Why Are Women Absent On Kashmir’s Political Landscape?

by Shazia Nazir Bakshi

Take a moment to think of Lalla Ded and Habba Khatoon. These two women poets from Kashmir signify spirituality, struggles, sufferings and successes of Kashmiri women.

In any conflict, women are usually portrayed as victims or a vulnerable lot.

Kashmir’s story, in this case, has been a mixed one. Flashes of heroism, valour and triumphs too. Throughout the region’s wretched history, there have also been tales of unending tragedies and apathy.

In recent history, the Kashmir conflict only intensified after the 1947 partition.

Relatives of disappeared persons protesting in Srinagar. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

The genesis of this raging dispute lay in the contentious Treaty of Amritsar when the British East India Company sold Kashmir, as a commodity, to the then Dogra Maharaja Gulab Singh for 7.5 million (75 lakh) Nanak Shahi rupees.

Prior to that, Kashmir also witnessed various foreign rules— the Sikh rule, the Mughal rule and the Afghan rule etc.

During all these periods when foreigners controlled Kashmir’s collective destiny, the Kashmiri women continued to suffer silently. But they also waged struggles to fight valiantly.

In the post-Partition context, Kashmiri women have been continuously suffering for the past three decades. They have often found themselves suspended between the violence perpetrated by the state and also that of the gun-wielding armed rebels fighting for Kashmir’s ‘Azadi’ (independence).

There is no accountability, especially after New Delhi protected the armed forces by a shield knows as the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA).In the garb of granting special powers and protection to Indian armed forces, the AFSPA was also used against the civilian population, including women, in an atmosphere of complete impunity and lack of answerability.

As the masses desperately strived for ‘Azadi’ (independence) in the backdrop of the Plebiscite Front Movement and the 1989 armed struggle, the Indian government responded with full military might and draconian laws like the AFSPA, Disturbed Area Act (DAA) besides others. This was done to suppress the mass movement.

This way, the Indian armed forces which were ‘tasked’ to bring back ‘calm’ or ‘peace’ on the streets of the restive Kashmir Valley, they ended up becoming the perpetrators of countless human rights violations while enjoying protection under archaic laws that grant them impunity.

Human rights bodies have documented Kashmir’s tragedies in the shape of torture, rape, sexual abuse, coercion, extortion, custody killings and other crimes. In this, the Kashmiri women bore the maximum brunt.

It was a Kashmiri woman upon whom many wounds were inflicted on multiple levels which of course included the psychological pain. This physical and psychological pain continued during the intense conflict as well as during the so-called ‘islands of peace’.

In conservative setups like ours, women often depict subordinate positions to men who represent and define the hierarchy of power structures that exist in our society.

The fact that the women are relatively less powerful (if not powerless) to bring about a positive change in the conflict that they live in, is a violence in itself.

One of the reasons why women are often attacked is because they are perceived as markers of community identity.

Women are perceived to carry the honour of their community on their backs. And in the situation of a raging conflict, it is witnessed that by defiling their bodies through rape and other forms of sexual abuse the attempt is to easily hit back at the community’s ‘pride’ and ‘honour’, dominate it, and then claim the war crime as your victory.

Seen as the humiliation of the highest degree, a women’s body thus becomes a carrier for messages, to telegraph a ‘victory message’ from the powerful to the oppressed. The mass rape of Kunun Poshpora in Kupwara, double rape and murder case of Shopian, and the recent kidnapping, gang rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl child from the Bakerwal community in Kathua buttress this argument.

Worse, the perpetrators are often given a ‘clean chit’ to inflict more pain on the dissenting population.

In addition to this, the cases of forced disappearances of men carried out by the state and its actors to crush the people’s movement have resulted in giving orphans and half-widows to the families which are often under-prepared to shoulder the severe socio-economic burdens.

Owing to the social structure in Kashmir, it is usually difficult to document evidence of women’s active roles in the resistance politics which perceives such kind of active participation of women in politics a taboo.

Given the massive presence of Kashmiri women in protest politics and suffering, the absence of women in Kashmir’s socio-political landscape is indeed sad.

Woman: The Emerging Combatant

There are rear instances where women have taken up positions at the frontlines.

With the gender sensitive and a revolutionary document, the Naya Kashmir, included economic emancipation of women. Even in the 1960’s, women were at the forefront of protest politics during the agitation in relation to the theft of the Holy Relic.

In the decade of 1990s, women took part in protest rallies and sang motivational songs for the gun-wielding Kashmiri youth.

Earlier, their role was restricted to peaceful protest with some form of activism that advocated the restoration of basic human rights. Like the one propounded by Pareveena Ahanger, the founder and chairperson of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) Kashmir, popularly known as Iron Lady of Kashmir.

Similarly, in Kashmir’s resistance politics Asiya Andarbi, Zamrooda Habib and others played their role. They have tried to join active resistance politics and become a part of organisations like Dukhtaran-e-Millat, Muslim Khawateen Markaz besides others. But they did not fully succeed in being role models for other women because they could not break the stereotypes as their politics often further cemented the patriarchal discourses.

However, after the advent of summer of 2008, Kashmir witnessed its intifada moment when boys and girls dominated the streets with a symbolic stone in their hands. Women got actively involved. In 2016, the women were also seen on the streets of Kashmir shoulder-to-shoulder with the protesting men.

As for as the pro-India mainstream politics is concerned, except for the first lady Chief Minister of Jammu & Kashmir Mehbooba Mufti, who at most times seems to be working with both her hands tied behind her back, running a government at the behest of a dysfunctional coalition, there are no significant women leaders. At least none that will merit a mention.

As Nyla Ali Khan, author of ‘Fiction of Nationality in an Era of Trans-nationalism, Islam, Women, and Violence in Kashmir, The Life of a Kashmiri Woman’ notes, “Although the Kashmiri woman has been greatly affected by the armed insurgency and counterinsurgency in the region, she is largely absent in decision-making bodies at the local, regional, and national levels. There is a serious lack of feminist discourse on political/activist roles where the dominant perception still is that “politics and policy-making are linked to the powerful, strong, male realist rather than with the archetypal gentle, negotiating woman.”

Woman: The Rebel

Shazia Nazir Bakshi

Balancing a stone in one hand and a pen and a chequebook in other, a new woman is emerging on the map of Kashmir’s Resistance Movement. She is rewriting Kashmir’s history with creativity, courage, conviction and entrepreneurial skills.

These rebel Kashmiri women are breaking the barriers, challenging stereotypes and busting many a myth about womanhood, violence, resistance and resilience.

Largely ignored by the patriarchal society of Kashmir, these rebels are emerging from the shadow of the conflict yet not fast enough to make a significant impact.

The active social, political and economic roles are not new to Kashmiri women, though. It is only that the circumstances surrounding them are tragic and emotionally damaging. The extreme resilience showed by Kashmiri woman in the face of dire circumstances no doubt fuels her march towards a greater participatory role in the society.

In many ways, it is a losing battle as long as the solution to Kashmir remains elusive.

(A writer, the author (@Shazia) is a Kashmiri entrepreneur with a passion for education, literature, culture and travel. Ideas expressed in this article are personal.)


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