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Educating Young People in Conflict Zones: an Interview With Nyla Ali Khan

Ashiq Hussain Andrabi: Let’s begin with your journey from a teacher who’s sensitive to the diversity of cultural traditions, to a writer who critically observes the socio-political discourse in South Asia, particularly Kashmir, through an oblique focus from the margins.

Nyla Ali Khan: As an academic, it is intellectually stimulating for me to observe my students think critically about significant issues. I encourage students to find a way to enter the conversation. What are you saying to their audience? How are they saying it? What others are saying motivates their writing, and, therefore, I require them to find a way to enter the conversation with others’ views. I emphasize that I, as a reader, am interested in their stances, and students learn to employ a perspective to better understand the position from which their write, which has been constructed by their political ideology, education, religious beliefs, history, nationality, ethnicity, class, and gender, which is a transformative experience for students.

My personal history, education, and scholarship have made me sensitive to the diversity of cultural traditions and to the questions and conflicts within them, and I bring this sensitivity to my teaching as well. Working and living in Oklahoma has taught me that community is the ability to organize and mobilize for social change, which requires the creation of awareness not just at the individual level but at the collective level as well. Community is the courage to bridge divides and to pave the way for the education of the younger generation, which is the only viable response to ignorance and bigotry. Community is the openness to dissent, and differences of opinion, which is true courage. In my teaching, writings, and public lectures, I emphasize that we have a lack of understanding of each other and a paranoia that may lead to violence. It is or, at least, should be inconceivable, in the day and age of a global economy, to spurn the concepts of reason, rationality, and political and moral ethics.

As I emphasize in my forthcoming book, Educational Strategies for Youth Empowerment in Conflict Zones: Transforming, Not Transmitting, Trauma, young people need to be reminded that despite the several letdowns, the process of democratization is an evolutionary one and does not provide instant solutions. It also becomes necessary to encourage discussion on the role of individual responsibility; increase awareness that the enjoyment of rights works in tandem with the shouldering of responsibilities; and enhance the emotional ability of young people to contribute to the repair of their communities, nations, themselves, and the world.

AHA: Is it difficult to find a balance between research and writing? How do you make sure that your writing doesn’t get too bogged down in facts and historical detail?

NAK: Writing, for me, is therapeutic. I recognize that, as a writer, I am positioned in relation to my own class and cultural reality; my own history, which is one among many ways of relating to the past.

Writing enables me to understand my own struggle not just with the complicated notions of political identity, regionalism, nationalism, but also with the effects of the discourses of cultural and religious nationalism, my position as a Hanifi Sunni Muslim woman, and my diasporic position in the West, which further complicate my position.

My concept of the political and sociocultural empowerment of Kashmiri women or lack thereof in contemporary society is shaped by how I see my past, which I articulate in my writings.

Writing gives me the tools to transform people’s traumatic experiences into stories of strength through changing the language in which I write about them, understanding their geographical and spatial spaces, and committing myself to building a new society based on transformative justice.

In all my years of teaching in the North American academy, I have realized that students relate best to the materials they study if these materials are corroborated with testimonial evidence and discussed as stories of human interest. By highlighting such stories of human interest and intertwining them with history and politics, I make sure that my writing doesn’t get bogged down with research.

AHA: How does your latest book “Educational Strategies for Youth Empowerment in Conflict Zones: Transforming, Not Transmitting Trauma,” offer fresh and exciting new directions of inquiry into the highly contentious issue of conflict resolution in South Asia?

NAK: In this book, my purpose is to call attention to non-Western societies, “beyond what might be considered the geographical bounds of a western paradigm,” that are fractured and traumatized, and that will continue to sabotage themselves unless they actively engage in the process of healing (Edkins 9-10).

By advocating for the alleviation of psychological illnesses in this book, I am not nullifying the need for the revival of indigenous institutions and political redress. Nor is the purpose of my emphasis on practical empowerment training, healing of memories, and logotherapy to characterize the genuine grievances of besieged peoples as psychological imbalances. But I have serious qualms about the regressive preoccupation with the propagation of sentimental political discourse that iconizes victims of trauma.

Such discourse commodifies, but does not change, the misery of a father who feels emasculated because he cannot fend for his family. It does not alleviate the anxiety of parents who are painfully aware that the productive years of their child are going by the wayside while the rest of the world is making strides. It does not enable political change that would compensate for the wailing of a tender-hearted mother whose son was waiting to plunge into life but has now been silenced by militarization. It does not enable emancipation that would give hope to the apathetic young educated person who thought the world was his/ her oyster but now has nothing to look forward to. It does not provide a progressive political vision to people whose opinions are made short shrift of by the powers that be. It does not revive cultural and educational institutions that have been languishing in isolation. It does not enable the political assertion of people, who are wooed during election season, but whose opinions and rights are otherwise overlooked.

While extremist ideologies of all hues might seem seductive, it is necessary for young people to steer clear of the glamor of the short-lived braggadocio of affiliating with power brokers on extreme opposites of the spectrum. Any ideology that demands uncritical adherence, solidity, and the dismissal of multiplicity of perspectives is incapable of creating space for all stakeholders at the negotiating table. Such ideologies thrive on conflict, fractured identities, “chosen traumas,” and the glorification of victimhood. Nations are not built on the corpses of their young, nor are the edifices of selfhood raised on fractured kinship systems.

In seeking to highlight an emancipatory pedagogical methodology that enables the articulation of ethical and political change, I consider the transnational application of therapies that are, conventionally, considered Eurocentric.

Communities cannot be revived and nations cannot be rebuilt unless we actively work to rehabilitate those who have witnessed or encountered acts of barbarity or savagery; rebuild trust within and between communities; encourage young adults to acknowledge and celebrate heterogeneity; enrich learning environments where young people embrace authenticity and forge social cohesion; laud them for building up leadership abilities, and train them to participate in decision-making processes. It also becomes necessary to encourage discussion on the role of individual responsibility; increase awareness that the enjoyment of rights works in tandem with the shouldering of responsibilities; and enhance the emotional ability of young people to contribute to the repair of their communities, nations, and themselves. While not allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed by the overload of information that threatens to engulf lives, we would do well to remind ourselves that local communities exercise prodigious influence in the restoration of humanity.

“All sectors of student and adult Kashmiri society would benefit from a national project of carefully constructed dialogues,” according to international peacebuilding expert Dr. Paula Green, “thereby breaking the silence and isolation, acknowledging grievances and harms done, grasping the development of competing narratives and perceptions, and enabling Kashmiris to redeem their nation’s soul through a shared love for the land and its people” She goes on to elaborate, “Together, the population of Jammu and Kashmir might find the courage to face the truth of their brokenness and betrayals, mourn their losses, and turn their despair into empowerment for the sake of their own healing and the health of future generations. Through this process, the people of Jammu and Kashmir, from all walks of life, could offer each other the respect and dignity that each individual craves, commit to meeting the basic needs of all members of the community, and reweave the tattered web of connections, restorations and mutuality in which all can safely thrive” (E-mail to author, 16 September 2020).

To that end, my book, in taking multidisciplinary approaches to major human rights issues, is a dynamic interplay between activists, academics, and clinicians. I have chosen to stay true to their ideas and words by reproducing them verbatim. I recognize the imperative of engaging with people in local communities, building on the resilience displayed by those communities in the wake of humanitarian disasters, and incorporating communitarian coping strategies into educational methodologies that seek to empower such communities.

AHA: You’ve been an advocate for the rights of women in general and women in conflict zones in particular, tell us why is women empowerment so personal to you?

NAK: Well, I was raised in a Muslim home where we were encouraged to speak of the “liberation of women” and of a culturally syncretic society. I was taught that Islam provides women with social, political and economic rights, however invisible those rights are in our society. It was instilled in me that Islam gives women: property rights; the right to interrogate totalizing social and cultural institutions; the right to hold political office; the right to assert their agency in social and political matters; and the right to lead a dignified existence in which they can voice their opinions.

To elaborate on my response to this question, I would like to give you a couple of concrete examples. In the summer of 2019, I gave a talk at the Government College for Women, Anantnag. Many of the students there shared anecdotes/ stories that illustrated their experiences as rural and gender minorities. They recounted their sentiments of insecurity, impermanence, and feeling objectified in a zone that was trammeled by competing religio-political and gender discourses. Their nagging sense of marginalization as a pigeonholed ethnic group and as women could act as a powerful motivating force for them to pursue higher education if accompanied by tangible family involvement, of which I didn’t see evidence. With the pursuit of higher educations and the opportunities that creates, these students could see changing gender roles in their neck of the woods, but I got a clear sense of male faculty members not wishing to concede space to their students, because that would result in the challenging of chauvinistic attitudes and loss of traditional social roles.

I remember a bright young student bringing up the brutalization and ruthless murder of eight-year old Asifa in Kathua district of Jammu province in 2018. She had the objectivity to point out that in Kashmir outrage against Asifa’s violent sodomy and murder as well as other crimes of a similar nature was not conditioned by the atrocity of the crime, but by the religious and political affiliation of the victim and the perpetrator. In response, I pointed out that attempts to drown the voices of progressive women into oblivion became more frequent with the onset of militancy and counter-insurgency in 1989-90. I emphasized that the political and social exigencies of the women of Jammu and Kashmir could be addressed in more nuanced and purposeful ways. I was quick to add that asymmetrical gender hierarchies legitimized by the forceful dissemination of militarized and fundamentalist discourses portend the debasement of women. And in practice, gender violence is a consistent feature of the riots and political thuggery that spasmodically grip South Asia. The wretchedness of the crime committed against Asifa bore testimony to the intersecting notions of family, nation, and community. The horrific stories of women, which are in most instances attributed to folklore, underscore the complicity of official and nationalist historiography in perpetuating these notions. I underscored that the feminization of the ‘homeland’ as the ‘motherland’ for which nationalists are willing to lay down their lives served, in effect, to preserve native women in pristine retardation.

My response was vociferously countered by a couple of male faculty members, who bawled that native Kashmiri men could not be accused of harassing native women, sexually or otherwise. For me, their response was a reminder that in our urgency to play to the gallery, which in this case would be the patriarchal structure, we forget to see girls and women as individuals in their own right, not merely as repositories of communal and traditional values.

I saw a similar dynamic at the Government Degree College in Beerwah, Central Kashmir.  I gave a talk on women’s empowerment and the role of women in education at that college in 2018. Again, my attempt was to encourage students to voice their opinions without fear of reprisal. I noticed, during the question and answer session, that the female students were relatively reticent, and I had to work hard to draw them out.

At the risk of alienating the male students in the room, I beseeched their female counterparts to speak up. In response to my earnest entreaty, a charming young man magnanimously said that he wondered why his female peers were hesitant to express their opinions. His seemingly innocuous statements provoked a quick response from one of the female students in the room, who were unable to restrain herself any longer. She acerbically said that girls/ women had not been allowed to share their opinions with the communities they were part of without fear of being mocked or excoriated. She reminded her male peers that they had not become acculturated to notions of gender equality and expansion of economic opportunities for women.

I could clearly see that she and her ilk were developing a sense of gender consciousness. While the female students at that college identified with traditional culture and felt the pressure to toe the line by not vocally challenging gender norms, they recognized that higher education provided them with opportunities to map their stories of survival and persistence. But I came away with the nagging feeling that a lot more could be done to enable students, across the board, to function as productive members of their classroom communities, facilitating their integration into both the academic and social dimensions of college life.

AHA: How can we ensure that students evolve as bridge builders in a polarized world?

NAK: As an educator, an Oklahoma Humanities Scholar, and a member of the Oklahoma Governor’s International Team, I was keen on exploring pedagogical methodologies that would increase the exposure of students in Oklahoma to global political, economic, sociocultural, and gender issues. That’s the reason I jumped at the opportunity to teach at two-year colleges for a couple of years, which gave me a chance to work with a constituency to which I had hitherto been unexposed. Several of my students came from challenging backgrounds. They had either experienced traumatic events, or witnessed abuse, or been victims of abuse. Some of them had substance-related disorders, which were complicated by comorbidities. One of the significant constituencies in my classes was that of veterans: students who had been deployed to war zones like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, etc., and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder because of having witnessed deliberate acts of violence. Learning about the rogerian method of argumentation and employing it in their writings enabled the students to recognize that sound arguments were not about grandstanding, one-upmanship, or disseminating simplistic propaganda. On the contrary, making logical arguments in order to resolve problems made it necessary to listen to opposing points of view, acknowledge their validity, and then build common ground to accommodate multiple points of view. Students learned the difficult lesson that resolving a problem entailed negotiating with opposing sides to avoid alienating them, which could be successfully accomplished only by respectful discourse.

Every semester, I would encourage students to take positions on topical issues that they hadn’t considered up until then. Those experiences give students a new attitude to political discussion. They learn to respect the opposing position and to be curious about the arguments on both sides, rather than seeing the discussion as simply a way of making boasts and assertions. It also gave them an opportunity to step outside their comfort zones and perceive the global impact of some of these issues. I recall a couple of my students, who were veterans, arguing against militarization, although they were invested in it. Making rogerian arguments, which were persuasive and propounded viable solutions, enabled students to cultivate the ability to place themselves in the shoes of the other person and to perceive the world through a lens different from their own. I saw students mellow down, become less belligerent, more conciliatory and willing to negotiate once they learned to recognize shades of grey, which had been suppressed by monolithic narratives that portrayed the world in terms of black and white. I witnessed the students evolve as problem solvers who recognized that building bridges in an increasingly polarized world necessitated respectful discussions.

AHA: How important is it having women involved in leadership levels and how does it impact the peace and stability of a nation?

NAK: As I’ve said elsewhere, not enough emphasis is laid on how Kashmiri women of different political, religious, ideological, and class orientations can become resource managers and advocates for other women in emergency and crisis situations. Kashmiri women continue to be near absent at the formal level. Although the international community made a commitment to incorporate gender perspectives in peace efforts and underscored gender mainstreaming as a global strategy for the growth of gender equality in the Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action in 1995, I observe that not enough is being done toward increasing women’s participation in peacekeeping and postconflict peace building and nation-building in Kashmir.

Women’s organizations in a conflict zone like Kashmir need clear nation-building programs, which would involve reviving civil society, resuscitating the shattered economy, providing sources of income, and building social and political structures.

As in other conflict and postconflict situations, women are rarely in positions of political power in participatory democracy. Although women are active in grassroots self-organization, they are seldom recognized for their work. It is important for these organizations to pave the way for sustainable peace, human rights and security which would diminish the potency of militarized peacekeeping, following closely on the heels of militarized interventions. And militarized masculinities, even among peacemakers, as Sandra Whitworth points out, create “cultures of violence that may be perpetrated against women during conflict” (Feminism and International Studies: Towards a Political Economy of Gender in Interstate and Non-Governmental Organizations, 1994).

New efforts and new forums are required not just in Jammu and 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 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).

In Northern Ireland, for example, prior to the peace moves between the paramilitary forces and the political institutions, women worked to forge connections across community, denominational, and ideological lines.

Women who urge their governments to initiate genuine peacekeeping, as Cynthia Cocjburn reminds us, believe that they can facilitate the process of rebuilding and peace “because they have escaped masculine socialization,” and are, therefore, “freer to formulate a transformative, nonviolent vision” (“A Gender Perspective on War and Peace”).

AHA: Taking three dimensions of women empowerment i.e. economic empowerment, household empowerment, and socio-cultural empowerment into account, how empowered do you see the women of Jammu & Kashmir?

NAK: Although women in Jammu and Kashmir are politically empowered in terms of the constitution giving them the right to vote; the right to run for public office; the right to an equal education, and equal work for equal pay, those rights, I would argue, are not implemented with adequate rigor. I would also like to out that women continue to face seeming insurmountable cultural barriers.

An analogy with the United States would make my point clearer: the United States had a woman presidential candidate for the very first time in 2016, even though women have enjoyed constitutional rights for decades.

Likewise, Kashmiri women enjoy political rights, and Jammu and Kashmir had a woman head of government from 2016 to 2018. But there are cultural barriers that women run into and then there are regressive interpretations of religions, which legitimize the subjugation of women. It takes time for it to dawn on people, especially those who subscribe to literal interpretations of religious scriptures, that society cannot grow and evolve without the full participation of educated women.  A fear that plagues conservative societies is that educated women veer away from or undermine religion, but, historically, dynamic political movements—even the movement for India’s independence from the British—have been nourished by liberated and emancipated women, who developed their political identities within a religious and familial framework.

As an educator working with diverse cultural and social groups questioning the exclusivity of cultural nationalism, what is the political significance of cultural nationalism? Can cultural nationalism be liberal?

In response to this question, I would point out that as the people of India seek to improve their lives, they find that cultural nationalist forces can prove as dark a threat to their identities as that which colonialism presented. In Prime Minister Modi’s India, the uncritical reversion to the superficial creation of a “unified” cultural and political identity has led to an erosion of unique and distinctive cultural identities. Internal hierarchies entrenched by ultra-right-wing nationalism relegate religious and ethnic minorities to the background.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India, subsequent to its victories in state and national elections and its rise to the echelons of power in 2014 and 2019, availed itself of myriad opportunities to mold malleable minds and indoctrinate the young. They have since notched up efforts that began in 2000 in order to evoke community is evoked to create nostalgia for a concocted past that is meticulously contrived. The BJP embarked on a truculent campaign to imbue education with the exclusionary ideology of Hindutva.

Cultural nationalism, however, isn’t always ultra-orthodox or regressive. For example, the foundation of Kashmiri cultural nationalism that was laid in 1931 recognized the heterogeneity of the nation. It was not constructed around a common language, religion, culture, and an ethnically pure majority. This process of Kashmiri nationalist self-imagining, which was liberatory, is conveniently ignored in the statist versions of the histories of India and Pakistan.

Another example of liberatory cultural nationalism that comes to mind is the Constitution of Jammu and Kashmir. Amidst the pandemonium of 1947, Kashmir was the first state in the newly freed Indian subcontinent to have its own written constitutional plan. The constitution guaranteed enfranchisement of all adult citizens, men and women, and took particular care to protect the dignity and religious freedoms of minorities. The admirable egalitarian and democratic quality of their achievement was partially a result of the political dissidence and collective consciousness that grew in retaliation to oppressive monarchical institutions, which had curbed their freedom for generations.

A people newly emancipated from the clutches of an oppressive and rigorous monarchy blossomed. In that euphoric atmosphere, no force seemed powerful enough to militate against the dream of a democratic and emancipated society.

Here, I also point out that there are some supposedly “subaltern” versions of the history of Kashmir which, in attempts to be deconstructionist, obliterate the process of nation-building in Kashmir in the early to mid-decades of the twentieth century and inadvertently feed off statist and oftentimes right-wing versions of history.

In romanticizing militant resistance in Kashmir, such versions fail to take into account the tremendously difficult task of restoring the selfhood of a degraded people, and also the harsh fact that a political movement which does not highlight the issues of governance, social welfare, and the resuscitation of democratic institutions ends up becoming worthless.

In trying to espouse anti-establishment positions, some of us tend to ignore the dangers of deliberately preventing the full facts of our history becoming known and the growth of a conflict economy, in which some state and well as non-state actors are heavily invested.

Ashiq Hussain Andrabi is a freelance journalist passionate about covering people and  communities. He mostly does interviews and is passionately interested in the ways in which we can learn from our experiences to become more authentic versions of ourselves.

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