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Voices from Kashmir


In the Kashmir of today, women have no direct political role.

ON May 21, when Hurriyat leader Abdul Gani Lone was shot down at the Idgah Maidan in Srinagar, many voices were heard deploring the killing. His son Sajad, in an emotional outburst, first blamed Pakistan and the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and then the State Government of Jammu and Kashmir. But another voice, equally shattered, was that of his daughter, Shabnam. She asked people to look at her dead father's face and read in it the peace that he desired for Kashmir.

Shabnam Lone's was, ever so fleetingly, the only voice of a Kashmiri woman heard in these last weeks. As India and Pakistan stand eyeball to eyeball "making faces at one another", in the words of an American commentator, we need to hear the voices of more women like Shabnam. And they do exist, even if they are often ignored by mainstream media.

On a weekend when both our countries appeared to be teetering on the edge of war, I picked up Speaking Peace: Women's Voices from Kashmir, edited by Urvashi Butalia (Kali for Women, 2002).

This is a book that is a must-read — for it gives a human face to a complex political problem. It should be read on both sides of the border. For it communicates the voices of all the major communities that constitute the troubled State of Kashmir, a place that has triggered wars and has continued to pay the price for an ostensibly "limited war" fought on its soil by two neighbours which has crossed all limits. Through the testimonies of ordinary and extraordinary women, it brings forth the complexities of a situation where the question of what is right and what is wrong is not as simple as leaders on both sides would have us believe.

Speaking Peace allows us to hear the views of Shabnam Lone, through an interview to Pamela Bhagat. We realise that this is no ordinary Kashmiri woman. Besides coming from a political family, she is a lawyer who has fought cases in the Supreme Court of India. She is also a member of the Jammu and Kashmir Bar. Shabnam has been kidnapped by "militants" and has been jailed by the Indian authorities. She has lived with the reality of constant threats. Yet, she believes, that "the only way out of the impasse in the valley is dialogue with everyone, even the most extreme militant — listen with patience and without any preconceived notions. To find a solution, there has to be an understanding of the social, political, economic and real problems here. It is a complex situation that requires a collective solution. The thought process hasn't even taken off. Everyone wants peace and stability. They realise that the best place to live in is where there is dignity and respect for human rights".

Interestingly, after her father's assassination, there was momentary speculation that Shabnam might inherit her father's political mantle. But clearly in the Kashmir of today, women like her cannot play a direct political role; instead both her brothers, Bilal and Sajad have stepped in to their father's shoes. At the end of her interview, Shabnam is quoted as saying: "After all I have achieved and done, our society continues to be biased against women and my achievements are not taken seriously. I am still dogged by the question of marriage. I tell my mother — `why don't you look around and see if there is anyone my age, man or woman, who is as successful as me. Don't compare me to just anyone'. I don't see this attitudinal discrimination ending — ever."

Urvashi Butalia spells out why this book was compiled and her words best communicate its relevance. She says that the book ``aims to mark a moment in the history of the conflict in Kashmir and the involvement of the State and militants in it, a moment when the presence of women, whether as victims, agents, or perpetrators, can no longer be ignored, a moment which makes it clear that any initiative for peace and resolution of the conflict must take women into account and involve them centrally, a moment at which the women's movement must rethink its involvement with such questions.''

Indeed, the contents of the book demonstrate the fact that it is women who have overcome the political divide in Kashmir that men seem incapable of doing. Thus within its pages you hear the voices of Kashmiri Muslim and Hindu women. And what they narrate has a familiar ring, an overlap, a commonality that is linked to their being women, whatever their politics. And it is precisely this that has facilitated the as yet nascent process of dialogue between Kashmiri Muslim and Pandit women.

For instance, Neerja Mattoo, retired principal of the leading women's college in Srinagar, recounts the "liberal, humanist atmosphere" that had survived various upheavals but came to a dramatic end in 1898. Kshama Kaul writes of the deeply conservative nature of Kashmiri Pandit society and the horrors of the sexual assaults and rapes that Pandit women have recently experienced. And Dr. Shakti Bhan Raina describes her midnight drive from Srinagar to Jammu in 1989, a journey that resulted in permanent exile from her homeland.

On the other side, through a remarkable set of interviews conducted by Pamela Bhagat of women who live virtually in the war zone, in places like Kargil, Drass, Pandrass and Matayen, you learn about the crisis in health that women have had to face as a consequence of internal displacement. And you will find it difficult not to weep when you read the searing account of the Chittisinghpora massacre by Sonia Jabbar, the first journalist to arrive on the scene.

The book also features Hameeda Bano, who describes what it is like to grow up as a Kashmiri woman in a land that has been convulsed by violence. And an interview with Parveena Ahangar, Chairperson of the Association of the Parents of Disappeared Persons in Kashmir, who speaks of the trauma of thousands of mothers and wives who have to contend with loved ones who have vanished without a trace.

The book includes excerpts from the remarkable tale of Krishna Mehta, whose husband was a Wazir-e-Wazirat (district officer) in Kashmir in 1947 and was sent to Muzaffarabad shortly before Pakistani-backed raiders attacked the valley. This gripping tale describes her journey with her children from Muzaffarabad to Jammu and the kindness extended to her even by her "enemies".

At a time when all our security-wallas are fantasising about all manner of war scenarios — limited, surgical, etc — these voices that speak of peace might appear disconnected from the harsh realities. But in fact, they are more connected because these women have experienced the full harshness of the reality that is Kashmir today. They have known through their own lives and those of their sisters, what it means to live in a place where peace, and the ordinaryness of life, appear a distant dream.

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