Women’s Activism in Kashmir: Ather Zia’s book about Resisting Disappearance

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At a time when a colossal chunk of literature about the prevalent political plight in Kashmir centres chiefly around its geopolitical climate and the implications of it internationally, an acutely visible dearth of writing that sheds light on the not-so-ordinary lives of the ordinary people in the valley – and in particular the human toll the conflict bears on the children and the women, becomes the elephant in the room.

In an academic ethnographic exploration but written also for mainstream readers, Ather Zia’s Resisting Disappearance: Military Occupation and Women’s Activism in Kashmir (2020, Zubaan Publishers) brings pictures of the Kashmiri women and their agency to resist the rampant rhetoric perpetuated by the state to the forefront in a much-needed space of discourse.

Using her academic background of anthropology, Zia sheds light on the continuing conflict and how it has over time sculpted the societal fabric of Kashmir and its intrinsically intricate dynamics.

The book, which recently won the 2020 Gloria Anzaldua Honorable Mention Award by the National Women’s Studies Association, through the seven chapters in the books – uses case studies from across the valley to explain how Kashmiri women are putting their traumas into perspective and expressing their suffering and pain serving to shed light on the political dispute.

Over the course of seven chapters, the book elucidates a vitally diverse range of subjects and topics that have some direct or otherwise implication on Kashmir such as an alternative system of legal action, how Kashmiris are politically and militarily constructed and legitimised as ‘killable others’, the emergence of APDP activists by challenging political and societal hierarchy which is referred to as ‘reversing of effect’; and chiefly – the disappearances from a woman’s perspective.

Ather Zia joins Free Press Kashmir for a conversation.

Free Press Kashmir: In order to cope with the traumatic memories, the women of Kashmir have picked up several unusual routines over the years, which, as many would suggest, is their way of resisting the ‘enforced forgetfulness’ and state of affairs. One of them is weaving verses in their memory, eulogies, and taking the poetic route in general. Being a poet yourself, how efficient is the poetic pasture when it comes to expressing resistance or mere anguish – be it personal, political or societal?

Ather Zia: Versifying, weaving one’s pain into poems and songs is as old as age itself. This pasture as you put is – is vast and everyone can have their fill. For myself, the poetry aspect – written in the throes of doing ethnographic work for me acted a moment of surfeit, where reason sought the logic of surplus and escaped measured words.

Allowing the poetic process to be part of the research journey enabled greater empathy, an experiencing, and a witnessing: which otherwise is not often part of the research methodology toolkit.

In terms of its efficiency – it is as efficient as any other genre of the written word and depends on the reader and receiver as to what is seen as most generative or what appeals them the most.

FPK: The visibility of women in protests in Kashmir in the recent past has evolved over time; what is your anthropological and historical analyses of their participation as well as presence?

AZ: The contexts have been different, otherwise women in Kashmir have always worked shoulder to shoulder with men; be it resistance or the grind of daily life.

Kashmir has always had what I see as a “working-class patriarchy” – where the socio-economic roles of men and women were predetermined around their economic activity.

Of course, women from elite and moneyed classes, whose numbers were limited, could afford invisible lifestyles. But within the trader and artisan classes, a complementary economic relationship between men and women existed while plying their family trade.

For example, if men caught the fish, women sold the fish; if men baked, women sold the bread; and if men farmed, women sold the produce. Other women mostly worked as pashmina-yarn or silk spinners, embroiders, and midwives.

The centrality of Kashmiri women in public life in a different era can be found in classical literature and folklore that engages with the themes of the beauty, industriousness, and wit of tradeswomen.

Some Kashmiri poems exemplifying this are “Grees Koor” (“Peasant Girl”) by Gulam Ahmed Mahjoor, Fazil Kashmiri’s “Kraal Koor” (“Potter’s Lass”), “Doeb Bai” (“Washerwoman”), “Pahyell Koor” (“A Shepherd’s Daughter”), and Dina Nath Nadim’s “Dal Haanzni Hyund Vatsun” (“Song of the Boatwoman”).

In the countryside, women have been dependable counterparts in cultivating rice, tending farms and orchards, and raising cattle and other livestock.

In the years preceding 1947 when Kashmir was struggling against the Dogra rule women were part and parcel of the street protests. It is to be noted that they were not leading these struggles but that were contributing in context of how life was in those times, and here we must remember not to gauge eras through the lens of rank presentism. And after 1947 there were a few women visible on the political firmament, even though mostly by the token of their family affiliation.

FPK: What makes the state see bodies, in this context, Kashmiri bodies, as fit to be murdered — without any legal or social accountability?

AZ: The Indian narrative on the Kashmiri body has been constructed as “killable” – imbued with all the stereotypical markers of the other—both material and immaterial. In the immaterial form, the markers around the Kashmiri body are discursive categories, like the demand for nationhood, which, emptied of its history, is seen as traitorous by the Indian government, its army, and its citizens.

The armed militancy is decontextualized from the events preceding 1947 and is portrayed through stereotypical and lazy shorthand like propensity for violence fuelled by “global terrorism” or Islam, Pakistan’s proxy war. In material form, the type of dress and demeanour of a person, having a beard most of all, becomes suspect. We know how fearful Kashmiri families often discourage men from looking outwardly Muslim, to avoid having a beard to safeguard their lives.

It is telling that 99% of the disappeared men in Kashmir have been civilian Muslim males, most of whom were bearded.

These body-maps are reinforced in the public narrative, especially by the India media. The Kashmiri body, in the Indian perception, is cast primarily as the Other—a Muslim and, by extension, even a Pakistani or a traitor body.

The body with “certain Otherness,” which can harm their nation, paves way for the Indian government to cast Kashmiris as enemies and carry out extrajudicial abuses. The hyper-visibility of the Kashmiri body increases because it is not only a Kashmiri body but also a Muslim body, making it doubly killable.

With laws contrary to any type of democracy, like the Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act (AFSPA) the Indian armed and paramilitary forces get sweeping powers that facilitate arbitrary arrest and detention, custodial and extrajudicial executions, torture, rape, and otherwise cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment, and it reinforces the impunity of offenders acting under it, including the authority to shoot to kill. And voila! The Indian state has made the Kashmiri body ready – in its otherness to be killed and maimed and disappeared or sexually violated. No questions asked!

FPK: How do you see the construction of nationalism on the Kashmiri body, which as you write in the book, becomes ‘a literal and metaphorical vehicle for people’s collective fears, hopes, and commitments’ and specifically as turf on which the manifestation of power is staged?

AZ: Scholars have given accounts about how, in varied ways, nationalism is constructed on the body. It is nothing new and, in this case, I use the lens to understand Indian hypernationalism, where the nation-state appears by asserting itself through the habitual performance of power, prevailing over people physically and symbolically.

The violence meted on Kashmiris becomes symbolic of how the Indian government’s insignia is branded on the Kashmiri “body” even when the “body” is made invisible or disappeared altogether.

An increasing number of scholars have detailed the brutality of the Indian government’s policies in Kashmir.

The Indian administration has been called “catastrophic,” which has made people’s lives subservient to consolidating borders and state security and has paved the way for their annihilation, destruction and demographic change.

International watchdogs, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have issued critical reports criticizing India and claiming that it has lost its moral ground in integrating Kashmir into its borders.

Under the military regime, every Kashmiri is a potential suspect.

Anyone can be stopped, or even shot, without any explanation. Thus, day in and day out, Kashmiris are subjected to unmediated power, where everyone is effectively reduced to the status of killable.

The staging power is everywhere, from stopping at checkpoints to shooting with shotgun pellets to fake encounters to unlawful, militarily and unilaterally removing Kashmir’s autonomy.

Specifically, let us take the example of Afzal Guru; he was constructed as an exemplary killable Kashmiri body. The spectacle of the Indian hypernationalism was staged on him in public view for ten long years of his incarceration. Afzal’s media trial, his portrayal in public, the lack of legal amenities, and his Muslimness and Kashmiriness all contributed to his construction into an adversary who the Indian nation more so its common people made sure to annihilate. Thus, in this context, the killability of the Kashmiri body is made into a singular act of nation-making. Guru as a killable Kashmiri body was constructed as a representational threat for Kashmiri dissent and resistance.

For the nation-state, the killable body is an easily identifiable enemy, constructed as a traitor, a deviant for the masses, who unite with their leaders against it, to annihilate against perceived threats.

FPK: You write that the emergence of the Muslim female APDP activist is based on an ‘affective politics of mourning’, where they use ‘socially accepted subject positions— that of a mother, wife, or daughter—to customize an activist identity’, which becomes part of the ‘counter spectacle to the spectacle of enforced disappearances’.

What is your analysis of this counter-spectacle in the form of resistance, strictly from the viewpoint of Foucauldian micropolitics, and the potential it bears – in order to contest standardized prejudices and eventually becoming instrumental?

AZ: Even when the punishment of enforced disappearance is focused on the total annihilation of the person and creates a threatening void, the disappearance ceases to be hushed away. This book illustrates how the disappearance appears as a counter-spectacle through the performative activism of the women in the APDP.

In this politics of visibility, the motif of performance (or performativity) becomes important as a metaphor through which women’s activism unfolds, takes shape, and concretizes socially and politically. In its overarching connotations, the essence of Kashmiri womanhood or being a female in our society will find resonance across most cultures globally, where women as a category are constrained to being modest, obedient, caring, responsible, passive, and often inferior to men.

This burden on womanhood across cultures and contexts as a universal motif in more or less measure is well documented and is not unique to Kashmir.

While the emphasis of ideal womanhood or being an ‘asal zanan’ is on the merits of being “discreet” or, in more basic terms, as not being seen. Ironically, the work of APDP activists goes against the notion of “not being seen or heard,” for it entails seeking heightened visibility in public. My analysis illustrates how the APDP activists create a niche for their activism by utilizing and improvising on culturally amenable, feminine acts that are seen as ideal.

While creating an acceptable activist persona, this strategy simultaneously repairs the damage that visibility in public can inflict on their status as asal zanan.

The analysis also reveals how the activists while they make the disappeared visible also sustain social invisibility, inflicted by their gender. In this manner, while overcoming social mores as well, while fighting political violence these activists become part of the counter-spectacle to the spectacle of enforced disappearances.

From the perspective of Foucauldian micropolitics, the counter-spectacle is a form of resistance that has the potential to not only subvert “construction of normalized subjectivities” but also to become “agentive” and that is amply manifested in Parveena Ahangar and her fellow activists in how their gendered resistance is framed, activated and operationalized.

This book shows their everyday affective politics of mourning which underlines their struggles and how they inhabit their gendered identities within the social and political discourse through embodied practices and dispositions. What is also made visible is how the APDP activists adapt to political, social, and cultural situations. This also provides the opportunity to explore how gendered processes evolve and shape up in the context of a deeply compromised patriarchy, where Kashmiri men suffer enormously under a militarized governance and are subjugated to open and direct forms of violence.

FPK: You draw a parallel drawn with a metch or a mystic and that of an APDP activist. How do you view the outlook of the Kashmiri society where a woman pursues a quest to find her loss, and having had her sanity and emotional balance questioned? And has it healthily evolved, if at all?

AZ: Historically, the tradition of the metch and motth in Kashmir has a well-regarded status, and many men and women of this category are immortalized as saints and seen as not constrained by their earthly gendered bodies.

Kashmiri folklore is replete with instances of metch who renounced worldly connections, including giving up all social norms including wearing clothes.

The use of such cultural motifs enabled creating an ambient activist identity that rises above the social norms, enabling them to combat the fatal contingencies of military occupation. Through discursive politics, the ethos of maternal care also becomes very pivotal in APDP activism. Motherhood as an established, undisputed category, as a mark of a good woman also lifts the activists above the vulnerabilities of her femaleness.

Thus, foregrounding themselves as mothers and metch, who is beyond gender, but who is also heavily imbued with maternal aspects invoked through the historical figure of Lal Ded enables the icon of an ideal activist.

This discursive politics enables the activists to retain the mantle of asal zanan by establishing themselves as good mothers, and transcend all gendered constraints in their search for their disappeared sons.

FPK: The conflict in itself forces women in a patriarchal set-up to push the boundaries set by the society as they try their best to survive with sudden shouldering of responsibilities after a male member is imprisoned, killed or disappeared. Is it healthy or fair to view it as a catalyst in bringing the necessary change and a sign of the strength of Kashmiri women? If yes, is it organic?

AZ: I do not think it is healthy to glorify the circumstances of political violence which have pushed women into frontiers where they were not present before, but at the same time the cause and effect is a reality.

Women were pushed to the maximum and fast in this political violence to enter arenas that were for good or for bad closed to them. I am reminded of a young girl whose father was subjected to forcible disappearance and she took a job as a salesperson in a cosmetic shop.

We had seen women in traditional retail trades but not selling cosmetics or fabrics or as photocopiers. Such jobs were taken up by many women who lost their main breadwinners and did not have vocational skills to fall back on.

In that context, changes in social and economic mobility are bound to occur, and these modes of agency need to be articulated but it does not mean that we are glorifying the political violence in any manner.

FPK: And lastly, what is your take on this insensitive aestheticization of the Kashmiri grief and loss that takes place in the garb of expressing solidarity or understanding the conflict where often Non-Kashmiri voices take up spaces that are constructively not theirs?

AZ: I would at the outset say that we have to be wary of our grief and loss being fetishized by outsiders as well as by our own. Once political grief becomes commodified; when victimhood becomes an identity, it becomes hard for people to seek their way out of it.

We have to make sure we do not fall into that trap and that we focus on the future as much as we understand how our past and present travails contribute to that.

On the other hand, there will always be people, often outsiders who ply solidarity as a trade, and that industry grows relentlessly around any conflict. And we have seen that happen to us; from Indian NGOs, feminist groups, designers, singers, moviemakers, photographers, ad agencies have proffered solidarity which fetishized Kashmiriness or present Kashmiri resistance only as a human rights abuse issue which undermines the political resistance.

Such solidarity ends up boosting only the Indian imperial project.

I feel our focus should be on the real allies who know how to offer solidarity without appropriating your voice and imposing on your cause.

Over the years we have improved in learning how to sift between real solidarity and one that is motivated, which is also why we are at a juncture where you are even asking me this question.

We have to keep getting better at shutting solidarity-traders and encourage only true allyship.


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