Kashmir being a conflict-stricken society has unleashed myriad mental and physical health agonies on its citizenry. Even as natives frequent healthcare specialists and faith healers to get going, a shadow of ignorance is only growing and becoming a new worry.
She sighed and stared dejectedly out of the window. Her fingers lay motionless while her eyes gazed at the unfathomable depths of the sky impossible to fit in the limited spectrum of what she deemed to be her life.
The city had been both kind and cruel to her. Unbeknownst to her conscious, waking mind, it had greatly shaped and carved her to be part of the bustling roads, monotonous people and shimmering shops.
But it had been snatched away from her, just as she had begun to realize its essentiality.
On the thin carpet beside her, lay two sewing needles and two rolls of thread. Upon coming back to her ‘rightful place’ in her home, far away from the glamour she had grown up in, her mother and the people she had never known well in her life deemed it fit to consider her next role to include the two needles, and the two rolls of thread.
A bubble of anger and something vicious which she couldn’t describe rose up in her throat. Her eyes began to water. Her mind flooded with scenes of laughter, happiness and sorrow.
Her mother watched her from behind the door, clicking her tongue and whispering to herself in a lamented tone.
“Casting her off….so suddenly….wasn’t even able to learn…to study…”
She trotted slowly towards the kitchen, with the gait of a woman for whom sorrow had been a constant unwelcome guest. She absentmindedly stirred the pot and spoke to it of her pain, a habit that made her heart feel less exhausted.
“Raheela,” she called out to her daughter. “Come and prepare some food for lunch.” She turned towards the pot. “My poor daughter,” she muttered while chopping the vegetables. “Destiny has never been kind to her. So cruel, so cruel…They broke my daughter’s heart. They have my God to answer.”
A few minutes passed by without any response. The woman stood up and walked toward the room, resuming her monologue and clicking her tongue at Raheela who hadn’t moved an inch from her usual place near the window.
Instead, her head was down and tears were flowing freely.
The woman took long strides towards her and clasped at Raheela’s wrist. “Stop crying!” she thundered, shaking her. “They used you and then threw you away! What’s the use of wasting so much time thinking about it? Are you going to sit in this damned place until you die?! Get up!”
Raheela shrieked and slapped her mother’s arm. Her hands instinctively flew over her eyes and she sobbed harder.
“Useless child!” Her mother yelled. “Couldn’t you have learnt a thing or two while frolicking around? What is your old mother supposed to do now? How will she take care of you?” Her eyes began to sting. “What have I done to deserve such a fate? Why is everything so unjust? How am I supposed to handle all of this alone?”
Raheela shook her head at her questions, believing there wasn’t any answer that could satisfy both broken hearts.
A few months later, however, an ‘answer’ arrived.
Raheela (not her real name) was a young village girl who had been taken to the city by her relatives with the intention and promise to educate her. However, upon her arrival, she was treated like a maid and was kept in the house to fulfill household chores. Time passed and she grew accustomed to the city’s way of life, having been bred in the society and its less intrusive ways.
After a few years, she was taken back to the village due to a mistake she had committed in the house. Unable to grow accustomed to the village’s ways and values, she despised her home and the inhabitants in it. Her family, however, weighing her age and her circumstances, felt it befitting to announce the next step that would hopefully end her sadness.
“Let’s get her married.”
Raheela’s face stiffened upon hearing her relatives’ words. Her eyes, however, stayed trained on the pack of beads she was fidgeting with.
“Kulsum, isn’t it time you leave that horrible story behind you? Give your daughter a new life and get her settled with a good man,” Yasmeen said while reassuringly patting Raheela’s bent back. The other women of the community murmured in agreement.
“Our Raheela will find someone great,” one said. “Her destiny will not be wrong.”
“Raheela has been so kind to everyone,” another implored. “How can the Almighty even think of being unjust to her?”
Her mother rocked her right foot while her gaze followed Raheela’s actions. Her callous hands trembled.
Marriage was a union that the Almighty Himself had mentioned in the Holy Book. If Raheela was to marry a good man, wouldn’t she be able to leave behind her past and create a new present?
“You’re right,” she heard herself saying as Sorrow loomed in the back. “Find a good guy for my Raheela. Help her stand on her own two feet again,” she implored to the bunch of women. “My daughter has never wished any pain upon a person. My daughter should enjoy her happiness too.”
The women smiled and, in return, sent prayers and good wishes to Raheela’s awaited husband in shining armour, who they believed would whisk her away from her worries and help her start a new life.
The tension in the room dimmed following the agreement and Kulsum found herself attaching her hopes to the glimmer of light. She looked at Raheela with a cautious smile, the first in a long time, on her face.
Raheela looked at her with sullen, hollow eyes and a dimming heartbeat, unable to smile back.
A year passed, and her mother’s prayers turned into reality. A lean man in his late 30s sat inside the room Raheela had gazed out of the window in, his blank eyes fixed in front of him. A myriad of men and children sat on either side, some conversing, some gazing at his stoic face while some running around and stealing the toffees thrown over the groom’s head.
In another room, Raheela’s cousins from the city gathered for the auspicious occasion, gushing over her natural beauty that had enhanced due to the air in the village and the organic food she consumed. Few tugged at their hair and complained of the dust and dirt they repetitively washed off while others envied the cholesterol-free food she was able to consume without any hassle.
“I’ll visit you often after my marriage,” Raheela said to them, a genuine smile gracing her face. “I really like the city.”
They smiled and nodded, helping her with her dress and her makeup. She giggled along with them while they gossiped about rude girls and third-class boys and bowed her head in shyness when they mentioned her husband’s rugged looks.
“We’ll be taken away somewhere just like you, Rahi didi,” a young cousin girl of hers exclaimed, pouting her mouth and crossing her arms. “Then we’ll have to work, work, work! What’s so great about men anyway? They eat and sleep and poop. They’re just like pets!”
A roar of hysterical laughter and giggles erupted in the room, many pleasantly surprised at the girl’s sharp wit and humour.
Raheela merely forced herself to smile.
No. You won’t be taken away, she thought. You’re not some village girl. You’re from the city. You’ll study, earn and climb the top of the ladder. You won’t end up like me.
She looked out of the window, towards the descending sun, that seemed just as unfathomable as her future. A future that many had experienced, but none that could’ve predicted it.
“Uff, show her a little mercy, she has to work in the kitchen.”
Slap. Kick. Punch.
“She’ll bleed at this rate. Leave her alone.”
Pull hair. Sneer. Throw.
Heavy footsteps stomping away.
A looming figure. Was it her mother’s Sorrow?
“Get up.” A stern female voice and fingernails digging into Raheela’s bruises. “Don’t make a scene and get up. You and your damn family deserve a beating like this once a day.”
Raheela’s stomach squirmed and she started coughing violently. She writhed on the floor in pain.
“Useless daughter-in-law! We made a mistake, marrying our son into your family out of pity. We had gone mad that day, thinking that your family would be a source of happiness. Get up, I say!”
Tears flowed freely on her cheeks, blurring her sight. Her ears rung with the towering woman’s verbal insults and her husband’s daily beatings.
You’re right, she croaked in her head. I am useless. I was useless in the city, and I’m useless in the village. There is no place left for me.
The towering figure’s shadow left, not without another round of insults, leaving Raheela clutching onto her mouth and wishing for the ground to swallow her whole.
Raheela was subjected to domestic abuse by her husband during the period of her marriage. The marriage lasted for eight months.
“I knew he wasn’t a good person,” one of her elders remarked a few months later, a day after the divorce. “His animalistic instincts were written all over his face. It was a good thing to divorce him. Although it should’ve happened much earlier.”
He clicked his tongue at the mother-daughter duo’s downcast faces and harrumphed. “Stop being so ungrateful and angry! People all across this place experience this! You think we’re the only family? Raheela should be thankful that she was even able to divorce such a mad man!” He shook his head and resumed sipping his tea.
“Cruel fate…my daughter has nobody for her…cast aside…no one cares for my poor Raheela…” Her mother’s quivering voice betrayed her emotions. Raheela clasped her mother’s hand.
“Stop crying, both of you!” he slammed the cup on the ground. “Everyone makes their own fate, understand? Go and teach your daughter something and stop putting this pitiful act in front of everybody! You and your family shouldn’t make yourselves look so weak, you hear me?”
“I am an old woman and Raheela’s health has betrayed her,” she said. “Look at the state they’ve left my daughter in. What am I supposed to do for her now?”
The elder looked at Raheela’s sunken cheeks and her dull eyes. He grimaced.
“Get her another man. A failed marriage doesn’t mean she can’t marry again. Search for someone who is good and caring.” He looked at his half-drunken cup of tea and clicked his tongue. “You ruined my good mood. Get out of my sight now.”
Kulsum stood up and called Raheela’s name softly while her eyes glanced toward the main entrance of the house.
Sorrow had come again.
Upon the advice of one of the elders and the rest of her family members, Raheela was forced into a second marriage with a man who had previously divorced three women. During those months before her marriage, she consistently voiced her disapproval of marrying him and remained depressed throughout the period.
Following her second marriage, she was declared pregnant with a child. Her in-laws neglected regular checkups during her pregnancy with the doctor and forced her to work out in the field all day long. Furthermore, she was not provided proper nutrition.
She visited the city three months later and went for a checkup with the help of her city relatives. The doctor warned her over the deteriorating health of the baby, stating that it was important to rest and eat during the last trimester. She spent a few weeks in the city before going home.
At home, upon arriving, she was treated in the same manner before leaving the city, despite informing them of the doctor’s advice. Almost two months later, while she was in her seventh month, her sister-in-law kicked her in the uterus, causing Raheela to collapse. She was taken to the hospital by her neighbours where the pregnancy was declared as a miscarriage.
The news unhinged Raheela and she spiraled into uncharacteristic and abnormal behavior. For a year, she stayed in her own house without receiving any news or any calls from her in-laws and her husband.
In that time, she was declared clinically depressed by a psychiatrist in the city and was urged to take the prescribed medicines for upto six months, which she neglected. Furthermore, her family members, fearing the influence of black magic, took her to a peer (spiritual healer). He affirmed the influence of a supernatural being (saaya) on her personality and provided small pieces of paper infused with holy verses that would drive the being away.
“She stands in front of the main door for months!” her relatives roared in the room. “She either stares at something in the distance or takes off to somewhere in the city. She doesn’t stay put!”
“Kulsum, what have you taught your child?!” Another kin pointed a finger at the quivering woman. “Does she have no self-respect? Does she feel glee at soiling our name? Do you even know what kind of people have come to me talking about her roaming around in the streets?! Where is her shame?!”
Kulsum’s tears wet her lips. “What do you want me to do?!” she cried, beating her chest. “The doctor has lied to us saying she is depressed! They have put something in her medicines! After eating them, she has started running away! Someone hates my daughter and they’ve performed black magic on her!”
“Do you even hear yourself?” The elder sitting in the room scoffed. “The doctors are trained professionals who have a lot of experience! Are you telling me that what the doctor said was wrong? And who told you to go to a peer?! Wasn’t what the doctor had prescribed enough to cure Raheela?”
“Please, saab, don’t say this,” the relative retorted, placing a hand in front of the elder. “Peers are known to cure stuff doctors can’t even think about! It is because of those blasted medicines that she’s started running away. I told Kulsum to take her to the peer once and for all!”
“My daughter does not have depression!” Kulsum yelled, raising her wrinkled fists in the air. “These stupid people have put it in her head and now she is unable to think of anything! She doesn’t even go to her in-laws house! I have raised a stupid, incompetent daughter who cannot even fulfill her duties!”
Raheela stared at the commotion from behind the curtained door, her eyes fixed at the window which captured the brilliant blue sky. She heard sighs of frustration and words that cursed her head, and let her eyes brim quietly with tears.
Once again, she realized, the unfathomable blue sky reflected no part of the whirling tornado within her.
The story of Raheela is unlike any other, but has similarities in the context of women in Kashmir. It is not easy to narrate her devastating ordeal to strangers, but it is necessary, so as to pinpoint her downward spiral into the depths of depression.
Decades of tedious conflict and its psychological consequences has left a gaping hole within the society and within the minds of citizens- a hole that has seemingly merged with the monotonous routines that constitute our experiences. While normal phases in our lives- education, marriage, kids, investment- achieve a higher priority amongst all of us, the festering sore within gnaws at the ropes of communication that tie us together.
It should not come as a surprise to any of us, therefore, when a story like Raheela’s slithers into our conscience. It shouldn’t shock us, furthermore, at the appalling absence of empathy and the overwhelming response of indifference she has seen throughout her ordeals.
Why? Because once this feature finishes, we will look upto the sky, wonder and shudder over the lengths of inhumanity, send a short prayer for her wellbeing and a day later, forget about a woman named Raheela.
So, where does the chink in Raheela’s armour lie? And why are stories like Raheela’s a daily occurrence in Kashmir?
“I would say that it’s due to illiteracy among our population,” a Psychology graduate and an intern at Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (IMHANS) observes over the phone. “Cases like hers are rampant due to a complete lack of education and understanding about the matter. People like her come here all the time, claiming that some Shia peer attempted some sort of black magic on them and now they can’t get any better.”
Why not visit the supposed peer then?
“That’s the whole problem! There is no such evidence backing up these claims. It’s based on pure hearsay and speculation,” she states. “They have diagnosed themselves without any professional advice and then come in the institute to create evidence for such diagnosis.
“In almost all of the cases in this institute, people choose to believe what the peer tells them rather than what the doctor tells them. In my opinion, it’s because of lack of understanding of the diagnosis,” she concludes.
Amber Haque, Professor of Psychology in Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, Qatar, who has published noted research papers delving into Psychology from an Islamic Perspective, comments via message that many classification of mental disorders are ‘alien to Muslim culture’.
Is that why, perhaps, people feel more at ease detailing their health problems to the peer rather than the doctor?
A trip to one of the peer’s houses enlightens the cause.