Interview of Natasha Rather and Ifrah Butt
Natasha Rather and Ifrah Butt are two of the five co-writers of ‘Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora‘–published by Zubaan Books in March, 2016. Rather than engaging in a more generalized discussions on Kashmir, We decided to focus on the book, thus inevitably drawing on the larger histories of Kashmir. and the socio-political contexts of the resistance movement. The interview has been conducted by Nandini and Pramod. Ujjwal and Trishnika are on camera.
For most of us, in middle-class India, “Kashmir” appears as a stereotype – mountains, snow, shawls, firhan, terrorists, tourism. Our media reinforces these stereotypes in myriad ways. And, we prefer to look away. This “looking away” is the strange prerogative for those of us who are the citizens of an empire, the metropole, the colonial center. Yet, the occupation of Kashmir by a country whose citizenship we claim, implicates us. It poses upon us the responsibility to know more, to learn, to act.
The occupation also implicates us as Indian citizens, as Indian women, as Indian feminists.
Yes, the Indian feminists carry a special burden. A burden that begins with the fact that the Indian feminists are, still, by and large, an elite bunch. Predominantly upper-caste, predominantly middle-class, predominantly urban, predominantly over-educated. Consequently, even when massive protests broke out in New Delhi in 2012 – attended by an unprecedented number of women, who probably have never walked in a political rally before – against the gang-rape of Jyoti Singh, the young physiotherapist, almost no attempts were made to think of rape as one of the crucial weapons of the state. Almost no attempts were made to invoke the ways in which rape becomes a central weapon of the Indian occupation in Kashmir and elsewhere in the Northeast. Soni Sori and the women of Bastar remained largely outside of the scope of 2012 protests and the subsequent media-discussions of rape and sexual violence.
In that context, the book Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora, co-written by five young Kasmiri women–Essar Batool, Ifrah Butt, Munaza Rashid, Samreena Mushtaq and Natasha Rather–poses a special challenge to the Indian feminists. It demands, that they recognize the Indian occupation and the ways in which that occupation uses sexual violence as one of its crucial tools. It also demands that they see Kashmiri women as political subjects, and not blank slates upon which Kashmiri men write their own political agenda. In very practical terms, such recognition would also entail that we, as Indian feminists, every time we are asked to take into account the question of occupation with its attendant state terror and violence, we do not deflect the conversation towards the patriarchy of the Kashmiri society and the resistance movement. In other words, the book demands that as gender activists, cultural workers, writers and feminists, we examine our own political investments and implications within ideas of nation, nationalism and colonialism, while not losing sight of the fact that gender plays an extremely important role in Kashmir– both in terms of the everyday realities of the occupation and the anti-occupation resistance. As Essar Batool, one of the co-writers, wrote in one of her recent posts on Facebook, “’Misguided’, ‘jihadi’, ‘illiterate’, ‘ oppressed’ women of Kashmir, voicing their opinions on roads, in huge numbers. Indian feminists have been telling us that we need azaadi not from India but from patriarchy.”
We got a chance to spend some time with Natasha Rather and Ifrah Butt, two of the five co-writers of the book, when they visited Kolkata recently. This interview is a result of our interactions.
– Nandini Dhar
Transcription of the interview
Nandini: So, why Kunan Poshpora? And–if I got it right from reading the book–that most of you are very young, right? And may be also that some of the writers were not even born! So what made you go into this particular space, into this particular case, and what is very specific and special about these instances.
Natasha: ‘Why Kunan Poshpora?’ is the question we get asked a lot of time. Kunan Poshpora happened back in 1991. Most of us were not even born or too young to know what was happening around. But the atrocities that happened in Kunan Poshpora is talked about a lot. Reason for that is, the people of Kunan Poshpora kept their struggle alive for 23 years till the PIL was filed for reopening of the case. Kunan and Poshpora, these twin villages have somehow come to epitomize the struggle of Kashmiri women, and how the Indian state backlashes on the women, and attacks… The patriarchy of the society to repress the people–and that’s why Kunan Poshpora. There are lot of cases of sexual violence in Kashmir, but there are no such case of mass rape and torture in one night in any other village than Kunan Poshpora. There have been other cases but people have preferred to remain silent about it, to not carry the struggle forward and to not talk about it. But people of Kunan and Poshpora have they always decided…you know…on the next day that happened they decided that they would fight for justice. And one of the survivors says that they decided to struggle for justice because they do not want this incident to be repeated in other villages. If they had preferred to remain silent, the Indian Army would have continued their exercise in other places and raped more women, tortured more men. They wanted to fight for that, they wanted that to stop. That is why Kunan Poshpora.
Nandini: I would love to talk a little bit about the structure of the book. The first of that: you introduced the book through your own stories. The writers of this book–you–are coming together through this act of writing the book, through getting to know about Kunan Poshpora, and also there is that element of forgetting, right? That most of you were very young when it happened, and also everyone knows a little bit about these villages, but at the same time it is not like it’s talked about every day, even within the resistance movement. The way I read the book, the first chapter is really a story of the co-authors and how they themselves were politicized through this act of writing the book. But then it also becomes the story of the rape survivors–the other women who are coming in contact with you, and the work that you were doing in trying to get the story out, right? So the survivors themselves are breaking their own silence. So, there is also another order of politicization that’s happening. So as a writer myself and someone who is interested in writing, one of the things that I’m extremely struck by that how writing can bring so many women together! So writing itself becomes a very political act. How did you actually think of writing? And especially writing as in relationship to women who are placed in occupied lands.
Natasha: You talked about silence. I’d like to begin with saying that all of us co-authors of the book were born and brought up in a very secured environment, where our parents did not allow us to talk much about politics. For example, our co-author Samreena—if you’ve read the book—she has a very tragic personal story, but her mother never allowed her to talk about her father, who was killed. All of us went to missionary schools and we had that sort of education where we were told to be apolitical, to be led away from the politics. Our only aim that we were taught was to get good education and get a good job for ourselves, and not really ask questions about what was happening outside.
I’ll tell you my story. I used to ask my father what’s happening. He never encouraged such questions, we never had discussions about politics. Yes! There were times my parents get infuriated about what was happening outside and they would discuss, but never so much in front of me, because they wanted to keep me secure and away from that. That sort of an upbringing inculcates in you a culture of remaining silent about what is happening around and not asking questions. But then when you grow up in an environment where you see bloodshed, tortures, and killings every day, you tend to question because we are all thinking individuals. We want to know what is happening and why this is happening. And that’s how…that’s something that shaped our personal journeys and helped to shape our political identities also, because you ask questions and you don’t get answers from people who immediately surround you, and you turn to books, you look for answers there. That’s how you realize that there’s a lot of… It’s empowering to be with books and actually to write about it, because you know so much that you want to give a vent to it, and you don’t know what else to do, so you write about it. So writing for us…writing this book is very empowering experience for us. Ifrah, you want to add to this…?
Ifrah: the first chapter of the book in which we gave our introduction…I think that’s one of the very interesting chapters, because we had to tell people our stories, how we were brought up in the same environment, but still we somehow had this inculcated in us that we just can’t be silent about such things. We have to speak out despite being oppressed. All of us have similar stories but yet they are different. Every one of us has suffered this suppression by the state but we somehow came out of it. And this is the platform which we chose to express ourselves and tell others what is happening to us. So this chapter was be very important and all of us have shared our personal experiences in this introduction part of the book.
Natasha: And also talking about how it has been empowering for the victims, they’ve shared their stories with many people. But they’ve been passed on as something different, they’ve been termed as victims. But nobody recognizes the fact that they are actually survivors, people who have fought for it. Victimizing people who are struggling for justice is not really doing justice to them. So when those women narrated their experiences to us it was responsibility on our shoulders to actually put it down the way that they wanted. They wanted to be represented as strong women, women who actually are really fighting the occupation. Those are the real women and those are the unsung heroes of our struggle for justice and struggle for independence. So I think it was very, very empowering for us and the women and everybody who was involved in the process of writing the book.
Nandini: Which brings me to the next question which is idea of writing as collaboration… And I think that especially if you are in academia, you are doing you PhD research, often times in social sciences you go to some kind of field, right? And the book or the thesis that comes out of the process is still under your name, or one author’s name. But also the idea of collaboration between your co-authors…what did that mean for all of you that you are not really claiming authorship for any one person. But also the collaboration as in taking the repeated trips to those villages, getting the men and women involved and involve children…and I think that it’s one of the striking things about the book…that it actually talks about the children, that how children…it’s not just about the adults. When you have something like a militarized zone with very gendered kind of conflicts and history of sexual violence, the children are politicized, they are right at the middle of the conflicts. So, what does collaboration mean for you in terms of writing this book and also what are the challenges that you faced? Any differences of opinion, in terms of all the co-authors… But also again, when you talk about that there have been journalists and media personals who have been to Kunan Poshpora, but at the same time most of the villagers felt that they came, got their stories, made money out of it…so the question of trust between the five of you and the rest of the villagers…
Ifrah: it is one of the most important things of the data which we compiled and the interview which we did. They are not taken in a day or in two days. We continuously went to the villages, almost every weekend and we discussed…
Nandini: And how long have you been going?
Ifrah: More than a year. This was the first time that a group of people went to their villages so many times. We discussed the structure of the book with the villagers and we took everybody with us on board–the men, women and the children. The children helped us with the mapping of the villages. There are images of the maps in the books. The children are usually not talked about, they are always seen as stigmatized because their mothers were raped. But they have their own stories—not many people have talked about them, they have not been documented. We somehow felt their pain and we thought that they also need to be documented—their stories need to be written.
So, there is the chapter that talks about stigma, talks about how they were forced to drop out from schools and we decided collaborative writing. The five of us decided that we have separate chapters, each chapter will have a different theme. So that we can avoid the overlapping, differences of opinion. So that everybody gets one chapter, so that she is able to focus on that particular topic. They are very different chapters. The topics are diverse—while one chapter talks about the legal procedure, other is talking about social stigma. Natsha’s chapter is based on the larger context of violence in J&K. Every chapter is different but somehow everything connects to the main theme of Kunan Poshpora.
Nandini: Just in terms of talking to you, but also listening to your talk—both the formal and informal ones—I felt that all the other stuff…I sort of knew about them from news etc., as I’m not exactly coming from a place where I knew nothing. But something that struck me a lot is the banning of student unions and I think for most of us, our first politicization happened through student unions inside of the campuses. And that made me think about that even when from outside we support a movement, we support it almost unconditionally. What are the realities that we cannot have access to, as people who are providing solidarity from outside as well as the lives of the people who are right within the occupation?
So for our readership I want to know about your childhood and everyday nature of occupation, like the banning of student union and the stuff that came out almost in our informal chats–the banning of the prepaid phones and numerous other things. So what do these actually mean in the middle of an occupation?
Natsha: if I go back to my childhood, I would really like to talk about how we lived in occupation in every single day. When you see an armed person outside your home, when every other lane that you pass by has a big bunker with these dangerous looking men staring at you, asking for your identity cards, checking stuff in your bag. It’s very difficult to live a life like that and we have grown up seeing that. We have had these armywalas commenting on us because we are native girls, catching hold of our hands, passing lurid comments on us, because they are unquestionable, they have guns…you are afraid for your life. That is the reality of living in an occupation every single day. You had these people coming into your homes, land, looking for arms when there were none, waiting for doing something retaliatory. So these are things we’ve grown up with.
I remember I grew up in the City Centre in Lal Chowk, which is the hub of all political activities always. I remember, there are so many times I ran for my life and I have seen people actually being killed when I was very young. So all my memories have filled with these memories of people getting killed, women wailing, people protesting, shop shutters coming down in the middle of the day, people going to any place for shelter. It has been very difficult. I remember once there was a time I was with my father and there was a blast somewhere and we had to run, and we reached home really late. My mother was really worried. So that is how we live in occupation every single day. You go out of your homes in the morning and you don’t know whether you return back safe or not. And no matter how the media likes to portray that right now things are normal, there is this normalization, there is development in Kashmir, but the reality has not changed. It’s dressed in silence, but the situation is the same. We’re living in perilous situation even now. So that’s how you go through occupation every single day of your life.
Ifrah: It’s very difficult for us, especially being a girl. I also live in the city and very close to the army cantonment–the biggest, in fact, in the Srinagar city. So for me the first person I see coming out of my home is an army man with a gun. So that sight is very disturbing, and then the comments, the winks, the strange looks which you get from them…they are even more disturbing. The start of your day happens like this and if you go out from your home, there is no surety that you’ll come back, or you may get trapped somewhere. And the phones…like you talked about, the banning of the internet, prepaid phones…it’s always there. A leader gets killed and we are not allowed to mourn his killing. A militant is killed and we can’t mourn his killing and the process continues. There is a killing, there is a funeral and there is a shootout at the funeral and there are more killings, there are more funerals, more killings.
And this banning of student union. We have never been able to express ourselves at places like colleges and universities. Even if there is a union it has to be very, very apolitical and the only thing that you can discuss within that union is the problem you face inside the campus like your syllabus and all. Apart from that, if you ever try to raise your voice against any issue that’s happening with you, even solidarity with other parts of state or some other groups that you want to support— you can never do that. You can’t raise your voice against oppression which you are going through. These unions are never allowed to function there. There was Kashmiri University Students Union and they had a very small office in the campus. It was ransacked by the police and it was banned after 2010. It has been functioning since then despite being banned, and every time they try to take out a protest inside the university campus, they are showered with bullets and they are beaten up inside the campus. Even the girls are beaten up. There was this signature campaigns for Afzal Guru when he was hanged. But it is always like there are being showered by lathis, the students are being beaten up in the campus. And there’s firing inside the university campuses. It’s very unlikely that you can imagine bullets going on students inside the campuses.
Natasha: We recently saw few months back how infuriated the students of JNU were when they [administration] were trying to police inside. But we have police in the Kashmiri University all the time, like there is permanent posting of police personal inside the campus and you can imagine how difficult it is. They are always waiting for something to happen. And the police will come and take away boys, or they will beat them up, or somebody will come and threaten students, if they’re trying to protest about something that is very political. The gates are shut to ensure that no students move out if there’s a protest happening inside the university. You need to get written permission to express any sort of dissent. It’s a very difficult situation for us there and like Ifrah said, prepaid mobile phones were banned for a long time. Right now you see mobile internet is banned because they don’t want people to have access to information. But that really doesn’t stop what is happening on the streets. Despite having no access to internet all of these people are out on the streets and they are protesting and that only comes to prove how the people feel about being oppressed. It is really not about information sharing and how much access you give to the people to the outside worlds, but it’s about people’s own sentiments. Because there always comes a point where people get fed up of living in an occupation and they need to vent it out somewhere and they would. People will come out on the streets—different people will have different ways of expressing their frustration with the state of affairs. For us, its writing, for somebody else it is protesting out on the streets, for somebody else it would be video documenting about what is happening. So different people have different ways. But that is how we navigate through life its every single day, that is how we try to live the reality of this occupation in the best possible way.
Nandini: Following from the everyday nature of occupation, what comes in is that it is extremely difficult—almost impossible if you are looking at it from the perspective of the state —to keep the memory of both the occupation and the resistance alive. And also your book is called “Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora?” So how would you like to talk about the role that memory plays in any kind of struggle against occupation?
Ifrah: Memory is a very important part in any kind of struggle against oppression. It’s your weapon. And the title of the book is “Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora?”. You can imagine from the title that we have to ask each other about such incidents. Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora? Do you remember that massacre? Do you remember this person? And we had to recall: which person you are talking about? Oh, he was killed on that day? Accha woh massacre? This rape incident? Because there are so many incidents which have happened since 1989. It’s difficult for us to remember all of these. We do remember them but these are somewhere lost in our memory.
We have huge memories, we have hundreds and hundreds of cases. There is no single case that can take precedence, there is no such thing called precedence. We just have cases which are pending, which are closed, which are unplaced. So memory is our weapon and it’s the only tool which we have. And by remembering these incidents we are holding the perpetrators, we are trying to remind them that we are not forgetting any of these incidents. They are in our memory and we will be holding you accountable today, tomorrow or day after tomorrow, but you are accountable for your actions. So memory is a very important part of the struggle and it’s because of the memory that we are still fighting this justice for struggle or struggle for freedom. So the day we start forgetting will be the day our dream of freedom will be dead. It will die a slow death if we start forgetting our past. So we have to make sure that all of these incidents—they are fresh and we talk about them not every day, but we have to remember that these incidents happened and we are still waiting for justice.
Natasha: Also the remembering is important because all these incidents are forming our history—the history of our struggle for freedom. So it’s important that we remember these incidents–everything that happened in the course of the struggle. We document it, we write it down. Document our own history for the next generations to know what this struggle is all about. It’s very important that we do not give to the next generation a distorted version of their own history. But history that is true, that is real, that they can go back to and study and see how things have happened and probably… they could take the struggle forward—which is important. Remembrance is the most important tool we have right now. And also if we start forgetting, it’s always convenient for the oppressor, they would be complacent about the fact that the one is still being oppressed and not talking about something that has been done to them, and they will be encouraged to repeat such things again and again. So remembrance, memory is the most important tool. Like Ifrah said, if we start forgetting, we lose our hope of freedom, or getting away from this oppression.
Nandini: If we think of the moments from 1989 to early 90s, I think for those of us in India it’s again who had felt a certain kind of solidarity for the struggle in Kashmir, we have seen a lot of the men who have become the kind of the face of the movement, beginning from Yasin Malik to Gilani to Burhan Wani. But I’m not talking about the kind of localized struggles you might have within Kashmir and you do have. But for us from the outside we haven’t exactly come across the women who have become the faces of resistance. And so, using that I would like to go back to a lot of the extremely complicated analysis of gender I think that your book is looking forth right? So one of them is that how the Indian state uses the Kashmiri women’s body as sight of violence and as a way to shame the communities, but at the same time that it feeds on to the patriarchy within the Kashmiri society and kind of your very straight forward comment yesterday that Kashmiri society is extremely patriarchal in itself, and how there is an intersection between Indian state’s patriarchal notions of women’s bodies, women’s participation and the Kashmiri patriarchy… But also what does it mean for the women to be in the resistance movement, how does the patriarchy operate within the resistance movements? So along those lines of how do you think about the question of patriarchy and gender and women’s role right now within the resistance movement?
Natasha: there is the writer Rita Manchanda who has analyses of how women have been part of the freedom struggle, how they’ve gone through different stages. I think I agree with her when she talks about the early years of the militancy, the armed struggle, when women were very active. A lot of women were couriers, but the role was mostly in domestic domains. For example, feeding the militants, working as couriers taking arms under their burqas. But it was all within certain levels. So women were never really out in the forefront that point of time. There are some women activists who do talk about women who went to the other side of the L.O.C for training, but then there is nobody who wants to collaborate on these facts. So we don’t know what happened or not. So women were not part of militant struggle that way—like we see in Bastar for example that women also take up arms in their hands, walking shoulder to shoulder with their men and struggling for their ideas. But nothing like that happened in Kashmir, so women were behind the scenes.
I would say that they were the unsung heroes of the entire struggle, because without the support of women in home the men wouldn’t have been able to take up such drastic steps as they have; they needed the support. So many times women served as couriers, fed the militants… There are so many stories of these women. But that there was a time when atrocities of the Indian state began and then women realized that they are not that empowered in the scenario and they don’t have to be in the forefront. Incidents like Kunan Poshpora mass rape–and there have been so many incidents–like Bandipora-Bazipora where women were subjected to retaliatory actions to an ongoing encounter that was happening within their village. So incidents like these forced women to be in the backdrop not in the front.
But then there was next stage in their struggle when women found their own agency. Women like Parveena Ahanger, who is the Founder and Chairperson of Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) in Kashmir. Then there is Zamruda Habib–she is an activist right now. Then we have the women who have found their own agency, they have moved from being victims to find their own agency. But then if you really talk about women in the early 1990s and early 2000s, then women weren’t really in the forefront. But now I think the society is slowly changing, it’s slowly accepting the fact that women do have political understanding. I was just talking about it yesterday also—specially women of my generation who have seen all that, have been forced to read about it and have their own political stand. And that’s how women like us came into forefront. There are so many other women who are probably not out there on the streets, stone in their hands, but then they are into activism of different sorts. So that’s how the role of women is changing. And talking about how the Indian Army has used the patriarchal concept and used the bodies of women to humiliate the entire population, there are so many examples in front of us. Kunan Poshpora happens to be the biggest example, also like I said the Bandipora-Bazipora case… There was encounter going on everywhere, women were gang-raped. There is the famous thing in a report that says that these army men raped these women while chanting slogans of ‘Jai Hind’. That is how this patriarchal concept, nationalist concept and women’s bodies are used in as a retaliatory action—it’s a punishment for being against the Indian State, for fighting against oppression, for saying things that the Indian state doesn’t want. This is how the concept of gender and patriarchy has been used and it continues to be used. If you look at the recent case of Handwara, where the girl is allegedly assaulted by the army personnel, how the state built the narrative around the character of the girl. So nobody was talking about how this girl was assaulted; everybody was talking about how this girl was characterless, how this girl had loose morals. A lot of people alleged that the girl was having an affair with an army man. This girl was a minor. Nobody wanted to recognize the fact that she is a minor. And if the armywala is having an affair with a minor…she is not of the age of consent, you can’t have an affair with a minor, and also it’s your protocols that you can’t have this with civilians. So nobody wanted to talk about how this armywala was…even if he had an affair with the girl, he was going against his protocols. They used this entire patriarchal, gender-discrimination concept to defame the girl. They used the fault lines of the society that we have and that’s how this is being used. In the 1990s it was different, now it’s different.
Ifrah: Kashmiri society was not always patriarchal. We have ancient scriptures of 6th century, 10th century, which shows that the societies were very open. Women were given education, taught archery, shooting and given many skills. In fact, in 11th and 12th centuries we have had queens in Kashmir called Didda and Kota Rani, who ruled Kashmir for more than a century. But what changed the structure of the society was the 1990s. The conflict is the reason that the society became patriarchal. The Indian Army is responsible for that. The conflict estimated the sabotaging of the people, acts of violence against people. It was that time the women were agreed to not come out of the home, and even if they come out they should be completely covered from head to toe, they should have veil on their faces and things like that. But despite all these restrictions from both sides—even from the militants sometimes—that they have to follow, we saw that women came out of their home. They came out on streets in the 90s when the men were picked up randomly and they were in jails for such long periods…it was women who came out on the streets and protests. So we saw Kashmiri women covered from head to toe and they were in streets, and then later on what forced women to come out was the female-based households…men were scared and the women were forced to come out of the house to feed their children. We have so many examples of half widows—those women whose husbands had disappeared. There are women who were forced to come out and search for jobs because they had a family to feed. So somehow conflict is also responsible for the empowerment of women. It is important that we accept this fact that the road the women have paved are obscured, they have not been given their rights, nobody talks about women being role models. Parveena, Habibi, may be Asya Andrabi—she has been role model for some people…she is a feminist—may be some people consider her an idol… Then there is APDP’s spokesperson Tahera—a very young woman—came from very far place called Uri and she works in the city now. What forced her to come out was the disappearance of her husband and she has three sons. And she doesn’t want them to work for neighbors or somebody’s home as servants. She came out of her home for them. But then she started helping others with their issues and households…
Pramod: A portion of the democratic people in India agreed with the fact that there were state atrocities in Kashmir, what should be stopped. But according to them Kashmir is an integral part of India. How would you address those people?
Natasha: The people who said that Kashmir is an integral part of India, I would suggest to go back and read the history of Kashmir and you’ll know that Kashmir was never an integral part of India. What circumstances led India to accede Kashmir and how all of those things happened. You need to go back to the history and read. A referendum was promised. When Indian army came to Kashmir, it had come only for a short time. India promised a referendum and so did Pakistan. The referendum was never held and then India started maintaining that Kashmir is an integral part of India, which automatically meant that there was no question of folding the periphery. So to the people who say this, I would suggest, this is not something I can explain in my interview in few minutes. I think you should go through some Kashmiri literature and read about it, it’s available everywhere. You can google it and you can find it on internet.
Ifrah: Just because India is claiming that we are an integral part, we don’t become so. You cannot force such a union. There are no similarities between Indians and Kashmiris. Just because in 1947 the king asked for help from the Indian Govt…. but the common people hadn’t asked for help did they? Nobody knows what people wanted actually. It was the Dogra ruler who asked for help and they deceived him. Instead of help he was forced to sign an instrument of accession first, and there was demand that the troops won’t move unless it was signed. If they were really helping, what was the need of signing the instrument of accession! So that means somewhere they knew if this can be signed by him, he wouldn’t be able to go back on his words. They almost cheated.
We always discussed the issue as India, Pakistan binary. It’s not Binary. We are the people who have to decide for ourselves. We have that right. Let us decide. Let us tell India and Pakistan what we want. They cannot decide on our behalf. I mean, it’s our nation. We have to decide where we want to go.
Natasha: And the mainstream political parties and leaders do not necessarily represent the aspirations of Kashimiri common man. So when we talk about these PDP leaders and likes that they don’t represent aspirations of people like us. So there are a lot of people who say “your own political parties wanted it and they talked to Delhi and talked to Pakistan…“, we don’t trust that process. We would consider it as a justice when we get the chance to decide, when every common Kashmiri gets a chance to speak out for oneself, not through political parties because they don’t represent us and our political aspirations.
Nandini: I would like to go back to the question of gender a little bit and something that you said—that how the domestic domain becomes so important both in terms of the state sending the women back to their kind of domestic space. But also the resistance movement in initial phase almost forcing women to stick to their domestic domain even when they are trying to be political in couriers, feeding militants and all of that? And I guess—if you think globally, if you think of the relationship of women with their domestic space—it’s a complicated relationship… And one of the complexities is that women have this kind of quote unquote natural relationship with that space that every society creates to be a domestic space. But writing and reading are something that give them little bit of a leeway—reading your own stories… Also most of you talked about how books facilitated an important kind of politicization of women, especially of your generation. As if the books, the writing and reading of text—have almost played a role of the social media…
Ifrah: Books and social media—these literary space… From early 2000’s…this was the time we started read about our own histories. People used to discuss the issues within themselves but there was not much… Social media was not there. Social media has been used by the people for spreading the message of resistance and that’s the reason the state bans it time to time. Whenever there is an uprising, internet is the first thing banned by the state and mobile internet particularly, because youngsters are using this mobile internet to connect with everybody. Messages spread so fast—it’s going to help the struggle by spreading the messages not just to the local people but the whole world. Everybody is connecting to us. Not just India, we are also connected to the whole world to express our sympathy to people who are suffering in other parts of the world—like Palestine, Syria. Even people from Germany, Spain…they express their solidarity with us. International media, and today even UN has said, what is happening is not right.
Natasha: I think, in our generations most of the people are educated. They read and they write. So this is the tool in their hands. When you read and write, you ask more questions. You get more retaliatory towards the oppressors and this is something which I personally believe, reading and writing literature also help in…probably what happened in JNU, because these are the students who read and wrote, read their histories, and they interacted with other people who in turn read about Kashmir and then the messages spread. That’s why I think literature and books helped the cause.
Nandini: Last question—something we were talking about in a lighter tone yesterday. The stereotype of Kashmiris we get in films like Haider and other Bollywood movies if you talk to most people about say, tradition of women’s writing in Kashmir, most people won’t know anything. So there’s the popular blindness about Kashmir, which is more often intensified by Bollywood. If you can address that a little bit and also about the literary traditions in Kashmir and what does literature mean and what is the literature regarding this that can be recommended to an 18-21 years old, who is interested in Kashmir and Kashmiri literature and wants to know about Kashmir through reading literature. The books that you love and would like to recommend. Also women’s writing… how it has flourished.
Natasha: Kashmiri women had always been empowered. They did not use pardas. In certain areas, villages, they didn’t even cover their chest. Head, yes, but not chest. In fields they would need to roll their clothes up to knee… So, there haven’t been that kind of restrictions. All this went unrecognized.
Literature-wise, there have been many…more than men… As you mentioned Lal Ded, her writings and poems are still celebrated everywhere. People of our generation cannot understand it without help… There has been this poet called Habba Khatoon. There have been many women who were very influential in shaping the culture. But Habba Khatoon mentioned issues of discriminations. If you read the text and interpret it in current context you would see they were very empowered ideas, having answers to many feminist questions way back then. Ifrah has been researching about these. She will be able to tell you more.
Irfah: You just mentioned Bollywood movies. Definitely the situation is not like that. Not all the women are like what is shown in movies like Haider. We are disappointed to see a lot of things in the movie, although it is very close to reality in terms of disappearance and burning down the houses and all that. But then it really doesn’t show the real Kashmir and it also goes on with the same narrative that Indian state wants to propagate. And one of the things I’ve found really distressing was when Shraddha Kapoor and Shahid Kapoor having this romantic moment in the movie and Shraddha says “I loved you”…mispronouncing the word ‘love’. I see English is not a first language–that’s important to mention–for a Kashmiri. But even then not all Kashmiri women would mispronounce words, especially how it is shown in the movie…that Shraddha Kapoor is a very empowered journalist, she is just out there, she is one of those fearless women in the movie. So we won’t expect somebody like her to mispronounce the word. That is the stereotype created by Bollywood. It just reinforces the idea that Kashmiri women are not educated, they won’t know what is happening around but that’s not the reality. We find it really funny. In fact there was a joke that we share, we don’t really talk like that and people who have that sort of accent…it’s just their accent. We don’t need to stereotype that.
Natasha: Also they are always shown in hijab and burqa… As Kashmiri women we don’t really do that. We don’t have guns in our bags. We have books, chocolates and chips in our bag as any other woman in India. We are not how Bollywoood portrays us. We like to travel, interact with people over social media, like any other girl in any other part on India. Somebody would like to make up, somebody else books, or travelling, or gossiping. Also Kashmiris are not black and white. We have colours. Yes, we are under occupation but we know how to live with it. If you don’t have humor in life, how would you deal with the oppression. We live a normal life. Usually people expect activists like us to be very gloomy but we are not like that. We were protesting for the Handwara girl… One of us cracked a joke and one of the journalists came and said “you girls are shameless, you don’t realize that you are protesting for something so serious?” And all papers had this one picture of us smiling and everyone had a comment to make. But it’s important for people to know that you just can’t stereotype anyone in the world. Just because somebody is an activist and going out there to protest doesn’t mean that they don’t have a life, and that they don’t smile and laugh. So its not just black and white, our lives are also colourful, and yet we struggle every single day. Because our lives are interesting is how we get the encouragement to struggle and to fight this occupation every single day. Without a little bit of humour we would not be able to do that, so take it as it is, stop stereotyping us.
Nandini: Who amongst the contemporary writers we should read?
Ifrah: I think you should read the history first. There are some books that describe our histories… Prem Nath Bazaz, P. N. K. Bamzai, A. G. Nurani, then there’s Urvashi Butalia’s book, Rita Manchanda, Navnita Chadha…
Natasha: if you want to read about women, there’re Lal Ded and Habba Khatoon’s poems translated into English. We also read the same translation. There are books on Lalla Rookh–an important figure. You could read all that if you want to know about Kashmiri culture.
Ifrah: Then the budding journalists who have been active in writing…
Natasha: Yes, there’s Zamruda Habib–Prisoner No. 100–a very interesting piece of work.
Transcription: Trishnika Bhowmick