women of kashmir

Written by Haris Azeem Yar Khan 10:47 am

Women of Kashmir: Casualties of an Armed Conflict

The armed conflict in Indian-Administered Kashmir has begotten a system of violence and discrimination against the women of Kashmir. Over the years, Kashmiri women have come to bear the brunt of a conflict that impacts them disproportionately.

Since the past seventy-three years, the valley of Kashmir has been locked in a perpetual conflict that has entirely morphed a serene mountainous landscape into a militarized zone marred by violence and armed dispute. The partition of subcontinent aggravated the troubles of the Kashmiri people because the region of Jammu and Kashmir became a source of political and military tensions between the two nuclear-armed nations: Pakistan and India.

In fact, since the inception of the two countries, Kashmir has been the cause of three full scale wars and countless cross-border interventions in form of proxy operations and skirmishes (Zaidi). However, in actuality the brunt of the violence, which transcends various facets of the society, from international politics to local social fabric, is borne by the ethnic Kashmiris themselves.

Unfortunately, the tales of the violence experienced by ordinary people are ignored in midst of the broader political discourse on Kashmir issue. This holds true especially for the Indian-occupied Kashmir (IOK) where militarization is rooted in everyday interactions of the people. Following the Abrogation of article 370, which initially offered limited autonomy to the fragile region, India stationed about 700,000 troops there.

“With a Kashmiri population of about 5.5 million, that is 1 soldier for every 8 Kashmiris, making Kashmir one of the world’s most militarized regions” (Zia). The impact of this permanent war and militarization is even more debilitating for the Kashmiri women because of the abject intersectionality of their position.

Facing sexual abuse, objectification of bodies, invasion of privacy, loss of spaces, enforced disappearance and extrajudicial killings of male relatives, IOK’s women suffer from unparalleled psychological and physical trauma within the confines of a patriarchal society. Before delving into the gendered narrative of Kashmir’s conflict, it is imperative to understand the historical and modern context which shaped the society that begets violence against women.

Prior to the partition of Subcontinent, the territories of Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh were under the rule of the Dogra Maharajas. Christopher Snedden, in Kashmir: the unwritten History, aptly notes that while the fate of subcontinent was being written, the princely state was replete with internal contentions between Kashmiri people and Maharaja Hari Singh (Snedden).

While initially the Maharaja was skeptical of joining either of the two countries, breakout of an armed struggle against the atrocious and ostensibly anti-Muslim policies of his rule, compelled him to sign instrument of accession with India. Legitimacy of this surrender of power was “bitterly contested” by Pakistan because of geo-political and strategic reasons, and soon after partition, the two countries went at war over Kashmir (Snedden).

However, UN intervention in 1949 led to the division of Kashmir along the CFL called “line of control”. Despite a number of UN resolutions on the conflicted zone, the extremely volatile region struggles with lack of autonomy, militarization, and armed disputes. By 1990s, militarization was being used extensively by the Indian state “as a proxy for governance, as means of achieving political goals and for fighting Pakistan and quenching the palpable Kashmiri struggle for self-determination” (Manecksha).

The militarization has been coupled with draconian laws and legislations that allow the Indian army a blanket of immunity against war crimes and violence. One such act is the AFSPA 1990 (Armed Forces Special Powers Act), which empowers armed forces to search and “arrest citizens without warrants, shoot unarmed civilians and raid houses or destroy private property” (Manecksha).

Furthermore, it inhibits legal proceedings against soldiers without the sanction of the central Indian government. Moreover, the Public Safety Act (PSA) 1978 allows the state apparatus to take pre-emptive measures, such as detentions, to stifle dissent and opposition. The Human Rights Watch, under the ambit of United Nations on Human Rights in Kashmir, explicitly states that AFSPA and PSA have “created structures that obstruct the normal course of law, impede accountability and jeopardize the right to remedy for victims of human rights violations” (“India: Act on UN Rights Report on Kashmir”). 

In fact, according to HRW, over a 1000 people were detained between March of 2016 and August of 2017. Collectively, all such draconian laws conjure a socio-political atmosphere where the immunity enjoyed by armed and para-military forces is pervasive in all affairs of their conduct. Owing to the overarching immunity, the atrocities faced by the Kashmiri women, in form of rapes, assaults, tortures, and extrajudicial killings, normally go unpunished and⁠—ofttimes⁠—unrecorded.

Sexualization, Objectification and Rape in Indian-Administered Kashmir

The gendered narrative of Kashmir cannot be furthered without elucidating the use of rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war. According to the UNSC resolution 1820, sexualized violence is “a tactic of war to humiliate, dominate, instill fear in, disperse and/or forcibly relocate civilian members of a community or an ethnic group” (“UNSC Resolution 1820…”).

Similarly, rape is a “tool of war” employed to deliberately subjugate civilians; women are the primary targets because their sexual exploitation “harms and humiliates” entire communities (“Rape as a Weapon of War: MSF”). Within the Kashmiri context, a plethora of rape cases implicating army officials have emerged over the years.

While the exact number of cases are hard to discern because of the complicated nature of the Kashmiri conflict, a rape case was reported every 60 hrs in the valley in 2018 (Azmat). Similarly, a report by the United Nations revealed that 882 women were raped by the security forces in 1992 alone (Ayesha).

A human rights watch on Kashmir affairs finds out that rape of Kashmiri women is usually carried out during crackdowns and search operations, when men of the community are separated from their families. Civilian populations are subjected to collective punishments like assaults and beatings.

Furthermore, it is also noted that women who are accused or suspected of sympathizing with militants are subjected to sexual assault in a bid to deride their families or connections. In this case, raped women have often been blamed for sheltering militants or identifying with them. Women have also been increasingly victimized during reprisal operations following terrorist attacks (“Rape in Kashmir: A Crime of War”).

It is evident how the questionable laws like AFSPA allow officers of the military to engage in heinous crimes without the fear of legal or social repercussions. In conflict zones like Kashmir, sexualized violence is flagrantly used to intimidate entire communities or ethnicities. Since 1990s, several incidents of Rape have been uncovered by different human rights organizations and individual reporters.

In November 1990, the security forces personnel infiltrated a wedding in Anantnag district and raped all the women including the bride. The infamous Shopian rape case is another such incident of mass gang rapes. On October 10th 1992, a contingent of the 22nd Grenadiers Indian Army entered Chak Saidapora (near the town of Shopian, Pulwama) to conduct search operation; however, several officials of the contingent ended up gang-raping almost nine women, including an “eleven years old girl and a sixty year old woman” (Rape in Kashmir).

In May 2009, security forces allegedly “abducted, raped and murdered two young women namely Asiya and Nilofar”; their bloated bodies were found drowned in a stream in Shopian (Bhat). Despite the public outcry following their discovery, the alleged perpetrators have not been brought to justice by the state.

The Kunan Poshpora incident is perhaps one of the most notable and repugnant acts of sexual violence in the valley. On the night of 23rd and 24th February 1992, the armed forces cordoned off the twin villages of Kunan and Poshpora in the Kupwara district of IOK. Then in the cover of darkness, soldiers from the 4th Rajputana Rifles 68th Brigade, brutally gang raped at least 32 Kashmiri women (“A Festering Wound”).

While the FIR was initially registered at the local police station, the perpetrators of the repulsive act roam free even after twenty-eight years, because of the systemic immunity enjoyed by the state’s apparatus. Kunan and Poshpora and the other ubiquitous cases of sexual violence reveal the multilayered sufferings of the Kashmiri women arising from years of militarization in the region.

The callous response of the Indian state and army reinforces the idea of rape being used as a systemic tool to further social and geo-political interests. Appallingly, the cases are rarely acknowledged and investigated by the police and the security forces. In those cases where perpetrators are tried in the military courts, the maximum punishment meted out is in form of suspension or stalled promotions (Pervez).

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Judicial impediments also result from the police and the army impeding independent investigations, “obstructing course of justice”, or silencing the victims. In 2011, army personnel abducted, tortured, and raped a 25 years old woman from Mozang, Kashmir. Later, in a bid to cover up the case, CRPF (central reserve police force) cordoned off the area illegally and stationed troops to prevent demonstrations.

In fact, the police officers tried to coerce the victim into altering her statements. Talking about the outcome of the aforementioned incident that befell Asia and Nilofar in 2009, Pervez (2014) aptly notes how it discloses the “diabolical schemes hatched by the police and the state to obstruct justice” in cases where there is ample evidence to implicate the armed forces.

It is reprehensible how, in Asia’s and Nilofar’s case, delays in registration of FIR, biased inquires, systemic evidential tampering, and unsolicited insinuations by state officials are a manifestation of the fact that bodies of women are objectified and politicized for broader gains. Interviews with Kashmiri women, Dr. Sakina (name changed for anonymity) and Dr. Faiza (name changed), revealed that women of Kashmir are cognizant of the structural discrimination they face at the hands of the Indian state.

In fact, Dr. Sakina pointed out that because of the culture of immunity, female members of the society realize that it is “futile to even pursue a rape case”. Her defeated voice revealed how the women of Kashmir were on the brink of losing all hope and faith in justice.

Role of Misogyny and Patriarchal Norms

Deep-rooted misogyny and the repulsive patriarchal norms—festering in the subcontinent’s culture—exasperate the suffering of women in Indian-Administered Kashmir. In fact, the issues faced by women of the valley serve as a logical case study to interpret the broader societal discriminations existent in the region. In India, Kashmiri women are objectified for having specific physical features such as fair skin-tone.

This form of prejudiced misogyny materialized when the debate surrounding the abrogation of Article 370 was being raged. The ruling Bharati Janata Party (BJP) of India was censured for further promulgating discrimination when its leaders made lewd remarks about how Indian men could now marry the ‘fair-skinned’ and ‘pretty’ women of Kashmir, following the revocation of Article 370.

Such “discursive practices allow for thinking how control over Kashmir is seen as synonymous with militarized control of Kashmiri women’s bodies” (Mushtaq). Moreover, during that time the phrase “How to Marry a Kashmiri Woman” turned up to be one of the most trendy and searched phrases on the internet (Ekkanath).

All social media platforms, from Facebook and twitter to TikTok, became replete with similar remarks about how Indian men could now marry women from Kashmir on their own accord. In fact, such content was synonymous with patriotic fervor that had invaded online spaces too. Therefore, these are not some isolated events but are rather a conspicuous display of interwoven sexism, misogyny, male-dominated nationalism, and communal patriarchy playing out in the field of geo-politics.

Bhat notes that such behavior on behalf of the Indian men is a depiction of how the “women of Kashmir are exoticized and objectified on a daily basis in India, of how their bodies are portrayed as vulnerable and used to create fear and intimidation” (Bhat). In India, the nature of male-dominated nationalism is such that the women who challenge the mainstream political narrative often experience morbid and sexualized rape threats or are virulently trolled on media.

From a holistic perspective, the online hate and snide misogynistic remarks from Indian men are a reflection of how the state has always treated Kashmiri women: as “objects with no agency” (Dasgupta). This is in line with how the government seldomly pays heed to the actual woes and demands of people of the valley.

Furthermore, the patriotic and nationalistic sentiments accompanying the misogynistic and inconsiderate remarks about women are delineation of the fact that private bodies of Kashmiri women are used in the broader struggle over domination of land and political narratives. Within the valley, heavy presence of the Indian army further deepens the objectification faced by women on an everyday basis.

The regular interactions with armed (male) personnel in an extensively militarized world put Kashmiri women at a threat of facing sexist objectification and gendered discrimination every single day. Freny Manecksha, in her book “Behold, I Shine”, highlights that in a militarized state, “lewd remarks, ogling, wolf whistling, taunting and other forms of sexual harassment are not uncommon; security personnel often sing out provocative Bollywood ditties” (Manecksha).

With the prevalence of rape culture in retrospect, it is not hard to fathom the psychological nature of these interactions where Indian soldiers are the dominating force. Interviews with the young female doctors, Sakina and Faiza, revealed crucial information about the quotidian interactions of this nature.  

Speaking from personal experience, Dr. Faiza noted how Indian soldiers were seen as foreign and unwelcome entities in the valley. Since Kashmiris have a firm belief in privacy and societal honor, the mere presence of Indian men—who are already perceived as hostile alien bodies—is a source of discontent and discomfort for the women.

Faiza, now a twenty-six years old woman, had to walk 5kms every day to attend college during her intermediate years. Since her college was based in downtown Srinagar, she had to cross two CRPF check posts twice while commuting between college and home. Daily, she received prolonged and “piercing” stares from security officers stationed on the posts. Occasionally, these were translated into subtly voiced comments as well.

For Faiza, this was a major problem especially around the time when she was entering adulthood; moreover, since she belonged to a conservative family, she did not reveal this information to her parents out of the fear that they might disallow her from continuing education. Similarly, Faiza also pointed out another incident in which one of the officers, who had been stationed on the check post for a long time, once asked her to produce her identification card.

While checking her information, he audaciously remarked about how beautiful Faiza looked that day. This interaction left Faiza petrified because she had heard stories about how women were “groped or touched inappropriately” at the behest of checking. Dr. Sakina, almost the same age as Faiza and a resident of Srinagar as well, revealed that the interactions between women and armed personnel were even more precarious during the routine checkups of civilian establishments and homes on 26th January (Republic day) and 15th August (Independence day).

Under the rules of PSA, officers enter homes at odd hours of the day unannounced, apparently for searching purposes. However, Sakina shared that under the pretense of searching, they rummage through every corner of the house, including the private and intimate belongings of the female household members e.g. undergarments and sanitary equipment.

Sakina recalled how the searching personnel often pass contemptuous or sneering remarks and sneaker while going through her belongings. The fact that this psychological ordeal is faced in front of the male family members makes it even more daunting. The experience of Sakina are a reflection of how militarization invades the privacy of a household and leaves an indelible psychological mark on the vulnerable members of the society.

Having said that, at times certain patriarchal norms of the Kashmiri society intertwine with the reverberations of militarization to make the lives of women even more miserable. Manecksha (2017) narrates the story of a 16 years old girl named Hameeda who was sexually violated with a baton by a Kashmiri police officer.

On 3rd July 2004, Hameeda was brought into police custody for investigation pertaining to a murder case in which her cousin had been charged. While questioning her, the superintendent (DSP) of Police made unwarranted sexual advances. Since Hameeda did not acquiesce to his demands, the enraged officer raped her with a torturous equipment leaving her severely injured and unconscious.

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The sexual violation was perhaps the beginning of Hameeda’s tribulations since, following the incident, her family was abandoned by their relatives who believed that “she was no longer acceptable”. Apparently, owing to her young age, she was being regarded as “spoiled goods”. Hameeda narrated that “people would come to my father feigning sympathy and then they would make indecent proposals by saying things like ‘send her to our home and we will give you money’” (Manecksha).

Rooted in the intersectionality of their position are the patriarchal norms enforced on the Kashmiri women by the society. While women agency has been quite active in the public sphere of Kashmiri lives, impositions of dress code and restriction on movement are often sanctioned through male dominance.

The men are often psychologically frustrated by the oppressive nature of their interactions with the armed forces and they, in turn, vent out their anger on womenfolk by exerting more control. The ubiquitous abstract notions of gendered role and expectations are prevalent in the Kashmiri society too.

Ofttimes vague definitions of “good girl”, someone who is docile or does not interact with men, are flaunted openly (Manecksha). This form of societal oppression and exertion of control perhaps adds another layer to the sufferings of Kashmiri women. In this regard, Kashmiri women are experiencing maltreatment at countless different fronts. In fact, broader misogyny, repressive patriarchy, sexual violence, and objectification, all amalgamate to intensify their struggles.

Enforced Disappearances and Half Widows

The augmentation of militarization in the region has been accompanied by soaring cases of forced disappearances and custodial killings. Enforced disappearances are another form of predicaments arising from the overarching immunity enjoyed by the Indian army, especially under the draconian AFSPA and PSA laws.

Thousands of cases of men disappearing without knowledge have emerged since the 90s. In fact, a report by the Kashmir State Human Rights commission shows that “thousands of bullet-riddled bodies are buried in dozens of unmarked mass graves across the region, many of them likely to be those of civilians who disappeared more than a decade ago in a brutal insurgency” (Polgreen).

Here, Article 2 of the United Nations Convention against Torture holds that enforced disappearance is considered to be: “arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law” (“International Convention for the Protection of All Persons”).

In this regard, enforced disappearances are again a tool of war employed by the Indian state to hegemonize over the rights of the Kashmiri people during conflict. While men are the main victims of enforced disappearances, the Kashmiri women also bear disproportionate burden begotten through such acts.

‘Half-widows’ is the parochial lexicon coined in Kashmir to refer to those women whose husbands have been the victims of enforced disappearances in the conflict-zone. Half-Widows occupy a precarious status in the society because of the mysterious and uncertain nature of their husbands’ disappearances. Their lives are fraught with unprecedented economic implications, legal issues, and social stigmatization.

In Kashmir, especially in the rural areas, men are still considered to be the sole breadwinners of the society. Therefore, in light of disappearances, wives (along with their children) become dependent on their in-laws or maternal families. They are often forced to seek work to earn a livelihood but “since the majority lack education or vocational skills, they remain unskilled laborers; often, their children have to work from an early age to support meagre incomes” (Manecksha).

The fact of the matter is that the disappearance of the chief earning-hand derives families towards near impoverishment. Here, half-widows are bound to leave the security of their abodes and enter an already hostile public sphere just to ensure the survival of their children. Qutob (2012) aptly alludes to this plight of women, which becomes even more intense and jarring when half-widows have to sacrifice mental comfort and financial resources to search for their husbands, alongside running households on abysmally low incomes.

These “half-widows now work as wage-labor, or sell meagre livestock and agricultural products, sell firewood, work as domestic help, or run tiny provision stores, and at times even turn to begging” (Qutob). Qutob shares the experience of a half-widow Muneera whose husband (a hosiery seller) was allegedly kidnapped by armed forces in downtown Srinagar.

Muneera who had five children, with the eldest son being four years old, was plunged into abject poverty. Her in-laws abandoned the family and her own father’s income was not sufficient enough to sustain them all. To prevent her children from starving, Muneera was reduced to begging at the footsteps of shrines in Srinagar (Qutob).

Normally, half-widows also incur the previous debts carried by their husbands. Economic issues and income insecurities, coupled with the grief of losing a significant other, are psychologically debilitating for a half-widow. While the exact number of half-widows is not known, there are more than 2500 such women in Indian-administered Kashmir (Barlas).

The social and legal implications of their position ensure that they remain engulfed in uncertainty and psychological trauma all their lives. Since the missing person is not declared dead legally, the wives are often denied monetary compensation or aid that they are actually owed. Many legal provisions cannot be ascertained in the absence of a proof of demise.

In this regard, half-widows encounter issues in following domains: “in seeking pensions from the state ordained widow relief pension, in seeking compensation from the government for victims of conflict, in seeking their share of their husband’s property (inheritance), and in becoming eligible for remarriage” (Qutob).

In case of ‘right to inheritance’ and ‘right to remarriage’, Muslims of Kashmir follow the Islamic personal law. However, because of interpretational nuances between different religious clerics, the half-windows often end up waiting for years on end before they can remarry or acquire inheritance share from their husbands’ property. The shortest waiting period is around four to seven years of mourning.

The imminent social issues tied with the status of being a ‘half-widow’ are reminiscent of how the position of women in the Kashmiri society is made vulnerable through not only militarization of the region, but also through societal marginalization and patriarchal norms. Following the disappearance of the husband, the in-laws drastically change their relations with the woman.

They at times send the half-widow back to her parents’ home against her will. “It is not uncommon for the in-laws to blame the hapless wife, term her as unlucky, refuse shelter to her and her children, or offer a home only to their grandchildren” (Manecksha). Or even if allowed to stay, the half-widow is subjected to ill-treatment and is often seen as a dispensable burden.

Bringing Muneera’s case into light again, Qutob (2012) reveals that she was pregnant and residing in her parental home when her husband disappeared. However, after the birth of her child, her in-laws refused to let her back into the house that she had called her home a few days back.

The unconditional sufferings of half-widows are perhaps undermined in the broader discourse on the Kashmir issue. It is horrendous to see militarization, being imposed by the state, ruining the lives of countless innocent Kashmiri women. The social stigmatization and societal discrimination further their tribulations.

According to the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), half widows are practically “imprisoned within the confines of their homes and suffer from depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorders” (Manecksha). It is increasingly difficult for them to seek mental aid because of the entailing social stigmas prevailing in the society.

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Loss of Space for Kashmiri Women

Perhaps another overlooked repercussion of militarization is the loss of private and public spaces for the Kashmiri women to gather and organize. The persistent process of militarization, in form of increased personnel and military structures, has entirely morphed the otherwise acclaimed landscape of Kashmir into a dreary war zone.

“With over 600 security force camps occupying 3.5 lack acres of land, military infrastructure and firing grounds now dominate highlands and forests, glacial plateaus and alpine lands, paddy fields and glaciers” (Manecksha). All these are menacing signs of an occupation. Interviews with Sakina and Faiza elucidated how both private and public spaces for women were shrinking with time.

For example, Faiza pointed out how countless open spaces, like gardens and “badamwari” (expansive orchards), were now converted into permanent or makeshift camps by the Indian army. Others had fallen victim to unsolicited urbanization of the valley. Similarly, other traditional safe spaces such as ‘yaarbals’ (washing stations used by women) have also disappeared somewhere in the turmoil ensuing after conflict and militarization.

Dr. Arshad Hussain aptly shows how the loss of these public spaces has negatively impacted female agency since these were also “shared spaces of conversation, where worries could be aired freely, and emotions could be exercised without perturbation or consequences” (qtd. in Manecksha).

Faiza further reiterated her personal experience by pointing out how a visit to the open spaces was fraught with discontent and discomfort because of the heavy presence of a “foreign occupational space”. Therefore, public spaces are gradually becoming inaccessible for the Kashmiris, especially the women.

A plethora of public buildings in Srinagar, and elsewhere, have also been occupied for counter insurgency operations. These include cinemas, heritage buildings (such as Hari Niwas Palace), landmark structures, hotels, etc. Highlighting how the public spaces had become dangerous to transverse under militarization Manecksha (2017) gives the example of ‘Tos Maidan’ which is a beautiful meadow in Bugdam.

It was converted into a firing and testing range for artillery equipment by the Indian army. Following this development, “sixty-three people lost their lives to undetonated shells, with many others getting disabled” (Manecksha). Sakina was of the view that both private and public spaces have ceased to be safe zones for the women of the Kashmir valley.

According to her, the fact that family members could be kidnapped from within the confines of their homes or that woman could be abducted and raped, regardless of their location, showed how troublesome the occupation had become for them. Her own gruesome experience of dealing with unannounced annual searches on 26th January and 15th, remind one of how even the private spaces are shrinking at an alarming rate.

Conclusion

The valley of Kashmir, once regarded as perhaps one of the most scenic destinations on the planet, has now been reduced to a warzone spoiled by years of armed struggle and militarization. Conflict in the region, that is teeming with violence since ages, has taken an indelible toll on the Kashmiri people.

The cumbersome brunt of this violence is borne by the women of the society, who not only deal with a foreign occupation but also cope with their status as ostensibly vulnerable members of the society. In the midst of a perpetual geo-political war, the bodies of Kashmiri women are used for political and strategic gains by India’s state apparatus.

Sexualized violence and rape, in an overarching culture of immunity enjoyed by the armed forces, serve as a reminder of how Kashmiri women are objectified and treated as inanimate assets. The deeply entrenched misogyny existent in the broader Indian society, devastating patriarchal norms of the valley itself, and the loss in spaces for women because of militarization, have had a pernicious impact on the mobility and agency of the Kashmiri women.

In one of the most oppressed regions in the world, the women of the valley are endangered by a perilous socio-economic status. Therefore, in order to highlight and possibly ameliorate the conditions of the abandoned women of Kashmir, it is important to discuss and debate the gendered narrative of the conflict. The voices of the Kashmiri women need to be heard in the more comprehensive geo-political discourse on the valley.

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About the Author(s)

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Haris Azeem Yar Khan is currently pursuing a major in Economics and a minor in Political Science from Lahore University of Management Sciences. He has worked as a research assistant and as a student co-researcher at LUMS as well as a research intern for the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives (IDEAS).

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