Tiger Ladies

Kashmiri women have been at the forefront of political and social movements. Now they are writing books, mostly on contemporary issues. Syed Asma reports

This year three books were released in a month’s time in Valley. All three were written by women. Events like these happen quite rarely in this part of the world.

“Kashmiri women have always been at the vanguard of all political, cultural as well as social movements but they have been absent from the literary scene as other narratives overpowered their side of story,” believes Nyla Ali Khan, “Coming of new women writers signifies intellectual strides despite military and political repression”.

The books have been received well in the society. “As new writers are coming up a sense of contentment is building in the older generation that the younger people are growing up as intellectuals and thinkers. Written words will have more impact regarding what we want to say and larger number of people will get to hear our story,” says Abdul Qadeer, who is in mid fifties, while buying a book.

“It is worth appreciation that women are also contributing their share. I feel pride in purchasing their books and reading their views on different subjects,” he adds.

Experts see more women writing books as a sign of the present time. “I consider these recent books, as a sign of our times. You see new women writers writing on more contemporary and urgent issues, which affect them and their people,” says columnist Ather Zia.

More women writing books may also challenge the Western notions about Kashmiri women. Muslim Woman from the Sub-continent are usually seen as being less privileged as compared to men.

“Women’s attempt to write is seen as ray of hope to clear this stereotype about her. Their narratives will help to reconceptualise the western concepts regarding Kashmiri (Muslim) women,” says Nyla Ali Khan.

She has written two books, The fiction of Nationality in an Era of Transnationalism and Islam, women and Violence in Kashmir- Between India and Pakistan.
The three books released recently reflect different facets of the society.

One of these books is the author’s prison diary and the experience she has had in Tihar jail, where she was incarcerated for five years. Prisoner No.100 is the English translation of Anjum Zamrooda Habib’s Urdu book Kaidi Number Sou (100). Sahba Hussain has done the translation.

Zamrooda Habib is a separatist leader and founder of Muslim Khwateen Markaz – a women’s organisation.

Another recently released book documents the plight of widows, half widows and their families. Widows and Half Widows written by Afsana Rashid is a case study of 40 such families. Afsana Rashid is a journalist working with Milli Gazette and Dianik Bhaskar.

The third book, Freeze Frame: Glimpses from Kashmir, by Syeda Afshana is a compilation of the author’s articles published in one of the local dailies. She teaches mass communication at the Media Education Research Centre, University of Kashmir and is a renowned columnist.

Kashmir has been the subject of many books – sometimes for its beauty, sometimes for the conflict stories but most of the time the story teller was non-local. The trend is changing. Locals are also documenting their stories, narratives and experiences.

“I think everybody has the story to tell and I do not find any reason not to document my humiliation in jail and torture in that black cage,” says Zamrooda Habib.

She says when she came out of the jail the world had totally changed for her. “The problem of not being able to connect with people affected me emotionally. Writing seemed an option to share my pain, it worked as a vent,” she says.

Zamrooda says that it was important to document her “sacrifices”. “I feel there is an urgent need of documenting our own sacrifices and pain. Nobody other than our own selves knows what we have gone through,” she said. “It was difficult for me because to write it down as I had to recall all the ugly episodes of my life and go through that pain again”.

But some of her home work in jail had made things easier for her. She had made small notes in there as she had a memory loss in jail.  “I was so stressed and depressed in jail that I didn’t remember anything; I often used to be blank in the meeting session with the family for which I used wait for days,” recalls Zamrooda, “but then I thought I am losing my senses and started writing small bits like what do I have to tell them or ask them”.

The first date in the hand written archive of her jail diary is 3-3-3; March 3, 2003. It was her first appearance before the court.

She has dedicated her book to the prisoners and their families and wants this book to be an inspiration for all of them to write about the pain and grief, they experienced inside the jail.

She writes a column, Khari Khari, mostly on women’s issue in a local Urdu daily.

Sudha Koul is the first Kashmiri women to publish her memoir.

“Homesickness, sorrow at events in Valley and a desire to tell my children about my Kashmir combined to create an undeniable urge to write the book,” says Sudha, the author of  Tiger Ladies.

She says writing with conciliatory approach to most topics makes women’s writing different.

“Women writers have been taken with great seriousness in the valley of the Tiger Ladies, and are revered as poets and philosophers and teachers,” says Sudha.
Ather Zia agrees that women’s work is taken with equal respect and seriousness as that of males. “The effort of writer is not ignored; of course we have to expect it will get critiqued, maybe just as any man’s work. Maybe more sometimes, but that is part of gender evolution,” says Ather Zia.

Afsana has different views. “I have been in the field for eight years and I have met a very few people who I have seen appreciating work of women journalists (writing),” says Afsana.

“I was discouraged by many not to join journalism and even not to continue working as a reporter. That is the reason I did not disclose to anybody that I am writing a book, I didn’t show it to anybody except my publisher. I was afraid they will discourage me again,” she said.

Other people’s pain and sorrow has motivated Afsana a book about Widows and half widows.

“When I joined journalism and started reporting I was assigned to cover APDP’s monthly protests. Their sufferings and stories really moved me and got etched in my sub-consciousness,” recalls Afsana, “as time passed I realized that I and other reporters like me are not doing anything beyond reporting their protests due to obvious constraints. So, I decided to move beyond these monthly protests and know their stories”.

Afsana has documented as many as 40 families in her book and believes that it includes extensive details of their sufferings. She says she has put forth the individuality of the women whose husband’s died or disappeared.  “I have written about women who bear the brunt of conflict”.

“For my book I travelled to far flung areas like Uri etc to visit the family and interact with them. It is rarely done while researching for a news story,” says Afsana.

It is not only these two who were motivated by the conflict in Kashmir to write. Neerja Mattoo is one of the known writers of the Valley and the turmoil has played some role in her becoming a writer.

“I used to teach at Women’s College, M A Road, when the conditions started getting worst in Kashmir and education system was affected the most. My job got affected and many of us had to sit at home. That idleness forced me to write,” says Neerja Mattoo.

Apart from conflict and loneliness, she says, “pluralism in Kashmiri society, sense of togetherness, cosmopolitan society” has prompted her to write.
Her first book, Celebrating Diversity- Kashmir, Jammu and Ladakh, was co-authored by Suraiya Abdullah.

“We chose to write about it because we wanted to celebrate the diversity of the three regions of the State. We were quite lucky in the sense that Suraiya’s brother happened to be the chief minister of the state then and we got access to those entities that were inaccessible to the general public. It was a boon to us and the photographers too,” says Neerja

She adds that in 1990’s youth were mostly reading Islamic history and she and her co-author wanted them to know about the diversity of their region.

After the emergence of armed militancy, Neerja says, many thought of Kashmiris as a violent people who had been “like that since centuries”. She wanted to “clear this misconception” and translated the Kashmiri short stories by locals into English. She named the book – Stranger beside me.

“I chose this name because I wanted people to recognize the Stranger (a Kashmiri) beside them. I wanted them to realize through work of local writers that they (Kashmiri people) are creative and intellects and have been like that since centuries”.

She believes that this translated work “has had an impact on her target audience – the people of India”.

“The translated short stories talked about the pain of being a Kashmiri and the political conspiracies in the State”.

She has written cookery book too. Sal – details the recipe of various Wazwan dishes.

Neerja is not the only Kashmiri woman to write a recipe book. Sarla Razdan ‘Kashmir cuisine through the ages’ chronicles the recipe of various Kashmiri dishes. “I have had the honour of serving many celebrities who later asked for my recipes,” says Sarla.

“I wrote this book for the younger generation. I feel due to their busy schedules they are shunning our traditional cuisine. Ideally our traditional dishes need ample time to cook which they are short of. So, I mentioned the recipes in such a way that their time is not wasted in anyway,” she said.

She is working on another book about parent-children relationship. “I want to write about how to raise a child to reduce the generation gap between the parents and their children,” Sarla said.

Nyal Ali is working on a collection of essays – a “cross disciplinary work of academicians only from Jammu and Kashmir”. Various historians, political scientists, writers and sociologists from the state are involved in the project, she said.

Chitrlekha Zutshi has authored, Languages of Belonging: Islam, Regional Identity and Making of Kashmir. A historical account of Kashmir.

Teacher-writer Naseem Shifai’s contribution to Kashmir’s literature is widely acknowledged. She was awarded the first Tagore Literature Award.

“I have written about women, joy, sorrows, the world outside Kashmir…But everything is from a woman’s perspective,” she says.

She has written on various topics ranging from moods, gender and her home state. Her awarded collection of poetry, Na Tshay Na Akas (Neither shadow nor reflection) represents the modern sensibility and accommodates different shades of life.

The women authors in Kashmir are making their mark even when they are writing on diverse subjects from cookbooks to history.

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Syed Asma completed her masters in journalism from the Islamic University, Awantipore, in 2010. After working with Greater Kashmir and Kashmir Times, she joined Kashmir Life in February 2011. She covered politics, society, gender issues and the environment. In 2016, she left journalism to pursue her M Phil from the University of Kashmir. She is presently pursuing PhD.

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