November issue 2010
Veil of Silence
By Tahira Abdullah | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 13 years ago
The two longest festering sores in the world are Kashmir and Palestine, around which the majority of the jihadists do their emotive recruitments of would-be suicide bombers and terrorists. However, while Palestine never went off the global radar screen, Kashmir did, until the 1989 indigenous uprising in Indian-Administered Kashmir (IAK).
The Indian government’s denial of access to IAK for human rights defenders results in the world seeing either the official Indian view or reports of occasional visitors.
The world certainly does not see the human — much less the most vulnerable — victims of the Kashmiri Intifada: the Kashmiri women. Seema Kazi rectifies that, and OUP deserves commendation for bringing her to Pakistani readers. Herself a product of a divided family, Kazi’s PhD studies at the London School of Economics have resulted in this book.
Kazi describes the “military impasse between India and Pakistan with nuclear overtones; as a war between Indian soldiers and Kashmiri militants; as a war between Indian soldiers and militants supported by the state of Pakistan; and… as a war waged by the Indian state against Kashmir’s citizens.” Her primary focus is on gender and the destruction of civil society. “By placing women’s subjective experience of militarisation at the centre of the analytic frame, this study seeks to establish the link between state military processes at a ‘national’ level and gender transformations at a local/societal level.”
An ambitious objective, one in which Kazi succeeds in qualitative terms, but not in terms of social science academic rigour. The study does not employ a demographically representative sample. It documents the experiences of a small group of Kashmiri women and a few men. Nevertheless, the broader theoretical underpinnings of a gendered discourse are meticulously researched and enunciated — the recognition of the need to challenge the dominant narrative “where masculine (state vs. male militants) experience is assumed to be the substantive, valid experience of militarisation… The argument around gender cannot claim an ‘authentic’ women’s experience, for it would conform to the same essentialist argument that constitutes the basis of its critique. What gender does legitimately seek is its validity as a constitutive element of national and international politics… to the extent that Kashmiri women are absent in dominant narratives on Kashmir, reclaiming women’s experiences is a step towards the larger project of challenging such narratives.”
Indian repression and abuse in Kashmir, says Kazi, “includes not only direct violence against civilians by the military, but also patterns of gendered abuse such as rape — both of which constitute part of the methodology of war… including arbitrary detention, extra-judicial killings, torture, rape and sexual abuse.” She argues that in “social relations of gender, the struggle for azadi centres on women’s conventional role as mothers, wives and sisters… These roles have become politicised in the face of a gendered onslaught by the Indian state against Kashmiri men.” She highlights the “essential paradox between women’s significant role in the struggle for azadi… and their political marginalisation… shaped by patriarchal social context… Widowhood heightens economic insecurity, emotional stress and sexual vulnerability and impacts women’s right to property and child custody… It also subjects them to sexual abuse by the military… tolerated, condoned… [as] such rape represents the appropriation of cultural constructions of ‘honour’ in order to inflict collective defeat on the ‘enemy’… Women pay a political price for a military occupation centred on the humiliation and emasculation of Kashmiri men.”
For feminists and the South Asian women’s movement, the most alarming aspect is that “militarisation in Kashmir has generated a masculine social environment that… subjects women to greater social policing, control and regressive versions of ‘Islamic’ identity… [The] argument is that Kashmir’s ‘fundamentalist’ politics are fuelled and sustained by [the state] policy of militarisation that undermines the rule of law and citizens’ democratic human rights… [It] illustrates… constructions of gender that reproduce and/or reinforce social hierarchy.” To Pakistanis, this discourse is reminiscent of General Zia-ul-Haq’s nightmarish “Islamisation” project (1977-88), with its horrific brutalities and repressions.
Although voices are consistently raised in protest against human rights abuses of Kashmiri women in IAK, and against the increasing militarisation and militancy on both sides of the PAK/IAK LoC, these voices are conspicuously absent from this discourse. Further, the complete absence of discussion or even acknowledgement of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 is surprising.
There is a curious use of language woven through the book. In places there are empathetic terms (“the Kashmiri uprising”), while other expressions seem to be straight out of Doordarshan (“Pakistan-abetted terrorism” and “the 1989-90 revolt,” reminiscent of Imperial Britain’s terming India’s First War of Independence in 1857 as a “Mutiny”). It is not possible to keep readers happy on both sides of the LoC or even between Srinagar and Delhi, or to be ‘objective.’ Kazi does not even try: “Representing Kashmiri women… is a legitimate exercise as long as it is cognisant of its own partiality within a larger, complex context… In so doing, it inserts women back into the story of militarisation in Kashmir… not as a purely ‘academic’ exercise, but with political responsibility and epistemic validity… reclaiming marginal voices.”
Nevertheless, Kazi takes care not to fall into the trap of lazy generalisations: “Women do not constitute a singular, undifferentiated social group, nor are they bound by homogenous experience.” It is important to focus on women’s subjective experience of conflict “‘differently’… and it can be synthesised towards a larger understanding of gender vis-Ã -vis militarisation in Kashmir… illuminating the intrinsic link between state and military processes on the one hand and gender transformation on the other. Rape and sexual abuse of women by the military is as much part of the crisis of militarism as the arbitrary and unlawful killing of civilians.”
Kazi emphasises the indigenous nature of the Intifada, and refrains from blaming Pakistan, but there is, nevertheless, some attempt at journalistic ‘balance’: “While I hold the Indian state primarily responsible for militarisation in Kashmir, I also acknowledge Pakistan’s secondary role and influence in the state.” Further: “In contrast to the ‘national’ consensus (in India) regarding Pakistan’s support for the revolt in Kashmir, the movement for azadi evoked alarm rather than elation within the Pakistani establishment… [re.] restive Sindh, Balochistan and NWFP… Pakistan’s motivation to intervene in Kashmir was fuelled not so much by ideological support for azadi as by its discomfiture and deep fear of Kashmiri nationalism that could, possibly, threaten its own political status quo. The primary intent of the Pakistani state, therefore, was to usurp rather than support the movement for azadi.
The women’s recorded testimonies are heartbreaking. Kazi’s central message is unequivocally clear: “Kashmir’s citizens pay the highest and most grievous price for militarisation… built upon foundations of collective violence, terror and pain… [which] tears into Kashmir’s social fabric to generate individual and collective trauma, social dislocation, cultural destruction, socio-economic devastation, ethnic fragmentation and the destruction of Kashmir’s civil society… Missing or ‘disappeared’ young men, extra-judicial killings, widows and half-widows, orphans, ubiquitous graveyards; collective fear, grief and trauma underscore the paradox of a democracy that invests the military with power to derogate citizens’ non-derogable rights, even as it simultaneously insulates the military from public scrutiny and accountability. Kashmir… symbolises the enduring contradiction between the Indian state’s claim to democracy and legitimacy, and its undemocratic and illegitimate violation of the rule of law.”
Such passages must be music to the ears of the All-Parties Hurriyat Conference and the hawks within the Pakistani establishment, but the latter need to be cautioned against too much jubilation, as a number of human rights abuses could be laid at their door too, e.g. the mysterious kidnapping and “rendition” of Dr Aafia Siddiqui, as well as hundreds of our own “missing persons” (notably Zarina Baloch Marri), whose cases are being pursued in the Supreme Court, through the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) and the Defence of Human Rights Organisation (DHRO). We have our own share of ‘half-widows’ too: Amina Masood Janjua, and the young women, Raheela Hambal Akhtar and Saima Shahid Hussain — they are just the tip of the iceberg. And never to be forgotten is the mass rape of women in then East Pakistan during 1970-71.
Kazi’s research leads to conclusions that are hardly surprising: the inherent resistance of Kashmiri men to acknowledge the frontline role of the women in the Intifada; or the de facto but not de jure position they hold as Women Heads of Household (WHH), but without the actual power and authority that position ought to engender; or “the manifest reluctance of Kashmiri men to accept women as political equals… Kashmir’s social ethos is imbued with a distinct patriarchal attitude, resistant to the idea of women’s equality… Its benign patriarchy secures compliance by restricting women’s agency.” She concludes: “It is in this context that we must situate women’s absence within the echelons of Kashmir’s militant factions. None has women in their executive bodies.”
She then makes a stinging indictment: “The contradiction between women’s involvement in the mobilisation for azadi and their political marginalisation is a painful one… male politicians and militant leaders, as well as Kashmiri society, remain largely indifferent to the fate of female survivors of [state] violence… The profound lack of public accountability… places Kashmiri women beyond the pale of the official War Story.”
The discussion of rape carries the heading: “A Matter of ‘Honour.’” Reliable data is not available, but evidence exists that “rape by the military is a frequent occurrence… and routinely goes unpunished… [For] rape victims to report to the very authorities who raped them is ironic.” While there is routine official denial of allegations of rape being used as a weapon of war, Kazi documents an exception: in reply to the question “Why have the maximum number of rapes taken place in Kupwara district?” a Director-General of Police (DGP) retorted: “Because it is a badly infested terrorist area.” Curiously, while Kazi sees “rape by security forces in Kashmir as a weapon to inflict collective ‘dishonour’ on Muslim Kashmiri men… to punish, intimidate, coerce, humiliate and degrade,” she fails to see another, more sinister motive behind these rapes, as a deliberate tactic for demographic change and “ethnic cleansing” `a la Bosnia-Herzegovina. Amnesty International reported investigating a particularly horrific mass rape incident in Kunan Poshpora village in February 1991, confirmed by the local magistrate stating: “The armed forces had turned violent and behaved like beasts.”
The Kashmiri men’s reaction is very painful: “The men of Kunan Poshpora lament the fate that befell their women; yet, when asked whether they would marry raped women, they were categorical in their refusal; they would not marry anyone from the ‘village of raped women’ — after all, ‘yeh to izzat ka sawaal hai.’” Commendably, Kazi does not hesitate to record the rape of both Muslim and Hindu Pandit women by the militants/jihadis, albeit for different reasons: “Both the military and militants prey upon and exploit the tragedy, sorrow and vulnerabilities of Kashmiri women to advance their respective political agendas.”
“Kashmir’s militant leaders have cashed in on public anger against rape by the military, yet their own patriarchy… does not alter the social realities of rape survivors… the politics of rape [have]… failed to acknowledge women’s contribution to the struggle and done little to affirm the dignity and self-worth of rape survivors… the permeation of Kashmir’s secular struggle with an Islamist ideology has reinforced male domination, through forced burqa and dress codes and huge gender disparities in education and healthcare… There is no recourse… The state, militants, Kashmiri society, [none] has any support or solace to offer women… [whose] tragedies have no bearing on Kashmir’s politics and evoke little sympathy.”
Kazi concludes by “Re-Imagining India by Re-Imagining Kashmir,” a plea, not for the slogan of azadi, but for “reconciliation, justice, accommodation… democracy and… public accountability for Kashmir’s human rights tragedy” — as well as for a “non-national vision for Kashmir based on recognition and respect for Kashmiri identity and aspiration rather than territorial obsession.”
This is not an “easy” book to read or digest, for the horrifying truths it unveils vis-Ã -vis militarisation and the outrageous and unspeakable plight of Kashmiri women, but for those who do succeed in ploughing through it, the experience is educative and enlightening. It makes compelling reading and serves as an eye-opener and a path-breaking attempt to make the sordid facts accessible to the outside world. It validates and verifies what most of us vaguely already knew, despite the veil of silence around the vale.
The writer is a well known Human Right activist based in Islamabad.