In the coming-of-age saga of a woman from Kashmir, who is also a Muslim, the exercise in finding oneself is a laborious task.
“I’m a woman”, “I’m a Muslim Woman”, I’m a Kashmiri Woman”, “I am a Kashmiri Muslim woman”, “I am a Muslim Kashmiri woman” – this dilemma of adjectives is omnipresent. And it is as powerful as the prelapsarian snakes of Eden, which women like me often dodge in the form of elite feminist politics now.
I’m never a woman alone. I’m a ‘Muslim woman’ – a practising one and under threat in a country where the colour saffron is announcing doom.
However, more so than any, I am a Kashmiri Muslim. That’s the identity that sits closest to me, staring at me, point-blank. It’s the identity that puts me closest to danger, and yet one that supports me enough so as not to flinch. So, I am a Kashmiri Muslim woman, I have decided.
An Unfortunate Choice to Stay Silent
The intersection of these identities brings with it an intersection of vulnerabilities. However, it also comes with myriad responsibilities that need to be handled carefully, as they survive under extremely precarious circumstances. Often, we, as women, have to make an unfortunate choice. We, who would typically go all guns blazing about most matters of abuse and persecution, often make the uncomfortable choice of staying silent about patriarchy within our communities.
This silence is not self-censorship, nor is it imposed by men from our community. It is due to our awareness of how women’s rights issues have often been weaponised against men of a marginalised community to justify violence against them and have historically been used to rationalise the enterprise of colonisation.
It’s a conscious choice that we make, but it’s often at the cost of our own peace and security. They say some things are better left unsaid. I do not think so anymore.
Recently, two Kashmiri Muslim women made it to the infamous “Bulli Bai” list on an app intending to “auction” prominent Muslim women. The list was intended to harass and humiliate Muslim women in an India that’s already seeing an alarming rise in hate and crime against Muslims.
While some whitewashed the crime as an attack against women in general, others saw it for what it was. In the imagination, vocabulary and masculine politics of majoritarian nationalism, the “other” women are deemed as a “territory” where aggression is exercised.
This explains the sexual violence against women and the sexualisation of Muslim women in the hate-filled vocabulary of Hindutva nationalism. Hence, the Bulli Bai episode was not merely an attempt to harass all women, but it was orchestrated to humiliate Muslim women in the given context.
An Ignorant Advice
Those from the Muslim community and well-meaning allies called a spade a spade. Solidarity messages poured in for Muslim women from within their communities as well. Yet, even amidst the fleet of messages, reports, tweets and talks, something seemed dishonest, or at least half-baked.
And so it happened following the Bulli Bai issue as well. After the customary solidarity messages started dwindling, the victims found themselves alone. Soon after, the same people started advising women against uploading their photos online – as though it wasn’t the victims’ identities and their work that had invited the abuse but their profile pictures online.
The inherent ignorance in this advice is obvious. When sexual violence in any form is directed against women, it works because it operates within a system where the onus of that violence falls on her. It is twisted in the sense that even as the community identifies the cause of violence, it does not protect her from facing its repercussions.
Even as the perpetrator is a community’s clear enemy, the victim finds herself vulnerable within her own.
We're Alienated Within Our Own
The most vulnerable sphere of a woman’s life is her personal and domestic identity. It is here that she sees most of her despair play out. All kinds of violence directed at her intended to “sully her honour” makes her the most alienated within her own community. As mentioned previously, even though it is her religious identity under attack, she still faces alienation on account of her gender within her own community as well.
Therefore, when solidarity messages drown off in the background to “well-meaning” messages to police the same women under attack, feelings of isolation and powerlessness kick in.
This feeling was scathingly summarised by Quratulain Rehbar, a journalist from Kashmir who was also a victim of the infamous Bulli Bai list. In her writeup for India Ahead, she sums it up succinctly, “Being a woman journalist in Kashmir can be lonely”.
This is the double trouble that a Kashmiri Muslim woman has to endure – one on account of her Kashmiri Muslim identity, and the second due to the patriarchy within. It is the latter where women find it most difficult to speak out – especially opinionated women – as that would amount to throwing her community under the bus.
Setting the Record Straight
However, one must realise that it’s important to have our house in order as well. Any progress that we make in the direction of our community’s well-being will be short-lived if we let inequality in any form thrive within. It is a precarious position to be in, though, with the education that comes with being born a political being, it isn’t impossible to juggle the ‘double trouble’ as well.
We start with setting the record straight. Our community does have women's issues much like the rest of the world. Much of these we’ve inherited from the patriarchal cultural practices of South Asia. Kashmiri women often find themselves being wronged due to sexist and misogynist cultural practices that are justified through a skewed and incorrect understanding of Islam.
While Kashmiri society encourages women to pursue education and have a professional life, women also find themselves alone in the struggles that come with being in the public sphere. While their access to public life is easy, they still face the alienation that comes with juggling the inside and the outside world.
This struggle is most visible in the lives of women journalists here. Kashmiri Muslim women journalists are applauded for braving the challenges that come with presenting the ‘true Kashmiri story’ to the world, but it is the same audience that alienates a woman when she finds herself in a situation that doesn’t suit a “shareef koor”, or a ‘good girl’. She also has to endure the horror that comes with her own community not trusting her. Her fraternity thinks that it is “easy” for her. Her story is only important so long as it bedecks the larger narrative. But she’s isolated when she needs help within.
The Bulli Bai issue, in which two Kashmiri women were “auctioned”, made it to international publications. However, in our own local media, there was an awkward silence. But we see, we observe, we think, and the best of all, we write.
For a woman, it is never easy. For a Kashmiri Muslim woman, it is worse. We as Kashmiri women realise that we owe it to the men in our communities to keep them from falling prey to narratives that are out to demonise them. But what are they doing for us?
(The author is a journalist based in Srinagar. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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