Srinagar, Asharq Al-Awsat – Women in the provinces of Jammu and Kashmir have joined forces and formed armed groups to protect their homes from Islamic militants in the area.
In an extraordinary development, 25 women, part of the larger Voluntary Village Defense Committee (VDC), have been trained to use rifles and assist the Indian army with vital security operations.
Shamina Akhtar, aged 30 year, who heads the group, says the women are empowered by their actions. “I am proud of protecting my village from the militants who attack us and raid our homes”, as she demonstrates how to use a number of weapons.
Operating in the Forest Mountains around Surankote, in the border district of Poonch, the women belong to a group of 124 VDC commonly referred to as “Awami Fauz”, or the army of the people.
Visitors to the area will encounter these women fighters with rifles slung over their shoulders grazing their cattle.
Munira Begum, another woman fighter, recalls the events that lead to the formation of the group. “We were subjected to mental and physical harassment by militants who would force us to provide them with food and shelter, and in some cases, sexual favors. Opposition would only incur rape or the killing of family members.” She says the women decided to confront the guerillas by learning how to use “guns and grenades”.
Their women take part in a monthly training camp where they practice their shooting skills and learn new survival techniques. “They are all eager to learn. We help them with technical aspects and they assist us with vital security operations,” said an army officer involved in the training.
Registered as Special Police Officials in both provinces, the women receive a 1500 Indian Rupees (the equivalent of 34$ US) a month and are given the weapons and ammunitions by the police.
Army spokesperson Colonel D.K Badola explained that, “Since the majority of the men in mountain villages” work in the Persian Gulf, the families left behind fall pray to terrorists.”
The VDCs began appearing in March 2003 when a local sheikh, Mir Hussein, was killed trying to protect his wife from being raped by militants. His brother Faisal Hussein Tahir, then working in the Gulf, returned to Kashmir and suggested the Indian army, posted at Surankote, help the villagers to fight intruders themselves.
In April 2004, eight Lashkar-e-Tayyaba fighters, avenging the death of their comrades, attacked the village of Dufali , when the men were out. Khatoom Begum, a villager who had learnt to use a rifle from her son, a VDC member, to protect their cattle, fired her weapon at the attackers and saved the lives of many before being killed herself.
“Khatoom Begum’s daring acts lead to the first all women Muslim VDC being founded. We received support from our husbands and fathers and trained ourselves to use weapons and fend off attacks”, another woman fighter Shahanaz said.
Tahira Begum, the wife of a VDC member Tahir Hussain Choudhary and a mother of three added, “We want to live with dignity and honor which is why we have declared war on these criminals who bear no relation to Islam.”
According to the head of Sociology Department at Kashmir University, Professor Bashir Dabla, the formation of a female VDC reflects the high level of anger amongst the mostly illiterate population against the so-called “jihadis” (those who engage in holy war).
For his part, Fazal Hussein, the VDC commander in the region, indicated that women only groups were created to help women defend themselves whilst their men are away.
“It is an amazing feeling to hold a gun in one’s hand and use it for a noble cause. I have seen militants hiding in the forest on several occasions, in the past eight months. I am proud of fighting against those imposters who have striped us of our dignity and honor”, added Tahira.