Brave vanguard: Kashmiri feminist icons and iconoclasts

Zoon Bibi in her youthful days.

When liberal feminists around the globe were celebrating the women’s movement, women in Kashmir were a step ahead, celebrating the legend of the political matriarch, Zoona Bibi.

By now, learned people around the world have become familiar with the democratic notion of egalitarianism—the light we see it in today, with the indefinite understanding of the statuses levelled with logic and rationality, a characteristic of post-Enlightenment modernity. 

As the chronologically recorded history proves, the world saw the change in subject statuses in stages— romanticism, the one followed by Mary Wollstonecroft, the phase of red stocking after which personal became political, the one where capitalistic patriarchy ate the newborn after serving them on a platter to the Molech. 

We read scripts and statistics of engineered graphism on the intersectional standpoint history of women, and it is there that we could have situated the lost history of women campaigners, educators and socialists of Kashmir, but let us assume it is because of the conflicted and the patriarchal nature of our linear historiography that we not so conveniently let forego the women history of our own.

In today’s fourth-wave feminist Barbie dreamscape where we all greet each other wearing pink to the movie theatre halls, celebrating decades of subtly infused white feminism, one asks where the questions about my feminism are situated—on the internet, Twitter perhaps, where we Ctrl V the western ideological narratives proposed to us in books, readers, papers, journals, that never talk about the road our women’s social action took, our own history of women struggles and our little emancipation— our own cultural context; the women’s movement of Kashmir.  

I take a step back to restart this voyage from roots—anchored in the very streets of our land, Mouj Kasheer. We read it in texts—our political, emotional, and social affinity towards the land we were born on. Kashmiris know a side to this tale that has seen the stars, touched the sun and returned, and yet we have failed in encapsulating the natural meteoroids of our own. “Well-mannered women don’t make history,” and loyal to the statement, what the genealogy of Kashmir’s historiography has missed out on is the participation, proliferation, and spectatorship of Kashmiri women in shaping the very history of our sociological imagination.

But when liberal feminists around the globe were celebrating the women’s suffrage movement, women in Kashmir were a step ahead, celebrating the legend of the political matriarch, Zoona Bibi. During the period when feminists were revolting against the subordination of women, the defiant downtowner was already at the heart of the woman revolt, questioning rationality and taking strides toward democracy, including becoming a foot soldier of the Plebiscite Movement. Amid World War II, in the West, when women were getting a hold of industrial capitalism, questioning why egalitarianism did not apply to them, in Kashmir, Zoona Bibi stood steadfast as a critical figure in the NC circles, pressing the central committee to kick-start the movements in the 1940s.

Zoon Bibi, Edwina Mountbatten and Akbar Jehan, circa 1948


Analyzing the detailed postmortem of the world wars in world history, presented through the Western oriental perspective, historiographers did pick up on the intersectionality of their own eastern nations, deliberating on the effects and aftereffects of world war and its associated drawbacks—consensus on the post-war literature. India concentrated its focus not on post-war writings but on colonial and post-colonial literature. Writers and academicians focused on movements undergoing in India and the implications of the bastardised, linear graph of recording history that the imperialists left behind. The 1947 Women’s movement in India focused on advocating for social reforms and challenging discriminatory practices—precisely recorded in the levered history of the nation, yet the happenings on the ground of the country’s crown were overlooked. 

The code of lioness Begum Akbar Jehan who stood at that historic junction of river Ravi witnessed communal violence. The Jammu massacre of 1947 presented a plethora of nerve-jangling stories of abduction, abandonment, rape and killings of Muslim women and Begum Jehan as a sole marcher, rescued and rehabilitated the then women in crisis. Another deck to the forgotten historical records of our own land that got overshadowed by dominant narratives and faltered to recognize, perhaps because of the political affiliations of the land and its people.

Begum Akbar Jehan with a guest.


Contesting gender as the biological basis of discrimination, with the discourse taking a controlled turn to enclose race, ethnicity, class and sex into the conversation, feminism underwent a socialist “gender and development” phase during the 1960s-80s and questions about the interrelation between patriarchy and capitalism were brought to the surface. It was the time in world feminist history that we yet dote on for understanding the expansion of the feminist discourse to encompass class struggle and economic justice. What we did, however, neglect is how these countenances were introduced on our own land.

Kashmir witnessed Barkat Begum, the land’s educator, reap the benefits of her labour. A return academician from Chicago, Barkat had made it her mission to educate and uplift the underprivileged part of Kashmiri society. She ran a school from her colonial bungalow on Boulevard Road, teaching children from low-income groups for free of cost and introducing the concept of American-style mid-day meals in the seventies—a scheme that was introduced in Indian schools as a government intervention in the year 1995.

The post-structuralist perspective questioned the position of women—the association of gender roles and the essentialist performativity of the same. Authors and academicians like Judith Butler, Simon De Beauvoir, and Michel Foucault psychoanalyzed and contested the roles women took in society—the idea of gender being a performative function. The concept of power became buoyant during the third wave, and feminists questioned the conceived social notions of masculine and feminine roles. Gender discourse entered the mainstream feminist conversation, reshaping gender understanding and what we now know as the dominant ideology promoted by the Western perspective—gender roles are not predetermined by birth but rather performed and constructed by individuals.

In the annals of Kashmir’s history, a profound demonstration of role discourse unfolded decades ago, epitomized by the indomitable spirit of Khursheed Jalal-ud-din. This remarkable woman, an educator of great repute, and a resolute role-model for her two young sons, embarked on an extraordinary journey, especially after the demise of her husband. Fearlessly transcending the confines of traditional gender expectations, Khursheed assumed the responsibilities typically reserved for men. With unwavering determination, she shouldered the burden of her household while eschewing material pursuits in quest of something far more profound—the intangible, the non-material. Her impact extended beyond the confines of her home; she left an indelible mark on the education department of Kashmir, a testament to her dedication and vision. 

In an era as early as the 1970s, Khursheed astutely comprehended and enacted the concept of challenging gender role associations, defying the archaic norms that sought to restrict women’s roles in society. In doing so, she emerged as an exemplar of individuality, a beacon of progress, and a trailblazer for the cause of gender equality.

Khursheed Jalal-ud-Din.


In today’s postmodern society, there exists a prevailing code to idealize and romanticize the easily accessible spoon-fed information that inundates us through social channels and media platforms. Hence, it is hardly surprising that the coverage about the ground realities of Kashmir has been significantly curtailed, reduced to a mere focus on the superficial aspects of the signage strife and its aftermath. This dearth of substantial material, encompassing the domains of literature, literary criticism, history, and sociology of the region, can be squarely attributed to the severe lack of freedom in projecting independent and unbiased perspectives.

As a consequence, the discourses that could have flourished in the valley, exploring diverse psychological and socio-economic dimensions, have been stifled and rendered obsolete. The social reality prevailing in Kashmir, coupled with the prevailing societal approach towards the very concept of discourses, has proven to be a formidable impediment. The confluence of these factors has contributed to the unfortunate situation where potential academic explorations remain untapped, and the multifaceted complexities of the valley’s narrative remain inadequately explored and understood. 

Today, a dire need emerges for a paradigm shift in the social reality of Kashmir, cultivating an inclusive strategy for discourses, thereby affording a richer and more deep comprehension of its diverse historical tapestry.

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