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Women in Resistance

Narratives of Kashmiri Women’s Protests

Mir Fatimah Kanth (fatimah.kanth@gmail.com) is a research associate at the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, Srinagar. 

Media framings of street protests by young women in April 2017 projected them as “poster girls” of women’s resistance to the Indian administration in the region, thereby invisibilising the largely undocumented past of women’s resistance as well as daily acts of survival and dissent. Comparing women’s street protests across two time periods in Kashmir—1964 to 1974, and April 2017—women’s role in the narratives of nationalist and anti-colonial struggles is analysed. The struggle for “self-determination” in Kashmir provides women with a space for active political participation. However, as seen in the creation of women’s protests as “spectacle,” it denies women the opportunity to participate as genuine political actors and decide the terms of their participation.

The author would like to thank Shrimoyee Nandini Ghosh for her valuable feedback on the first draft of this paper.
 

In late 1973, Chandi Prasad, pioneer of Chipko Andolan, the Indian forest conservation movement, witnessed Kashmiri women standing on rooftops and throwing stones at the police in central Srinagar during a period of intense and valley-wide anti-India agitations sparked off by students of Srinagar Government Women’s College (Guha 2009). He describes it as a majedar tamasha (humorous spectacle) (Guha 2009). Four and a half decades later, in April 2017, young female students chanting anti-India slogans took to the streets across the towns and districts of Kashmir to protest against police brutalities. These young women, photographed in moments of aggression and rage against the state, became hyper-visible on digital media platforms.

Responses to these images from both within and outside Kashmir expressed surprise, disapproval, and resentment at the emergence of the “female stone-pelter” and more generally at the presence of young women on the streets demanding azaadi (freedom). From Chandi Prasad’s laughing dismissal, to the contemporary characterisation of these protests as “unprecedented,” the history of Kashmiri women’s participation in the resistance movements against the Indian state in the region has often been invisiblised or treated as insignificant.

This paper traces the histories of Kashmiri women’s participation in student-led street protests in two different time periods—1964 to 1974 and April 2017—and reveals the selective amnesia regarding women’s role in the resistance movement within the terrain of social memory in Kashmir. In contrast, I locate the recent protests in April 2017 as a part of the continuum of a largely undocumented and intergenerational history of Kashmiri women’s participation in the struggle against the Indian state, spread over the last six decades. I use media analysis to describe gendered representations of the contemporary student protests, and oral history narratives to recover and contextualise them against the backdrop of the wider history of Kashmiri women’s
political agency.

In the final section, I draw on debates and theories of gender and nationalism, to explore why women’s narratives of resistance are rendered insignificant in the social narratives of the Kashmiri freedom struggle. These theoretical debates also help in understanding how gendered relations shape the popular mobilisations and imagination of the struggle. While women of all age groups have played an active role in the movement in the 20th as well as 21st centuries (Gazi 2017; Qayum 1989), the period between 1964 and 1974, defined by large-scale mobilisations of students across Kashmir, is a particularly striking historical moment to analyse women’s participation.

Women’s Protests as ‘Spectacle’

On 15 April 2017, students in large numbers clashed with the state forces, while protesting against the creation of a checkpoint outside south Kashmir’s Pulwama Degree College (Khan 2017). The state forces barged into the college premises, resorted to tear-gas shelling and pellet gun firing to disperse the students, injuring more than 50 of them (Kanwal 2017). Soon afterwards, students from various districts in Kashmir organised protests and marches as a mark of solidarity with the students in Pulwama, chanting pro-freedom slogans and demanding the right to self-determination for Kashmir (Bhat 2017).

Female students participated actively in these protests; at some places leading protests, while at others throwing stones at state forces who were trying to prevent marches and public gatherings. In public, women students frequently articulated their participation against the backdrop of Kashmiri oppression and the wider politics of resisting the Indian state. For instance, in a media report, one student stated that human rights violations committed by state forces pushed her to participate in the street protests, and another explained that while the recent police brutalities at Pulwama may have been a provocation, the “anger is deep-rooted” (Kanwal 2017).

The protests were widely covered in the media: locally, internationally, and by the Indian media (Khan 2017; NDTV 2017). Women students’ protests received headline coverage on Indian news channels, like NDTV and AajTak, for days, repeatedly showing looping videos of the protests. Images of women students with their headscarves on and faces covered, caught in the act of stone pelting and sloganeering, were circulated as representative pictures for protests in Kashmir across various media platforms. They also went viral on social media, with many people sharing such pictures. Social media was abuzz with commentary that celebrated as well as criticised the presence of Kashmiri women students on the streets, referring to their willingness to participate in protests alongside their male counterparts.

Indian media’s portrayals of these protests by young women were almost exclusively in terms of the “emergence” of a “new phenomenon.” News channels like AajTak expressed outrage that even young women were now “radicalised” enough to pelt stones during demonstrations (AajTak 2017). In the local media, these protests were framed in terms of the new generation of Kashmiri women “redefining” political agency, having arrived at a level playing field with men within the resistance movement (Kanwal 2017). The media hype and commentary around the way these young women pelted stones at the police, kicked armoured vehicles, or got into altercations with the armed forces construct them as “poster girls;” exceptional and representative symbols of women’s participation in the movement.

One such particularly widely circulated image was that of a group of girls pelting stones at the police, with one of the girls in the foreground holding a basketball in one hand while aiming a stone at the police with the other (Hussain and Saha 2017). The contrast in this image between a student’s everyday life (the basketball) and the exceptional figure of a young woman pelting stones created what Guy Debord analyses as “a spectacle:” “a social relation among people, mediated by images” (1967: thesis 4). This mediatised spectacle of young women taking over the streets—a singular moment in history—obfuscated other histories and realities of women’s long-standing protests as well as other means of women’s resistance to the Indian state (Debord 1967: theses 11, 143). Commenting about the dearth of visual documentation of past protests by Kashmiri women, Khurram Parvez, a human rights defender at the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) stated:

Women massively protested in 2008, 2010. Now the difference is that the girl had a basketball in her one hand and a stone in the other. This was something new that the media harped on. Otherwise, it’s not new. In 1950s, ’60s, women would come out with sticks. The only difference remains, it is being documented now. (qtd in Gazi 2017)

The power of images to shape emotive responses became clear in the manner in which iconic photographs of young women became popular symbols of the “new” spirit of resistance in the Kashmiri imagination, and threat of “Islamic radicalisation” in the Indian media. However, the circulation and deployment of these images as representative symbols call for a deeper analysis of women’s agency as political actors.

Everyday Resistance and Survival

The media hype around the spectacles of street protests by young women invisibilises everyday acts of resistance by Kashmiri women. The group of girls in the “basketball photograph,” when asked about their motivations for pelting stones at the police, said, “We were going for basketball practice, but the forces provoked us into pelting stones by assaulting us. Otherwise we are not stone pelters” (Kanwal 2017). The obsession with the transgressive and gendered act of pelting stones—as reflected by media framings—overshadows the ubiquity of resistance in the daily life of these young women, which van der Molen and Bal (2011) describe as “small” acts of dissent.

van der Molen and Bal (2011: 94) analyse dissent practices among Kashmiri youth, particularly young women against the military occupation, and draw attention to the threat of militarised gendered violence that constrains and shapes these small practices of dissent. For instance, on a regular school day, a walk to the high school basketball court across the militarised urban space of Srinagar, for a young Kashmiri woman, can encompass a range of such public and private dissent practices: from markedly and deliberately crossing the street to avoid walking below a nearby checkpoint they may have to pass, to continuing to play basketball despite the gaze of the Indian soldier from a watchtower close by, or refusing to take off the widely worn headscarf while playing, to evade such a military gaze. These are only some of the many other possible and unstated ways that women in Kashmir adopt to survive and resist.

The beginning of an armed uprising in 1989 ushered in a decade of widespread violence and human rights violations by the Indian state in Kashmir. This is often referred to as the darkest period of contemporary Kashmir’s political history. During this period, Kashmiri women’s bodies became sites of both intense militarised violence and also resistance (Batool et al 2016). As the “picking up” (illegal and arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances) of Kashmiri men and boys by the Indian armed forces became a daily occurrence, women of the neighbourhood would gather in spontaneous protests outside the army camps, demanding the release of their loved ones (Sikander 2011). Announcements from local mosques, specifically requesting the women in the locality to come outside their homes to protest against particular human rights violations and atrocities, were also common (Zia 2017).

These acts of everyday survival, refusal, and dissent articulated by Kashmiri women through the 1990s, become invisible when juxtaposed with spectacles of the “stone pelting” street protests framed as both exceptional and exemplary political resistance by a “new generation” of young women. Societal discussions about women’s street protests as a “never before avatar” of women’s political agency indicate an underlying assumption that women have not played a significant role in the Kashmiri resistance movement (Zia 2017).

In fact, despite the ways in which intense militarisation of the region has constrained Kashmiri women’s lives (Kazi 2009), women have engaged with the popular resistance in creative and passionate ways. Women’s resistance to the Indian state
in the region has been shaped by circumstances of time and political context. Street protests by young female students may not have been a constant feature in the last three decades, but, given the varying levels of the intensity of the conflict, which has a direct bearing on women and children, women have hardly been absent from the public space in Kashmir.

The exceptional framing of women’s role in April 2017 as a spectacle, thus, not only disregards the many ways in which Kashmiri women have exercised their agency as political actors by being “rooted in the ordinary” rather than escaping it (Das 2007: 6), but also obliterates the specific political circumstances—intense and violent militarisation of lives in the 1990s—within which Kashmiris have resisted the Indian state across time.

Hidden Stories of Women’s College, Srinagar

In her book about Moroccan women, Alison Baker (1998: xix) draws attention to the exclusion of women’s contributions in the history of nationalist struggles in Morocco during the 1940s and 1950s: “What men say is called ‘oral testimony’; what women say is just ‘stories.’” The invisiblisation of Moroccan women’s experiences is reflective of the larger absence of women and their views in modern history, which is dominated by men’s consideration of what is worthwhile to remember from the past (Bleiker 2004: 156). Such a system of exclusion also obscures women’s agency as political actors.

In the following section, I reproduce ethnographic narratives from women who participated in the student street protests during 1964–74 to reflect on the ways in which collective social memory and history are constructed in dominant Kashmiri “his”stories of resistance, framed in terms of courage and sacrifice. I also map how absences of recorded history of Kashmiri women’s participation in the resistance movement both worsen and hide such exclusions within the terrain of social memory.

Over the course of several conversations, spanning three weeks, I interacted with Shagufta Qayoom, a 69-year-old retired educationist and former student of the Government Women’s College at Maulana Azad Road (M A Road) about the students’ movement of the 1960. It was a period of intense cross-border hostilities between India and Pakistan (Operation Gibraltar), which ultimately led to the Indo–Pakistan War of 1965. I have edited and translated our conversation, for the sake of brevity:

In the year 1964, I was enrolled as a student at the women’s college at M A Road. In the last week of May, all the students were asked to assemble in the auditorium for a condolence meeting. We were then told that Jawahar Lal Nehru, the Prime Minister of India, had died of a heart attack and we must mourn the sad day.

I asked her about the reaction of the students to this announcement.

The principal stressed that our beloved Chacha (Uncle) Nehru had passed away. However, the consciousness among students about the political situation in Kashmir was quite high. We were generally not allowed to express our political consciousness about Kashmir, but in this instance felt forced to mourn the death of an Indian leader. We decided to organise a small-scale protest within the college campus. Our college uniform comprised an all white kameez-shalwar. On the first day of the protest, we instead wore green-coloured shalwars and dupattas with our white kurtas, followed by pink-coloured shalwars and dupattas the next day. The staff noticed it immediately, as a huge group of girls was dressed in colours other than the white of their uniform. When asked why we weren’t dressed in our proper uniforms, we replied by saying that our white shalwars are dirty.

She continued:

At around the same time, we had heard news that mujahids (fighters) have come from across the border to fight for Kashmir. Huge demonstrations were being organised near the Jamia Masjid, in support of the mujahids. We felt that we should also participate in these protests. A group of us marched to the Jamia Masjid, to a friend’s house to borrow burqas, so that we couldn’t be recognised in public. At the site of the protest, I remember a tall man asked us to chant slogans that would pierce the skies. We used all our strength to chant slogans and express our support. One of the slogans that I remember clearly was “Azad Kashmir Zindabad.” (Long live Azad Kashmir [a part of
Kashmir administered by Pakistan])

Later, I asked her about responses to these protests by her family and in the college.

Two days after the protest, my father was called to the college by the principal. She told him that his daughter participates in street protests and chants slogans. My father responded by saying that during school hours, it’s not his responsibility to take care of my whereabouts. This irked the principal and the very next day, my father, an employee in the state government’s department of education was transferred to a new location, as a punishment for his daughter’s participation in protests. In the college campus, some faculty members openly took a position against the students. One of the professors failed me in my final exams, because of my involvement in the protests, but, another professor took my side and graded my exam fairly.

Shagufta Qayoom’s experiences provide an insight into a hidden history of young Kashmiri women’s political subjectivity, and modes of bodily resistance and political participation. While the burqa could not save young Qayoom from the wrath of the principal, Nighat Shafi (2017) in her memoir in a local daily recounts how the burqa saved her from the principal in the same college during the 1960s. While wearing the burqa, she took part in a students’ protest at M A Road (close to her college campus), which was tear-gassed, and students were assaulted by the police (Shafi 2017). Like Qayoom and Shafi, many other young Kashmiri women continued to organise themselves through the 1960s and well into the 1970s.

A longer view of women’s political mobilisations in Srinagar’s Women’s College resonates with coincidences and continuities that point to the flows of intergenerational social memory and political consciousness. In early November 1973, an event was to be held at Women’s College at M A Road, to change the name of the college to “Nehru Memorial College,” in honour of Jawahar Lal Nehru (Qayum 1989: 337). Sheikh Abdullah, a key political figure of the time, was to preside over the function. However, upon his arrival at the venue, Abdullah’s entourage was attacked by the protesting students—both male as well as female—and was forced to retreat (ud-Din 2017). The protesting students chanted anti-Abdullah slogans, burnt his effigies, and smeared mud on his pictures (Qayum 1989: 337–38). Young women destroyed the signboard that had been fixed on the main building, and the remnants continued to be there until as recently as 2009 (ud-Din 2017).

Soon after, these protests spilled over from Srinagar to the other districts of Kashmir: Islamabad, Sopore, and Baramulla. In order to control the protesting students, the government closed all schools and colleges (Qayum 1989: 338). Similar scenes were witnessed on M A Road four decades later in April 2017, when protesting students, especially young women, were tear-gassed by the state forces. The “majedar tamasha” of 1973 and the “new phenomenon” of the spectacular female stone-pelter can, thus, be located not as exceptional figures, but as woven into the fabric of the popular resistance and the movement for self-determination across decades.

Given the long history and extant social memories of Kashmiri women’s participation in the resistance movement, why have women’s narratives of resistance been invisible?

Gender, Nation, and Memory

The intense violence and militarisation of Kashmiri lives has often led to women playing unconventional or non-normative gender roles. For instance, women have long acted as “chaperones of men” in Kashmir to protect them from violent state intrusions while travelling; they have gone to courts, army camps, and police stations in search of their disappeared sons and husbands; and taken on men’s roles in the household in their absence (Manecksha 2017; Zia 2017). They have also engaged, as we have seen above, in a range of “small” acts of political agency, both everyday and revolutionary (Zia 2017, 2016). What might then explain why narratives of resistance by women are largely framed either in biological terms of “motherhood” and “sisterhood,” or as “victims or survivors” of violence and suffering?

Simona Sharoni (1995: 31) argues, “gender, like other such structures of social identity as culture, race, ethnicity, class, sexuality and nationality” affects the way we engage with “the social and political world.” Gender, as an analytical lens, brings to light the “often taken-for-granted distinctions between what it means to be a man or a woman” and the power relations that are constitutive of these distinctions (Sharoni 1995: 31). These power relations shape the “dynamics of every site of human interaction, from the household to the international arena” (Cockburn 1999: 3). Within nationalist and anti-colonial struggles, gender ideologies play out by ascribing different roles to men and women. However, the centrality of these ideologies to women’s experiences and histories are neglected in the collective imaginations of nationhood (Cockburn 1999; Enloe 2014; Yuval-Davis 1997).

Anthias and Yuval-Davis (1989: 7) locate five major ways in which women are seen as participating in national processes, chief among them being “as biological reproducers” of nations, “as transmitters of its culture” and “as signifiers of national differences.” These roles are constructed differently across historical contexts, according to the specific circumstances of these struggles. As biological reproducers, women are burdened with the task of producing boundaries for ethnic or imagined national communities, and an attack on their bodies is, thus, seen as harm to the nation.

In the sphere of cultural production, women become the embodiment of the cultural traditions they are supposed to pass on: the nation as a woman in danger or a “mother who lost her sons in battle” (Anthias and Yuval-Davis 1989: 10). The nation is projected as the motherland, whose honour and dignity needs to be protected (Kaul 2018). This casts women as beings whose honour needs to be defended and protected as a national priority. In the context of resistance or nationalist struggles, women are thus pressurised to “articulate their gender interests within the terms of reference set by nationalist discourse” (Kandiyoti 1991: 432). Yet, these ideological constructions also open up a space for both men and women to derive strength from community bonds and ways of belonging.

While all Kashmiri bodies have suffered brutal violence by the state, the infliction and effects of the violence are gendered as men and women are “tortured and abused in different ways” primarily because of the “different meanings culturally ascribed to the male and female body” (Cockburn 1999: 11; Robinson 2013). Conflict adversely affects women’s lives, especially when the impunity for violence committed by state forces is so high, as in Kashmir (JKCcS 2015). Women’s resistance to such violence is often expressed as the strength to survive after having experienced bodily harm.

During the student protests of April 2017, Zakir Musa, a commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen—a Kashmiri militant organisation—urged female students to refrain from participating in street protests as their “brothers are alive yet” (Kashmir Reader 2017). This appeal projects the protection of women’s honour as Kashmiri “sisters” as a central matter of concern for the liberation struggle of Kashmir (Robinson 2013). A feminist analysis brings to our notice the ways in which gender relations intersect with the popular discourse on the struggle for self-determination. It also alerts us to the context-specific gender relations in a militarised society, which have constructed the Kashmiri women’s bodies as sites of violence, victimhood, and suffering. The framing of women in familial terms as biological and cultural reproducers of the nation constructs the state’s widespread and threatened violence against women as a matter of shared national and family honour.

Women have, across contexts of different political mobilisation, been active participants in “national, economic, political and military struggles” (Anthias and Yuval-Davis 1989: 7). Cynthia Enloe (2014: 87) argues that nationalism as an ideology provides space to women and “energizes them” to participate in nationalist movements. However, scholars opine that in this space for political participation, women have been treated as mere symbols by male nationalist leaders (Anthias and Yuval-Davis 1989; Enloe 2014). In other words, women hardly have had any negotiating powers in defining the terms of their inclusion in anti-colonial and nationalist projects (Sharoni 1995: 32). Popular representations of Kashmiri women conform to the tropes identified by feminist theorising: as the nation in pain, and sometimes the nation in an active act of rebellion and uprising. But, viewing women’s participation as symbols or spectacles denies them the position of genuine participants in anti-colonial and nationalist struggles.

Young women’s participation in the street protests of April 2017 involving acts such as stone-pelting—acts viewed as being generally undertaken by angry young men rebelling against state forces—were framed in terms of an extraordinary display of aggressive, non-normative resistance by women, or as transgression into a public, non-familial space constructed as masculine and out of bounds for women. In both these framings, women were viewed as the angry or agitated symbols of the nation, and became representational of a particular historical moment and social reality as these images proliferated and were circulated on social media.

The protests of the 1960s and 1970s, which unfolded in a remarkably similar fashion, however, reveal older political histories and the political space that women have occupied in the struggle for self-determination. The interpretation of women’s political acts as unique spectacles denies them the position of genuine political actors having their own creative and subversive engagements with the resistance movement. In doing so, it conforms to gendered power dynamics and ideologies of nationhood.

Kashmiri women have played various roles within the resistance movement over the last few decades. Yet, their participation both within and outside their defined gender roles and capacities is rendered invisible and apolitical in the collective memory and Kashmiri nationalist histories, especially when compared to those of men, whose contributions are remembered as those of heroes, martyrs, and brave sons of the nation. Women’s protests from two different time periods reveal the ways in which women’s political agency is both celebrated and yet denied at the same time. Paying attention to the hidden histories of women’s political participation also allows us to see the ways in which discourses about imagined nationhood in Kashmir speak to men and women’s experiences of resistance and survival differently.

Note

1 Shagufta Qayoom is a pseudonym used to protect the identity of the interviewee. I interviewed her in the month of October 2017, to get an insight into the Kashmiri students’ movement of the 1960s.

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Updated On : 8th Dec, 2018

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