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Writ[e] & Talk | Ep 5 | Women, Gender Politics and Resistance in Kashmir

Listen to the episode here: Spotify | YouTube 

Host: Ms. Sayantani Bagchi

Speaker: Dr. Seema Kazi


Ms. Sayantani Bagchi

I extend a hearty welcome to all our listeners to the podcast by the Center for Comparative Constitutional Law and Administrative Law. It is our pleasure to introduce our esteemed guest for the podcast today, Dr. Seema Kazi. Dr. Seema Kazi is an Associate Professor at the Center for Women's Development Studies, New Delhi, and an accomplished author and scholar. Her expertise extends to multiple areas. like gender, conflict, politics, governance and cultural studies, with a specific focus on the intricate dynamics and interplay of all these factors in Kashmir. As an influential academic, Dr. Kazi's work is essentially transformative. Shedding light on the challenges faced by women in conflict zones and offering innovative solutions, we are absolutely honoured to have her with us today. 

Dr. Seema Kazi 

Thank you, Sayantani. I hope I am pronouncing that correctly….

Ms. Sayantani Bagchi 

Yes ma'am, right ma'am. Yes you are.

Dr. Seema Kazi

….And thank you to CALJ, the journal, which has invited me. And I am very happy to be part of this conversation.

Ms. Sayantani Bagchi

Thank you so much, ma'am. We are today taking up a very, very significant piece of literature that Dr. Kazi has penned. And the paper reads as Women, Gender Politics, and Resistance in Kashmir. So before we begin with our questions and understand the perspectives of the author, let us first understand what this paper deals with and what are the core arguments presented by this paper. So this paper delves into the situation of Kashmiri women and the underlying gender dynamics related to the revocation of Article 370 in Kashmir on August 5th, 2019.

So one of the reasons that was advanced by the government for this action was to restore property rights for Kashmiri women. Now interestingly most discussions and analysis primarily focus on the political consequences of the revocation. These discussions often disregard the perspectives of Kashmiri women regarding the revocation, the government's use of women's rights as justification, or the impact on women's rights and experiences following the revocation. Now, this paper has been structured in three parts, and towards the beginning, the article provides a brief overview of the role that is played by Kashmiri women in the Kashmiri struggle.

Then it goes on to compare the state’s assertion as a defender of Kashmiri women's property rights with the actual legal and factual status of women's property rights in Kashmir before the revocation. Subsequently, the article also goes on to highlight the gendered and misogynistic undertones that are present in the nationalist rhetoric that emerged after the revocation and it emphasizes the alignment between the hyper-nationalist, male-centric claims to Kashmir's territory and their claims to control over Kashmiri women's bodies. This aspect represents the gender-based facet of the Indian state strategy of colonial and ethnic dominance in Kashmir. And finally, the paper utilises the local Kashmiri reporting to shed light on the views, personal experiences and collective resistance of Kashmiri women.

Now we would like to begin with the questions that we have prepared for our esteemed speaker today. So, Dr. Kazi, in your paper you have highlighted how the methods of repression in Kashmir, became gendered and sexualised over time in a bid to repress rebellion. And you've also highlighted how these repressive practices have permeated the socio-cultural private space. Now, is it possible for you to explain how this has been systematically achieved and ingrained to establish a firm narrative that sees gender exploitation as an easy means for the attainment of political ends? Now continuing further, does this occur? due to ingrained biases of the personnel who are posted in such scenarios or are there any other reasons for this? Now how do we address this effectively? Over to you Dr. Kazi.

Dr. Seema Kazi 

Thank you for your question. Let me begin by just pointing out that sexualized repression has a long history in modern India and Kashmir is a later entrant to this very unfortunate and practice. This particular form of repression has been there in the North-East. I am aware of cases in Nagaland and also in Manipur, where you had in that infamous protest against sexualized violence at Kangla. I think it was 2004 and the killing and alleged rape of Manorama Devi. And there is literature also regarding Nagaland. These are the two places where I am aware of documented cases apart from Kashmir. So, that is one. It is not only restricted to Kashmir, but it has been replicated there. 

Also, one of the things which all of us and everyone who is concerned about this particular practice wherever it might be and in this case in Kashmir is that it is a violation of the distinction between the civil and the military which is part of the constitutional compact in India, that the military is there for military purposes and of course, there is this clause the constitutional saying that the military can aid the civil authority. But that aid has unfortunately many times ended in intervention and the displacement of civil authority. And that is really what has happened in these regions, including Kashmir. 

So I would say that having dissolved the boundary between the civil and the military has paved the way for a very disturbing and also very, painful violation of people's rights, especially women's rights, because then the military has become, as I argue in my book on Kashmir, I have not said that as much in my article, but one of the main arguments in my book on Kashmir several years ago was that this is a sort of abuse of the military in a way, because the military is not meant to play this role. So various governments have shied away from political solutions and they have tried to manage the conflicts by using various methods of repression, including gender-based violence. So that is, the  background. 

Then your question regarding how it has established a firm narrative. Well, the narrative is that this is unfortunate collateral damage, if you might term it that way. It is an unfortunate outcome of conflict. And it is just secondary to the larger conflict over territory and, it is a conflict, it is a very male conflict involving men and the security forces. Now, of course, a gender analysis challenges this. But what I really want to say is that, this particular violence has a very devastating impact on local communities because what it does is that it pits a highly militarized state-backed masculinity against a local masculinity, which is of course, no match for the former. And as a result of that, there is a displacement of local male authority.

That results in greater male control over women. In my research, there is evidence to suggest that women are surveilled more, they are controlled more. So, it has, cultural effects. These effects are very invasive and they are not very visible, but they are there. What I would say is that this particular method is of course completely unacceptable, it is also extra legal and it should not be there at all. And I just feel that if we have to end this, I think the politicians, whichever regime might be in power. should take responsibility for politics and work towards conflict resolution instead of conflict management through the use or rather the misuse of the security forces.

I would also like to add that this particular method is, as one of the reports on Kashmir and I think that it is also been there in other independent reports, it is a practice to inflict humiliation on an individual, community and family level. What it does is to send a message of coercion and degradation and humiliation to entire communities. So, it is very effective and it produces a climate of fear and insecurity in general. So, it is an extremely invasive and very effective strategy. But at the same time it is not at all in line with a democracy. So, I think that this practice could be possibly eradicated or stopped by a political process, wherever there are conflict zones, Kashmir is just one of them, can be initiated with an inclusive approach, process of dialogue and work towards acceptable solution. 

Ms. Sayantani Bagchi 

Professor, you have highlighted an image of the Kashmiri women fighting bravely as at Lal Chowk or post 2010, even at the Pulwama Degree College. Now there exists an image where these women are the sole breadwinners in the wake of the mysterious disappearances of their fathers, brothers or even husbands. Now though vulnerable and they are preyed upon, they exemplify the strength of the highest order. Now on the other hand, there also exists an image of Kashmiri women as being, as I quote, perennial victims of an Islamist, militarist, patriarchy lacking socio-political understanding.

Now even the media showcases them as passive victims of men and political violence. Now why according to you does the media depict these women as helpless victims and do you think that this portrayal  aligns with the institutional agendas of shaping a narrative that conditions the public to perceive these women as lacking agency and being so vulnerable that it may not be deemed necessary to consider their views. resulting, let's say, in a situation exactly like the present one, where the opinion of these women as stakeholders has not been taken into consideration.

Dr. Seema Kazi 

Yeah, I think it is an important question. But before answering it, I just want to flag the general point that in India, unfortunately, and I am talking of modern India here, there has been this progressively strengthening construct of the ethnic other. This is particularly the case in the borderlands, in the peripheral regions where they are ethnic minorities which are very different, in terms of ethnicity and culture and language and even, geographically remote, etcetera. So this construct of the other, the different other has been really something very, very worrying and unfortunate in dominant discourse. This has certainly come into play in Kashmir. The earlier phase of the struggle which was an armed struggle and there were non-state actors from across the border and there was that narrative of Kashmir being all about just territory and islamist patriarchal millitancy which was backed and supported by the Kashmiri, the deviant, recalcitrant, defiant, rebellious, disloyal subject. 

That legitimized, in a way, various narratives, including the narrative of, Kashmiri women being. victims of Islamist militarist patriarchy or Kashmiri women being agencyless victims of Kashmiri Muslim culture, etcetera. So that is one important factor which is the construct of the ethnic other. This particular construct has also in the case of Kashmir taken on a special edge because of India's dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir. So, it is not just an Islamist patriarchy in Kashmir, but it is a Pakistan-backed Islamist patriarchy and of course, they were Pakistan-backed militants. So that  legitimized this particular very gender discourse about Kashmiri women and victimhood.

But this was a construct which emerged during the first phase of the Kashmiri struggle. And as my article has briefly mentioned, the struggle has gone through various phases. And what has come out particularly after 2010 is something which was not very visible because of  the territorial dimensions of Kashmir between India and Pakistan and dealing with militancy, terror, national sovereignty, national security. 

But after the mass protests and these were peaceful mass protests which were there after 2010. It  highlighted the basic fact that Kashmir is about people and it is about justice. Of course, every struggle has its difficult moments, moments which bring discredit to it and moments which are have been like politically unacceptable, especially in terms of the killing of civilians, etcetera, and the use of gender-based violence. But basically I would say that because Kashmir is about people and justice, therefore, one can look at it from that perspective. If we do that, then it is possible for us to do something. to understand that the conflict is not so much about Pakistan as it is about the tragedy of a people. And their sentiments or their aspirations which clashed with the imaginaries of the modern Indian nation state. What this particular gendered stereotype about women being appendages or victims of islamist patriachy is because it is an outcome of the erasure of history since if you do not give a historical background or if you do not have a historical understanding of the conflict, then it is very easy to come up with these stereotypes and discredit, well, the struggle or the conflict as just a Pakistan-backed Islamist conspiracy against the Indian state.

Kashmiri women as appendages of that larger conspiracy. But if we look at the history, then we come to a better understanding of women's role and women's agency. And also we come to an understanding, perhaps a critical understanding of why Kashmiri women do not really figure in mainstream narratives so much. Because firstly the narrative itself has dehumanized and discredited the Kashmiris so much that no voices of the Kashmiris are really conveyed to the public at large. If the Kashmiri voices are silenced or considered devoid of any critical political thought or agency, then Kashmiri women are just ignored as stakeholders. And they are just then represented exactly as I have suggested in the paper that they are viewed and perceived as appendages of the Islamist militancy. And that is why even their views or their concerns or their interests are not a matter of concern because they are discredited. So I think the construct of the ethnic other and the construct of the ethnic other are a danger to the nation, I think these constructs are very unfortunate, but they have unfolded over the decades. They have much to do withvarious regimes ducking the political  responsibility to engage in a constructive dialogue with the people, in this case the Kashmiri people, and reduce conflict, to discrediting an ethnicity and  representing it as devoid of any rational thought or any progressive or positive agency and just being an appendage. I think that is really unfortunate and women have certainly paid the price. So that would be, that is how I see it and that would be my response to this question.

Ms. Sayantani Bagchi 

So we come to the third question to our speaker. This relates to the institution of marriage. So marriage has historically been seen as a means to acquire property or even cement political alliances. Now eventually, this has also found a place in legislations. In fact, many sociologists view protection of private property as a reason behind entering into marital associations and raising families. In light of this, do you think that such preservation of women's property, even though previously cemented in Sushila Sawhney, has a positive impact on this saga in any way, especially in light of the recent ruling that pronounces women as co-parseners by birth?

Dr. Seema Kazi

Yeah, well, thanks for the question. I think my answer is rather brief here. Yes, well, firstly, the recent ruling is an important one. But what the Kashmiris have argued and what the Kashmiri women definitely have argued particularly is that the Sushila Sawhney case was already there before this particular ruling in the mainland. They look at that and they use it to contest the argument of gender and defending Kashmiri women's property rights in Kashmir, where they rightfully feel that, there was already an equal right to property to Kashmiri women, even those who had married non-Kashmiris. There was this contentious part of the whole thing. that in the earlier decades there was a little clause or a piece of paper which used to be attached saying that, Kashmiri Muslim women's property rights were valid until marriage and there was a question mark because what was left unsaid was that if you marry a non-Kashmiri, then your rights may not apply. 

This was contested. And then it was rightfully righted by the Kashmir High Court in the Sushila Sawhney judgment. So, I would say that, the judgment in the mainland has not very much influence on this particular legal fact of women's property rights in Kashmir.

Ms. Sayantani Bagchi

Professor you have highlighted in your article that in the evolution of the Kashmiri struggle and it is quite fascinating to see how women sometimes chose peaceful civic opposition as a means of political expression like in 2010, and many young Kashmiri women have embraced cultural practices like wearing a head scarf which at times. dovetailed into mischaracterizations of them as passive victims. Now, this raises parallels with contemporary global movements such as climate change activism led by youth figures like Greta Thunberg, who draw on cultural expressions for peaceful resistance. Now, given these parallels, could you delve into the specific cultural practices that Kashmiri women have employed in their peaceful resistance and how these practices have enabled them to assert their subjectivity as self-aware political actors? And in this context, how might we better understand the role of culture as a potent tool for nonviolent protest and advocacy both in Kashmir and within the broader global landscape of contemporary movements for change? What is your view on this, Professor?

Dr. Seema Kazi

Yeah, I think this is an important question. It is important to understand that Kashmir is a very close knit ethnic society. There are very close kinship and communal ties. Although, of course, there are, ,  fragments like Shia and Sunni, Gujjars and Bakarwals and Kashmiri Muslims, etcetera. But there is an overarching sense of a collectivity. And this is what has been the fulcrum or the pivot of women using culture as a refuge, not just against the violence and the loss and the despair and, the dispossession, but also as a means of emotional support among communities. I have witnessed that particularly in the neighborhood where women of the neighborhood engage in certain civic activities like helping widows, those particularly who are known as widows whose husbands have been disappeared or also helping indigent families or simply just meeting within the home which acts and functions as a refuge against the larger space of the public and the violence, discrimination and the sense of insecurity and fear which is there in the public. So then culture and cultural communities become a refuge, a means of solace, a source of strength, a source of maintaining bonds of the community.

I think and I have personally witnessed and I have been also part of these enactments like gatherings over food where women talk about their stories. But again, these stories of difficulty, loss, worry, sometimes trauma and depression. So, doing it collectively then takes on another meaning and it becomes a means to overcome the sorrow and the despair. The cultural bonds among women and of course, a larger community then function as not just a means of resistance, but also a way to survive the outside which is, fear, insecurity, violence, etcetera.

Then of course, Kashmiri women have done that a lot. They have used memory as a means to overcome the memory of loss. So there have been, women's initiatives to, well, firstly call for public accountability, but then they are no longer there now in the present context. So then, memory within the home is used to not just recollect, but to forge bonds of solidarity among larger community which has also experienced similar loss. So that is another way how Kashmiri women use culture and community as tools of survival in a very difficult context. And then there have been songs. I know of one particular all women group, the Zanaan Wanaan. It is a Kashmiri group, it sings songs. And  there is this particular song called Vaakchu Gava, which means time is witness. So this song has not just been used to keep alive the memory of suffering and the sorrow and the loss, but also again as a means of getting together, bonding together and feeling a sense of the collective and feeling a certain  strength in facing the future. And in addition to that, there is writing and I think there is a lot of that, very creative writing, by Kashmiri women like Uzma Falak, she is a Kashmiri writer and she is also an artist. She writes of, women creating a voyistan, which is an all women  space where women sing songs and, they clap and they laugh and they eat and drink together.

That becomes again a source of overcoming the paralysis, the pain and the uncertainty. So all these cultural expressions, whatever they might be, they are at the same time linked to women's and people's experiences. And that is why they are extremely important. And that is why I think your question is important, because culture and cultural communities, are increasingly a source of strength and solidarity. They also act as a counter to dominant narratives about Kashmir and Kashmiri women and Kashmiri culture. So that would more or less be my response.

Also, I would like to add, which I wanted to earlier, but it slipped my mind, that this constant reiteration of the past, memory and history and experience, it is a way also to craft and keep the struggle for justice going. I think that is also very important because it links the culture in the political spheres and they intersect with gender and these are just, of course, women's voices and women's gatherings. I want to end by saying that I am rather ignorant about other cultural contexts, but I imagine women's expression of subjectivities of loss and pain and suffering are on similar lines in other parts of the world including South Asia.

Ms. Sayantani Bagchi

So, you place a firm emphasis on the resistance by Kashmiri women acting as the foreground for moral questions regarding safety, justice and equal opportunities. Now, all of this would be based on certain sense of shared destiny. Now, seeing the continued oppression and militarization affecting the struggle. How long do you think it will be sustained, even if just as a symbol? And how do you think the movement shall evolve in order for the spirit to endure? And if I may ask that in your experience and on ground gathering of data, what challenges do you suppose the movement would face and any ways that you would like to recommend to overcome the same?

Dr. Seema Kazi

Well, this question is interesting and also important. I am not sure whether I can answer it in totality, but I will try. To begin with, I think that it is important to recognize the importance of ethnicity and I do not mean ethnicity in the very looking at the blood lineage, but more about ethnicity in the case in Kashmir and other ethnic borderlands in India. There is a sense of a collective identity, a shared history, a memory of a shared history and a more recent memory of violence and loss. Also, importantly, a shared aspiration for a different future, whatever that might be, from the present to a very sad future. So, that is one and you talk about, you mentioned, Kashmiri women raise moral questions of safety and justice. So, that is more or less, how they view their future. I would say that, it is not really a question of equal opportunities for them, but certainly a question of a different future where they will have the agency to determine what political, social and economic life they wish to have. 

To answer the second question, how long it may take for the movement to sustain. Well, the movement has at present. especially after August 5, 2019, has certainly been silenced and it has been erased in a way. The bodies have disappeared, the protesting bodies, including women's bodies, words have been erased and, the space of civil society simply does not unfortunately exist any longer.  I mean, I am not a political scientist. So, I do not know whether how long this  sentiment may or may not last, but given my readings of other movements and movements for justice and movements for peace, I think that, it is really up to the people. I think there is a sentiment against a present unconscionable status quo. That the status quo is just so utterly intolerable. That the sentiment is against that. Now whether it will exist. in the present shape or whether it dies down or whether it takes another form altogether, I cannot speak for the people, so I cannot predict. But I think I would say in the end that to resist, unjustified oppression and hope for peace and justice is human. And to that extent, I think that people's aspirations for a better future, I think that they shall continue.

Ms. Sayantani Bagchi

Alright, so as and when we read the paper, there seems to be a bifurcation of patriarchy that is applied to women. In both emerging factions, where we see both the emerging factions, they act to their detriment. Now you have cited examples of women being treated as just collateral and agency less victims of marginalization, downplaying their position as people genuinely affected by violence and also how they are subjected to violence in the form of let us say murder, blinding and harassment. should they choose to join men in public protests. Now looking at how non-participation would lead to their classification as voiceless and agencyless victims and how participation would lead to instances of violence, how would you suggest the women voice their concerns and actively partake as affected parties?

Dr. Seema Kazi

Well, yes, I think as we discussed earlier, women have been perceived as just victims and passive victims of marginalization. And they have, of course, suffered both forms of both indirect and direct violence, indirect violence in the form of the dead or the disappeared male kin and direct violence in the case of the targeting of female bodies. But I think that women have, Kashmiri women have always articulated their concerns, but their concerns and their voices have also been shaped by the changing contours of the struggle. So that is a rather longer discussion of how women's roles have changed. But I think that one of the things which really came up, during my conversations, during my research, and this has been voiced consistently, is that Kashmiri women feel that mainland women in India have really abandoned them, they have not engaged with them, they did not had conversations about them, they have misunderstood women's concerns in Kashmir. And I think that one of the points of discord which the Kashmiri women brought up and, which I do agree, not misrepresented, but narrowed down their concerns because in the mainland the concerns largely are about women's human rights and, patriarchal oppression. Whereas for Kashmiri women, they have said this first, perhaps not so insistently, but now very much in their own ways in writing and poems and songs, etcetera, that, Kashmiri women have always wanted an end to the militarization and the repression and the occupation.

In this respect they got little support from the mainland. I think that this is something which should be highlighted more than it is and I think this would certainly convey the concerns of Kashmiri women more accurately than is presently the case, because I think the present dominant narratives reduce Kashmiri women to Islamist patriarchy and just being appendages and passive victims. So I think that I hope that this happens, because as the aftermath of August 2019  indicated, there was a silence in mainland India. Very few exceptions, of course, but there was a silence. I think that is very worrying and there should be a greater engagement with the women in Kashmir. That is the way to  open up the debate about women's concerns. Of course, there are concerns about patriarchy. But that is not the real concern. The real concern is. within the larger overarching equation of dominance between a very, very powerful state-backed patriarchy and a localized cultural patriarchy which is no match for the armed patriarchy. That is what the Kashmiri women wish to convey. That is what I think also women elsewhere, particularly all of us, need to also understand and talk about. So, that would be more or less my response.

Ms. Sayantani Bagchi

Right. So, Professor, I come to the last question for this podcast. Now, this is a purely constitutional question of course. Now, considering the lack of media coverage due to both dominant narratives and governmental overreach and infringement that we see in the form of internet bans and several instances of free speech violations alongside the military control. Now, how would you think? Further research could be conducted on the probable solutions that you have proposed, specially the empirical analysis regarding the changing landscape of both the repression and the opposing responses.

Dr. Seema Kazi 

Yeah, thank you for this question. I think that's really important. Well, I think it's really worrying and it's been really terrible,, the media coverage, the dominant media narratives, and then also the internet bans and the curbs on free speech because they have affected local civil societies and they have also created a silence, an absence. I would say that although women have always tried to raise their concerns, right now, the voices are silenced because of as you mentioned the curbs in place. And although the internet ban is no longer in place, free speech and assembly is still not allowed. So I think that so in the absence of bodies in public spaces, and with the voices silenced and with words also silenced then I think that it makes the situation very challenging. I really think that, I mean looking back on our conversation, I think that  it is really up to the government to, end this very worrying state of affairs there, because it's basically, as I said, conflict management through repression. So I think a more advisable and certainly more democratic way to work towards some  changing the landscape is to engage in an inclusive dialogue where, women, Kashmiri women would be an integral part of that dialogue. So, they can also voice their concerns and interests and policies can be shaped and informed, also keeping into account the gender concerns of women. I hope that is, I think that is the only cause. There is no other cause, apart from dialogue. And I hope that happens very soon.

Ms. Sayantani Bagchi

Alright, so we come to the end of today's podcast and we are extremely thankful to Professor Kazi for this fantastic piece which I strongly believe to be a timely and a significant contribution to the ongoing discourse on gender conflict and politics in Kashmir. And also we could see that this literature, it  highlights the need for a more nuanced understanding of the gendered dimensions of conflict and resistance. So thank you so much, Professor Kazi, for the significant questions that you left us with. And I'm sure our listeners have... gathered the interest, the much needed interest, and they are definitely going to pursue their research and their quest to unearth several related questions with regard to what you have discussed today. So once again, thank you so much, Dr. Kazi, for gracing us, and we look forward to hosting you really soon at the NLUJ campus.

Dr. Seema Kazi

Thank you very much, Sayantani, and thank you also to the journal and to all colleagues who helped have this conversation. I hope you found it useful and I look forward to future conversations. Thank you very much.

Ms. Sayantani Bagchi

Thank you, Thank you so much.


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