Women in Kashmir reckon with state violence.
“We will not settle for anything less. We want freedom. We wanted it years back, we want it now, and we will fight for it until we attain it.”
I heard these words from a young woman in Anchar, a suburb of Srinagar which during the siege last summer was fortified by locals with bricks, tin sheets, and wooden logs to keep the Indian armed forces away. This was exemplary during a time when most of the Kashmir valley was silenced by Indian guns, intimidated into submission by more than 500,000 military troops.
At the forefront of this resistance were Anchar’s women, who have inherited a long lineage of participation in the liberation struggle, but whose stories remain largely untold.
“We just want our Kashmir to be free, we don’t need anything else. We want separation from India. Even if they lock us up for a year, we will continue fighting,” said one of the protestors outside Janab Sahib Shrine.
The role of women in Kashmiri resistance historically has not received the attention it deserves; the focus has been on male participation, with women framed as mere spectators, witnesses, or as a turf of war via their sexuality. This has resulted in a narrative that deprives women of their own political agency. But, as newer research has begun to illuminate, Kashmiri women have not only been active in this latest crisis, but long before it as well.
The locality around Anchar has had a proud history of political participation, from agitation against the forced labor policies of the Dogra rulers before 1947 to the origins of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation front. “In this fight we stand with our men shoulder to shoulder,” said a 50-year-old woman in town, echoing sentiments that have reverberated for decades.
Indeed, when I visited Anchar in September 2019 and saw women out on the streets, I did not consider it a novel phenomenon; I saw it as Kashmiri women claiming their rightful space in political life. On September 13, I went to the shrine, where the protest marches began. At one o’clock, the room was filled with women lining up to offer Friday namaz. As the prayers echoed through the hall of the shrine, everyone was shedding tears. Afterwards, people gathered in the park of the shrine and started sloganeering: “Jis Kashmir ko khoon se sencha, vo Kashmir humara hai.”
“Go India Go Back.”
Women’s resistance in Kashmir takes different shapes; sometimes it is a desperate reaction to state violence, and sometimes it is a calculated strategy, forged among collectives of women who share grievances.
When Abdul Qadeer Khan was famously arrested by Dogra rulers in 1931 after giving a speech (his first and last political appearance) urging Kashmiris to rise up against the oppressive monarchy, which was followed by many more arrests and executions, women contributed critically to the ensuing struggle. Women took parts in protests with their children. Many women died as the royal soldiers opened fire. Bodies of women and men were dumped in the Jhelum river.
We march along with our children. If we die, we all die together. What is the point in living a life like this, without freedom?
One of the icons of this fight was Fazli, who was killed on September 24, 1931, when the military open fired on a procession of women parading through the Srinagar’s Maisuma bazaar. When Sheikh Abdullah, a popular leader of that time, was arrested by the Indian government and replaced by another puppet regime, the women of Maisuma would make kerosene bombs at home and hurl them at Indian forces whenever they would disrupt peaceful protests or come to pick up activists.
In November 1973, the Kashmir administration proposed to change the name of the Government College for Women, in Srinagar, to “Nehru Memorial College” in honor of Jawaharlal Nehru, who came from a Kashmiri Hindu community. The students of the college rose up against the change. They were a politically conscious body of students aware of the ways in which India was imposing its hegemony. Two women, Shareefa Qureshi and Naseema Rafai, led the protests and were successful in stopping the name change.
Jahan Ara, an active protester during the 1960s from the Government College for Women, told me: “Women [in Kashmir] are empowered. They have always been empowered. When I see girls on the street these days it gives me a sense of satisfaction.” She was overwhelmed by increasing attempts to document the role of women in resistance, something that was missing during her time.
Echoing the struggles of her foremothers, one of the protestors in Anchar said: “We march along with our children. If we die, we all die together.”
“What is the point in living a life like this, without freedom?”
The women of Anchar took part in carrying stones, tin sheets, and wooden logs to build barricades around the locality to prevent the Indian forces from entering and assaulting the people. On September 13, after the protest, Indian forces fired pellets from outside the barricades and injured four men, including a 12-year-old boy.
It is important to mention that the protest was entirely peaceful. Most of the time, the Indian state legitimizes its use of indiscriminate force against Kashmiris on the pretext of “violent protests.” However, as seen in Anchar in September, regardless of the means of resistance, the Indian operation retaliates with force. It is also pertinent to deconstruct the word violence as a blanket term. Street protests in Kashmir tend to use stones against Indian forces armed with bullet guns, pellet guns, and head-to-toe armor; the skeweedpower dynamic is visceral.
The shooting happened only after the protest was over and people were relaxing in the gardens of the local masjid. Five people were injured, including a 13-year-old boy. “This infuriated me,” said Zeenat, one of the protesters. “I picked up stones from the ground and ran towards the barricades to hurl them on the forces. Then someone told me my brother had been picked up by the forces. I felt weak and the stones fell from my hands.”
When I had asked her about her participation, she said: “When I am out there on the streets, I am in a trance, I fight openly. All I think about is the atrocities that Kashmiris have gone through for decades and that fuels my angst. I don’t think about how the forces will deal with us.”
“Be it bullets, be it pellets, we march along.”
On September 14, 2019, a woman from Anchar named Rabiya was picked up by policemen when she had gone out to buy medicine. Rabiya was accompanied by Zeenat, another woman from the locality. Suddenly, they were surrounded by policemen. Just the fact that the women belonged to Anchar, the hotspot of protests, was enough of an excuse for the policemen to harass them. Undeterred, Rabiya shot back. “I am not one of those who fears you,” she said. One of the policemen hit Zeenat’s wrist with his baton and the other hit her leg. Zeenat then pushed through the policemen and ran towards her house. Unfortunately Rabiya could not run as fast; she was caught and detained for more than 12 hours without the presence of a female police officer.
I want my children to see a free Kashmir.
I met Rabiya later in her home, surrounded by a group of women. She described how while in custody, she had appealed to the police to allow her young son to join her because he was nursing. The Station House Officer responded by saying: “should he die, they will get his body to the police station only.” Unapologetic and brave about her stance, Rabiya told me: “They can arrest me, release me, and re-arrest me however many times they want; I will still protest and resist this occupation which has ruined generations in Kashmir. I want my children to see a free Kashmir.”
Women like Rabiya join many iconic Kashmiri women who have faced the strong arm of the military while engaging in resistance. For example, in the 1940s, Noor Gujri “plagued the military and police through her vituperative utterance[s] and pugnacious pranks,” wrote scholar Shazia Malik, and was arrested several times. Another local leader known as the “mother of protests,” Raja Begum, led marches against the brutalities of the Indian armed forces from the 1950s to the 1990s. On the occasion of one arrest, thousands gathered outside the police station demanding her release.
More recently, Parveena Ahangar, one of the leading human rights defenders in Kashmir today, has been fighting to search for the some-8000 Kashmiri men who were disappeared by Indian government forces in the valley. Parveena co-founded the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) in 1994 after her 17-year-old son Javed was picked up by the Indian military and disappeared in custody. On the tenth of every month, the APDP protests in Srinagar for the return of their sons, husbands, and fathers, standing firmly against the iron-fisted Indian occupation.
Anjum Zamarud Habib is another well-known activist and founder of the Tehreek-e-Khawateen, a political front for women. Habib mobilized women from all over Kashmir, with the goal of creating discourse to counter the false narratives being peddled by the Indian occupation. The organization would document stories of families of men picked up by (and eventually disappeared) by the Indian armed forces and publish them in a local Urdu daily. But in 2003, Habib was arrested by the Indian government on charges of “funding terrorist organizations.” These were unfounded charges, but Habib still languished in India’s Tihar jail for five years.
Her work of documentation was also lost. “I had a file of all the newspaper clippings, but when I was arrested, they raided my office and destroyed all paperwork,” she told me.
Habib has been monetarily supporting the families of a few Kashmiri prisoners in Indian jails. She has also attempted to form a group, “Association of Families of Kashmiri Prisoners,” to initiate collective legal action in support of the prisoners. She said: “Fighting this occupation is a communal responsibility, in which Kashmiri women have a huge part. We have the capacity and the strength to influence the narrative and transform the conditions.”
By the 1990s, Kashmiris started joining militant groups after exploring all other non-armed options for gaining self-determination and independence from India. Soon, India imposed the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in Kashmir, which gave the military indiscriminate ability to control the region. With growing army brutality and increased killings of Kashmiri civilians and fighters, more and more young Kashmiris joined militancy, making life a vicious circle of violence and state terrorism. The role that many women adopted during this phase was that of “Over Ground Workers” or OGWs. The women would manage militant hideouts, carry arms and ammunition, and share information on suspected informants of the government. If these women were caught by the Indian armed forces, they were not shown any mercy and would be brutally beaten, raped, or killed.
“Conflicts can both empower and disempower women, since women can be at the same time included in practice and yet excluded ideologically,” observes scholar Haleh Afshar.
In conflict zones, the distinction between the war front and the home front tends to overlook the participation of women. However, in Kashmir, this distinction is blurred. With state violence spilling from the streets into the home, the location of conflict is increasingly intimate.
Kashmiri women have been on the receiving end of the Indian state’s arbitrariness and militarism. They have seen their sons and brothers die in war; they have seen their sisters killed by the occupier; they have been victims of occupier’s sexual violence. The memories and experience of such hardships have pushed them toward various kinds of resistance, be that participating in reactionary rallies, joining institutional movements, or embarking on long-term political fights for accountability and justice.
In search of freedom, and pushed by brutal oppression and accumulated anger, their presence is felt on every kind of front line.