In 2010, Nazia* was in the eighth grade and final exams were nearing. On an early autumn day in her school in Kashmir that year, students had gone out for the lunch break. As a rule, no one was allowed inside during the break. But Nazia’s teacher called her to a classroom on the top floor of the school building.
Over a few weeks, Nazia and her teacher, who taught mathematics, had developed a cordial relationship. They would often chat during the lunch break. But this meeting, in a secluded classroom, seemed far from the normal chit-chat that they used to have. She knew that something was wrong when the male teacher grabbed her hand and pulled Nazia toward him. “It had never happened before and I was frightened,” Nazia says.
It took her a few moments to fathom what was happening. She managed to free herself from his clutches and ran outside, crying.
Petrified, she informed another teacher. Nazia was advised not to come to school for some days and not to tell her parents about the incident. A few days later, the male teacher was fired from the school.
From a legal point of view, Nazia was a minor then and the act amounted to rape. Yet, the school did not inform police about the incident, fearing it would taint their reputation. Further complicating matters, the school in Budgam town in central Kashmir was known for imparting religious teachings.
Nazia was 14-years-old, vulnerable and impressionable. Judging the situation or people beyond surface appearances never crossed her mind. “All I understood [was] that the man loved me and wanted to be with me. I enjoyed his company as well,” Nazia remembers, saying that she was too immature to differentiate between love and lust.
The man had initiated the relationship by talking to her at any given chance. The attention made her feel good, as most would feel in their early teenage years when showered with special attention. She couldn’t decipher her teacher’s intentions.
After her exams, Nazia never returned to the school. Her parents got her admitted to another school, though her fear of the teacher turning up for revenge lingered for a long time. She never had any assurance of safety nor did that teacher face a deterrent.
“The issue of child sexual abuse is being ignored in Kashmir. People are oblivious, [thinking] that things like these [incidents] do not happen, particularly in rural areas,” says Rayees Rasool, an activist who has been running awareness campaigns for child sexual abuse in Kashmir.
Rasool says that most of the cases are from rural areas and involve maulvis (the religious teachers). Since the issue is still a taboo in Kashmir, not many people come forward.
As more and more cases involving teachers and maulvis come to light, it seems that their position of power, along with people’s reluctance to acknowledge the issue, is adding to the problem.
In Muslim-majority Kashmir, most parents send their children to schools where they get both academic and religious instruction. As a result, a chain of private schools have inculcated religious teaching into the curriculum.
But amid the race to be the best and to offer more subjects, schools are missing out on making campuses safe for the children. Of late, many maulvis (religious teachers) have been apprehended for committing sexual abuse of children.
In Bagh-i-Mehtab, on the outskirts of Srinagar city, locals hired a teacher to teach Arabic and the Quran to children. Being well-versed in both subjects, he also led the daily prayers in the local mosque. Out of respect and gratitude, apart from a monthly salary, the maulvi was given free accommodations in the area.
In April 2016, a 10-year-old boy rushed out of the maulvi’s room at noon — a time of the day when he sought solitude and did not allow his pupils inside unless asked. This boy was seething with anger and in tears. Something unexpected had happened… again.
The maulvi would lure children with 20 rupees and sodomize them in his room. The practice had been going on for a while. But it was only after the young boy’s revelation that locals learned about it and moved into action.
“We learnt about this shameful incident when few men of the locality saw a boy crying and inquired. We were shocked to know that the maulvi was sodomizing the boys,” says Mohammad Ameen, a resident of the locality.
The maulvi was asked to leave immediately. Yet the police wasn’t involved. Why not?
“It would have been a shame and humiliating if others knew our young boys were sodomized. Who would marry them?” says Ameen, invoking the social stigma attached to the people who suffer sexual abuse in a conservative society like Kashmir.
The judiciary also provides no relief for the victims of child sexual abuse, irrespective of their gender. The national act for protection of children from sexual abuse, Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses (POSCO) Act 2012, is yet to be implemented in Jammu and Kashmir. POSCO ensures a child-friendly system for trials. It also puts an onus to report the case on people who have knowledge of any case of child sexual abuse.
Adding to the problem, schools in Kashmir do not give a special emphasis to sex education or attempt to create awareness among students. It is thanks to this silence around the issue that children suffer. Children also fear repercussions from the school authorities in case they are proven wrong. The naivety of age doesn’t allow them to think beyond that point.
Azra’s 13th birthday was few months away and she was already faced with stark realities and the knowledge of her vulnerability, sadly by her teacher. The first time he entered the class, she did not notice the peculiarity of his gaze. But as days passed she became uncomfortable.
“That man would stand in a corner and fix his eyes on me. Each time he entered the classroom, I would hear my heartbeat. Such was the fear that it instilled in me,” she says.
She did not talk about it to anyone, because though she could sense the discomfort, she did not know how to express it. His ogling eyes seemed to follow her everywhere. Even under the shield of night, she could feel it weighing her down.
“Every time I decided to talk about it, I would hush myself, thinking that he isn’t harming me physically. I did not know how to put it in words,” says Azra. She did not know who to approach.
“Our teachers always told us that we were grown up girls and would need to behave a certain way. They gave us a code of conduct, but never encouraged us to open up about such issues,” Azra adds. Though more than 10 years have passed since this incident, but Azra says there are moments where she feels frustrated over the helplessness that she faced then.
Even years after facing sexual abuse, the trauma continues to haunt the survivors. “It is not easy for survivors to overcome the mental trauma of incidents of abuse,” says Musaib Omar. Omar is a social activist who working on a case of a self-styled faith healer, Maulvi Aijaz. Aijaz has been accused of sexually harassing scores of children in north Kashmir’s Sopore.
*The names of abuse victims have been changed.
Sana Fazili is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi, India.