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‘Can You Hear Kashmiri Women Speak?’ review: Listening to her stories

“We were silent as fish,” a Soviet woman who had fought in World War II told Svetlana Alexievich in The Unwomanly Face of War (1988, 2017). There was no one she could tell about her injuries once the war was over lest she was refused a job or marriage. In the time of conflict, women often bear the brunt of the suffering, and their efforts are either overlooked or buried. Alexievich conducted hundreds of hours of conversations with the women who had fought and survived the war to write their story lest they be forgotten. The aim of Can You Hear Kashmiri Women Speak? is to listen to the words and voices of thousands of women caught in an intractable dispute. In this book, Kashmiri women talk and write about street protests, female alliances, militarism, funeral processions as a site of protest, oral history, memory.

Holding it together

Edited by Nitisha Kaul and Ather Zia, the volume has 12 essays, each referring to the conflict and relying on a wide range of narratives. After the withdrawal of the special status of Jammu & Kashmir in August 2019, the erstwhile State has been under a severe lockdown with full Internet facilities yet to be restored. “In a protracted conflict, as the one in Kashmir, the life of the people frequently remains suspended in time between the next encounter, killing, arrest, or curfew,” point out the editors in the Preface and Introduction. “When men become victim of state violence, it falls to the women to hold together the remaining vestiges of the community.” An increased militarisation of Jammu & Kashmir began after the 1989 insurgency.

In her essay, Samreen Mushtaq includes testimonies of women survivors of violence and how they have lived through decades of tumult. Cases like the Kunan Poshpura rapes led to women bearing witness — “our wounds bleed and they will speak.” Mushtaq argues that “as women’s bodies are marked violently in ‘safe spaces’ and as they chalk out ways to resist militarisation, the frontline becomes the home, which is militarised but is also transformed into a site of resistance.”

Safety in togetherness

As the notion of home, conceived as a safe space, was ruptured, women found a new home where they felt safe and strong — in togetherness, writes Uzma Falak in her beautiful essay, ‘The Intimate World of Vyestoan’ (in Kashmir’s native language, Koshur, this is a term for female friendships). Though not entirely inclusive, the political uprising of the 1990s “catalysed women’s mobilisation, and new friendships emerged from chance meetings, during protests, marches, assemblies, and funeral processions.” These gatherings, says Falak, brought together women from different socio-economic backgrounds overcoming barriers of caste, class and region.

Loss and remembrance

It is impossible to read about Parveena Ahangar — her son disappeared and she helped set up the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) in 1994 together with others — and not be moved by her suffering. Her daughter Saima recalls, “loss almost turned her mad. I couldn’t bear my brother’s absence and my mother’s grief. Home was the last place where I wanted to be.” Her mother began to resurface from the depths of grief after she met other women going through similar struggles, which ultimately led to the formation of the APDP.

Such stories abound and lay bare the reality in Kashmir. In her analysis of women in the literatures of Kashmir, Asiya Zahoor weaves in the changed scenario in the Valley, saying “one must allow remembrance as a powerful weapon against imposed and strategic amnesia.” Her essay was emailed from the district magistrate’s office, the only place where Internet facility was available. But she was unable to go through revisions in the text because she has no access to the Internet. The editors, Kaul and Zia, say Kashmiri women, within and outside Kashmir, have always been speaking. But it is imperative, more than ever now, that their voices are heard.

Can You Hear Kashmiri Women Speak?; Edited by Nitasha Kaul, Ather Zia, Women Unlimited, ₹795.

sudipta.datta@thehindu.co.in


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