Survivors of Trauma Transform Their Vulnerabilities into Strength

Photograph Source: BOMBMAN – CC BY 2.0

In 2015, Médecins Sans Frontières or Doctors Without Borders conducted a survey in Kashmir the results of which were as follows: out of “5600 households selected from more than 400 villages in 10 districts 1.8 million adults (45% of the adult population) are experiencing symptoms of mental distress with 41% exhibiting symptoms of probable depression 26% probable anxiety and 19% probable PTSD” (qtd. in Aqeel, Sayed et al.). The results clearly “indicated” that “on average an adult in the Kashmir valley” had either “witnessed or experienced 7.7” devastating “events during his/her lifetime.” Having suffered so many distressing experiences, people were prone to “depression, anxiety, and PTSD” (ibid.). Based on these data, an educator, psychologist, or workshop facilitator working in a conflict riven region like Jammu and Kashmir can make the safe assumption that a large number of students/ young adults would be trauma survivors. It is in such precarious situations that the discretion of the educator comes into play. Would it be wise to encourage students to reveal experiential evidence of traumas that they may have encountered and suffered to their peers or not?

Psychologist Susan L. McCammon delved into the benefits of students revealing their traumatic experiences of their own volition. Borrowing from Inger Agger and S. B. Jensen, she highlights the “therapeutic value” to “trauma survivors” of providing testimonial evidence. Young people can be encouraged to reframe their traumas in order to place them within a “political and social context” (110) Their traumatic experiences then become stories of strength through enabling them to change their languages, understanding their geographical and spatial spaces, and committing themselves to building a new society based on transformative justice. Subsequently, a trauma survivor transitions from being the wounded and mutilated person to the impactful and constructive raconteur. In verbalizing the hitherto ineluctable brunt that the survivor has borne, she/ he breaks through the walls of self-imposed isolation. “Shame and guilt,” as Cammon observes, “can be expressed and reframed” (ibid.).

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. Stories about the tumult of war; devastation caused by fanatical hordes of people who lack an ideological foundation; distress that soldiers who are deployed in hostile territories encounter; the strain of readjusting to family and a regular job that returning soldiers, who have witnessed the unspeakable horrors of war, face, became relatable when they are told by those students of mine who are war veterans. Stories about the objectification of women in the domestic and public realms; infantilization of women in churches that do not consider them fit for leadership roles; criminalization of female sexuality and justification of misogynistic control; the raw wounds of women who have been physically and emotionally abused by their intimate partners; the impairment of women who have been treated as mere chattel; the dreadfulness and mutilating effects of child sexual abuse are best understood when related by those students of mine who have either witnessed or borne such traumas. Stories about the harassment and discrimination encountered by the LGBTQ community; denial of the right to a dignified existence faced by members of that community; the damage caused to a person’s sense of self-worth by the denigration of her/ his race or ethnicity; the damage caused by the internalization of stories that “otherize” minorities; the paranoia of Muslim women who fear that their traditional garb will cause them to be marginalized become more palpable when told by those of my students who have been impacted by these realities.

However, not every difficult disclosure receives the validation it deserves (Janoff-Bulman). Someone’s story of trauma and victimization might push the listeners’ buttons and trigger discomfiture and anxiety. Listeners might feel personally assaulted by stories that threaten their worldviews or beliefs that they have nurtured their entire lives. They might also feel vulnerable by narratives that challenge them to reflect on their allegiances and loyalties to nation, tribe, race, or ethic group. While survivors of trauma transform their vulnerabilities into strength, and make a giant leap toward healing when they disclose secrets that have been gnawing at them, not everyone, as I observed, responds with an open-mind to such revelations.

I would underscore that as educators, we can encourage

“A heightened sensitivity and enhanced empathy for the suffering of victims, resulting in a deeper sense of connection with others . . . a deep sense of hopefulness about the capacity of human beings to endure, overcome, and even transform their traumatic experiences; and a more realistic view of the world, through the integration of the dark side of humanity with healing images.” (McCann and Pearlman 147)

The purpose of encouraging honest and uninhibited discussions in the classroom is to work through experiences that have prevented students from reaching their full potential. I have come across young people in the United States and South Asia who have had to deal with more than their fair share of loss, bereavement, and trauma. Spaces in which they could express themselves without fear of reprisal have shrunk. They are distraught and have a diminished sense of self that undermines their pride. They mourn the loss of values that they had thought would buoy them up for eternity. They are disheartened by the looming sense that every political decision about their future will be presented to them as a fait accompli. The impairment and deterioration caused by political, economic, and social crises is greater than we might want to admit. Unless deliberate and well thought-out attempts are made to rectify this damage by enabling the healing of trauma survivors in tandem with the struggle for political rights, the buzzwords of “freedom,” “self-determination,” and “revolution,” will not restore the well-being of a society. I would recommend “a trauma-informed approach to justice,” in order to revive restorative justice, which would “build in supports and seek to repair the harm rather than just punish the wrongdoer” (Bargen).

In this era of abstract political and moral discourse, people often turn a blind eye to the importance of community and institution building, particularly in regions upon which havoc has been wreaked by violent conflict. As I’ve said elsewhere, sloganeering, rabble rousing, demanding the incorporation of articles in constitutions, being paper tigers, and other theoretical issues are all very well, but the real test is whether these theories have a real impact on civil society, instead of being just hollow words (“The Dangers of Extremism”). So, disparaging the importance of repairing the sociocultural fabric of traumatized and brutalized communities would be highly irresponsible. Michael Lapsley of the Institute for Healing of Memories in post-apartheid South Africa reminded me that conflict is not unique to Jammu and Kashmir, which is why it is important to find the particularities and commonalities with other conflicts and survivors of traumas caused by those discordant situations (E-mail to author, 17 August 2020).

Those who have been in the political arena for a long time must recognize that there is no politics without negotiation. And the ultimate negotiating authority is always the citizens. Real democracies thrive on differences of opinions, not on gagging those who might not be on the same page. Results of the recent elections in West Bengal, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu remind us that political dissent cannot be stifled forever. As I’ve said previously, the relationship of the only (up until now) Muslim Majority state within India was contingent on the depth of Indian democracy. We, the people of Jammu and Kashmir, will not falter from our ideal even if we are left alone in this great battle for democracy and humanity (“Revival of Democratic and Civil Society Institutions in Jammu and Kashmir”).

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