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Women as Repositories of Communal Values and Cultural Traditions

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.

The story of the partition of India in 1947 into two separate nation-states, India and Pakistan, is replete with instances of women resorting to mass suicide to preserve the “honor” of the community. If a woman’s body belongs not to herself but to her community, then the violation of that body purportedly signifies an attack upon the honour (izzat) of the whole community.

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.

In order to highlight the groundbreaking work accomplished by local agencies, cadres and social networks in Kashmir, the distinction between traditional customs and practices that limit the role of women and progressive roles prescribed for women within Islamic norms needs to be underscored by responsible scholarship and social work. The western preoccupation with empirical observation has led to an inaccurate conflation of Islamic norms with practices.

Despite the political mobilization of Kashmiri women during the upheaval in 1931 and the politically volcanic Quit Kashmir movement of 1946, they have now reverted from the public sphere to the private realm. The onslaught of despotism in 1931 unleashed by Maharaja Hari Singh awakened Kashmiri women from their slumber and induced them to rattle the confining bars of the monarchical cage. Remarkably, the illiterate women of Srinagar, Kashmir, were initiated into political activism and it was they who heralded the political participation of educated women. The Quit Kashmir movement of 1946–47 saw the evolution of women into well-informed and articulate protestors, assuming leadership roles in the quest for a Kashmiri identity: “When male leadership was put behind bars or driven underground, women leaders took charge and gave a new direction to the struggle” (Misri 2002: 19). But this consciousness of the women, which could have produced women cadres, was diluted by the reversion to normative gender roles. Attempts to drown the voices of progressive women into oblivion became more frequent with the onset of militancy in 1989–90. Can women step out of their ascribed gender roles, once again, to significantly impact socio-political developments in J & K?

It is important to imagine confidence-building measures that emphasize the decisive role that women can play in raising consciousness, not just at the individual but at the collective level as well.

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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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