Art as dissent in Kashmir
Srinagar: In any conflict zone, women emerge as one of the most victimized classes. It is no different in the Valley, where the intensity of conflict ebbs and flows under the watchful eye of the security grid. Now, several women are redefining the culture of resistance by expressing themselves through the arts. Here, they share their stories while practising alternative activism.
‘Women‘s bodies treated as war sites’
Five women – Essar Batool, Ifrah Butt, Munaza Rashid, Natasha Rather and Samreen Mushtaq – are behind ‘ Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora?’, which talks about the alleged mass rape and torture perpetrated by the four Rajputana Rifles personnel in Kunan and Poshpora villages in north Kashmir’s Kupwara district. Working its way through survivor testimonies, interviews and archives, the book not only details the rape of women and torture of men in the villages but also their relentless struggle for justice.
Natasha, one of the co-authors of the book, believes it strives to preserve the ‘the memory of the struggles and resistance of the Kashmiri people’. She says, “It is certainly the only instance where people decided to fight for justice, despite numerous threats, maligning campaigns, attacks and the cover of impunity guaranteed to the perpetrators.”
Talking about the origin of the book, she reveals that it came about after the Kashmir High Court refused to entertain a PIL by 50 women survivors pleading that the case be reopened. While Ifrah and Samreen were already working for the human rights organisation Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) that spearheaded the campaign for justice to the survivors, Natasha and Essar were working with an NGO that got interested in the case and became part of the core group who went on to write the book. The four activists were joined by Munazah – the lawyer who assisted in the drafting of the PIL.
Natasha believes that women are supposed to uphold the dignity and respect of their families and of the entire community. “Women‘s bodies are treated as sites of war. Rape and sexual violence against women are used as tools to shame the entire community,” she says. She also believes that human rights defenders and activists are persecuted by the state and that their work is made difficult.
“If you believe in something and you think it is something you want to raise your voice for, make an effort to check facts – learn more and use your knowledge judiciously,” she suggests, hoping to work towards women‘s rights women through her writing.
For Ifrah, the hardest part of writing the book was earning the trust of these people, who had already been visited by so many people, fought hard on their own, and had so many leaders making promises that were never fulfilled.
The book, according to her, was received way beyond the authors’ expectations. “I think the book is a hard read for everyone, especially because people who are most likely to pick it up are those who have their own stories and histories connected to the topic. It’s hard finding a girl or woman in Kashmir who has not faced some type of sexual violence,” Ifrah says, who is presently associated with an NGO that works with young girls affected by the conflict.
The girls in Kashmir have such a deep, personal understanding of this conflict, and yet, they’re learning new things every day. “Their first-hand experiences humble me. They are activists in their own right, and this inspires me,” she says.
On activism, she says, “It is definitely not an ideal field of work for any young person, but I believe that if not us, then who? People who are benefiting from the current systems are never going to change them, and the people who are oppressed by the system, rarely have the voice to change the system.”
‘Acquaint public to ground reality through art’
Uzma Nawachoo – a Kashmiri artist and art therapist – explores the culture of political resistance. After completing her schooling, she shifted to Iran to study medicine but abandoned it after three years of juggling it with art. Eventually, she moved to Delhi in 2006 and did her bachelors in apparel design and visual art. Over the years she displayed her work at various places, including JNU and a few private exhibitions at Dubai.
However, it was the tumultuous year of 2016 in Kashmir that forced her outlook towards using art as a medium of resistance. After the death of the militant commander Burhan Wani, the Valley descended into a vortex of killings, injuries, curfews and strikes, lasting months. The images coming from Kashmir agonised her. “I had exhibited a series of ten paintings on ‘Women of War’ at JNU. After the uprising, I picked up that theme again, painting women who stand in windows when funeral processions or protests were happening.”
“If you Google ‘Kashmiri women‘, you will only get images of women in a mournful state. I decided to paint them in a manner so that when a non- Kashmiri looks at the painting, they are taken aback and curious. I want to get them acquainted with the ground reality through my art,” Uzma says.
‘Patriarchy has nothing to do with gender’
Another young activist – Nadiya Shafi- who studied social work at the University of Kashmir, was recently conferred ‘Most Promising Individual’ at Martha Farrell Awards 2018, for “fearlessly reporting stories of Kashmir’s women“.
Her life turned around when she joined international media and human rights NGO Video Volunteers in September 2014. She realised a change in herself, and became aware of the deeply ingrained nature of patriarchy in Kashmir.
“Our work has always been monitored by the state apparatus, and we are often questioned. But as of now, nothing much has happened. We continue doing what we are supposed to,” she confesses.
She insists, however, that activism must be seen in a broader global context. “It has definitely become challenging for activists to work anywhere in the world. Activists must collaborate with each other,” she says.
When asked about motivations behind the ‘Dismantle Patriarchy Campaign, she said, “Patriarchy has nothing to do with gender. It is an idea that is in the core of our daily life – a norm practiced consciously or unconsciously by most of us. It teaches us dominance, which leads to detachment and lack of empathy. We don’t question it.”
Nadiya believes that VV has had done collaborations with JKCCS and Amensty in the past in J&K. “The sort of work we do must each people at the international level, institutions, etc. The visual medium has much impact, which we shall explore in its full potential,” she said.
Going beyond reductive Indian narratives
Ather Zia – currently an assistant professor of anthropology teaching in the United States – believes in collaboration. In 2008, she founded the literary journal Kashmir Lit, that provides a platform for Kashmiri and non-Kashmiri writers, essayists, poets, storytellers and artists.
Ather refuses to classify herself as an activist. “I consider myself as an engaged anthropologist,” she says.
She went to the US to do a Masters in Communication, and then got a doctorate in Anthropology – a subject she chose specifically due to its relevance to the study of the Kashmir conflict.
With Kashmir, it helps to dig deeper. “An anthropological lens on Kashmir enables us to go beyond the reductive Indian narratives. A critical anthropological analysis of Kashmir will always be multifaceted, and will give a nuanced understanding of how deeply cultural our political resistance is,” she adds.