A mother’s plea –
“It wasn’t the first time he disagreed. He often did, since, his Abbu’s death, to everything that offered him hope, sanity, solace. His piercing eyes needed no aim, they had chosen a path already, the one that lead to a resolution. I knew, deeper in my conscience, his decision was irrevocable. My 10-year old had become a man, much before his age permitted him. That’s what ‘they’ do when you don’t ‘follow them’ – they harass you, suppress you and then, devoid you of anything normal. Of course, ‘they’ have rules that keep changing, boundaries that keep re-defining and ‘we’, ‘we’ are like those imaginary lines on their map…easily erased and re-drawn.
From cosmic perspective, aren’t we all equal? We all welcome the sun, enjoy the moon, count the stars, breathe the same air, drink the same water, then why, some of us face the ignominy for being human, why some of us disappear with no trace, why some of us live the life of anonymity, why some of us sacrifice our bodies to keep our loved ones safe and alive? Why?
‘They’ say, “conflicting minds can only be silenced through force”. I say, “Lets silence everything once and for all, may the force be with you, may the peace be with us.”
Sometimes, I fail to keep myself from ruminating over the lives of people who live in the middle of pinching extremism, shock, stigma, fear, uncertainty, how their homes are filled with cacophonies of loss, how their lives are consumed by heavy smoke, how their senses are paralyzed by repeated assaults. Their perception of normality, if at all there is, is far behind normality itself. The corrosive impact of living in a conflict-zone is much more internal than external, in fact, wider for women than men, putting them at maximum risk. I have always believed, that, what cripples us from inside also gives us avenues to overpower it. One such avenue is resilience. Despite constant subjugation over their identity, or marginalization of their role as social and economic contributors, young women, living in conflict-zones, are picking up challenges, taking tiny steps towards inclusion. Their efforts maybe far from being counted, but, they are strong enough to create a stir within their own radius.
‘Women Journalists in Kashmir’, the emphasis signifying imposed rarity and oddity on its existence, for many outside, it’s a reality that lies far beyond their conventional purview and imagination. Deflating the bubble of patriarchy, societal resistance and essentialist generalization, young women in Kashmir are bravely opting to become a voice for others. Reporting from sensitive conflict-zones where any moment can be a moment of uninvited jeopardy, from unannounced curfews to street protests, encounters and killings, they are confronting all with grit and power. Today, I am truly humbled and honored to invite one of them to my platform – Real Life Heroes – by Manvi.
Her name is Aliya Bashir.
Aliya Bashir is an independent journalist covering India and Indian-administered Kashmir with a focus on human rights, gender justice, women’s issues, the environment, healthcare, education, and minorities. She has written and reported for the Guardian, Time, Reuters, Global Press Journal, UPI, Inter Press Service and many more. She is the winner of the 2015 Schizophrenia Research Foundation-Press Institute of India “Media for Mental Health” award for best reporting on mental health issues in India and is also a 2016 International Women’s Media Foundation grantee.
“I often wonder when people outside Kashmir ask me strange questions like – “Don’t you get married at an early age?”; “Do you cover your head and face the field?”; “Do you travel alone or you are accompanied by your immediate male family members?”; “Can you write in English?”; or “What about the harassment, intimidation and abuse in the course of your work?” –
I tell them – ‘I really don’t know which Kashmir you are talking about.’”
“I grew up in old city (Shehr-e-Khaas) in Srinagar, close to the historic Jamia Masjid which has always been a central point of resistance. I have faint childhood memories of the ‘90s when the armed insurgency broke out in the Valley: search operations, curfews, parades, arrests, firing and killings would dominate our conversations and there were no children’s stories to fill our childhood with happy remembrances. I would often miss my school and tuition due to the situation outside and nothing seems to have changed all these years. This continued till I graduated and even in my career as a reporter in many local dailies where I would often file dispatches from home, because, the violent situation wouldn’t let you go out.
Much before I started my career in journalism, as a student, my mind was always filled with stories of loss, despair and distress. At that time, I didn’t know how to collage my muddled thoughts into something substantial for myself as well as for others. I fell in love with reading newspapers and followed the work of a few writers. I explored the genre of mainstream journalism and took it as a career without contemplating much. The stories, that, I have been able to write in the past seven years have reinforced my belief in the craft. There is this beautiful magic of catharsis for the teller as well as for the subject. I couldn’t think of anything else than working hard to deepen my understanding of how the situation is affecting the gender issues particularly and how people respond to the ever-worsening situation and simultaneously carrying forward their daily lives.”
Aliya has done prestigious projects for several international organizations, one of which is The International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF), an organization working internationally to elevate the status of women in the media. In her Five-Part series from IWMF’s militancy project, that focuses on the plight of Kashmiri widows, she has vividly described the extent of trauma these women go through every single day, mercilessly dwindling between loss and recuperation. Stuck in the labyrinth of acute indignation, these women struggle to keep their sons from meeting the same fate as their fathers and to protect their daughters from preying eyes. Here’s a small excerpt from one of her stories – Kashmir’s Militant Widows Struggle to Save Their Sons From Insurgency
“Shameema Jan, 48, peers out of a small window to see what is causing the commotion outside her home in Palhalan village, 20 miles north of Kashmir’s capital, Srinagar. It’s a group of young men, swarming and filled with rage, gripping stones in their hands and shouting slogans against Indian rule, calling for freedom.
“Adil!” she yells.
Jan’s son, Adil Ahmed, 22, is trying to sneak out of his room to join the street protest. His mother grabs his arms and pulls him back inside.
“I can’t bear another tragedy!” she screams at him. “I am already broken.”
Ever since her husband was killed by the Indian army in 1999, Jan has struggled to keep her only son away from the deadly political turmoil in Kashmir, the Muslim-majority territory divided between India and Pakistan and claimed by both. “
Shameema Jan, 48, goes through old photos of her husband, a Kashmiri rebel who was killed by the Indian army. Like many widows of militants who have died during the 30-year counter-insurgency campaign, Jan has little support from the government or her community. PC: Aliya Bashir
In another story from her series, On Kashmir’s border of despair, widows of insurgents resist victimhood, Aliya Bhashir shares experiences of women living in high-altitude, isolated village of Dard Pora. This village is in Kupwara Tehsil of Kupwara district in Jammu & Kashmir. Lying in the lap of lush green deodars and bearing scars of anguish, this village hides within its fold several tales of unbound misery inflicted by sudden deaths and disappearances of its men. The women here live under deep existential crisis, the duality of their status conveys uncertainty of not knowing whether their spouses are dead or alive, but the ones who know leave nothing to hope for. One of them is Bano Begum, 40, who fights a daily battle of survival, ever since, her husband Salam-ud-din Khatana was killed by the Indian military in 1995. Begum is one of those hundreds of widows living in this village whose men were killed fighting against Indian rule in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir. Her only concern is her visually impaired son Jafar Khatana, who she wants to protect by all means.
Begum didn’t remarry because of her concerns over what remarriage would mean for her differently-abled son, who has never received any rehabilitation or education. PC: Aliya Bashir/TRT World
Aliya strongly believes she became a storyteller by default. As a kid, she often heard her elders discuss the prevailing situation. “Later, I would sit and discuss similar things with cousins and ask naïve countless questions to our female folks in the house. They would get irritated and their anxiety often ended up in scolding us, till, we would get back to studies.”
Alongside words, Aliya dwells into the art of capturing the vulnerable lives of Kashmiri women through pictures, below are some from her series – Photo Essay: The Pictures That Give Comfort to Kashmir’s Women
Aliya’s two-part series from Population Reference Bureau’s (PRB) maternal health project focus exhaustively on issues that Kashmiri women go through during pregnancy. Dilapidated infrastructure, limited health-care facilities, tough terrains during rain or snowfall, poverty, or, poor sanitation, lack of clean water all make an extremely difficult gestation period for them. Women cover long distances to reach hospital for their basic check-ups, at-times they even skip them to avoid painful journey. Since, pregnancy is a vulnerable time, even little complications can become tragic for the mother and the baby. The above issues maybe secondary in nature, the primary issue, the main underlying problem still remains unresolved – Are women considered an important part of this decision-making? As an observer, I feel, it’s a matter of choice. Every woman, whether trapped in a combat zone or not has a right to choose her priorities. It’s her prerogative to decide if she wants to become a mother or not, only after that, it makes perfect sense to contemplate over other issues. Behind most vulnerabilities lie a self- negotiated submission that most women do due to lack of self-reliance. Wait for the time when forces unite, they would be hard to suppress for long and the time is not too far. How can we talk about peace, stability or a secured future without including women at the negotiating table? Inclusion, in true sense means their equal participation in everything, nothing can be left ignored – their role as a Mother or a Wife or a Daughter but above all their role as an Individual. Zainab Salbi says in her TedTalk, “We need to invest in women, because that’s our only chance to ensure that there is no more war in the future. The mother has a better chance to heal her children than any peace agreement can do.”
Talking about Peace, do you know that Ufra Mir is Kashmir’s first – and so far, only – ‘peace psychologist’? Aliya’s recent article on Ufra Mir is just what we need to re-affirm our faith in humanity.
Silence has never protected anyone in the time of conflict, it has only enunciated feebleness. I remember my mother telling me when I was younger, “Silence once is silence forever”. Yes, it takes courage, a spine to break silence, but, once broken a step ahead is freedom from all levels of tyranny. Be prepared, you will be opposed, shut down, pulled back, but your world will not end. Keep your senses alert, think but don’t procrastinate, frame opinions but reserve your judgement, when the time is right find your language, weave your words and SPEAK OUT. Nothing more POWERFUL can you offer to the world than a voice of your OWN.
Several women like Aliya Bashir are making a difference by being a powerful voice having an untameable energy and force. “I have first-hand experience of how conflict has affected the psychology of a person like me but at the same time it has also reinforced a natural push of hope and resilience to move forward and live with it with utmost determination and courage. My work has somehow always tried to explain this contrast of loss and hope that we as Kashmiris are contemplating with, on day-to- day basis. The stories in the form of writings or photographs in my work don’t only paint the grim picture of devastation and trauma by always stereotyping the women as “victims.” But, there is a natural balance that my work always tries to consider which is depicting the stories of courage, heroism, willpower, hope and empowerment by the Kashmiri women who have endured all forms of pain and loss, yet, their never-dying trust and reliance in God’s plan is overwhelming and unfathomable.”
(These journeys have been personally shared with me by our ‘Heroes’)
Know more about ‘Our Hero’ – Aliya Bashir