with the weather conditions to the extent we could, but the colonial suffocation of conflict torn region hung heavy upon our senses.
It was the year of 1997 and I was a student of B.Sc. first year. Even though Handwara and Kupwara were no destitute of good colleges that time also, the only constraint being the unavailability of science streams. This would leave science students with an option to choose their colleges either in Srinagar, Baramulla or Sopore. Much of the students would opt for Sopore college as it would give them the advantage to shuttle between their homes and college on daily basis. Moreover, it was financially also not feasible for all and sundry to bear the expenses of boarding and lodging. For parents, nothing was more soothing than receiving their wards home with the arrival of dusk. Day in and day out, barrels would exhale smoke, guns would roar, corpses would be lying on the roadsides and crackdowns were as ubiquitous as anything. We would emerge triumphant only if we could successfully convince the army personnels that we are to appear for our practical exams in our college. They would draw some scribbles on our palms which we would go adducing at every check point till we reached the college. This was no less than a herculean task, about which we would boast on every possible occasion.
Being lucky was by no means a continuous process though, a lot could happen if the army personnel had one of their black moods. None would muster the courage to give them a slip when no sign of life would flicker across their barren faces. Instead, the humming sound of prayers was all that could be heard at the dreadful moment. Nevertheless, once or twice a week we would be served with hard beatings. The pain of which however would deaden down because of our youthful fickleness and also ours being dilettante to the dynamics of such occupational treatment. The events marked with humiliation and degradation which should have carved out any little amount of solace from our hearts and turn us rebellion, would be exploited only while shooting the breeze.
To reach our college in Sopore, we were supposed to board two buses one after the other. Our first destination would be Handwara where from we would board another bus to reach Sopore. Even after leaving home at 7:00 AM in the morning we were never able to attend the first class of English scheduled at 10:00 AM. The reason being our bus would be stopped at Tilwari, Magam, Wadi pora, Brari pora, Watain, Zaloora and Seelu. We would be brought down, frisked, paraded and abused every now and then before they would allow the bus to take us any forward. But more than any physical or emotional abuse, it would cost us our first class of the day.
Buses running from 7:00 AM to 8:00 AM in the morning and from 4:00 PM to 4:30 PM in the afternoon would mostly be jam-packed with students. Each one of us now shared a nodding acquaintance and could identify each other with the bus-stops. Girls were also studying in our college, therefore they would most of the times board the same bus as we people did. Soon after we would leave Handwara, a girl would board the bus. Hold on! Why from the hordes of girls did I mention that one girl only? I think I should tell you first. The girl was something out of blue when it came to her appearance, clothing and body language. The moment she hoped in the bus, guys would compete to get her a seat first. She wasn’t talkative. Not that she didn’t have anything to brag about; securing a percentage of seventy-five in 12th was much to be felt distinguished. But she would find solace in her own being. A sister, every fellow passenger would admire to have. Every feminine symbol of her veiled, she would covertly offer her prayers in the room of our English teacher. Her every gesture would bare testimony to her religiosity; even our professors would respect her for the moral pedestal she was known for. Her distinguished being couldn’t be reduced to gossips for nobody knew anything about her except for the fact that she was a student of our college.
On a day, just like any other, she boarded the bus. As usual, a number of seats were vacated for her and she chose to sit beside a girl student of the same college. Young boys were reciprocating to the lyrics of the famous song “Tum tau thehre Pardesi…...” by Pakistani singer Altaf Raja that was buzzing on the radio. The song was yet to finish when all of a sudden the driver pulled the breaks as we reached Watain. We were shrewd enough that we will have to hop out the bus and walk afoot for almost half a kilometre as it was a routine process now. Female passengers however were exempted from this service, they would remain seated as the male ones would step out, except one.
The girl, one admired for her chastity, would join the male passengers out of bus because the salacious eyes of army personals would rip her off from her dignity while trying to involve women passenger in futile conversations. Here they slap a boy; there an old man is being dragged and humiliated; and look they broke the arm of that poor student, he is screaming and crying his eyes out! But why today? We didn’t hear about any gunfights for which this type of “brave service” would offer vent to their feelings! The fear whipped up as one of the army personals coarsely declared: “We will kill you! All of you! And morph it as encounter!”. But why and What have we done to deserve this? To ask that very question called for incessant courage. Even if one could, the answer to it could hardly avert any obnoxious proposals for they enjoyed the royal prerogatives.
As we met this gruesome treatment, that pious soul stood still as some lifeless creature, watching us getting beaten and thrashed without blinking her eyes for a fraction of second. She was struggling between Scylla and Charybdis as whether to move forward or to return to bus. In either of the ways, she had to pierce through the heavy clogged blocks of army personals, so she just froze up at her spot. Almost after half an hour, the army Major made his way out from a nearby camp and roared: “You people don’t understand the language of love. We remain compassionate while you muck-up our orders”. Then he turned towards us and asked: “Have I ever beaten you without a reason”? An oldie who was thrashed minutes ago replied in a broken voice “Never Sir”. Then he went on asking: “Don’t we respect your females? Do we ever ask them to step out of the bus”? The same old person again replied “Never Sir”. “Then why the hell does this girl come out of the bus every time? She brings disrepute to us and makes mockery of our complaisance!”, Major was fuming now. With this, not only did outburst his anger but we also got to fathom out the reason of their “service to nation” today.
Major asked the girl to come near to him. But that soul, that poor and innocent soul stood right at her spot as if she was a monument installed there. This left the major enraged. He directed the old person to persuade this girl to unveil her face as they suspect a terrorist might be covering up beneath that burqa. On hearing this, the junior army personals stood alert. They were eagerly waiting for Major’s orders as to when he will ask them to snatch the dignified honour from the face of Muslim hood. When they will put the degradation of honourable daughter of Mohammad ibn Qasim to show. When they will make the sister of Tariq ibn Ziyad realise that her brother has died long ago. And when they will send to the soul of Salah-ud-Din Ayyubi this message that you have set the precedence for a community which has no adherents of you left anymore.
The old man moved towards the girl and started urging her to put down her cover in a manner as if she was the one responsible for our pathetic condition. He was begging her to unveil herself so that they would let us go. The army personals were inching towards her; she was being shanghaied by someone who was a father figure to her; She could hear the screams and watch those boys getting brutally tortured who would proudly call her sister and compete to get her a seat first. She held on! She did for a while! And for a while! But not for too long! After it turned unbearable for her, she then squeezed every ounce of her courage out of her body; pierced her nails into her niqab and ripped that off along with her skin. The face which I am sure would have been stranger to the mirror of her room was now stripped naked to treat the lustful eyes of occupation. I was there, I wish I wasn’t but I was and could see tears rolling down her cheeks, giving a dab to the imprints of every malicious glance that befall her. Army personals chortled with glee while our heads hung in shame at our inability to help our sister out of that humiliation.
The bus stopped at her bus stop next day. A number of seats were vacated. Many passengers stepped in. But she was nowhere to be seen. She was nowhere to be seen in the days to come. She had quit her education just to ensure she wouldn’t have to disgrace herself for the sake of it. This was not the education which could liberate her, it came on a cost she couldn’t pay. She felt liberated within her house.
I don’t know her name neither do I know where did she land up in her life. But having seventeen years gone by, the memories of this incident don’t exorcise from my mind even a crumb. On visiting my native village whenever I cross Watain, the locale of that place give Goosebumps to me even now. I remember the passengers in bus bandying words with each other just to hold the girl responsible for the abysmal treatment they were made to face. I sometimes feel like losing myself in the crowd and find that girl so that I could bent on my knees and ask for forgiveness. I want her to forgive me for that cowardice I displayed when she was being humiliated. I want to repent; I want my Lord to hear my screams for I was a coward. But even if he does, what difference does it make? Is my repentance going to erase those crude moments from her memory? No! This only is repentance and will remain so, till the time I bite the dust. But yes, I repent!
(Ess Ahmad Pirzada is an Urdu columnist and author.This essay was translated from Urdu by Waseem Makai.)
Waseem Makai is research scholar at Aligarh Muslim University.
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