Where Are the Women?

Where are the women in conflict? What roles do women play? Are their experiences any different than men? These are the questions that guide my teaching and research. In the classroom, I begin with a simple statement: Kashmir is a gendered war. In fact, most conflicts are gendered. Which means that women’s roles and responsibilities in times of war can differ from that of men and other women.

American scholar Laura Sjoberg asks the obvious question: If women are remarkably diverse, why are such a small subset of their experiences featured in those stories? In my new books, I explore this question in Part II: Visible Women in the new updated edition of Secrets of the Kashmir Valley.

Women have their own war stories. Though many may seem invisible, we cannot dismiss their raw emotions, experiences, and memories of war.

What is a Gendered War?

Inside the classroom, I introduce the concept of “gendered war” to my students. The concept seems foreign to international affairs practitioners, policymakers, and political science students. But the reality is that war has always been gendered: most stories of war highlight the male experiences, therefore limiting the portrayals of women in the same conflict. Women become invisible in the war story dominated by male soldiers, activists, revolutionaries, and more. So, where are the women? 

Wars are not always about men. Women play a critical role in shaping these stories. In traditional conflicts, women are the mothers and wives of men who fight other men in any given war. In some conflicts, women are visible actors.

Women can be protestors, political activists, peacemakers, and prime negotiators.

This is a subject I call attention to in the new updated edition of Secrets of the Kashmir Valley.

Meeting with a Political Activist

Inside a yellow painted room, I met Yasmine Raja, a forlorn-looking woman in her forties dressed in traditional clothes (a full-sleeved long shirt and baggy pants), her head covered in a nutmeg colored scarf. She limped on one leg, a result of being tortured by female prison guards. She looked too frail to be the leader of Muslim Khawateen Markaz (MKM), the Muslim Women’s Group. A political party comprised mostly of women, they are a new brand of female freedom fighters waging a battle for peace. Without weapons, these women use their voices and numbers to represent strength, hope and a possible future for all women in the valley.

I read about the MKM in local Kashmiri newspapers. The group’s primary goal consists of reporting human rights violations and leading protests to call for gender equality and identity. In Kashmir’s conservative culture and society, it was reassuring to see women join hands to oppose violations against their gender. Much like any other conflict, gender-based discrimination and violence intersects with women’s experiences in war.

The war against women in Kashmir is a gendered war.1 Gender-based violence is a topic I explore in my classes at The George Washington University. Sexualized violence is a common weapon of war employed by male-dominated security forces that degrade and dehumanize women because they believe them to be docile, weak and helpless.

Together, Kashmiri women are taking a stand against gendered violence2 and fighting for women’s rights. In doing so, women are reclaiming the Indian narrative and telling their own stories because their  voices matter; their participation in the freedom struggle is vital to creating ties of empathy and solidarity with the men of Kashmir.

For far too long, Kashmiri women have been portrayed as the image of a stereotypical gender in need of men to fight for their honor and homes. This is true of wars in general—men will fight wars for women. Kashmir is no different, except that I soon discovered that women of all ages are more likely to engage the security forces when their men and children are abused, manipulated, and worse, discovered dead.

Raja pulled out a chair alongside a wooden desk littered with piles of paper and a vase filled with plastic flowers. A large window overlooked an empty road. The room was bare except for the desk and a small table in the corner that was large enough for a tray of tea.

“Where did you come from?” she asked, in a meek voice. I explained my reasons for visiting Kashmir and mentioned my grandmother.

“She is a Kashmiri? And you are Muslim?” Raja’s eyes widened.

When I nodded, she flashed a megawatt smile. She called other women to join us, including her second-in-command, Masrat a tall, thin girl with striking brown eyes who looked to be no more than twenty-five years old. The women silently watched me adjust my long blue shawl and fidget in the chair.

“You’re not well,” Raja observed. I tried to explain I just needed rest. Raja ordered someone in the nearby kitchen to make a pot of tea and bring yogurt with white bread. She guessed I had stomach pain. I continued to explain my research. For years, I had studied and written about women in conflict, including the violent women in Iraq and Pakistan—my first editorial “The Bomber behind the Veil” in The Baltimore Sun1 predicted the rise of female bombers in Iraq after U.S forces were deployed to the country in March 2003. But I said that most women were not violent—they only wanted to be free, like the women of Kashmir. I referenced the women in Chile who took to the streets to oppose the Allende government in 1971.

“As no two conflicts in the world are alike, neither are its women. Some women fight using conventional methods. Few choose suicide terrorism. But the majority of women believe non-violent protest is the answer,” I said, confidently. Studies of women’s movements in Latin America, the Middle East, South Asia and the West confirmed my thesis that women had the will to create new paradigms of power. 

I explained to Raja and her members that men can manipulate women to advance their nationalist goals. When independence is achieved, men often push women back into their homes. Terrorists do this too. Women who joined al-Qaeda and its affiliate organizations were a riding wave of its success. “They were like mistresses of terror,” I said. To date, no woman has taken operational charge of militant Islam.

Raja had a blank expression. Masrat, who sat to my left, nodded in bewilderment.

“I want to know if you believe you are equal to men in Kashmir,” I asked.

“We support our men, but we know they have their limitations. They are in prison or hiding from the security forces,” Raja replied. 

To continue reading, you can get your copy on Amazon or on sale at www.farhanaqazibooks.com

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1 To learn more about gendered nationalism in Kashmir, see Resisting Occupation, edited by Haley Duschinski, Mona Bhan, Ather Zia, and Cynthia Mahmood, (Univ. of Penn. Press, PA), 2018, pp. 24-28.

2 Fabian Hartwell, “Burhan Wani and the Masculinities of the State,” Journal of Extreme Anthropology, Vol. 1, No. 3, p. 127.

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