Kashmir: Being A Woman Journalist In Times Of Arrests And Hate Crimes

A Kashmiri journalist writes about her interrogation by the police, the army, and being targeted in a hate crime.

Quratulain Rehbar is a freelance journalist based in Kashmir.

SRINAGAR, Jammu and Kashmir — Every weekend, I take a shared sumo taxi to Pulwama to spend time with my family. It takes about an hour from Srinagar, where I live and work as an independent journalist. On the way, I listen to music to subdue my anxiety that gets much worse in the winter months. Growing up in south Kashmir, witnessing violence and tear gas shells explode down the street from my house, I felt my mental health taking a hit from a very young age. Everyone lives with some sort of depression in my part of the world. The helplessness and humiliation that we felt when Kashmir’s autonomy was suddenly abrogated in August 2019 has affected us deeply. In the two and half years since then, friends and colleagues in the media have been questioned, intimidated, and arrested. Each day brings new fears and anxieties. My own interrogation in December triggered my anxiety to the extent that it started affecting my physical health. I would get panic attacks in public places. Thoughts of how my family is suffering with all this haunted me. Frightened that I was spiraling out of control, I sought professional help for the first time in December. I was trying to cope, meet deadlines when I found out that I was one of the Muslim women targeted in the “BulliBai app.”

While I was traveling home on the first day of the new year, a journalist friend from Delhi called to tell me that my photo was in an online auction of Muslim women. I was shocked, but having reported on a similar online auction last year, I knew what she was saying. My first thought was — ‘God, I hope that it is not a morphed image.’ I felt my voice drop as I told my friend that this would be yet another trigger for my anxiety. 

When I reached home, I locked myself in a room for two hours, reading tweet after tweet. I felt numb. I didn’t know whether to say something about this hate crime or just be quiet. My first concern was for my safety and that of my family. With the crackdown on Kashmiri journalists intensifying, I had retreated from social media. It isn’t just the abusive trolling that I have to worry about, but the fact that I live in a deeply conservative society where something like this online auction could ruin a woman’s life. As a Kashmiri woman, I know how people would take it. There are those who blame women in any situation and those who would ask what I did to be on the list. 

I live in a deeply conservative society where something like this online auction could ruin a woman’s life.

There are only a handful of women journalists in Kashmir, and my relatives still give my parents a lot of grief for letting me follow my dream. One of the reasons that I left Pulwama was because I always felt as if I was being watched, not just by the state but the people as well. I stopped using Facebook to keep a low profile. Since Twitter is used less in my hometown, posting there is a safer bet. 

The other reason that I hesitated in speaking out was that I never want to become the story. As a journalist, I want people to read my stories, not about me. That is one reason I kept quiet about the police summoning me for questions a few weeks earlier. I also knew it was something that other Kashmiri journalists (both men and women) have been facing for a while. 

But in something like the BulliBai app case, I decided it was my responsibility as a journalist to speak out. I tweeted out the story that I had reported on the online auction of Muslim women last year. After this, there were so many calls and so much pressure from the media that at one point, I was unsure if I did the right thing by speaking out. Looking back, I’m glad that I did. 

My parents still don’t know that I was targeted in an online auction, but they do know that I was recently summoned to a police station and questioned in what I was told was a routine verification. 

Even though you know about the intimidation of journalists that happens in Kashmir, and are aware of your colleagues going through the same or worse, nothing prepares you for your own interrogation. They ask for your name, the name of your parents, and how many people are there in your family. They asked me, ‘What is your ideology? Who do you write for? How much do you earn? How many brothers do you have? Has anyone gone to Pakistan? What’s your Facebook ID.” For someone with elderly parents and two brothers, these questions are chilling. It is a nightmare that you never wake up from. 

They asked me, ‘What is your ideology? Who do you write for? How much do you earn?’

They asked whether I had a Jamaat-e- Islami background three times. I said no. I thought I should be careful about telling them where I write, but then I thought that I’m not doing anything wrong and they will google it in any case. When they asked me where do you live, I said Srinagar, but they wanted to know exactly where I lived. They even asked me if I had my own house there. I’m a woman living on my own. Why should I tell anyone where I live? It makes me feel unsafe and uncomfortable. 

They kept asking me the same questions for three days over the phone. I wondered if I was in trouble, if there was an FIR against me, and if things were going to get worse. 

People ask me whether I filed a police complaint in the BulliBai hate crime. When one doesn’t feel safe from the authorities, how would one expect them to do justice?

After the police questioning, I got a call from the army camp in Pulwama. I can understand why the police want to do verification, but why does the army want my information. This happened after I reported on the paramilitary taking over land which farmers in Pulwama had cultivated for decades. They even contacted my neighbours and asked for my father’s number. They phoned my brother and told him to tell me to come to the army camp. When they called me, they asked me if I had ever gone to Pakistan. I feel this is intimidation. No one in my family has ever been to a police station let alone an army camp. My parents were very worried given that I live alone in Srinagar. I worry about them because they are by themselves in Pulwama. The calls stopped when I spoke with the army spokesperson in Srinagar and switched off my phone for two days, but the stress this caused has taken a huge toll on my mental health.

No one in my family has ever been to a police station let alone an army camp.

This was not the time that I was summoned to a police station. In June, I was questioned for four hours about my tweet saying that the police had beat up two or three shopkeepers in Pulwama. They asked me why I did not write about the drug problem in the area where I grew up and why I was trying to malign the image of the police. I said my job is to write what I see. 

I said my job is to write what I see.

The fallout for a woman being summoned to a police station is very different from that of a man. Women journalists are also judged for working with male journalists. But what people don’t understand is that there are many places in south Kashmir where it is impossible for a Kashmiri woman journalist to go alone. I have to take a male member for people to speak with me. My brother once told me that if I ever wanted to marry, I would have to find a journalist in similar circumstances because there are few people who could accept a woman journalist who writes about human rights, gets summoned to the police station, and works with male colleagues. 

The arrest of friends and colleagues has been very painful. The latest is Sajad Gul. You cannot help but wonder when the police will come for you, whether the next story or tweet could trigger it. I feel that I’m lucky that there are reporters and editors outside of Kashmir who know me, but not everyone has people who will speak for them. 

Being a woman journalist in Kashmir can be lonely. Even the friends with whom I grew up have distanced themselves. Some were so critical of me being a journalist that I had to stop talking to them. There is also a tendency for people to not take women journalists seriously. I often get the question: will you continue this after marriage? Sometimes I feel that the only people who can understand me are from my profession. They can relate to the pain and the circumstances. I feel that people are so consumed in their lives here that they don’t have time to care for someone else or show solidarity. Even when a few Kashmiri women journalists were targeted in the “Bulli Bai” app, not everyone was supportive. 

Being a woman journalist in Kashmir can be lonely.

So, why don’t I quit journalism for a safer and better-paying job? I’m empathetic, a good listener, and have always wanted to be a journalist, even though it took me a long time to get here. Like most Kashmiri parents, my mother wanted me to be a doctor. And even though my heart wasn’t in it, I tried. When that didn’t work out, I joined a graduate course in journalism. I remember that my family was in a financially difficult situation at the time, there was a shutdown following the most recent bout of violence, and I paid the course fee on the last day of admission from my own pocket. I have come to realize that I would rather struggle in journalism than feel empty in another profession.

I would rather struggle in journalism than feel empty in another profession.

We need women journalists in Kashmir. While it is vital for women to tell stories about women, it is also important to tell human rights stories from a woman’s perspective. There have been many girls who have reached out to me to say that they follow my work, and they too want to be journalists, but their families won’t allow them because of how dangerous it is getting and what others will say. We have miles to go before things improve for women journalists in Kashmir, but I’m determined to stay on this path because it is the one that I have fought for and believe in.

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