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The Intimate World of Vyestoan

Affective Female Alliances and Companionships of Resistance in Kashmir

Uzma Falak ( is a poet, essayist, and film-maker from Kashmir and is currently a DAAD Doctoral Fellow at the Heidelberg University, where she is pursuing her PhD in anthropology.

Through ethnographic vignettes and auto-ethnographic fragments of women’s intimate worlds in Kashmir, women’s congregations, female alliances, friendships, embodied practices, and everyday memory projects are examined, arguing that these constitute an alternate affect and episteme in Kashmir. The concept of vyestoan is introduced as a critical, affective female alliance and companionship of resistance hinged on the notion of witnessing, in life, death, and beyond. This critical female alliance, against several interlocked forms of domination, is proposed as a useful term, rather than the notion of “sisterhood” in feminist scholarship, to understand intersectionality and criticality particularly in the context of Kashmir.

Ceaseless rhythmic thumping of the tumbakhnaer1 filled the autumnal night air with a strange possibility.Whiffs and the silence of tall pines coalesced with smoke and the sound of burning wood of the verr2 as food for celebration was being prepared.Women who had gathered in the colourful tent sculpted the night with their handclaps, beats of the tumbakhnaer resting in their laps, the cling of keys and the copper nout (a pot used as a hand drum). Incessantly, the women whirled. Singing in the traditional call-and-response style, where a group of women sing to “call” for a “response” from the other group, their antiphonal singing turned hours of the night into a rhythmic conversation. Endless cups of brewing nunchai (Kashmir’s everyday salty milk tea) from the samovar were passed around. Sleep was as distant as the Pir Panjal, the hazy contours of which were visible amid the dense night fog. The bride’s friend sang cheshman che gaashnevaan and the refrain travelled far to the distant mountains, as we all sang together yeti bhaer bhaer kaet malguzaar yewaan.3 An obscure sense of longing persisted.

Women filled Rukhsana’s hands with henna in intricate patterns, as if inscribing secrets on her palm. Rukhsana’s confidante, Parveena Ahanger, sat next to her and sang along. Rukhsana was a little girl when, accompanied by her grandfather Jamaal Dar, she would travel every month from their village Pahaldej in Handwor for the sit-ins and protests of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP)—a collective of relatives of those subjugated to enforced and involuntary disappearances in Kashmir—in Srinagar’s Pratap Park demanding the whereabouts of her father Fatah Muhammad, who was subjected to enforced disappearance in 2000. It was here that she met Parveena, Haleema and Sabia, who, along with other women from her village, were now singing at the maenzraat (night of the henna) of her wedding.

As the women sang, a strange haptic moment, a certain haunting bound us, creating a different time and a different space. It seemed like everyone’s loss and mourning had survived a body search, crossed a certain checkpoint, a certain border, and were now in an assembly; each articulation was distinct yet coalesced into an ephemeral collective, manifesting itself into a longing and a cry. Several such cries echoed that night from the colourful tent. Suddenly, a woman in the gathering beat the tumbakhnaer in a discordant way, signalling a change of rhythm. The song of grief and mourning was punctuated by a swift change of rhythm and tune from a certain drum accompanied by an impromptu humorous verse, and thus the otherwise crying congregation suddenly burst into a song of laughter. Soon, women began dancing, bodies oscillated, arms and feet moved. These movements engendered an affectivity that one could, as it were, touch.

This women’s gathering, which I was a part of, at Pahaldej village in 2013, brings us to the heart of my undertaking in this paper in which I reflect on women’s congregations, female alliances, friendships and embodied practices, arguing that these constitute an alternate affect and episteme in Kashmir. Here, I attempt to bring these discussions to life through ethnographic vignettes and auto-ethnographic fragments of women’s intimate worlds in Kashmir. One of my major undertakings will be working through a concept of critical female alliance of resistance, which I call vyestoan. In Koshur, Kashmir’s native language, vyes refers to a female friend and vyestoan is a term for female friendships. I hope to delineate notions of in-betweenness and liminality which come closest to an indefinable and obscure, yet a powerful force that I have felt amid women gathered at weddings, funerals, protest marches, mosques and other myriad spaces and times, and beyond. Therefore, in some sense, this paper is a site of struggle with (and within) the confines of language to articulate the embodied, particularly this affectivity of a women’s gathering that I first felt as a child when my grandmother took me to the mosque for women’s congregational prayers and which continues to hold me in its tender and poignant grip.

The women’s congregation at Rukhsana’s maenzraat created several translations and transformations. As women sang, Zanei soi koor yemis daydi jaan ravaan, yeti bhaer bhaer kaet malguzaar yewaan, a different time and space of collective mourning was produced, intersecting the space and time characterised by celebration.4 The gathering of women, their “appearance,” was haunted by the enforced disappearance of Rukhsana’s father. Her wedding celebration was haunted by the mourning and commemoration for not only her missing father, but Parveena’s son, Haleema’s husband, and many a cheshman hend gaash (light of the eyes) evoked by the song, who remain buried in the endless malguzaar of Kashmir.5 These translations between bodies, acts, living, dead, and disappeared, and this embodiment of several spatialities and temporalities form one of the anchors of resistance in Kashmir.

A similar transformation takes place during the monthly protest meetings of the APDP in Srinagar. Those who were subjected to enforced disappearances “appear” through the bodies of their family members, who wear their images certifying both their presence and absence. As women assemble, greet, hug, laugh and talk, a space of protest, mourning and remembrance is transformed into a space of celebration; not only of persistence and struggle but of alliance, friendships and mobility as well.6 The women, thus, enact memory and collective trauma, initiating intergenerational “acts of transfer” (Taylor 2003).7

The night of fellowship at Rukhsana’s maenzraat ended amid laughter, chit-chats, and whimpers. Morning light filtered through the window and reflected on a mud wall contouring the window itself. In this window of light on the wall, I saw Rukhsana’s silhouette, disentangling her hair. Her bridal dress still neatly folded, coloured shiny bottles, hair clips, moth balls, and knick-knacks were scattered like her hair. This visible and invisible portrait, this silhouette sculpting the light, is how I was to remember Rukhsana years after: an intense portrait of presence and absence.

Women’s Assemblies as Political Enactment

Walking back from a milkmaid’s shop across the road, Nasreena Akhter greets me and we walk through the remnants of an expansive military bunker in Batmaluen towards her home. A few stairs lead up to a blue-walled room. On the window, hangs a garland of dried chillies. She describes how at the onset of the mass armed struggle for liberation in 1989, homes turned into centres of violence:

Men were taken out during crackdowns. We were caged inside our homes. Troopers would lock us inside and shout swear words. They broke our doors, walls, windows, took our belongings, even pliers and screw drivers. They would frisk our trunks, rice and flour canisters, coal, sugar, clothes, water storage tanks, chicken coops. (personal interview, 2013)

A thin wooden frame, the only adornment on the wall, holds a vivid colour photograph of one of the women’s rallies in Srinagar from the 1990s. Women in their black veils, white butter-crêpe burqas, and coloured scarves stand together in a cluster. A young Nasreena stands in the middle of the gathering, her fists defiantly raised, her slightly open mouth ready to pierce the air with a freedom slogan. The tension her presence creates in the photographic composition extends beyond the frame. It seems the photograph will either come to life or the tension will tear it apart. I look at an older Nasreena across the blue-walled room. She smiles, reminiscing:

How much can one put into words? I would travel miles to join funeral processions of the martyrs. Mei ous jazbe [I had passion]. I would leave home without thinking twice. I was an ardent sloganeer. In 1992, when the call Tchar Chalo8 was announced, everyone left their homes—men, women, children. Homes were deserted. Freedom appeared very near.

As the notion of home, conceived as a safe space, was ruptured, women found a new home where they felt safe and strong—in togetherness.

A perpetual mourning lingered in our homes. Sudden crackdowns were announced. We couldn’t stay indoors. We would occupy the streets, alleys and be together. We felt safe and strong this way. We braved many nights on the streets. We would march and sing for our martyrs: Kya tse marnukh goi bahano, janano bei walo [How did death overtake you? Come back my beloved, won’t you?] (personal interview with Neelam, 2013)

Emphasising the corporeality of a persisting and resisting body, Judith Butler (2015: 161) significantly argues that assembling or coming together is already an enactment of a popular will and has an “expressive function prior to any claim or utterance it may make.” In other words, as she notes, “the enactment of ‘we the people’ may or may not take a linguistic form; speech and silence, movement and immobility, are all political enactments” (2015: 172).

During long spells of crackdown, women would spread mats and blankets on the streets and assemble, organise community kitchens, or distribute food among neighbourhoods under relentless curfews and crackdowns. They contributed money to buy bread and food for men who would be forcibly asked to assemble outside their homes during long hours of search and cordon operations.

In instances such as these where the boundary between the public and private crumbles, where people stand, sit, breathe, sing, sleep, mourn, cook, and eat on the street, Butler asserts that the demonstrators put their body on the line in its “insistence, obduracy and precarity, overcoming the distinction between public and the private,” challenging not only the legitimacy of the state, “but also maintaining themselves as persisting bodies with needs, desires, and requirements” (2015: 97–98).

Rasheeda and Nayeema, two sexagenarian sisters, correct each other for details, pausing intermittently, negotiating the vagaries of memory, the tellings and retellings as they describe decades of their underground and resilient lives. They are bound in a vyestoan which strengthens and at the same time transcends their blood-sisterhood. Rasheeda serves tea and peeled almonds while they sketch for me their militant lives. While some stories get them laughing and animated, some make them cry, others they narrate in hushed voices, and many others perhaps defy language. Rasheeda narrates:

We would bang roofs and tin drums in defiance to communicate we were fearless and not scared of their bullets. We confronted the troops with sticks, kanger [a portable earthen fire pot encased in woven wicker used to keep warm in winters], shoes, whatever means we had at hand. The troops would go on a rampage in our homes looking for guns. I once dared them by saying that there were no weapons in the house. I told them: Perhaps, we are the weapons you are looking for; arrest us and your hounding will end! (personal interview, 2013)

Recalling the protest and solidarity rallies of the 1990s, Rasheeda remembers how they tore off black veils when they did not have flags to carry to a procession owing to stringent restrictions.

We tore the black burqas, stitched them into flags and marched on the streets shouting: Hum Kya Chahtey? Azaadi! [What do we want? Freedom!] Our passionate slogans stirred the earth.

Her sister Nayeema interjects:

Those were our years of youth, hope and spirit. Everyone walked together. The poets walked with us. Marching onto the streets, we sang songs of loss and revolt. Yem vedaakh aeis andrei vezaan [a fervent gush coming forth from some intrinsic source found words].

Songs of Resistance

Women’s songs in Kashmir form an important repertoire of resistance. Enacting cultural agency and encoding resistance into cultural memory, women’s intimate worlds of singing rendered (and continue to render) the political struggle into poetry. Songs which women sang in Pahaldej or those which Nayeema and Neelam referred to are songs of collective loss and longing, media of protest, mobilisation and solidarity, and significantly, an enactment of a collective articulation of freedom. Offering alternate ways of knowing, these songs challenge “established practices of remembering and forgetting” and “insurrect the perspectives that culturally hegemonic practices have foreclosed” (Medina 2011). They emerge from, in the words of Ariel Dorfman (2007) in his epilogue to Poems from Guantanamo, a “simple, almost primeval, arithmetic of breathing in and out” which keeps us alive. What Butler, in her Frames of War, says about the “written” poems of the Guantanamo detainees, holds true of the songs in Kashmir:

To say that the poems resist that sovereignty is not to say that they will alter the course of war or will ultimately prove more powerful than the military power of the state. But the poems clearly have political consequences—emerging from scenes of extraordinary subjugation, they remain proof of stubborn life, vulnerable, overwhelmed, their own and not their own, dispossessed, enraged, and perspicacious. As a network of transitive affects, the poems—their writing and their dissemination—are critical acts of resistance, insurgent interpretations, incendiary acts that somehow, incredibly, live through the violence they oppose, even if we do not yet know in what ways such lives will survive. (Butler 2016: 62)

Understanding these songs as challenging statist knowledge production and as offering alternate ways of knowing offers several critical possibilities. These songs, for example, not only enact embodied memory, but also may offer nuanced reflections on resistance and embodiment itself. For instance, “Hum Kya Chahtey? Azaadi” is a popular slogan enacting a collective longing for freedom in Kashmir, and in one of its renditions, freedom is inscribed on the mountains, rivers, soil, body, and soul (Ahmed 2012).A nuanced reading of the song, I argue, enables us to read it as a critical reflection on embodiment
itself. The notion of embodiment moves beyond the understanding of the body as a physiological entity and explores the “phenomenal” body focusing on unified experiences and potentials, beyond rigid binaries and dualisms such as the Cartesian split of the body and mind. The song of azaadi inscribes “freedom” transcending various binaries—body/soul, material/spirit, reason/emotion, nature/culture, history/memory, life/death, individual/collective—and creates a porosity between these dualities and other evocations of landscapes, proximity, intimacy, desire, promise, voice, and movement in relation to occupation and resistance, offering, thus, a poetic thesis of embodied resistance.

In a historical continuum, the political uprising of the 1990s too catalysed women’s mobilisation and new friendships emerged out of the chance meetings during protests, marches, assemblies, and funeral processions.9 These gathering also brought together women from different socio-economic backgrounds transcending the barriers of caste, class, and regions, thus forging a critical intersectionality. However, no sphere can claim to be entirely inclusive. As Judith Butler (2015: 51) notes, “every form of appearance is constituted by its outside and there can be no entry into the sphere of appearance without a critique of the differential form of power by which that sphere is constituted.” This, however, she explains, is not a reason to abort the struggle but the only reason to insist upon the struggle as ongoing. Moreover, “appearing” is not understood as synonymous with resistance. Not “appearing” or assembling may indicate the strategic possibilities and methods of persistence.

In Kashmir, such assemblies are not understood within the democratic logic of the right to freedom of assembly; such gatherings enact a rejection of the Indian state as the guarantor of rights. As demonstrations turn into funerals and vice versa, every death in Kashmir indicates and enacts the death of the state.10 It is an enactment understood beyond the language of the constitutional law and rights even though the region and its people’s lives are complexly involved and interlaced within the structures of law. Moreover, though such assemblies are ephemeral, their “transience is linked to their critical function” (Butler 2015: 20).

As women gather, assemble, and forge alliances and companionships, their bodies embodying and enacting several alternate temporalities and modalities of being give way to a liminal, timeless space abounding with possibilities of liberation. The in-betweenness constituted by their bodies and modalities of being characterised by a liminal space and time is the site of an alternate affect, one of the bedrocks of resistance in Kashmir. While bodies are arrested, killed, maimed, and violated, this in-betweenness and its affectivity escapes the grip of the state’s power and persists as an articulation of a collective longing and struggle. While this in-betweenness is constituted by intimacy and proximity, it goes beyond both, reclaiming what the state renders unfamiliar through its complex repressive mechanisms of control. Liminality and in-betweenness not only mark people’s times and spaces in Kashmir, but also characterise people’s lives. Kashmir and its people, though, are complexly entangled within the framework of the Indian state’s law and legality, yet they refuse to embody a statist temporality and modality of being by a profound articulation of self-determination and liberation. The “liminal” bodies create a “timelessness” where freedom and its possibilities are articulated. These critical linkages between liminality, inbetweenness, and the resistance movement in Kashmir are manifested in, what I call, hauntology of liberation—an anti-occupational liberatory praxis characterised by alternate ways of knowing, which allows us to imagine and navigate alternate temporalities, spatialities, and modalities of being and, thus, alternate selfhoods.

Misra, an elderly woman, who narrates to me the courageous stories of her confrontation with the troops during the 1990s, poignantly articulates what it meant for women to assemble:

No one could afford or bear to stay in isolation behind closed doors. We were alive and we had to communicate that. (personal interview, 2013)

Dreams and Their ‘Share in History’

Parveena Ahanger narrates to me the only dream she has had of her missing son Javaid Ahmed Ahanger. The sun has set and the lilting azan from a local mosque intersperses her dream narration, as she warms her hands over the kanger. She recalls:

It was a long time ago, on the night of Qadr, when we still lived at our old house in Batmaluen, I dreamt of him. I am alive, I am in their custody, they have hidden me mother, he said to me in my dream. They tell me, your mother is searching for you. Only your mother. (personal interview, 2013)

After her son’s disappearance, Parveena cried relentlessly and felt she was unable to carry on. She says she travelled to far off places, to every prison, every interrogation centre in search of her son and could not pay attention to her family and the household. Her neighbours attended to the household chores in her absence.

Parveena’s daughter, Saima, who was four years old at the time her brother was picked up, was intensely disturbed by not only her brother’s sudden absence but also her mother’s grief. She says:

Loss almost turned her [Parveena] mad. I couldn’t bear my brother’s absence and my mother’s grief. Home was the last place I wanted to be at. I spent several months at my relative’s places. (personal interview, 2013)

Gradually, Parveena, in search of her son, met other women who too were searching for their disappeared family members. They started meeting regularly, on the 15th and 30th of each month at Parveena’s home where she would prepare tea and food for everyone, or in public parks where they would hold dharnas and sit-ins under Chinar trees and write their protest messages on pieces of paper. These small initial meetings and individual struggles forged into a collective; theAPDP was thus born in 1994. Over the years, it has emerged as a vibrant political space primarily of women’s mobilisation, solidarity, and friendships. Parveena remarks that APDP is her only rishte [family] now. The APDP family consists of about 1,000 members who meet every month for a protest and commemoration. Saima says:

Soon after my mother started meeting other women regularly, she slowly resurfaced from the depths of grief she had plunged into. It gave her strength and we saw a visible change in her. She forged new bonds. I too joined this collective struggle and started participating more actively. APDP has become a new family for us. I am particularly fond of a little girl in the collective. Her father is among the disappeared. She too hates going to her home like I used to. I understand her like no one can. While she has found a friend in me, she too gives meaning to my life. We often talk for hours over the phone. Her internal battles remind me of my own. (personal interview, 2013)

Like other members of the collective, Parveena and Saima, bound by a similar (not same) loss and struggle, forged a bond enriching not only their mother–daughter relationship but also extending beyond it, into a vyestoan, as confidantes in a common political struggle. The members of the collective forged enduring bonds, creating a new “social network of hands” towards the sustenance of the struggle (Butler 2015). It is this network of hands that Parveena perhaps hinted at when she, referring to the larger APDP family, expressed her hope and wish—myaen aathe gasan palzin—using the metaphor of hands she implied that she (her hands) wishes to be of assistance and help.

The waiting, remembering and longing of the APDP is strung in a song which many women sing as an articulation of their struggle. Parveena sings it to me:

Ma tou raav tam, venye chuko vaense kam

[Do not go, you are still young]

Ma tou raav tam venye cheya maenze namm,

[Do not go, my bridegroom]

Naad laye myani Yusufo walo

[I call out to you, Oh my Yusuf, come!]

This song and its several versions are in circulation within women’s oral traditions in Kashmir, and has multilayered references.11 However, one of the two obvious references in popular circulation is the Kashmir’s 16th-century poet Habba Khatoon’s longing for her husband Yousuf Shah Chak, who, as the last king of Kashmir opposed Mughal expansion, was tricked into parley and was thereafter exiled to Bihar. The second reference is to the Quranic story of Prophet Yusuf, son of Prophet Yaqub. The Quran refers to the intense patience, faith, and waiting of Prophet Yaqub for his favourite son Yusuf, who is a master at interpreting dreams and whose envious half-brothers throw him into a well. The story is poignantly structured, starting with a dream and ending with an interpretation of the dream. Encapsulating several temporalities and spatialities, the song of Yusuf in Kashmir thus encodes hope and resistance into a multilayered cultural memory.

This memory work in songs is closely related to the embodied practice of dreams. Like Parveena, for many women, dream-visions remain significant ways of maintaining ties with the dead and the disappeared. Walter Benjamin (1996) reminds us that “Dreaming has a share in history.” In this context, I understand dreams as everyday practices of resistance and memory, which are shaped by the political conditions and in turn have political implications. Dreams are particularly significant in understanding the complex engagement that a resisting people have with time and space challenging the statist notions and manipulations of time and space. Understanding dreams beyond the subject-centred paradigms as a form of “ethical–political engagement” helps us understand visitational dreams (such as Parveena’s) as “ethically compelling precisely because of its dialogical nature” (Mittermaier 2010). Such dreams, Mittermaier expounds, call for a response; they address the dreamer, and they simultaneously constitute her as an ethically responsible being. Dreams compel us to look at “in-betweenness” as opening critical possibilities (beyond the Cartesian split of the body and mind and other dualisms) of inter-relational ethicality as opposed to the statist notion of individualism and neo-liberal rationality.

An articulation of the essence of Parveena’s struggle in her own words, I propose, is a possible interpretation, which I offer here, of her dream (with which I open this section) and this restates the counter-hegemonic possibilities of dreamwork. She says:

Our pain is the same and so is our struggle. There is a closure in death. But the disappeared have no graves. It is a festering wound. The state thinks we will get tired but we won’t. We will keep walking tirelessly. It has been two decades but the hope, to hear my son knock at the door, persists. Sometimes when there is a knock, I think that may be it is him. I share this feeling with the other women of the collective. We will not forget and we pledge to fight together. (personal interview, 2013)

Intimate Spheres and Subversive Solidarity

As the fierce Chenab flows in Kishtwar, a shrine stands in gossamer silence broken only by the mutterings of a woman sitting on its stairs near the threshold. Inside the shrine is a small door separated by a curtain. I try to peek in but cannot see through the dense dark. I bend my head and step inside as my eyes negotiate the darkness in this small chamber which appears to be a private prayer room only for women, honouring a local woman saint buried there. I see a group of women sitting next to each other, whispering, reciting verses in sing-song voices, and moving their bodies in a rhythmic to and
fro, like a pendulum. In the seclusion of this room, several coloured threads are tied in a close embrace, holding onto each other as if in a moment of emergency. Suddenly, a cry of one woman punctuates the antiphony of silence and lilt. The woman sitting next to her frees her lament too, joined by the other women in the circle, one by one, carefully crossing a barricade. The whimpers which began in an ascending tempo now become a sustained cry, as if all the women have transcended. I feel like an intruder and escape the dark room to watch the flowing Chenab, light gnawing at my eyes.

Such women’s “intimate zones of everyday life” overcome the dichotomies of the public and the private space, and give way to critical spaces of radical possibilities (Berlant 1998). These constitute counter-hegemonic, to use Berlant’s term, “intimate publics.” For Berlant (1998), “intimacy refers to more than that which takes place within the purview of institutions, the state, and an ideal of publicness.” Weber (2009) notes that, for Berlant, intimate public spheres are “an amalgam of primarily woman-produced, woman-consumed, and woman-coded texts, functioning to create an elaborate imaginary of intimacy that assumes women share a bond of communal longing.”

Several such everyday intimate spheres characterise women’s lifeworlds in Kashmir. Trips to collect wood and wild herbs, assembling at the yaarbal (riverbanks), working in the fields, gathering to spin yarn, husking, winnowing, pounding chillies, or separating stamens from the saffron flower to extract the spice, going to the mosque or swimming in the village ponds, singing during weddings, or mourning rituals, protest rallies, sit-ins and marches—all binding women not only to each other, but forging a relationship of love and labour, bodies and landscape, liberation, and support.

One such intimate world, for instance, is the yaarbal (literally a place for friends), where women, young and old, would fix a time to meet other women. Yaarbal would buzz with activities and friendships. Women would wash clothes and utensils, collect water, bathe, and also use this as a meeting place for conversations and songs, stories of grief and endurance. Big stones and boulders lying around naturally became resting places and hours would pass quickly at the yaarbal. Together, women would collect wood and herbs like hand, liss, nunar, gul, kretch, bhum, mobilising women on an everyday basis, beyond the occasions of khaer and sharr [celebrations and difficult times]. While intimate spheres like yaarbal helped sustain older friendships, new companions were welcome into this subversive fold of support and solidarity. Similarly, during the thrashing and winnowing periods in the field, women came together and sang long narrative oral poems to carry on through the long working hours (personal interview with Mubeena/AG, 2018). The singing and dancing practices of Roff, Wanwun, and Hikat also give way to intimate proximities; women hold each other’s hands or wrap their hands around each other’s bodies, or hold on to each other’s shoulders, coordinating their body and feet movement, entrusting themselves to each other while gyrating and swirling, holding each other firmly, creating an intimate trellis of trust and support.

The military presence in the region and its several manifestations, on the one hand, interrupted some of these intimate worlds, and, at the same time, the resistance movement forged other new ones imbuing them with new meanings and catalysing some others. During curfews and crackdowns, for instance, women constituted these intimate spheres to derive strength, carving a shared space of tellings and retellings, forging communication and navigating across people’s resistance networks, thus fostering a critical fellowship.

I argue that women’s embodied practices and intimate worlds, or, to invoke Connerton (1989), the bodily acts and commemorative practices, such as assemblies and marches, friendships, dreams, songs and mourning, among others, constitute an episteme and offer counter-hegemonic ways of knowing. These constitute vital acts of transfer, transmitting social knowledge, memory, and a sense of identity. Through Taylor’s thesis, which aims to decolonise our understanding of “knowledge” and dismantle the conventional equation of memory with what is written, we could aim to decentre the centrality of the written word (which has been the monopoly of the state and its powerful structures in Kashmir) where history and historiography are concerned and, thus, expand our understanding of what constitutes knowledge or episteme (Taylor 2003).

A Companionship of Resistance

Women’s embodied practices, everyday memory projects, and intimate worlds shape and are shaped by, give way to and are informed by, what I have called vyestoan—a critical and affective female alliance and friendship, a companionship of resistance. Significantly, this alliance is hinged upon, I propose, a notion of witnessing. Vyestoan is an alliance of witnesses, in life, death, and beyond.

In this paper, I have tried to describe this vyestoan the through an exploration of women’s worlds in Kashmir. In one of the poems of Habba Khatoon, whose poetry continues to nourish and articulate a collective yearning, this vyestoan is eloquently brought to life. Wale Vyes (Come O Friend), a call to a female friend, is a repeated occurrence in the poem; a similar call to a female confidante also forms a marked feature of several other everyday songs sung by women in Kashmir.

This critical female alliance, I argue, is an alliance against several interlocked forms of domination. Vyestoan, I propose, is a useful term, rather than the notion of “sisterhood” in feminist scholarship, to understand intersectionality and criticality especially in the context of Kashmir. While the notion of sisterhood in feminist scholarship has been critiqued (hooks 1997; Mohanty 2003) that it overlooks the differences among women and does not employ a critical lens where race, class, colonialism and militarisation are considered and while sisterhood indicates a common source emphasising kinship, vyestoan on the other hand extends beyond the claims of kinship, as I have shown. In Kashmir’s context, if a mother and daughter, for example, share a good relationship, it is said that they are like friends (vyes). Therefore, the notion of vyestoan has radical possibilities extending beyond the notion of kinship and blood relations.

Vyestoan could be ephemeral and transient, constituting itself strategically in moments demanding such alliance, or it may be enduring and forged into lifelong friendships. It is potently latent or active. The claims of vyestoan could extend beyond life too. For instance, the expression, mei vaedze yele ba marai, mourn for me when I die, is often a wish expressed by women to their close friends. Vyestoan creates and flourishes on the critical possibilities offered by liminality and in-betweenness, coalesced together into a hauntology of liberation. Vyestoan enacts myriad manifestations of agency and a resistance against the state’s exoticisation, victimisation, and pathologisation vis-à-vis the resistance movement. It could be understood as a rejection of the statist notion of empowerment, interlaced within which is its ideological project of territorial integration.12

This critical alliance is not hinged merely on a common pain or a common victimhood, but plural shared-ness of strengths, struggles, and resistance against oppression and its myriad structures and manifestations.

Mogal Maas was one of the first members to join APDP. She had come searching for Parveena to her house when they “had only three photographs.” Over the years their friendship, an exercise in hope, grew stronger. Mogal Maas and Parveena Ahanger’s bond is a profound reflection and manifestation of this vyestoan. Mogal Maas would often slip into spells of soliloquy. She would talk to the walls or her jajeer (hubble-bubble or hookah)her faithful friends. This is how she would fight time and the waiting it entails. Mogal Maas and Parveena Ahanger’s vyestoan emerged out of a shared struggle and a mutual longing. Both were fighting time.

Having separated from her husband, Mogal Maas was a single mother of her lone son Nazir Ahmed Teli. Nazir, a school teacher, was subjected to enforced disappearance in 1990 and since then she kept waiting for his return. She died in October 2009 and rests close to Kashmiri poet Abdul Ahad Zargar’s grave.When waiting weighed her down, she would long for Parveena, her confidante, her companion. Mogal Mass often played little pranks by requesting her neighbour to phone Parveena and announce that she had died. At her behest, her neighbour would put on the phone loudspeaker. Mogal Maas would then lean her ear towards the phone and quietly wait for her friend’s reply. Parveena knew this prank well and it would always end with the women bursting into laughter.

She shared a close bond with Parveena, entrusting her with her secrets, fears, joys and sorrows. When she left for Hajj, Parveena packed her clothes, readied her, and ran her errands. In her last months, she was not keeping well and Parveena went to her home to see her a couple of times. Parveena recalls the last time Mogal Maas came to the park for sit-in protest:

She wailed. She was inconsolable and told me she feels suffocated and her heart is heavy. I had never seen her like that. She beat her chest, pulled her hair in grief. (personal interview, 2013)

Parveena poignantly recalls a haunting memory of her vyes, Mogal Maas, and it emphasises the affective alliance of witnesses that constitutes vyestoan in life, death, and beyond:

She had made preparations for her death. She didn’t want to be dependent on anyone. She had bought her kafan [shroud], isband, stacked away a bar of soap for her funeral rites. She came home once and showed her shroud to me, saying she had exchanged the older one which she didn’t like and bought a new one. She gave me her son’s file. Look for my son, he is like your brother, as you look for your own after I die, she told me. I tried to calm her down but she said she feels she is going to die soon. “I have no one. You are my daughter, my friend. Wash me up during my funeral bath and please mourn for me properly,” she told me.


As a child, my grandmother would often take me to a neighbourhood mosque embraced in ivy. Before the prayers, a rhythm of its own would emanate from the mosque hall—women greeting each other, sharing everyday anecdotes, dream narrations, joys, maladies, fears, laughter, and grief. The hall would reverberate with women’s supplications and recitation of the Quran in a sing-song manner. After adjusting their scarves, hems, and sleeves, women would stand together and begin to pray in unison. While bowing down on the ground for sajdeh, I would steal chances and secretly lift my head up to see a spectacle I never got tired of watching—heads bowed down, in neat rows of coloured scarves. It appeared as if women shared secrets in whispers. This is my foremost memory of women’s gatherings. It is my grandmother and her friends who, through their bond, introduced me to the magical world of female friendships and bonding, and
intimate women’s worlds.

In conclusion, I offer a poetic commentary of vyestoan, a succinct and poignant articulation encapsulated in a song I first heard at the maenzraat in Pahladej:

Aes che vedveneye janaawaar,

Aes che vedveneye te paan ven kuneye,

Aes che vedveneye janaawaar,

Aes che asvenye, paan ven kuneye,

Aes che vedveneye janaawaar

[We are the flying birds,

Together, we take flight,

We are the flying birds

We, the joyous, companions,

We, the flying birds]


1 Tumbakhnaer, a membranophone, is an earthen hand or goblet drum with animal skin as its base, notably played by women during celebratory occasions such as weddings. It is played with a rhythmic movement of hands and fingertips while it is held under the arm or it rests on the knee or in the lap. Beats of the tumbakhnaer accompany collective singing in Kashmir and it is one of the main instruments to maintain rhythm in these songs.

2 Logs of wood arranged in a particular way for cooking elaborate meals for a large number of people.

3 Roughly translates as “the light of our eyes is snatched/here graveyards, vast, fill too quick.”

4 Roughly translates as, “knows of loss, the daughter, who lost her father/here graveyards, vast, fill too quick.”

5 Parveena Ahanger’s son Javaid Ahmed Ahangar was subjected to enforced disappearance on 18 August 1990 and Haleema Begum’s husband Abdul Rashid Ganaie was subjected to enforced disappearance on 5 January 1998.  

6 For work on mourning, memory and resistance of women activists of APDP, see Zia (2014) and “Khoon Di Barav” (Blood leaves its Trail), a film by Iffat Fatima. Also see, “Till Then the Roads Carry Her”—a film on women’s resistance in Kashmir—by Uzma Falak.

7 As opposed to pathological and clinical approaches to trauma, drawing from Taylor (2003), the focus here is on “non-pathological cause and canalisation of trauma.”

8 A call to march towards Tchar-e-Sharief, the mausoleum of Kashmir’s mystic poet Sheikh Noor-ud-din Wali.

9 For an insight into the historical continuum of women’s resistance in Kashmir, see Gazi (2017). Also see Malik (2015); Manekshaw (2017).

10 For similar argument on funerals and demonstrations, see Kaul (2016).

11 For example, 15th-century Persian poet Jami who uses the trope of Zulaykha’s longing for the beautiful and moon-faced Yusuf, interpreted mystically, or Kashmir’s 18th century poet Mahmud Gami’s Yusuf and Zulaykha.

12 For a discussion on statist narrative of empowerment and its critique, see Bhan (2014), and Mushtaq and Bukhari (2018).


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Zia, Ather (2014): “The Politics of Absence: Women Searching for the Disappeared in Kashmir,” PhD dissertation, University of Irvine.

Updated On : 8th Dec, 2018


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