Valerie Schenkman | The Modern Kashmiri Woman | EXPOSURE-VII workshop in Kashmir

Program News | Posted Nov 12, 2007
Program: Exposure

EXPOSURE-VII workshop in KashmirPhoto Gallery

Valerie Schenkman

The modern Kashmiri woman speaks a language of two tongues: a mixture of gentle humility, characteristic of a housewife, infused with the firebrand determination of a working woman in a patriarchal culture. She leaves her four walls for the workplace, holding down such positions as doctor, lawyer, or politician. In a conservative Muslim society, these women are supporting their families, exploring progressive gender roles, and establishing a more stable future for Kashmir.

Kashmir’s history of conflict has instilled inner strength and passion within its women. Many, forced from their homes over the past 20 years, have learned to negotiate a hostile environment that has constrained their presence. They have moved among men to seek their missing husbands or children, have established support networks to handle emotional and physical distress, and have help tell the story of their growth through the pain and the chaos of their pasts.

A round and lighthearted Muslim philosophy professor, Qurat ul Ain becomes serious, “During the conflict, woman realized her weakness and vulnerability.” Mothers and children, well aware of the commonplace explosions, thefts, and rapes, often chose to remain indoors. Regardless, many were assaulted within the home by soldiers, thieves, or rebels, who would barge into their homes, “Destroying the property and treating women like possessions.” Qurat ul Ain adds that in “Dealing with crisis women became strong. During crisis power comes out. Women’s true nature is very strong and is reflected and shown to others.”

Every Kashmiri family has lost a loved one, usually a male, and it is often the women who must recover lost dignity and inner peace. Qurat ul Ain’s father passed away when she was a year old, leaving her mother to raise the six children. A “sacrificial, noble soul,” her mother and her eldest brother, Shameem Ahmad Shameem, the editor of the Aaina (Mirror) Urdu language newspaper, were important influences. Shameem introduced a vibrant political atmosphere to the home. He told young Qurat ul Ain that “The future belongs to you,” and that, “It is your turn to stand up.” When Qurat ul Ain was 18, Shameem was murdered. From that moment until this day, Qurat ul Ain has become more involved in politics, passing on his advice to her students and turning his words into action.

Despite tragedies and hardships, the people of Kashmir have emerged from these tragedies and hardships. It is the women in particular who have overcome the added challenge of excelling within a paternal society. Naseem Shifai’s husband was abducted during a militancy uprising. He was found barely alive after sustaining five bullets wounds. Shifai and her young son moved to Delhi for the husband’s treatment, about 850 km from their home. Her husband no longer able to work, Shifai had to assume both financial and emotional support for the family.

Concerned for her son´s safety in Kashmir, Shifai enrolled him in a Delhi boarding school, where he continued to study even after she and her husband returned to Srinagar. She recalls consoling her son´s concern about a school assignment, which resonated more seriously as a diconnect with his homeland: “How can I write a report about Dal Lake? I have never seen it.” Struck by the profundity of their conversation, Shifai knows the conflict has drastically changed the life of her child.

Shifai is not only a wife and mother, but an award winning poet and the first female within Kashmir to publish an anthology, Open Windows (1999). Inspired by the aftermath of the conflict and the throes of Kashmiri women, in her poetry she celebrates feminine strength in the daily struggle reconciling the past. Unlike most, she openly embraces the veiled sexuality of Kashmiri women, the subtle invitation of the nose ring or the allure of the thread necklace. In response to traditional gender roles, she says, “I want men to realize they are incomplete without me. Adam would have been a forgotten person if I had not been with him in Paradise.”

In Kashmir, a land still heavily occupied and barricaded, women have sought out stronger roles to reconcile loss and rebuild communities. They are becoming more vocal through different venues and are participating in more formal positions within society.

Nayeema Mehjoor, like many women, is challenging gender boundaries. An Urdu specialist for the BBC, she focuses on issues within Kashmir. During the more tumultuous years of Kashmiri violence, Nayeema reported on women’s rights and the lives of widows. Touched by the power and the suffering of these women, she often found herself crying alongside them during her interviews.

Traveling regularly for her work, Nayeema must balance her role as a mother and a professional. Now that she is based out of London, she regularly sees her children, who attend colleges in England. However, her husband, also a journalist, must remain in Kashmir for work. The parents alternate two to three month visits between London and Srinagar to reunite the family.

Nayeema´s sister, Mathura Masoom, a delicate, bright-eyed young mother lives a more traditional domestic life. She is a respected deputy registrar corporative and public administrator at the Combined Service of Jammu and Kashmir Deputy Restorer Corporation. Masoom began working with the aspirations of any young mother, hoping to provide greater opportunities for her two boys, a 2-year-old and an 8 month-old infant. However, she has found that this sacrifice comes with the added stress of the work place and the inability to spend time raising her children. On her way to work, Masoom leaves her youngest son with a maid and the older child in daycare.

The last twenty years, marked by disappearances and violent crime, have left a distinct paranoia within these women. Working mothers will regularly phone the school to make sure their children arrive safely and on time. Many are still skeptical when pioneering practices, such as daycare, which is a new phenomenon within Kashmiri society. Masoom regrets that her children are growing up with limited freedoms. She makes an effort to ensure that her sons experience the joys of childhood, but still regrets that playdates in the park are replaced by fabricated picnics in the living room.

Households have downsized from extended joint families to nuclear homes. A few years ago, Masoom married into her husband’s extended family compound. The couple lives with his five brothers, their wives, and their children. Three of the wives work, leaving the home for the office in the morning along with their husbands. The other two are housewives. She sees a growing friction between her independent lifestyle and old traditions. “We work double to gain approval,” Masoom said. “Before the men she must be strong and prepared to prove her skills. Before the in-laws, she must prove that she is docile, domestic, and not vain or too independent.”

Old gender roles are evolving rapidly within wealthier communities in Srinagar, but smaller suburbs and villages are slow to catch up with this trend. Women, like Masoom, come home after a day free from domesticity and must slip into the role of a submissive housewife. Masoom usually arrives home exhausted but still has to prepare tea for her husband, fix dinner, and put the children to bed. She earns an equal portion of the family income and wants her efforts to be reflected as equal treatment within the home. More women are demanding this respect, and in spite of their elders’ wishes, choose to live alone rather than within a unprogressive and occasionally hostile household.

Consequently, divorce rates are also rising in Kashmir. Islamic law, which is influential within the judicial system, is flexible enough to adapt to the changing needs of Muslim women. It provides room for the division of property and the custody of children. Fasiha Qadri, a young female lawyer and a human rights advocate, lists, “Domestic violence, dowery, incompatibility, and alimony,” as typical modern court case issues facing married Kashmiris today. She admits that the psychological burden of the conflict has affected these unions and that several cases are in response to the last twenty years of violence.

Women are also speaking out against domestic and physical violence. There have been numerous cases of rapes and molestation by both security forces and militants. The psychological stress of men is often displaced on women.

There is no system of accountability within Kashmir, which only encourages more physical violence. Furthermore, the social stigma surrounding rape has made the lives of these young girls and adults nearly impossible. “There is no rehabilitation mechanism existing for such women and most victims are left traumatized and alone, many eventually committing suicide,” says Qadri. She continues, “The added pressure of managing the household in the absence of a male family member has also attributed to the rate of female suicides and the loss of personal lives for these women.” Many housewives neglect their personal lives for the lack of money and time in hopes of providing a more stable future for their families. Qadri recognizes that both the trauma of their loss and the resulting financial burden can lead to depression and other emotional complications. Without adequate financial and psychological support, these women must rely on each other.

Dr. Tahire Mattoo, a slender middle aged Muslim runs a small gynecology clinic in Srinagar. Stepping out of the clinic for a moment, she walks across the lawn to her simple home less than a few yards away from her work. Over a cup of chai tea, she explains the importance of her practice within a traditionalist community. The physical needs of women are a long-standing taboo in Kashmir, and practices, like Mattoo’s, provide a supportive community for this dialogue and understanding. The clinic´s reduced fees and accessible location open its services to members of all social strata. Within the past few years, it has evolved into a safe haven for women who come in clusters, huddling together in colorful dupartas.

Dr. Mattoo admits that many teenage girls with swollen bellies enter her office in confidence. She recalls one patient, a 16 year old who was brought into the clinic by her parents. Mentally disabled and 6 months pregnant, she was unable to understand the gravity of the physical assault. Dr. Mattoo does not advocate physical intervention, saying, “It is up to God to decide who lives,” but recognizes, “This is where religion is a limitation. There is so much fear of God.” And in this case, Mattoo’s intervention, gave the young patient another opportunity to reconnect with her body and her community.

Few women hold these formal and influential positions within Kashmir. Recently, however, there has been a growing presence of women within the political arena.

Asiya Naqash, an elected counselor for the 57th ward, a regional district of Kashmir, concentrates on public works projects. She began as a social worker, acting as a liaison between the Kashmiri government and the public. In Dagga Pora Anchor, an impoverished community hit hard by the armed conflict, she was part of a small crew that worked out of a hospital van offering medication to villagers. Naqash was shocked by the turnout: long queues of Kashmiris, mostly women, waiting patiently. She remembers that the accessibility of the van within their village demonstrated the importance of moving to the people and acknowledges that the government has little connection with the rural and urban communities in need.

Inspired by this early work, Naqash has formed 14 Aagan Waris, which are government groups that sponsor vocational training for female adolescents. They provide education in caregiving for pregnant mothers and young children within various locals, often impoverished communities. Naqash meets with these young women throughout the program’s duration. Marveling at their gradual change in persona, Naqash says, “Their body language and attitudes become more confident as they become more knowledgeable within their field.”

Few nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), like Naqash’s, address key reconciliation and rebuilding issues, let alone women’s rights in Kashmir. The majority of groups that do work with women lack the necessary funding to take sufficient action. For this reason, Kashmiri women are and have been for years, the strongest support for one another.

Two adorable middle-aged women, Gurmeet Kaur, and Qurat ul Ain, have been colleagues and friends for ages. Despite the historical conflict and the continued negative stigma between Muslim and Sikh Kashmiris, the two sit side-by-side reminiscing about the early days of ATHWAAS, a traveling conference with workshops. They represent two of the founding members of an all female staff. They regularly invite women of all cultural colors from within Greater Kashmir to attend the ATWAAS workshops to discuss cultural and feminine concerns. Qurat ul Ain recalls the thrilling experience of “Gathering women from various walks of life on one platform (stage).”

Kaur explains that ATHWAAS translates to “shaking hands,” which refers to uniting various social, religious and political groups within Kashmir. The conference slogan, “breaking the silence” describes the collaborative efforts to increase peaceful dialogue among women to promote understanding and healing within the different Kashmiri communities.

The women of ATHWAAS are diligently working to form an NGO with an all female staff that will address pressing issues, such as environmental and political concerns within Kashmir. Kaur and Qurat ul Ain exchange excited glances as the conversation shifts to their vision of a peace within Kashmir.

An exuberant Sikh adult educator, Kaur taught a peace studies course, highlighting five themes: communication, understanding different viewpoints, discrimination, understanding conflict, and democracy. Stressing the importance of inner peace, Kaur laments that unless this program is introduced within school curriculums, there will be little serious reconciliation efforts to initiate active healing within the various Kashmiri communities. Kaur says, “The peace process is flowing over man. Peace is a game.”

At BIG 92.7, the first private FM radio within Kashmir, Haya, in her mid twenties is the first female disk jockey within the Kashmir. She is concerned that peace studies are unavailable to students within local universities. Abandoning her coquettish mannerisms, she emphatically stresses that BIG 92.7 is non-political but dedicated to uplifting the spirits of Kashmiri people. In a region where politically heavy and depressing stories dominate the airwaves, BIG 92.7 is noted for its lively jock talk and uplifting music. Conservative listeners have criticized the female jockeys, frowning upon their gleeful shrieks and surreptitious flirtation. The station is an example of a generation of young adults, a majority of whom are women in their early twenties, trying to move forward, away from the tragedy that typifies the region.

Unfortunately, the events of 9/11 have hindered liberal advancements for Muslim women, and within Kashmir, reactions resemble the “identity crisis” of the past conflict. Nayeema Mehjoor, a middle-aged woman with a commanding presence, firmly believes in gender equality within the workplace and the education system. She cites “integrity of character,” not gender, as the key to success in any society.

She recounts a phone conversation with her child, “My daughter calls me asking for advice,” her expression hardens, “because she feels the pressure of her Muslim peers to wear the hijab.” Raising her daughter without traditional gender limitations, Nayeema has always provided her daughter with opportunities that few girls received when she was the same age. Although, Nayeema admits that Kashmir has a “closed society,” she knows that when her daughter, who attends Kings College in London, endures similar discrimination abroad, that the struggle to understand cultural differences is universal.

A professor, civil society leader, and human rights advocate, Hameeda Nayeem is often seen speaking on television, attending conferences, and lecturing within the classroom. She is an example of a woman who is unafraid to achieve the success and the recognition that often intimidates other conservative females.

Speaking boldly of the current occupation within Kashmir, she states, “There is a graveyard silence, a silence of submission, a silence of surrender.” Delving further into the question of Kashmir’s future, she wonders, “What does it mean to talk about peace, when everything stays the same? Just peace? ‘Just,’ what is just?” Her persistence and need to ask these hard hitting questions within the classroom and in the public eye, has offered several Kashmiris a voice in the conflict and the current occupation.

Nayeem’s hard face softens with a smile and her intense gaze breaks into two satisfied crescents within rose-framed glasses. Speaking fondly of the political action women are taking within the region, Nayeem relaxes in her armchair. Her head scarf falls to her shoulders, revealing bold red streaks in her hair. Meanwhile, in the background, her husband, a Separatist party leader, and her young six-year old son can be heard playing. Rising from her seat, she excuses herself, saying that her husband is lost in the kitchen and that she will fix the tea for him.

An embodiment of compassion and self-empowerment, the modern Kashmiri woman is working towards reconciliation with simple daily action. She is speaking out within the international forum and offering social support within her local community. The scars of conflict are still visible within Kashmir, but where the skin breaks the wounds heal stronger. The women recognize that by embracing progressive roles within society, they are not only overcoming their past struggles but moving forward.

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