CW: Please note that the post below includes references to sexual violence & assault.
On this international Women’s day I reflect upon the ongoing violence and oppression stitching together women everywhere, across borders and time periods. In sharing a personal narrative of some of my experiences as an ethnic Kashmiri woman with British nationality, I invite readers to catch a glimpse of how the flames of oppression can waft their smoke thousands of miles from their origin. I don’t claim to speak for Kashmiris living in Indian Occupied Kashmir nor for local Kashmiri women, all of whom who face difficult challenges everyday under military occupation.
Glossary ; Wŏzul: Red Nār: Fire Hëv: Like
I am nine years old. Hand in my father’s hand walking the streets of London. My father is a tall man and it takes my skipping- running steps to keep up with his long easy strides. We are on our way to a march for Kashmir. I know the slogans we will be chanting – they are not new to me
‘What do we want? FREEDOM! When do we want it? NOW!’
However, in the accompanying leaflet which we hand out to passers by, and which I’ve read corner to corner, there is a new word I don’t know the meaning of – I tug at Papa’s hand to get attention,
Papa what does ‘rape’ mean?
Without missing a beat or breaking stride, he replies
‘it means violence against women’
For some reason, this newly acquired piece of knowledge doesn’t surprise me. A specific word for violence against women? Why not? I already know ‘gynecology’ is ‘medicine for women. I begin to realise there are probably more words reserved for women and female kind…but the underlying implication here is more subtle – violence against women BY MEN.
I am ten now. My parents watch BBC news every night at dinner. In England when one (English, White) person dies – it’s a newsworthy story. My first, albeit guilt ridden thought is
‘But it’s only one person’
Kashmir and hearing about the numbers of dead in tens and hundreds has numbed me to the preciousness of individual lives.
I already see some are worth more than others. Some lives are more newsworthy than others.
I am eleven years old, standing in front of the bookshelf in my parents room. I want to devour anything with the word K A S H M I R written on it. It will be a few more years before I have the internet under my fingertips. For now I am hungry to see it written in print on paper, existing, somewhere other than in my memories. I miss my grandmother and the feeling of home whenever she held me in her embrace.
The books are all non-fiction/academic and therefore potentially boring. ‘Grown up’s books’. I pick one and nonchalantly flick through a few pages. By now I know the dictionary definition of ‘rape’. My father’s explanation was a good one. Age appropriate. And it softens the blow when I learn the full extent of the nature of this ‘violence’.
In one book I read about a bride. I can imagine what she would have looked like – from the cherished photos of the brides in our old photo albums. A typical Kashmiri bride, her red veil lined with whatever gold tinsel type lace was in fashion at the time. I could almost hear my grandmother’s voice describing the color ‘Wŏzul nār hëv’ – like a blazing fiery red. The bridal party was stopped by the Indian army . She was gang raped by them in front of her father and groom, who were forced to watch. Wŏzul Nār.
I cry. Each sob sending a deep gulp of air to my chest that feels like it’s burning with rage, with disbelief. I can not comprehend the words I am reading – I wonder why no one does anything? Why has this not been blazing on the BBC news that my parents watch every night?
Later that year, I read about Kunan Poshpora. Have you heard of the twin villages of Kunan-Poshpora? Of the mass rapes that were committed on a frigid February night in the foothills of the Himalayas? Once you hear you can not unhear. A little part of my 12 year old heart wilts away.
I am twelve and finally after four years away, we start visiting Kashmir every summer. I live for my summers in Kashmir. Yes, I count down the days till we can visit the most militarized place on earth. For even though it’s a place in which I see rifles on every corner, scores of them just hanging there as casually as handbags on the shoulders of men in uniform, nothing can spoil the summers I get to spend surrounded by family. A never ending list of cousins, aunts, uncles, cousins of cousins, beloved grandparents and grand aunts and uncles.
I am thirteen and I have learnt to carefully pack the sights and sounds of these Kashmiri summers, wrap them like invisible gifts in my mind, to be opened later at a colder, lonelier time. One day, amongst the beats of tambukneer drums, the colors of a wedding tent, the singing of Kashmiri wedding ballards, I am walking from a wedding tent in a neighbor’s courtyard to our house. Unusually for me, I find myself momentarily alone, without an accompanying cousin or aunt. The Indian paramilitary officer on the corner of the street says something to me as I walk by. My heart quickens in fear as do my steps and I hear him behind me, laughing.
I am fifteen. Again a summer in Kashmir – there are curfews – no one can go out after dark, we have been visiting friends and despite warnings from my mother, our father decides to try to beat the curfew. It’s not a long drive home, but we are stopped time and time again at every turn. Blinding torch light is thrown into our car windows. Orders are barked at us
‘WHO IS THIS?
SHOW YOUR FACES !
KEEP THE LIGHT ON INSIDE YOUR CAR! .
One somewhat more softly spoken officer – seems senior – hunches in to look in through the passenger side window and says to my father –
‘What were you thinking traveling past the curfew – you have daughters in the car!’
The implication is horrendous.
I am eighteen and it is fresher’s week at University. I get asked continuously where I am from. No like where are you really from ?
Kashmir I say,
Depending on where the asker is ‘from’ I get various reactions to my answer –
What like the wool? (mainly white English people)
You mean you’re from India ( Indians, or ethnic Indians)
‘Oh you’re ‘Paki’!’ (Pakistanis or ethnic Pakistanis)
No to both. A mini history lesson ensues. Eyes either glaze over or look back defiantly.
Whats the difference? They seem to say. Why are you making such a big deal of this?
I am twenty -five my best friend Erin does good on a girlhood promise she made to me when we were both in school together.
‘Wherever your wedding is in the world I will come’ .
She leaves her infant son with his father in England and flies across to Delhi. It is her first time in India. None of us could have predicted it but days before she arrives in Srinagar, it happens to be the start of one of the worst summers in Kashmir. It’s 2008 and the protests and clashes between Kashmiri civilians and the Indian army are for the first time starting to be recorded by civilians on mobile phones, aligning with a global social media uprising.
Weddings all across Srinagar are cancelled. The announcements printed one after the other in newspapers. My fiance is travelling from New York to Kashmir just for the wedding. There is ‘wedding stress’ and then there is ‘Wedding Stress’ – I cry everyday. I can’t go to the salon /parlour. Everything is under curfew, and in that moment, missing out on a facial seems like the most ridiculous devastating thing.
Serendipitously our wedding does somehow happen. Mainly due to the fact that the venue is outside of Srinagar coupled with a small break in curfew that coincides with our set date. On the day of her return flight, my husband and I drive Erin to the airport . We have an official car with a special curfew pass. Still we are stopped many times. Faces peer in with staring unapologetic eyes, papers are scrutinised, our passports, passed around. That barking again. Loud shouts.
I look at my best friend who has been nothing but supportive during this emotionally draining week of my life. Earlier I had apologised to her- on her not being able to see anything in Kashmir, on being confined to one small town with no way of moving around because of the curfews. She had replied –
‘I came for you. For your wedding. And that’s what’s important. I’ll come back to see Kashmir another time’
But now I see her face crumple and she can’t stop herself.
‘Why are they talking to us like that?’
She is agast. Through tears she carries on –
This is your country, why are you so restricted and threatened and unsafe?.
I hold her pale trembling hands in my bridal henna stained ones,
‘I’m sorry. I’m so sorry’
But my husband smiles –
Welcome to Kashmir, you got to experience the authentic native experience
I am thirty-three. I have a son now, a daughter too, a toddler in my arms. We bring them to Kashmir for the first time. All my four-year-old wants to know is are the army he sees everywhere ‘good guys or bad guys’? As with all questions from my children I ask him what he thinks. He looks at me with widening eyes and holds my hand a little tighter.
I am thirty-four and I am on a beach in Los Angles, USA. The woman in front of me is wearing a blazing red pheran. ‘Wŏzul nār hëv’ my mother would have said in Kashmiri, fiery red. She is holding a white shawl and walking, eyes cast down, into the wind which tries to blow away the shawl from her clasped fingers. I aim the lense of my camera and shoot. The gust of wind gone, waves crashing around us we continue to take more pictures, but I know I already captured that moment.
That moment where we tell our own stories, using our own voices. It’s a gift I want to give to that eleven year old girl who yearned to see Kashmir represented, even if only written down in print, only to feel betrayed by its mis-representation.
I am thirty-six and my sister is visiting, she is supposed to paint a mural in one of the rooms of my home. We are planning the rest of our days together and spending late summer nights in chatter and laughter. Until one night when Kashmir is plunged into darkness and silenced without warning. That night our laughter turns to tears and tears turn to anger and anger turns to art. That night we ‘paint’ a different kind of mural. When the proverbial paint dries on the ipad I take it from her and without even thinking I scribble some writing on it with my index finger. This picture travels through walls of the world wide web. The picture/art crops up in waves on instagram and twitter, people print it and hold it up high to the winds of a movement, the same way the woman in the picture is holding her shawl. The words Resist To Exist scribbled in black next to her red pheran. Symbolism carried by a woman and her attire – an age old visual, a burden too heavy, it seems, for the shoulders of men.
I am thirty-six and I am back again at the rallies. I am again repeating the slogans ‘‘What do we want? FREEDOM! When do we want it? NOW!’
I am again walking, this time with a smaller hand holding mine. My daughter and I wear red pherans. ‘Wŏzul nār hëv’. She is five.
Kashmiri Women’s Resistance Day is commemorated every year on Feb 23rd, in memory of the Kunan -Poshpora survivors.
To learn more about what is happening in Kashmir visit Stand With Kashmir
See this reading list if you would like to know further about the incidences touched upon in this post.
Father Daughter, Silhouette Digital Art by Zarina Teli
Photo Credit Sumaya Teli