Where Are Kashmiri Women in Conflict Mitigation, Nation-Building?
Nyla Ali Khan
“Although women of Kashmir have been greatly affected by the armed insurgency and counterinsurgency in the region, they are largely absent in decision-making bodies at the local, regional, and national levels.”
The confluence of religious nationalism, secular nationalism, and ethnic nationalism create the complexity of the Kashmir issue. The political asphyxiation of a viable trajectory for Kashmir has further vitiated the political space, mainstream and separatist, of Kashmir. There is a plethora of opinions about the political, cultural, religious, and social complexity of Kashmir. Jammu and Kashmir (J & K) is a space in which conflicting discourses have been written and read. For more than 60 years the Kashmir conflict has remained like a long pending case in a court of law between the two nuclear giants in the Indian subcontinent, India and Pakistan. The Kashmir imbroglio has worsened partly out of disillusionment that was generated by perceiving the hollowness of Indian secularism, partly out of the ignominy that Kashmiris felt in being tied to a government and a polity that is getting increasingly religionized, and partly out of the belligerent role played by Pakistan in the 1990s.
My training as a postcolonialist leads me to question the infallibility of an “objective” opinion, particularly on the Kashmir imbroglio. My training has taught me that there are no value free judgments. Historical and political judgments, inevitably, get distorted by an inability to recognize the biases that result from one’s own location in time and space. While I am aware of the limitations imposed on my work by my ideological leanings, political affiliations, and class orientation, I would assert that my ethnoreligious and gender identities, Kashmiri Muslim Woman, as well as my personal and political investment in Kashmir have accentuated my sensitivity to questions of agency, militarization, women’s role in civil intervention in the conflict, knowledge production, and Kashmiri women’s navigation of the arduous terrains of state nationalisms as well as insurgent nationalisms. I posit that in the current context of armed insurgency and counterinsurgency, inadequate attention has been paid to the gender dimension of the armed conflict in the Kashmir province of Jammu and Kashmir (J & K), which stymies even further the emergence of peace, political liberty, socioeconomic reconstruction, and egalitarian democratization.
Although women of Kashmir have been greatly affected by the armed insurgency and counterinsurgency in the region, they are largely absent in decision-making bodies at the local, regional, and national levels. I am painfully aware of the fact that although substantive ethnographic work has been done by local and diasporic scholars on the brunt borne by Kashmiri women during the armed conflict as well as on the atrocities inflicted on women by Indian paramilitary forces, the local police, and some militant organizations, Kashmiri women continue to be near absent at the formal level. As a Kashmir observer, I recognize the attention paid to gender-based violence in Kashmir by scholars, ethnographers, and NGOs, but not enough attention is given to the political, economic, and social fall-out of the armed conflict for women. Not enough emphasis is laid on how Kashmiri women of different political, religious, ideological, and class orientations can become resource managers and advocates for other women in emergency and crisis situations. Although the international community made a commitment to incorporate gender perspectives in peace efforts and underscored gender mainstreaming as a global strategy for the growth of gender equality in the Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action in 1995, I observe that a lot more could be done toward increasing women’s participation in peacekeeping and postconflict peace building and nation-building in Kashmir.
It remains to be seen if the increase in female participation in the 2008 Legislative Assembly elections in J & K will facilitate the creation of forceful positions for Kashmiri women in decision-making bodies in the regional and national scenario, which is not yet a reality. There is a serious lack of a feminist discourse in political/activist roles taken on by women in Kashmir, where the dominant perception still is that politics and policy-making are still linked to the male realist rather than the archetypal compromising, gentle woman. As in other political scenarios in South Asia, women politicians are relegated to the “soft areas” of social welfare and family affairs. Political parties in Kashmir, either mainstream or separatist, have not relinquished paternalistic attitudes toward women, so women’s rights and gender issues are secondary to political power. Today in J & K, women constitute a minority, increasing the pressures of high visibility, unease, stereotyping, inability to make substantial change, over-accommodation to the dominant male culture in order to avoid condemnation as “overly soft.” Even those with access to the echelons of power are unwilling or unable to forge broad feminist coalitions across ideological, religious, and class divides.
New efforts and new forums are required not just in Indian-administered Kashmir but in other parts of the world as well for the germination of new ideas, broad-based coalition politics that transcends organizational divides and gives women the space and leeway to make important political decisions. In order to mitigate the conflict in Indian-administered Kashmir, women have to take peace initiatives as opposed to espousing the existing militaristic mentality. The most effective way to make a gender perspective viable in Kashmiri society would be for women, state as well as non-state actors, to pursue the task of not just incorporating and improving the positions of their organizations within civil society, but also forging connections between their agendas and strategies for conflict resolution and reconstruction of society with the strategies and agendas of other sections of the populace impacted by the conflict. It is imperative that women actors in collaboration with other civil society actors focus on the rebuilding of a greatly polarized and fragmented social fabric to ensure the redress of inadequate political participation, insistence on accountability for human rights violations through transitional justice mechanisms, reconstruction of the infrastructure and productive capacity of Kashmir, and resumption of access to basic social services.
It is imperative that the state government recognize the worth of the peacebuilding work that women’s organizations can contribute at the local and regional levels. The aspirations for state accountability, healing, and peace of must be translated into a powerful force that determines the substance of conflict resolution. Working toward democratic rights, efficient governance, a stable infrastructure, and a much less fractious polity would restore pluralism in this state. The electoral principal is discussion, not autocratic decisions. It is essential to create either conceptual frameworks or political and socio-cultural discourses in which the young people of today would be energized and persuaded to actively participate. The current dispensation needs to revive and reinvigorate civil society institutions that could initiate uncoerced collective action around shared interests, values, and purposes. Identifying areas of common outlook and interest is a process of growth.
Perhaps it is time to seriously consider a new regional order which would be capable of producing cross-economic, political, and cultural benefits among the people of the region.
Nyla Ali Khan has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Oklahoma, where she teaches several courses, including South Asian Studies, Twentieth-Century Anglophone Postcolonial Literature, Postcolonial Theory, and Cultural Studies. Formerly an associate professor at the University of Nebraska-Kearney, she is the author of The Fiction of Nationality in an Era of Transnationalism (2005) and Islam, Women, and Violence in Kashmir: Between India and Pakistan (2010). A native of Kashmir, she has written extensively on issues related to Jammu & Kashmir. Her articles on Kashmir have appeared in leading English dailies in Kashmir and in Indian and Pakistani mainstream national newspapers.
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