Taking the veil off the valley
Book: Secrets of the Kashmir Valley: My journey through the conflict between India and Pakistan
Author: Farhana Qazi
Publisher: Pharos Media & Publishing Pvt Ltd. New Delhi
Year of Publication: 2016
Price: Rs 300
Mushtaq Ul Haq Ahmad Sikander
The Kashmir issue and its dynamics have engaged a lot of minds since the birth of the present dispute in 1947. The independent state of Jammu & Kashmir as it existed before the partition of the subcontinent couldn’t save itself from the violence and political upheaval. It also had to bear the brunt of the vagaries of politics and got partitioned, with one part being administered by Pakistan and the other by India. The writing on history of Kashmir too got mired in conflicting narratives from Indian and Pakistani historians. Kashmiri historians, too, couldn’t save themselves from these influences.
Very few narratives have been written about the contribution of women to the political, economic, resistance and conflict arenas of contemporary Kashmir. Kashmir has been described as a territory of desire and its natural beauty has been rendered synonymous with the beauty of its women. Kashmir ki kali (flower of Kashmir), used as a metaphor, was supposed to be the heartthrob of every South Asian man and was an exotic theme for Bollywood directors in the 1970s and 1980s.
Kashmir, famed for its beauty, is synonymous with paradise on earth not only for what nature has bestowed on her in the form of snow-peaked mountains, gushing rivers, endless green meadows, gorgeous waterfalls, but also the beauty whose repositories are the damsels of Kashmir. This beauty is dynamic unlike other static ones. As is the norm that on every beauty various forces cast their evil eyes, resulting in withering of the kali. Now the lass of Kashmir neither are revered as kali, nor likes to be seen as kali. She takes pride in being associated with the dead, Shaheed ki behen, Shaheed ki maa, Shaheed ki beti, Shaheed ki bewa (sister of a martyr, mother of a martyr, daughter of a martyr, widow of a martyr).
Women of Kashmir enjoyed an elevated status in the ancient and early medieval period of Kashmir. They ruled Kashmir alongwith men; Queen Didda and Kota Rani are the best examples. Kashmir had its own crop of women poets like Habba Khatoon, who was also the queen of the last deposed king of Kashmir Yousuf Shah Chak, who was forced to die in exile by Mughal emperor Akbar. Gnostic, mystic poet Lalla Aarifah or Lalleshwari (Lal Ded or Lal Mouj) the former used by Muslims and latter by Hindus to describe her, though she didn’t convert to Islam but was deeply influenced by its fundamentals and tenets espousing humanity, fraternity, equality and communal harmony.
The book under review, as the tagline suggests, relates to the number of journeys undertaken by non-resident Kashmiri author, Farhana Qazi, to trace her roots as well as relate the ordeal of women in Indian-and Pakistan-administered Kashmir, who are bearing the brunt of violent conflict raging around them. The scholar, Victoria Schofield, who is author of a number of books on Kashmir, in her Foreword lauds the resilience and extraordinary endurance of common Kashmiris, who, despite suffering for more than seven decades are still struggling to decide their political future. In the Introduction, Farhana Qazi describes the purpose of her book, “This book is an oral history of women and their men. It is a series of stories of, and by ordinary Kashmiris living extraordinary lives in an active conflict. It is an attempt to make the invisible women and their men known to the outside world” (p. 28).
This oral history begins with her description of Kashmir valley at night, where army troopers demand the reason for travelling at night after every few hundred meters. She relates the daily trials and tribulations of common people by turning nostalgic, relating the narrative of her mother and grandmother who were a part of Kashmiri culture and its history before her parents migrated to the United States of America. She tries to relate the topography of Kashmir to Texas, where Qazi is based. She relates with keen observation the daily routine of common women that rarely finds mention in the historical narratives written about women. Instead of ridiculing Kashmiris for their opportunistic behaviour, nepotism, selfishness or cunning nature, as previous historians have generalised with ease, she has words of genuine appreciation for Kashmiris. “Kashmiris had the ability to mask their pain by offering a radiant, welcoming smile to outsiders, endowing food and gifts on anyone who stumbled into the valley- a Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jew. Sixty plus years of conflict had left its people unchanged-their heart-felt hospitality remained open to all visitors” (p. 90). This is a correct description of Kashmiris because despite suffering in the most militarised zone of the world, humanity, pluralism, communal harmony and hospitality has not left Kashmiris.
She has related the stories of a number of women, who are active in resistance, have borne its brunt as mothers, sisters, daughters and suffered because of their gender. She relates the ordeal of Saadia, a suicide bomber in the making. The agonising tales of mothers whose sons have been subjected to enforced disappearances while in the custody of security forces. These mothers have not given up the hope of finding the reality of their sons and bringing the guilty to book. The caged souls of Aasiya Andrabi, Anjum Zamruda Habib and Fareeda Behenji also find mention in the narratives. Time and again the women were incarcerated particularly in the notorious Tihar jail in Delhi, away from home. The illegal detention and arrests of common protesting women are described, too. Rape as a weapon of war for curtailing the resistance against the Indian state has been time and again used by the army and police against women that certainly has devastating impact over their lives. “For young Kashmiri girls, and single women, the stigma of rape also ruined their chances of marriage. Many girls secluded themselves inside their homes. When the shame became too great to bear, some girls committed suicide. The overpowering feelings of shame made these girls feel like unwanted members of society” (p. 109). None of the security forces guilty of rape have been punished as they are provided impunity under the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).
Qazi’s book is unique in this respect as she provides a glimpse of the problems and issues that women face in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. She aptly describes the conditions of wives of militants and how they survive, the mental state of wives of men who are ready to sneak into the valley to fight for the freedom of Kashmir. She also describes the refugee families, their unique problems, the desire of some to return to the valley, their daily problems, including power cuts, delay in ration supplies, post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSDs) and how it has taken its toll on women. The 2008-2010 uprising, Afzal Guru hanging and the devastating floods of 2014 also find mention in the book. Despite being a genuine attempt at understanding and analysing the problems of women by using the methodology of oral history Qazi gets it wrong in many places that certainly could have been avoided if the research aspect of the book would have been taken seriously.
The claim that Kashmiris boycotted 1987 elections and then quoting Prem Nath Bazaz is utterly wrong (p. 74), because Prem Nath Bazaz died in 1984, before these elections were held, and Kashmiris participated in good numbers in that election because they were trying to make Muslim United Front (MUF) candidates successful. On p. 186, the Kubrawi Sufi Mir Sayyid Ali Hamdani has been described as king of Kashmir, which is a mistake. He is popularly known as Shah e Hamdan meaning King of Hamdan “Shah” is metaphorically used by Kashmiris. Otherwise, he never held power or was a king. Further, on p. 201 it is incorrectly mentioned that Zubin Mehta’s show was supposed to be held at Lal Chowk.
Rest of the book is an important addition to the literature available about women in conflict. Qazi has the verve to write a political narrative with a personal tinge that makes the reader empathise with the narrator. This book should be missed by any serious reader on Kashmir conflict. A must read, indeed.
The reviewer is a Writer-Activist based in Srinagar, Kashmir and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org