• Publish Date: Oct 12 2017 1:54AM
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  • Updated Date: Oct 12 2017 1:54AM

A Kashmir narrative through gender-lens


Moving beyond male voices, many women writers have begun seeing the Kashmir conflict through gender-sensitive lens with the aim to focus on the struggles of women and children of the restive Himalayan Valley.

One such writer is Freny Manecksha, an independent journalist from the Indian city of Mumbai.

She has been covering Kashmir since 2010. She felt the difference between seeing Kashmir from Mumbai and seeing Kashmir from Kashmir.

Freny’s debut non-fiction work Behold, I Shine is based on narratives of the Kashmiri women and children whose lives have been ruptured by militarization in post-1989 Kashmir.

In the pre-militancy days, she had visited the Kashmir Valley as a student and also a trekker. Her frequent visits to Kashmir since last seven years, as a journalist, have improved her understanding of Kashmir’s political landscape, social issues and cultural milieu.

By Freny’s own admission, the 2010 summer uprising in Kashmir and the cruel plight of many single women, widows and half-widows, “brought about a quantum shift in my perceptions of the region (Kashmir).”

What exactly compelled her to come to Kashmir, as a scribe, in 2010?

“The ever-increasing toll of fatalities—largely of youth—made me very uneasy. Were these young boys and even some girls actually being paid by Pakistan—as the Indian government claimed—to throng the streets, throw stones and get killed?...,” she writes in the preface of her book.

Finally, a fellow journalist Dilnaz Boga convinced Freny to land in Kashmir. 

What motivated her to write a book on Kashmir?

“I guess every journalist has a compelling itch to write and for me Kashmir was an obvious choice, not just because I have a huge attraction for its people, but also because, in a way, it is also facilitated by the way Kashmiris are so articulate,” she tells Kashmir Ink in an e-mailed response.

Why particularly about women?

“Most Kashmiri women speak out so forcefully, so eloquently, at times even poetically that often I feel I am just doing a stenographer’s job. I just have to facilitate the way they can reach out to a wider audience. Their stories are a most valued gift to me,” she adds.

“I have written in the book about the specific incidents that sparked my interest in looking at stories with a gender–perspective and, as I progressed, I found the subtle and nuanced aspects of women’s narratives very interesting. For example when a half- widow says she is faced with a difficult choice where remarriage is concerned because she is not sure if her daughter will be accepted by the prospective new groom, you realize her dilemma is both peculiar to the conflict but also universal because patriarchy and discrimination against the girl-child exists everywhere,” she tells Kashmir Ink.

And, then you learn that these half-widows are now forming associations and becoming a kind of family of their own. They network, they meet and make it a point to attend weddings or celebrations of each other’s children. That is such a remarkable change.”

In the first chapter of her book titled A Soldier Under A Chinar, Freny writes about the impact of militarization on Kashmir’s society.

During one of her travels in Kashmir the author’s attention gets drawn to two women walking across a field.

“Simply clad in pherans (Kashmir’s traditional long cloak made of wool or tweed), with baskets placed on their heads, they looked around warily and then faded into a greying horizon. A soldier in full gear—battle fatigues, a helmet, boots and a rifle—watched them intently from his position under a chinar tree,” she writes. 

Seeing the gun-toting Indian soldiers stationed in every nook and cranny of the restive Kashmir Valley made Freny wonder “what do women feel about the presence of strangers holding guns and grenades, in their own fields and orchards?”

She then explains how the massive presence of the military was being viewed differently by the native Kashmiris and tourists from different parts of India visiting Kashmir.

“Suddenly, a smartly dressed Indian lady tourist in trousers and coat, with a little boy in tow, strode towards some of the troops and greeted them with confidence and ease…,” she writes.

In her lucid narrative she also explains how Kashmir lost its traditional social spaces like yaarbals (washing ghats) and other places to unplanned construction of colonies, overpopulation, urbanization, and conflict and militarization etcetera.

At yaarbals the “women would assemble at midday, not just to wash clothes but talk”.

Dr. Arshad Hussain, one of Kashmir’s leading psychiatrists, tells her how Kashmiri families would organise picnics at once a large badamwari (alcove of almonds)—stretching across several hundred acres of land in Rainawari, Srinagar.

“It (badamwari) was a space where families would flock after the end of harsh winter; or where they would have picnics with, white sheets spread out to hold nun-chai (salty Kashmiri tea); or where jugglers and magicians and vendors selling water chestnuts would gather.

 “Today, this erstwhile badamwari has given way to concrete colonies. Others have been taken over by the army,” she writes.

In Chapter eight Where Else Can I Go (Women, Spirituality and the Valley), the author elucidates what Kashmir’s Sufi shrines mean for Kashmiri women.

Mahum, a Kashmiri researcher, explains to Freny “the special allure that Kashmir’s shrines held for her” a day before both of them visit the Khanqah of Mir Sayyid Ali Hamadani, a Persian saint of Kubrawiya order, in downtown Srinagar.

Traditionally, many women in Kashmir are regular shrine-goers. Apart from gaining spiritual solace, some of them also find the act of visiting shrines as a cathartic exercise.

Dr Arshad Hussain informs the author that “shrines formed the strongest psychotherapeutic chambers in Kashmir particularly in conflict”.

Apart from being “spaces of great healing”, the shrines are places where “a woman can kneel, arms outstretched and urge the saint to pay heed to the secrets of her heart”. ‘Where else can I go’!

Freny’s book is spanned over 146 pages. It documents pain and resilience of the Kashmiri women and children, including political and social activists like Anjum Zamrud Habid and Parveena Ahanger.

Before Freny, India’s noted academic and author Mridu Rai in 2004 wrote a book titled Hindu Rulers, Muslim Subjects, which talks about the genesis of the Kashmir issue. It is a perspective study which discusses the origins of the current problem that Kashmir is.

In the last two decades or so, many Kashmiri women authors like Essar Batool, Ifrah Butt, Munaza Rashid, Natasha Rather, and Samreen Mushtaq (Do You Remember  Kunan Poshpora), the London-based academic and novelist Dr. Nitasha Kaul (Residue), Indiana-based anthropologist Mona Bhan (Counterinsurgency, Democracy, and the Politics of Identity in India: From Warfare to Welfare?), Chitralekha Zutshi (Belonging: Islam, Regional Identity, and the Making of Kashmir), Srinagar-based Dr. Rumana Hamid Makhdoomi (White Man in Dark), political and social activist Anjum Zamarud Habib (Qaidi Number 100), Dr Saba Shafi Makhdoomi (Leaves from Kashmir), chairperson J&K State Commission for Women Nayeema Mahjoor (Lost in Terror) and several other native Kashmiri female authors have written on and about Kashmir.

“Yes, it is very gratifying to see women speaking out and writing themselves to power—whether it is about the Kunan Poshpora case, the abject condition of jails and the plight of Kashmiris and women in the jails or the struggles to become a doctor. Some of the above mentioned books helped me gain valuable insights,” Freny tellsKashmir Ink.

Freny’s exhilarating account based on personal experiences, interactions and interviews with cross-section of Kashmiris deserves to be read. The book extensively talks about the impacts of militarization on Kashmir’s women, problems faced by the half-widows and half-mothers whose husbands and sons have been made to disappear in custody, sexual violence, memory in Kashmir, shrines as healing places for women, dissent and feminism in a new millennium etc. Grab your copy.