Majid Maqbool spoke to Freny Manecksha about her new book that focuses on the women of the valley and their struggles to cope with life in a place that is constantly at war
Freny Manecksha first visited Kashmir in October 2010 and kept returning to the valley every year since. Manecksha, who is an independent journalist has written extensively on the valley and recently released her book, Behold, I Shine. Published by Rupa, the book focuses on the stories of resistance and resilience, the voices of valleys’ women and children. In her writing Manecksha makes a deliberate attempt to go, “beyond male voices and focuses instead on what the struggle means for valley’s women and children – those whose husbands remain untraceable; whose mothers are half-widows; those who have confronted the wrath of the ‘Ikhwanis’, or the scrutiny of men in uniform, and what it means to stand up to it all.”
Manecksha spoke to Majid Maqbool about her engagement with Kashmir, looking at Kashmir’s story from a gender perspective, and how her book brings together Kashmiri women narratives, highlighting their voices, their struggles and victories.
Tell us about your engagement with Kashmir over the years, and how you came to write this book which focuses on, and highlights, stories of Kashmir’s women and children?
As I mention in the book, I came to Kashmir in 2010 at the invitation of a colleague to see things for myself. In that one week there was a quantum leap in my understanding. I began realizing what living under occupation is all about. In those seven days, we went to Kreeri in district Baramulla where a 35 day continuous curfew had just been lifted. The boys showed us bullet injuries in the legs and said they had refused going to hospitals because they feared the security forces would pick them up from there. We met the family of Farrukh Bukhari, the young student, who went missing and whose body with visible signs of torture was found flung outside a police station. Those chilling stories also made me realize that there were flagrant human rights abuses. I was politically very naive then about Kashmir but I did know that what I was seeing was not squaring up with narratives I had been fed on all the years of being a copy editor on the desk.
I returned in 2011. Someone suggested I look at creative forms of dissent and I met playwright Aarsh Mushtaq. He spoke of Habba Khatun and I started getting glimpses of a very rich culture which opened up more fascinating treasure chests in terms of stories and content. It was also during this trip that I started making friends and at the suggestion of one I decided I would look at some “women oriented” stories. Two articles that I wrote subsequently for Himal got a good response and much later when Rupa Publications commissioned a book it was but natural that it would be one on women. The editor of the book then enlarged it to include children’s narratives.
This gave me the perfect opportunity to keep coming to Kashmir because by now I had succumbed to its “terrible beauty” and more importantly to empathising with its people and their struggles. One year I broke my wrist whilst in Kashmir and a friend said “Chalo you have this nishaani now of our pain.”
I got stuck in the floods in 2014 and during that crazy time total strangers gave me a home and the assurance of sharing everything “Rookhi sookhi”, whatever they could offer. It was with a huge emotional wrench that I left the deluged city 10 days later.
How do you see the role of Kashmiri women in fighting for justice and being part of the large resistance in Kashmir even as they refuse to remain just victims despite the trauma they have been through? How do you see their struggles and spaces they seek to carve for themselves in a largely patriarchal system?
Well journalism does tend to depict women affected by militarisation and conflict as victims and I was guilty of having these pre-conceived notions too but then I met someone like Parveena Ahangar. Yes, on that cold grey day in Srinagar, she was melancholic and not well and spoke in a soft tone of her ordeal. Then just few months later I met her in Mumbai and was struck by her fiery powers of oratory and her acute political consciousness. And later I learnt she had simply ignored all those people who had said that she should give up her struggle and concentrate on being a home maker and looking after the family.
I met Zamrooda Habib, who is active in resistance politics, in Srinagar some months later and despite everything she had gone through, she told me with pride, “I tell people don’t call me bichari, say tehreek navazi“. That’s when I realized how grief and suffering is being transmuted by Kashmir’s women into something else. There is now not just resilience but resistance, a passionate desire to fight for justice. And a joy in that as well. It is this joy that adds poignancy and reminds me of Habba Khatun’s poem which I use in the title of the book.
Another woman Munnawara Sultan who has lodged a case against the BSF for having abducted and killed her husband, told me how as a child she loved to rush into battle and now she is such a significant leader in her locality. Not only is she pursuing an epic battle in court, but, she is prominent in street protests and, as she told me, she takes on the policemen even for the ordinary “crimes” of seizing the boys’ motorbikes etc.
And let’s look at the image that went viral on social media of a young girl giving the middle finger. She is saying it all. “No to occupation and all those “uniform wallahs”. And a big “no” too for all those who say you women shouldn’t be out on the streets and all those patriarchal forces saying ‘yeh nahi karna chhahiye, Woh mat karo.’
Then you have all these young students, professors, psychiatrists, doctors and social workers in Kashmir who are bringing their individual voices and opinions. For me it was great that I could quote women anthropologists, get a perspective from a woman doctor, or a social worker and so on.
You also write about the resilience of Kashmiri women – from rights activists to homemakers who continue to fight for justice. What made you to amplify and write about these voices, these stories of resistance and resilience from a gender perspective? There’s a chapter in the book about the sexual violence in the valley which also talks about the state and its forces using rape as a weapon of collective punishment for the people?
In 2014, just as I had begun looking at stories on sexual violence during conflict I was also alerted to the fact that 50 women had come together to file a PIL in the High Court for the Kunan Poshpora case to be reopened. The PIL was not accepted but it opened up the way for more inquiries and the conversations around sexual violence as a weapon of war began happening. These conversations by the women of Kashmir were very valuable insights for me as well in understanding all the complexities and that go into these narratives.
I also have to thank friends and human rights activists—men actually –who took me and introduced me to these women. The sensitivity they displayed is an indication of how it is not men who are the “enemy” but patriarchal attitudes.
Was it difficult for victims to open up and share such stories with an outsider like you? How did you gain their trust? Have victims of sexual violence in Kashmir moved beyond the social stigma that comes with it as they seek a dignified life in their society?
I think the women who opened up to me were aware of the political necessity of speaking out even though they personally have no hopes of gaining justice. It is again an achingly beautiful moment in the history of the struggle when you discover that the people of Kunan Poshpora had protested against the mass rapes on the second day after the incident because they did not want this to happen to other women elsewhere. This is a huge concern for others and for the coming generation.
In the preface of the book, you ask, ‘Do patriarchal structures brush aside domestic violence? Are Kashmiri women thinking of gender rights beyond the ambit the causalities that come with conflict?” Did you find some answers during your research and while meeting, talking to women during your travels across Kashmir?
Unfortunately I could not do justice to the subject in the book because of lack of space and time but yes it does seem as if these subjects are now very much in the public domain.
I had gone with a Video Volunteers team to Bandipora district and at a workshop there young women were discussing domestic violence and also a case in which a woman had been divorced after her husband suspected her fidelity because she had a mobile phone she had not told him about. The women said that at first they too felt she had done something wrong but now understood how it was the same factor of control that was at work. A control, they said, that was manifested when men in the village would tell them how to dress. “Don’t wear palazzos”, the new loose pants currently in vogue, they were told. Or then sometimes, “Don’t wear pherans.” The women who are shawl weavers and contribute significantly to the family’s income are now beginning to question these attitudes.
Recently many younger school and college going girl students came out to protest on the streets in Kashmir, even pelting stones at the government forces, side by side with other male students. How do you locate their renewed participation in street protests? Can it be seen as a continuation of the larger struggle of people for their political rights in Kashmir?
I was in Kashmir recently when the security forces went into the college at Pulwama and then these protests began with college girls joining in. One afternoon I came out of Lambert Lane in Lal Chowk Srinagar and saw a bunch of photographers clicking furiously, police vans rushing about, people running and so on. I came upon the girl students. One of them had been viciously kicked in the stomach by the police and had rushed into a shop. Two girls, visibly angry, came and told me that they too had been lathi-charged.
They said that if the security troops and police can violate spaces and notions of privacy by going into colleges, then why can’t girls too come out on the streets. They were also annoyed that many of the bystanders and photographers were viewing them with curiosity. One of the girls yelled out that the mardon of Kashmir should not remain idle spectators.
Yes, if you look at it, then street protests are all about war of spaces and these girls had perfectly understood that. Today the streets speak out. And that is Kashmir speaking out.
How has the book been received so far in Kashmir and by readers outside Kashmir?
I have been very pleasantly surprised. Many Indian readers have responded with empathy and compassion. I am still awaiting responses from Kashmir.
Buy the book here