Kashmiri Shiite Muslim women look on during a religious procession held in Srinagar. Photo: AFP
Kashmiri Shiite Muslim women look on during a religious procession held in Srinagar. Photo: AFP

Political unrest and conflict in the restive north Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir have often pushed other social issues on to the sidelines. Women in the state have for decades grappled with gender inequality and the lack of female voices in public and political spheres.

The state’s political discourse, for example, is dominated by men. Most political leaders, including separatists, are men, with woman finding only token representation.

Similarly, in the media, it is mostly men who are seen debating Kashmir’s future and popular sentiment in this state. A quick Internet search for articles on Kashmiri women and a gender-oriented perspective on the conflict throws up just a handful, written mostly by men.

“I’ll point out a few faces [of gender inequality] – political oppression, psycho-social humiliation, domestic exploitation, indignity, internalization,” Kashmiri student Samia Mehraj said.

“Last year, I conducted an event on dynamics of gender in Kashmir and repeatedly heard people [looking to shut down voices speaking against domestic violence] say that oppression is the highest form of patriarchy and we can’t talk about domestic violence until we are oppressed,” she said.

“In homes, men are the obvious victims of conflict, men are on the streets, men issue hartals [shutdowns], men get to decide what azaadi [freedom] is for Kashmir, men talk and refuse to talk to New Delhi, men are the prominent victims of armed aggression. Women are considered to be at the back of it, the sister, mother, and wife of the victims,” Mehraj said.

Kashmiri women, however, have steadfastly faced and resisted occupation.

“Historically, Kashmiri women have always been part of public life in some measure,” political anthropologist Ather Zia said. “Most of them, especially the working-class women, have been economically productive as well but it was not a source of political or intellectual emancipation. They held their ground in private life while men firmly held the public and cultural life.

“Currently, Kashmir faces the challenge of Indian military occupation, which is responsible for massive human-rights violations including sexual violence that includes mass rapes committed by the Indian government’s forces. On the other hand, militarization has skewed the local gender dynamics, since it is proven that state terror only exacerbates the social surveillance on women, examples of which we see happen from time to time,” Zia said.

“Kashmiri women have made vast strides in the field of education and other professions but it has not yielded [many] results in male-dominated fields like politics, sports, engineering. Even though there are women in these fields, the overall progress is slow,” she said.

Important voices, no spaces

Journalist Arshie Qureshi said: “Public spaces [in Kashmir] are often dominated by men only, in seminars, in discussions, in administrative roles. The notion of gender equality is a far-fetched concept in Kashmir. Just because women are attending colleges and universities does not wash away the inequality. It is deeply ingrained in how daughters are given limited choices of careers, to finding their suitable matches for marriage.”

There is also the need address women’s issues without homogenizing them. “With the mainstream discourse on gender in Kashmir revolving only around militarization, it becomes extremely important to understand the underlying facets of women’s voices, concerns, stories, and struggles,” student Mariyeh Mushtaq said.

“Kashmiri society is deeply ridden with patriarchal norms, perpetuated by both the political and social structures. I strongly feel that in order to tackle this, there needs to develop a clear understanding of the inter-sectional nature of oppression on women in Kashmir. Homogenization of women’s issues puts women from marginal castes, classes, regions etc at aa disadvantage, and that needs to be taken into account,” Mushtaq said.

Important female voices in the public space are often disregarded, sometimes to the extent of their contributions to the Kashmiri society being negated.

“A female protester [or] photographer is humiliated beyond belief. Good work, or a cry for help is thought to be a publicity stunt. All the humiliation is again a tool to pull women back,” Mehraj said. Recently, a female photojournalist in the Kashmir Valley published a long Facebook post describing how she was termed an “informer” and humiliated.

“Male counterparts have a critical role in downplaying women. Many of our male ‘intellectuals’ thrive on shaming women, ‘exposing’ our opinions as ‘unholy’ and profane.  This is an easier way to win a debate and gain moral high grounds against women in Kashmir than by logic,” Mehraj said.

Kashmiri women who are vocal about their feminist principles on platforms like Facebook are often shamed and told to “shut up” by men in the name of tradition and religion.

“I think it goes without saying that women’s voices and participation in public life are limited, and at the very best in the scant spaces left by men. Male-dominated spaces, both physical and abstract, have always made it difficult for women to have their voices heard.… Male domination/occupation over/of interpretations, institutions, and even physical spaces leaves little for the women to be seen or heard,” Kashmir Youth Arts Initiative co-founder Essar Batool said.

“In Kashmir, where the narrative of there being no issues on the gender front is often pushed, the truth is that it’s the traditional gender roles that are pushed as normal. Anything that challenges this narrative is seen as a digression, as an unwanted, deliberate conspiracy.

“The same is the case with feminism. It is seen as a diversion to distract from occupation. It’s a challenge in Kashmir in the sense that gender equality is not seen as an issue that needs immediate resolution. Battling a militarized occupation often pushes issues like gender to be trivialized and put back,” Batool said.

Qureshi said: “In homes, in public transportation and in employment, women suffer in ways that the men do not. Kashmir’s demand for their right to self-determination will remain incomplete without the right of women to be able to secure in their identity. This involves, also, recognition of our identity and proactive role.”

For Kashmiri women, the fight is not just to create a space where they are equal participants, but also to decide what the future entails for them. “While change cannot be stanched, women’s progress in fields such as politics will be slow unless the challenge of garnering a political solution for Kashmir becomes a reality,” Zia said.

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