Intersectionalities of Gender and Politics in Indian-Administered Kashmir

In my work, previous and current, I attempt to foreground the radical potential of voices that are considered marginalized. In doing so, I neither attempt to neglect the adverse effects of domination or displacement, nor do I associate the authoritarian qualities of writing and pedagogy exclusively with the West. How did Kashmiri women navigate the often impenetrable terrain of formal spaces of political power created not just by elites but by insurgent movements as well, which are often striving for forms of nationalism that are similar to the exclusionary and patriarchal nationalisms of neocolonial elites? Did Kashmiri women create new forms of subjectivity that were radically different from the essentialist and dichotomous state-nationalist subject? Do these new forms of subjectivity enable the construction of resistance feminisms? Does this subject provide “a constant critique of nationalist and even insurgent agendas, of power relations that structure global economic flows, and will never be complete” (Grewal 1997: 234)?

I briefly examine the oppositional and nonessentialist narratives of Kashmiri women that forge new niches in Kashmiri society through the pathways of multilayered identities and inclusiveness. The multiple narratives of Kashmiri women, including my own, disrupt the voicelessness of women placed on the altar of cultural iconicism.

The renowned Kashmiri scholar Prem Nath Bazaz assesses the scintillating role that Kashmiri women of ancient times played in the social and cultural life of Kashmir (Bazaz [1967] 2005: 12), but these women were cushioned by their royal lineage in a monarchical regime, untormented by the lack of wherewithal that women of other socioeconomic classes were had to contend with. How did Kashmiri women, from different walks of life, express their political agency during the  nationalist awakening in the 1930s; during the Quit Kashmir movement in the 1940s; during the invasion by raiders from the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan in 1947; during the period preceding and succeeding the accession of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir to the Indian dominion; at the onset of the militant movement in the late 1980s; and during 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? Does the insurgent movement in Kashmir create parameters for women that are just as restrictive as those created by the politics of the nation-state? Have Kashmiri women signified a reconciliatory presence and been harbingers of peace?

Women politicos in the legislative assembly and legislative council of Jammu and Kashmir are token members, who are seen as symbols of their entire group. Today, in the politics of Indian-administered J & K, women do constitute a minority, increasing the pressures of high visibility, unease, stereotyping, inability to make substantial change, over-accommodation to the dominant male culture in order to avoid condemnation as “overly soft.” Even those with access to the echelons of power are unwilling or unable to forge “broad feminist coalitions and informal networks along party lines” (Dahlerup 2001: 104), refusing to challenge state-centered, elitist, and masculinist notions of security.

Construction of the “Kashmiri Woman” by the Discourses of Religious Nationalism, Ethnonationalism, and Secular Nationalism:

The encounter with essentialist notions of identity is inevitable in the construction of the Kashmiri woman as a parchment on which the discourses of religious nationalism, secular nationalism, and ethnonationalism are inscribed, and the most ruthless acts are justified by Indian paramilitary forces the only viable way to assert an aggressive nationalism, and by militant organizations as means to claim ownership over the putatively impregnable boundaries of women’s spaces. Secular as well as ethnonationalists claim that as long as the core of the culture is retained, an unchanging essential Kashmiri identity, reducing the diversity of the society to one criterion, which came to be seen as the definitive component of Kashmiri identity, particularly a Kashmiri woman’s identity. Nationalist discourse creates Kashmir as a space inhabited by monochrome women “whose identity is simple and straightforward.” This discourse “recognizes only a limited range of the spectrum of collective identity. It gives that part of identity a privileged place in political discourse, simultaneously defining the identity, projecting it and appealing to it for support” (Smith 2001: 39). For example, ethnonationalists assert that a Kashmiri woman who marries a non-Kashmiri loses her legal right to inherit, own, or buy immovable property in the state. This argument gives legitimacy to the supposedly “unchanging essence of individual and social identity” (Smith 34), by asserting that the Kashmiri woman is the repository of primordial culture and ethnicity which would get tainted by her stepping outside the cultural threshold. As a strategy to maintain the inviolability of the cultural sanctum sanctorium, ethnonationalists problematize the law concerning state subjects which was promulgated in Jammu and Kashmir on April 20, 1927 by Maharajah Hari Singh. This injunction was meant to protect the interests of the local landed class and the peasantry against wealthy people from outside the state who had the wherewithal to buy the locals out of hearth and home. In 1957, the new constitution of the state changed “state subject” to “permanent resident.” Permanent resident status was accorded to individuals who had been living in the state for at least a decade before May 14, 1957. On March 25, 1969, the state government issued an injunction requiring all deputy commissioners to issue certificates of permanent residence to Kashmiri women with the stipulation that status was valid till marriage. After that, women who married permanent resident men would need to get their certificates reissued, and those who married outside the state would indubitably lose their permanent resident status, where-as, a male permanent resident be entitled to bestow on his non-state subject spouse the ability to own and inherit property in the state as long as she didn’t leave the state for permanent residence elsewhere (Abdullah, 1993). This essential identity becomes “normative, a pressure . . . to conform . . ., as members of one nation or another, or along” a “single dimension out of the many that make” people “who they are” (Smith 2001: 39).

In 2002, the state High Court declared that this proviso had no legislative sanction because it violated the gender equality clause of the constitution of the state as well as of India. The High Court held that the proviso relied on section 10 of the British law which governed pre-partition India, and that law had itself been amended (Bhagat, 2002; Puri, 2004). The bench quoted section four of the Sri Pratap Consolidation Law Act to declare that the only legislative prohibition was that the property inherited by a woman permanent resident who married a non-permanent resident could not be sold to a non-state subject. But this decision created an uproar in which the then opposition National Conference asserted that the declaration of the earlier proviso invalidating the permanent resident status of women who married outside the state as antiquated was an attempt to undermine the normative cultural identity of the state. This political discourse greatly influenced the dominant sense of Kashmiri identity, “defining the identity, projecting it, and appealing to it for support” (Ibid.: 39). The National Conference (NC) accused the then ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) of having kowtowed to the federal government by withdrawing its appeal from the Supreme Court against the judgment of the state High Court. The PDP, rattled by its fear of losing electoral support in the Kashmir Valley, which is the province in which it holds most sway, overlooked the gender perspective and violations that women could potentially experience in the spheres of socioeconomic and cultural rights, and, without wasting much time, drafted a Permanent Resident Bill in the assembly reinforcing the earlier stipulation. The High Court’s decision was supported by the then ruling PDP’s coalition partner, the Congress, which later formed a coalition government with the NC in 2008. The issue of permanent residence was communalized by Hindu fundamentalist originations, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Rashtriya Samaj Sevak, to inflame regional divisiveness by condemning the opposition of the NC and the PDP to the High Court’s decision as acts of Muslim secession, underscoring the religious identity of predominantly Hindu Jammu.  The representatives of the NC and the PDP in the legislative assembly and legislative council vociferously opposed the decision of the High Court that declared the earlier proviso obsolete, and the representatives of the Congress and the BJP unequivocally endorsed it (Puri, 2004).

The process of identity politics here became a “battle to assert the salience and meaning of a given identity” (Ibid.: 37) of a Kashmiri woman. The women members of the legislative assembly and legislative council acted as agents of the state as opposed to recognizing identity as multidimensional, because “it is in the nature of political mobilization that the arbitrary nature of an appeal to identity cannot be acknowledged. . . . the political insistence that one category of identity has the highest salience and a particular meaning is accompanied by a denial that there is any real choice in the matter” (Ibid.: 38).

My Personal and Intellectual Trajectory: The Narrative of a Diasporic Kashmiri Muslim Women:

How do I choose to remember Kashmir? The mellifluous music of life; verdant, rolling hills; sparkling snow topped mountains; gushing streams; dew sprinkled meadows in summer and snow flake blanketed meadows in winter; horses with trappings, sleigh bells, shingled roofs, and the cocooning smell of burning wood in furnaces; the aroma of pines, firs, and conifers; a fertile landscape inundated with the alluring ripeness of loquat, cherry, apple, pomegranate trees, firmly denying stagnation or any hint of barrenness; an unmistakable vitality and zeal for life in the air; the rustling of autumnal leaves that becalms the harried soul; the lustrous snows of winter that promise to expiate the most egregious sin; a palpable rapture that beckons the unsuspecting observer to plunge into the tempestuous waters of existence; the tenuous throes of infancy in the vibrant atmosphere of spring, with tenderly sprouting flower buds feeling their way into existence; the unflinching faith of the mystic in communion with the divine; a mysticism that cannot be reduced to history.

It was in this Valley of languid beauty, a cornucopia of passions, mysticism, syncretism, and evanescence, best symbolized by changing autumnal hues, that I came to consciousness. Although interrogating my own narrative produces angst, it allows me to examine the blind spots in my perception, which I have attempted to do by closely looking at women’s movements launched by marginalized groups as well as at the class dimensions of the gendered activism in a highly militarized Kashmir. While struggling to develop a critical awareness of my positionality, I recognize the validity of political ideologies and activisms that were orchestrated by elite women as well as by women at the grass roots level, some of which get dismissed all too easily in some narratives of Kashmir as “unrepresentative.” And yet, as I write this piece at a geographical and physical remove from my land of origin, the Valley of Kashmir, it is not halcyon days that haunt my memory, but the disintegration of that world and the subsequent dispossession and dislocation for some, which has had a profound impact on my subjectivity. There are times, however, when I am wracked by nostalgia for a past when political repression, conscripted democratic spaces, jeopardized cultural emancipation, bigotry breeding intolerance, militarization stunting growth were not even specks on the horizon.

The history of Kashmir, similar to histories of other conflict zones, has never been sanitized. Also, although a class/ caste hierarchy does not enjoy religious legitimacy in predominantly Muslim Kashmir, socioeconomic class and caste divisions in Kashmir are as well-entrenched as they are in other South Asian societies. There is also a rigidly entrenched gender hierarchy in Kashmir, to deconstruct which some substantive attempts have been made. The role of women in a conflict zone; the reconceptualization of a woman’s identity in a politically militarized zone; intersectionalities of class, education, ethnicity, religious identity in theorizing a woman’s identity; women’s agential roles or lack thereof are issues that can no longer be relegated to the background.

Although I am wary of the construction of a monolithic “Kashmiri” female subject and well-aware of the repressive politics of a homogenizing cultural nationalism, I do not wish to forestall the possibility of a unified subjectivity as the basis of nationalist politics. I acknowledge the political productivity of the construct of a unified subjectivity, while cautioning the reader against eliding specific, varied, and unique forms of agency deployed by Kashmiri women in times of relative calm, conflict, political turbulence, resurgence of nationalism, and internal critique not just of state-nationalism, but insurgent nationalism as well. Although every instance of the resurgence of nationalism in Kashmir has strategically employed the term “women” to further engender this category of subjects, I reiterate that there is no monolithic “Kashmiri woman.”

My maternal grandmother, Begum Akbar Jehan, supported her husband’s struggle and represented Srinagar and Anantnag constituencies in Jammu and Kashmir in the Indian parliament from 1977 to 1979 and 1984 to 1989, respectively. She was also the first president of the Jammu and Kashmir Red Cross Society from 1947 to 1951. But during Grandfather’s incarceration, she had been burdened with the arduous task of raising five children in a politically repressive environment that sought to undo her husband’s mammoth political, cultural, legalistic attempts to restore the faith of Kashmiri society in itself.


New efforts and new forums are required not just in Indian-administered Kashmir but in other parts of the world as well for the germination of new ideas, broad based coalition politics that transcends organizational divides, and gives women the space and leeway to make important political decisions. In order to mitigate the conflict in Indian-administered Kashmir, “women have to re-establish their historic links with peace and the peace movement, asserting themselves as the harbingers of a genuine alternative. It is with this perspective in mind that women have to speak to those in public power and when they themselves are in public authority. This is very different from adopting, in the name of the search for equality, the existing masculinist and militaristic mentality” (Chenoy and Vanaik: 2001, 137).

The most effective way to make a gender perspective viable in Kashmiri society would be for women, state as well as non-state actors, to pursue the task of not just incorporating and improving the positions of their organizations within civil society, but also by forging connections between their agendas and strategies for conflict resolution and reconstruction of society with the strategies and agendas of other sections of the populace impacted by the conflict. It is imperative that women actors in collaboration with other civil society actors focus on the rebuilding of a greatly polarized and fragmented social fabric to ensure the redressal of inadequate political participation, insistence on accountability for human rights violations through transitional justice mechanisms, reconstruction of the infrastructure and productive capacity of Kashmir, resumption of access to basic social services. It is imperative that the state government recognize the worth of the peace-building work that women’s organizations can contribute at the local and regional levels. The aspirations for state accountability, healing, and peace of the members of the APDP must be translated into a powerful force that would determine the substance of conflict resolution.

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