KUPWARA, Kashmir – Saira Javid’s boutique sits at the end of a narrow, congested lane in a market in the picturesque Himalayan town of Kupwara. It pretty much sums up her life in this part of India: a dead end.
“I am ready to give up my property. I am ready to leave my husband. I know what it means to live in this hell. I want to go back to Pakistan,” 43-year-old Javid, who came from the Pakistani city of Karachi, told VICE World News.
But she can't return.
Both India and Pakistan claim Javid’s current home, the state of Jammu and Kashmir, as their territory, and they have fought two major wars over it.
About the size of Oklahoma, Jammu and Kashmir is India’s only Muslim-majority state, having recently been brought under New Delhi’s control.
The people of this region have been torn between India and Pakistan since both countries gained independence from Britain in 1947. Crossing the border has been unpredictable and tricky, often depending on how the two governments are getting along.
But strong communal ties have lingered despite the moving boundaries, resulting in hundreds of complicated cross-border marriages.
Javid says there are about 350 Pakistani women like her married in Indian-administered Kashmir and are unable to visit their families back home. Through WhatsApp, she helps organize protests and seek legal counsel for Pakistani-origin women trapped in legal limbo in India.
Many of them married Indian Kashmiri men who snuck across the border into Pakistan in the 1990s, when borders weren’t heavily guarded. They had good lives in Pakistan until bilateral ties warmed and the Indian government gave amnesty to Indian Kashmiris who had crossed over into Pakistan illegally.
Many of these men returned to India with their Pakistani wives. The women held Pakistani passports with Indian visit visas. They have been stuck since.
In 2007, Javid agreed to cross the border into Indian-administered Kashmir to meet her husband’s parents for the first time and show them their two children. Her visa was only good for a month, and she later found out that her in-laws had thrown away her passport.
“They wanted me to stay here forever,” Javid said.
Javid, her husband and their children were left without travel documents, and a month later, they were arrested for living in India without valid documents. The family were released on bail after a few months but Javid’s case went on for eight years before she was acquitted.
She now only needs an Indian passport in order to return to her family in Karachi, Pakistan, but she has yet to qualify for one.
Under the International Convention on the Nationality of Married Women, India is obliged to issue travel documents to Pakistani women married to Kashmiri men, said Sheikh Showkat, a professor of Law at Central University of Kashmir.
“These women are entitled to the nationality of their husbands, and it should be given to them. There is an obligation upon India,” he said.
In the 1990s, thousands of Indian Kashmiri men crossed the border into Pakistan for training in an armed movement against Indian rule in Jammu and Kashmir state, according to the Indian government. Hundreds are believed to have stayed in Pakistan and married Pakistani women like Javid, who now couldn’t go home because their husbands brought them to India without the proper documents.
In 2008, Nusrat Begum’s passport and visa mysteriously disappeared while visiting with her in-laws in Indian-administered Kashmir some months after she married an Indian militant who was training in Pakistan. She would have preferred it if the Indian government deported her, but it didn’t.
A few years later, her husband left her for another woman, and she has since had to raise their two daughters by herself. Now, Begum is desperate for a way back to her family in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan’s Azad Kashmir region.
“I told my husband he could marry 10 more women for all I care. I wanted to go back home,” the 33-year-old Begum told VICE World News.
In 2010, the Indian government of Jammu and Kashmir announced a rehabilitation policy for Kashmiri men who had crossed over to Pakistan and wished to return. The policy promised safe passage to former militants and their spouses through selected routes along the highly-guarded India-Pakistan border.
Under the scheme, the Pakistani wives of Indian Kashmiri former militants could cross the border back home after securing permission from Indian authorities. This provision, however, was ambiguously spelled.
The amnesty policy rekindled Begum’s hopes, and she went to several government offices to seek permission to travel to Muzaffarabad. She was denied.
“The Indian authorities have not given any reason for not deporting me, and Pakistani officials say they cannot help me,” she said.
Still struggling to go back to Pakistan, Begum finds companionship in other women she’s met through Javid’s WhatsApp group, like Bushra Farooq.
The 30-year-old also married an Indian former militant in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. In 2012, lured by the amnesty policy, Farooq’s husband took the family across the border to the Indian side of Kashmir.
“The day the policy was announced, my life was set afire,” Farooq told VICE World News. “I was blackmailed. My husband told me he would take one of my children to [Indian-administered] Kashmir and leave me.”
LIke hundreds of other Pakistani women, Farooq was denied a return visa to Pakistan. Her husband had discarded her passport.
Farooq’s marriage failed, too. She divorced her husband in 2019.
“He would fight with me and beat me often. For him, I was someone who should only cook Biryani within four walls,” she said.
Parvez Imroz, a lawyer who represents these Pakistani women, termed it a “humanitarian problem.”
“These women trusted the Indian government’s commitment that they can settle here, but they never kept the promise. They regret coming here,” Imroz told VICE World News.
Farooq said she and other Pakistani women on this side of Kashmir are now battling depression.
“Some face domestic abuse and some can’t sleep without taking pills,” she said. “We are dying of hopelessness.”