The selective outrage on part of some Kashmiri men about the girls protesting on the streets is contrary to what they as a society have lived, and experienced, especially in the last 33 years. Some of these statements make it seem as if Kashmiri women have played no active role in the freedom struggle and that they have lived in relative safety and protection of their men, away from the rigors of violence. But this is not a true picture. When you see girls in street combat with Indian troops, it is symbolic of the gendered resistance that has always been part of the social fabric in Kashmir.Historically Kashmiri women have always been part of public space including resistance politics and protests. In the Kashmiri social milieu, women, especially from the working class, have always undertaken tasks of public nature. They were not intensely sheltered or put under the rigors of veiling. In the epistemic context, the gender dynamic that existed in Kashmir allowed for relatively secure masculinities to emerge and exist side by side with traditional femininity. This was primarily the result of the prevailing economic system. For example, if men caught the fish, the women sold the fish; if men baked, the women sold the bread and if men farmed, women sold the produce. These complementary gendered jobs continue to co-exist today. Before modern form of education and its allied professions became common and emancipatory, Kashmiri women were running households on income from spinning pashmina thread. Woman’s earning was not just supplementary but often pivotal for a family’s survival.
Weaving Pashmina thread is still is a big cottage industry. The poverty of working classes in Kashmir especially under various monarchies up until 1947 is the stuff of horror stories. Barring the top tradesmen and clerical elites, most Kashmiris were poor and women had no option but to find work. Many boys from downtown Srinagar, now old grandfathers, ask them and they will humbly declare that their education was funded by “majji hindew phamba ponsew seeth” (mother’s income from wool-spinning).
Come 1988, intense militarization, and AFSPA ensured all Kashmiri men, both combatants and non-combatants faced merciless security discrimination and direct violence at the hands of Indian forces. It was during this time that it became a routine that the Masjid pulpits, in addition, to call for Nimaz were also used to call “tamaam majji benni” [all mothers and sisters] to come out on streets and protest whenever an atrocity happened, be it a killing or arrest or disappearance. Every locality recognizes that hurried crackle of the Masjid loudspeakers when some local man or boy in utter panic, sometimes no less than the Imam himself, requests all women of the neighborhood to come out on the streets. Yes, calling women to come into the streets from the Masjid pulpit; the turf, which is stereotypically seen as symbolic of constraining women’s public role.These women would be urged to stage a “dharna” (sit-in) in the public square, or in front of an army bunker or a camp – every time a person was arrested, beaten or killed by the Indian forces. Over the years public protest became the forte of women. Historically, women have always been part of public protests. From before 1947 and increasingly after there are many anecdotes about legendary women who fought hand to hand with the state police and political goons.
Towards the late 80’s women’s public activism and resistance became institutionalized through groups such as the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) and was iconized in figures like Parveena Ahangar or Zamrooda Habib or Asiya Andrabi; who we all know have become important (if not pivotal) to the freedom movement.In the mayhem of facing the brutal Indian occupation, Kashmiri patriarchy, which is deeply compromised by the military apparatus, required that their women be with them shoulder-to-shoulder: always alert, canny and armed with all the street smarts. Women became reverse chaperones of their men, both combatants, and non-combatants.
From flocking after Indian soldiers trying to prevent arrests, beatings, and killings has been a part of the daily repertoire of Kashmiri women and this while they hold the homestead as well. Women have assumed responsibilities that have a ritualistic status in households, especially those with detained or disappeared male members or those living in volatile areas. Be it as simple as walking beside a son or husband to allay beatings from Indian soldiers, or searching from one torture camp to another, jail to jail for their men or being in a dharna shouting hoarse not caring for their lives: women have done it all. Also, they have always been pivotal in the soul-crushing routine of “manning” their homes when during crackdowns all males are taken away. This is when the women sans their men with “hearts in their mouth” accompany the Indian soldiers who search (read ransack) their homes and cast ogling eyes at them. And to think all this continues to happen.So yes, there is a context, a history to the young girls who are on the streets. They did not decide to be there overnight. These young women are not anomalies to be objectified by rank misogyny camouflaged as religious ideals or to be patronized by men who judge their dress, language, and expressions. They cannot be subjected to the outdated patriarchal whims, which bars and unbars women from what they perceive as right and wrong “public roles” with utter disregard to the type of demands that have been on women in the last three decades, and how they have always risen to the occasion. These young women come from a long lineage of gendered resistance, which has been a part and parcel of the extremely militarized and a historically repressed culture of Kashmir. These women are not doing anything new but they are definitely doing it differently. The difference between the young Kashmiri women and their foremothers is that they are unapologetically political, and take the center stage with confidence,; behaviors which traditionally are seen as male and the core ingredients of potential political leadership.These young Kashmiri women know the public space is theirs to keep and rightly so. When they raise their middle finger at the occupation, their heads are held high in knowing that standing up to oppression in all forms of expression does not diminish their dignity. It is clear that these women do not need to be called from the Masjid pulpits, but that they have arrived of their own accord. And they have come to stay.