Seeing The Unseen


Ather Zia’s book on the disappearances in Kashmir published by University of Washington Press was re-published in India by Zubaan. It won 2020, Gloria Anzaldua, Honorable mention prize given by the National Women’s Studies Association of America. Author Shabir Mir sees the book as a blend of ethnography and poetry

Relatives of disappeared, hold posters and photographs during a sit-in protest in Srinagar, seeking the whereabouts of their loved ones, KL photo by Bilal Bahadur

The highlight of the APDP movement,” Ather Zia tells us in her book Resisting Disappearance, Military Occupation and Women’s Activism in Kashmir, “is a monthly sit-in, which has become a ritualistic public mourning, marked alternately by funereal silence and lamentation for the disappeared men.”

During one of these sit-ins, a middle-aged man close-by pursed his lips and, turning to the author whispering: “Bechari zanan [poor women], what can they do? Weak and powerless. Every month they come, shed tears, beat their chests, but they cannot change the heart of a single person in power. India is a big country; they won’t leave Kashmir alone. They do everything to repress us. What can a bunch of women do?…”

 Poor Women

What can a bunch of women do indeed?! If ten years, twenty years, thirty years have failed to bring back a son, a husband or a father what can shedding tears, beating chests and holding sit-ins change? Which court of justice admits the incessant lamentation and outrageous displays of the grief of a half-widow or a half-mother or a half-orphan as evidence?

To answer these questions one has to understand the phenomenon of disappearances first. And mind the semantics here, as Ather Zia quite emphatically insists on it, these individuals do not just disappear into thin air they are rather made to disappear. The actual act of disappearing someone- the ominous midnight violent knock on the door, the barging in of jackboots and the dragging away of a Kashmiri – that is only the prologue of the whole act. It is just a forced arrest (or rather kidnapping). What subsequently follows is well-oiled state machinery leaving no stone unturned to ensure that the disappeared stay disappeared. FIR’s will be refused, there will be no acknowledgement of detention, the relatives of the detainees will be coaxed and threatened to give up their pursuit. And as time passes by the facts will be so obfuscated that the existence of the missing individual will itself become contentious; so much that the half-mother/half-widow/half orphan will struggle to prove that their son/husband/father was not just some figment of their imagination but at some point of time he actually existed. This is the real Disappearance.

And the only resistance against this complete disappearance is the perpetual performance of grief and the spectacle of public mourning wherein the becharie zanan (poor women) try to, “make visible what had been made invisible by the government”. The book examines and unravels this resistance. 

 A Counter-Memory

The resistance, which she refers to as the creation of counter-memory as in Foucauldian genealogy. The counter-memory takes up many shapes. From a mother always keeping her door open a little to a brother creating an ‘archival memory’ in the form of the ubiquitous ‘File’; from a wedding where the celebratory songs turn into the chanting of the names of dead and the lost to the funeral lamentation and dirges sung at monthly sit-ins – Ather Zia unravels and explores this resisting of disappearance and the process leads to a subtle understanding of the women’s activism in Kashmir. To quote from the book itself, “In the lives of the APDP activists, the agency appears more nuanced than merely being openly confrontational; rather, it is attuned to the cultural demands made on gendered behaviours.”

The nuance here is the defiance of the patriarchal norms by these protesting women which should have led to their ostracisation by the society but instead, the society recalibrates its norms to make room for them. The patriarchal emphasis on Kashmiri women is to be an Asal Zanan (Good woman), which Ather Zia simply puts as women who have to be, ‘discreet or, in more basic terms, of not being seen.’ But the work of APDP activists goes against the notion of “not being seen or heard,” for it entails seeking heightened visibility in public. Such a transgression against the cultural mores should have led to these women being condemned as ‘Kharab Zanaan’ (Bad woman) but, instead, society recalibrates its norms in their case and makes provisions for their inclusion as Asal Zanaan and in fact goes beyond and adds a moral and reverential pedestal to their societal standing.

Ather goes on to show that this recalibration of the patriarchal code starts with the justification of the women’s activism as one of the APDP activists confides in the author, “If men would demonstrate, the soldiers would just shoot at them, whereas when women go, they think of us as weak; they might not shoot instantly but will go berserk and harass us.”

Or, as the author quotes Parveena Ahanger, “Kashmiri women came out crying on the streets, to mourn loved ones, abandoning the sheltered lives we led. When my son was disappeared, I threw down my burkha; if not for us women, who was there to look for our boys and men? We had to lead from the front because they [the Indian forces] made men the primary targets of their bullets.”

 Social Acceptance

Such a justification ensures that the public activism of these women is not seen as a defiance of the patriarchal division of gender spheres (women inside and men outside) but rather as a desperate strategy.  Starting from this these women activists adapt and evolve their activism in quite a subtle manner. The old women who predominate the APDP activism project themselves as the archetypal Grieving Mother who has to defy all notions of an ideal female or Asal Zanaan to seek justice or as Shareefa, one of the activists, puts it so eloquently in the book, “I was very modest, my shame was hidden even from the sun or the moon, but my loss made the street into a home for me, and my home has become like an open pavement. Home is not a home. I want to sit on the street from where he [Munna] was taken, hoping he will appear just as suddenly as he was disappeared.”

The category of the mother – stereotypically seen as an asexual, non-threatening entity – is allowed “lawful digressions” and what Judith Butler has called “virtuous disobedience” within patriarchal norms.

Ather Zia

On the other hand the younger activists- the half-widows and half-daughters- adapt and evolve their activism differently. While the older ones ‘discard burkhas’ and hold the gaze of the cameras and the general public the younger ones adopt a strict ‘conservative’ attire and persona. They put on abayas (which otherwise they would not), maintain a strict asexual dress code, avert the public gaze during their protests and sit-ins.

In this way, a case is built for the patriarchal society to recalibrate its norms and not only accept these women-young and old- and their activism but to actively support them.

Ather Zia’s analysis ‘illustrates the ways in which these activists become hyper-visible in public and how they emerge as agents of change who alter social constructions relating to normative conceptions of body, sexuality, gender, justice, human rights, and political rights.’ And in the process achieve ‘female consciousness’ which ‘leading to public mobilization becomes an entryway into political consciousness and ultimately feminist consciousness.’

A Subjective Approach?

From an academic point of view it can be argued that the book lacks the ‘traditional objectivity’ of an anthropological work as its author appears to be heavily invested in the subject matter personally both as a fellow Kashmiri as well as a woman who has remained in close association with the activists under study.

This is further complicated by the intrusions of Ather Zia as a poet into the domain of Ather Zia as an ethnographer. She herself recognizes this and justifies this in these words, “For me, the disengagement was thus about removing myself while being embedded as an anthropologist – just like one catches tea leaves (self) in a sieve while pouring the tea (observations) into a cup. It is obvious that without the leaves there would be no tea, but the technique lies in catching them so as not to burden the flavour of the tea.”

Short Story writer, Shabir Ahmad Mir whose novel Plague Upon Us was released last week

She goes on to acknowledge the intrusion of her poetry into her ethnography. She not only acknowledges it she actively embraces it as she labels it, lifting a Renato Rosaldo term, an Antropoesia– a combination of subjective poetry and objective ethnography. Ather offers an interesting perspective for this alteration, “For me, an ethnographic poem becomes a moment of psychic participant observation, where there is empathy, an experiencing, and a witnessing; a feeling and conveying.”

This additional element of her ethnography she calls as “Ethnographic surfeit.” What Ather loses in terms of ‘objectivity’ she more than makes it up with her ‘Ethnographic surfeit’ making her book a seminal work both as a study in ethnography as well as the archival document of Kashmir’s resistance literature.

(Shabir Mir is the author of The Plague Upon Us that Hachette published early this year)


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