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The Woman Question in South Asia

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As I contemplate the significance of International Women’s Day, I wonder about the plight of women, not just in the developing world but in the developed world as well, who have been socialized to play second fiddle, demure, passive, and not seek either political or cultural empowerment.

I ask myself and my readers the following questions:

Can women play an important role in establishing a more inclusive democracy and new forums for citizen cooperation? Can female leaders lead the way by offering new ideas, building broad-based political coalitions, and working to bridge organizational divides? Should women active in politics must aim not just to improve the position of their particular organizations but also to forge connections between the group’s agendas for revival of democracy and reconstruction of society with the strategies and agendas of other groups in the population, who have also been deprived of empowerment? Can women’s groups, in this way, pave the way for sustainable peace, universal human rights, and security from violent threats of all kinds?

It is the peripheralized, of whom women form a large portion, that are concerned about structural changes that would enable transformations within entrenched structures and appropriate the peace building mission from the elitist national security constituency.

In contemporary Kashmiri society, the question of the role of women in the nationalist scenario remains a vexed one. Women, as evidenced by the work of constructive and rehabilitative work undertaken by political and social women activists in the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir during both turbulent and peaceful times, have more or less power depending on their specific situation, and they can be relatively submissive in one situation and relatively assertive in another. Assessing women’s agency requires identifying and mapping power relations, the room to maneuver within each pigeonhole and the intransigence of boundaries (Hayward 1998: 29).

The level of a woman’s empowerment also varies according to factors such as class, caste, ethnicity, economic status, age, family position, etc. Also, structural supports that some women have access to bolster their commitment to action. In 1950, the government of J & K developed educational institutions for women on a large scale, including the first Government College for Women. This institution provided an emancipatory forum for the women of Kashmir, broadening their horizons and opportunities within established political and social spheres. Higher education in the state received a greater impetus with the establishment of the Jammu and Kashmir University (Misri 2002: 25–26). The mobilization of women from various socioeconomic classes meant that they could avail themselves of educational opportunities, enhance their professional skills, and attempt to reform existing structures so as to accommodate more women. The educational methods employed in these institutions were revisionist in nature, not revolutionary. But the militarization of the political and cultural discourse in the state in 1989–90 marginalized developmental issues and negated the plurality of ideologies through a non-negotiable value system.

I reinforce that in Kashmir there has been a dearth of secular women’s organizations working toward structural change that would enable gender equity.

Why is gender violence such a consistent feature of the insurgency and counterinsurgency that have wrenched apart the Indian subcontinent for decades? The equation of the native woman to the motherland in nationalist rhetoric has, in recent times, become more forceful. In effect, the native woman is constructed as a trough within which male aspirations are nurtured, and the most barbaric acts are justified as means to restore the lost dignity of women.

In one instance, the crime of a boy from a lower social caste against a woman from a higher upper caste in Meerawala village in the central province of Punjab, Pakistan, in 2002, was punished in a revealing way by the “sagacious” tribal jury. After days of thoughtful consideration, the jury gave the verdict that the culprit’s teenage sister, Mai, should be gang-raped by goons from the wronged social group. The tribal jury ruled that to save the honor of the upper-caste Mastoi clan, Mai’s brother, Shakoor, should marry the woman with whom he was accused of having an illicit relationship, while Mai was to be given away in marriage to a Mastoi man. The prosecution said that when she rejected the decision she was gang-raped by four Mastoi men and made to walk home semi-naked in front of hundreds of people. The lawyer for one of the accused argued the rape charge was invalid because Mai was technically married to the defendant at the time of the incident (“Pakistan Court Expected to Rule on Gang-Rape Case,” Khaleej Times, 27 August 2002).

Such acts of violence that occur on the Indian subcontinent bear testimony to the intersecting notions of nation, family and community. The horrific stories of women, in most instances attributed to folklore, underscore the complicity of official and nationalist historiography in perpetuating these notions. I might add that the feminization of the “homeland” as the “motherland,” for which Indian soldiers, Kashmiri nationalists in Indian-administered Kashmir and in Pakistan-administered Kashmir are willing to lay down their lives, serves in effect to preserve the native woman in pristine retardation. Although this essentialist portrayal of the Kashmiri woman in J & K is clearly suspect, it is embedded more deeply in quasi-feudal cultures of South Asia. Such cultures have been fiefdom of feudal lords whose only concern is with the impregnability of their authority and the replenishment of their coffers. Women in the quasi-feudal cultures and societies of South Asia are still confined within the parameters created by the paternalistic feudal culture that disallows the creation of a space for distinct subjectivities.

An increase in female representation, not just token women, in the Parliament, Legislative Assembly, Legislative Council, and Judiciary would facilitate a cultural shift in terms of gender role expectations, legitimizing a defiance of the normative structure. The intrusion of women into traditionally male domains would cause a perceptible erosion in the structural determinants of gender violence. Such a form of empowerment would “frame and facilitate the struggle for social justice and women’s equality through a transformation of economic, social and political structures” (Bisnath and Elson, “Women’s Empowerment Revisited”).

In the present scenario in Jammu and Kashmir, no thought is given either by the state authorities or by the insurgent groups to the pain of women who have been victims of the paramilitary forces and/or militant organizations.

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Nyla Ali Khan is the author of Fiction of Nationality in an Era of Transnationalism, Islam, Women, and Violence in Kashmir, The Life of a Kashmiri Woman, and the editor of The Parchment of Kashmir. Nyla Ali Khan has also served as an guest editor working on articles from the Jammu and Kashmir region for Oxford University Press (New York), helping to identify, commission, and review articles. She can be reached at nylakhan@aol.com.

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