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Kashmir

By:
Nyla Ali Khan
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Women What is This? A single source for accurate overview articles covering the major topics of scholarly interest within the study of women and Islam.

Kashmir

Kashmiri women have expressed their political agency throughout major historical events: the nationalist awakening in the 1930s; the Quit Kashmir movement in the 1940s; the invasion by raiders from the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan in 1947; the period preceding and succeeding the accession of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir to the Indian dominion when, on 26 October 1947, the monarch of the state, Maharaja Hari Singh, signed the “Instrument of Accession” to India, officially ceding to the government of India jurisdiction over defense, foreign affairs, and communications; the onset of the militant movement in the late 1980s; and the era of gross human rights violations by the Indian army, paramilitary forces, Pakistani-trained militants, mercenaries, and state-sponsored organizations in the 1990s and 2000s. How did these women navigate the undulating, often impenetrable terrain of formal spaces of political power?

Cultural Syncretism in Kashmir: Challenging a Patriarchal Society.

Kashmiris have long taken pride in inhabiting a cultural space between Vedic Hinduism and Ṣūfī Islam. Lalla-Ded (fourteenth century), revered by both the Pandits and Muslims of Kashmir, is the finest symbol of their essentially syncretic culture. A woman ascetic, she pursued the goal of self-knowledge and then disseminated the esoteric Shaiva doctrine, which until then was only available in Sanskrit, among the populace in their own language. The renowned Kashmiri scholar Prem Nath Bazaz assesses the “splendid” role that Kashmiri women of ancient times played in the social and cultural life of Kashmir, but these women were affiliated with the royalty in a monarchical regime, free from economic constraints and societal limitations that tormented women of other classes.

Lalla-Ded, on the other hand, intervened in patriarchal national history by speaking from her location outside privilege. Professor Neerja Mattoo, author of several publications on Kashmiri literature, astutely draws a comparison between Lalla-Ded and medieval Christian women mystics: “For them [medieval Christian women mystics], too, the only way to validate their words and to get out of the all-pervasive, constricting presence of male authority was this claim of a personal relationship with God.” Lalla-Ded was greatly influenced by discourses on mysticism and the different schools of Ṣūfī thought given by Mir Sayyid ʿAlī Hamadānī, Shah Hamadan, a regal Central Asian Islamic scholar and mystic who disseminated and perpetuated Islamic teachings in predominantly Brahmanical fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Kashmir. Among later women mystics influenced by Lalla-Ded was the seventeenth-century mystic poet Roph Bhavani, the content of whose vaakhs (verses) is also the theory and practice of Shaivism. These women mystics have since achieved an iconic goddess-mother persona.

Reminiscences about Women's Agential Roles or Lack Thereof, 1947 and 1989.

In terms of a substantive indigenous or modern feminist movement in Kashmir, one example is the institute Markaz Behbudi Khawateen, established by Begum Akbar Jehan. Jehan represented the Srinagar and Anantnag constituencies of Jammu and Kashmir in the Indian parliament from 1977 to 1979 and 1984 to 1989, respectively, and was the first president of the Jammu and Kashmir Red Cross Society, from 1947 to 1951 The institute imparts literacy, training in arts and crafts, health care, and social security as tools of empowerment.

Another example of a powerful agential role played by Kashmiri women is the Women's Self-Defense Corps (WSDC), formed in 1947. Krishna Misri writes about the formation of the National Militia and Women's Defense Corps—volunteer forces of men and women organized under the leadership of the first Muslim prime minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah—to ward off the hordes of tribesmen from the North West Frontier Province, backed by the Pakistani army, when they crossed the border of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir on 22 October 1947, in order to coercively annex the region. Women's empowerment was further bolstered in 1950 when the government of Jammu and Kashmir developed educational institutions for women on a large scale, including the first university, and a college for women, which provided an emancipatory forum for the women of Kashmir, broadening their horizons and opportunities. The educational methods employed in these institutions were revisionist in nature, not revolutionary.

In the second half of the twentieth century, Kashmiri women like Begum Akbar Jehan, Mehmooda Ahmad Ali Shah, Sajjida Zameer, and Krishna Misri made a smooth transition from keepers of home and hearth to people engaged in sociopolitical activism within the confines of nationalist discourse. Sajjida was in the forefront of the cultural movement, designed to awaken and hone a political consciousness through mass media:

"The women's militia played a substantive role in repulsing the raiders. Zoon Gujjari of Nawakadal, Srinagar, Jana Begum of Amrikadal, Srinagar, and Mohuan Kaur, a refugee from Baramullah, Kashmir, were active participants in the women's movement. Kashmiris from all walks of life, irrespective of religion or race, actively participated in the various activities of the Cultural Front of the militia. (e-mail from Sajjida Zameer to author, 1 April 2008)"

Ironically, today, asymmetrical gender hierarchies legitimized by the forceful dissemination of fundamentalist and militarized discourses portend the debasement and prostration of women.

The militant separatist movement in Jammu and Kashmir in 1989 scorched the landscape, blighting educational and economic opportunities. Despite their active role in the political mobilization of 1931, the Quit Kashmir movement (anti-monarchical movement) of 1946, and the fierce nationalism of 1947, terror made women revert from the public to the private realm. But there are a few exceptions.

Parveena Ahangar, after her son was said to have been arrested and killed in the custody of the security forces, instead of lamenting voicelessly, formed an organization called the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), comprising other bereaved mothers like her. The APDP relies on the cultural and moral authority of the mother, sanctioned by religion, and mobilizes women to courageously challenge the apathy and complacency of the political and bureaucratic machinery.

On the other hand, the Dukhtaran-e-Milat (DM), instead of pressing for women's political empowerment, claims that the image of woman as a burqa-clad, faceless and voiceless cultural icon, devoid of agency, is sanctioned by the interpretations of religious scriptures that this vigilante group subscribes to, ignoring their diverse interpretations and the rich heterogeneity of cultural traditions and the paradoxes within them.

The retrieval of the conviction of the women volunteers of Women's Self-Defense Corps, and of the vision of women activists who were harbingers of change in the sociopolitical and cultural realms, would facilitate the recomposition of women's roles in the significant process of nation building.

[See also INDIA and PAKISTAN.]

Bibliography

  • Bazaz, Prem Nath. Kashmir in Crucible. New Delhi: Pamposh Publications, 1967. Reprint, Srinagar: Gulshan Books, 2005.
  • Khan, Nyla Ali. Islam, Women, and Violence in Kashmir: Between India and Pakistan. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
  • Lok Sabha. “Obituary References.” 2000. parliamentofindia.nic.in/lsdeb/ls13/ses4/24072.htm.
  • Mattoo, Neerja. “Lalla-Ded as the Voice of the Marginalized.” Paper presented at the Series on Mystic Masters, India International Centre, New Delhi, March 2007.
  • Misri, Krishna. “Kashmiri Women Down the Ages: A Gender Perspective.” Himalayan and Central Asian Studies 6, no. 3–4 (2002): 3–27.
  • Zameer, Sajjida. Member of the 1947 Women's Militia organized by the National Conference, and former director of the Education Department, J & K. April 2008.
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