Knowing Kashmiri Women on International Women’s Day

Kashmiri Women, Conflict Situation and the People’s Perspective of Women Empowerment  

Adfar Shah


If a more active role is assigned to the vital Observation technique and methodologically designed field studies are given a preference and sufficient time with proper follow-ups, the facts thus far established on Kashmir will automatically turn to half- truths! On the gender issue in Kashmir valley, though a great deal of literature has been produced but hardly any use of varied models and approaches of fact collection have been employed; rather thereseems to have been the incorporation of a unique mode though with several approaches but never juxtaposed against each other for maximum effect! Though there are ample ethnographic studies in existence as well, however there are not ethnographers but the enemies of ethnography-the methodology of direct observation. We need a deconstruction approach towards most of the gender discourses on Kashmir in order to get a fresh and realistic perspective.


The world is still trying to do away with the burden of gender discrimination, gendered violence and exploitation of women besides the abhorrent issues of caste, religion, colour, class. Women are still the most disadvantaged segment of the world population, though efforts to alleviate the many ills that beset them, are on everywhere, in right earnest! However, acknowledging the fact that mainstreaming the gender and accomplishing the transformation process/achieving women’s emancipation is not a one day jo, this is an uphill task requiring immense and unswerving devotion and perseverance. This paper deals with  the question of the politics and politicization of women empowerment as a slogan and discusses the perceived empowerment as a local narrative beyond any feminist tendencies among women at the micro-level, with a special reference to Kashmiri women. The paper conceptually deliberates upon the women’s understanding of empowerment and realization of a viable social identity/identity at home against the grand theories of gender discrimination and feminism. It utilizes the people’s as well as women’s ‘thinking of being’ empowered against the labels of disempowerment and worthlessness, devoid of dignity. Amongst the myriad interpretations of empowerment, the paper discloses the never before exposed dimension of women’s sense of empowerment that is quite contrary to the conventional standards of empowerment and through the prism of phenomenology as a method to bring people’s own perspectives and understanding of empowerment to the fore.

Gender development, empowerment, emancipation and egalitarian gender status are still the pressing academic discourses. Actually amidst all the hue and cry “EMPOWERMENT” as a concept has been misinterpreted and used for petty gains rather than translating such empowerment into a reality on the ground!  Many schools of thought have emerged to understand women empowerment in its totality but the already existing empowerment has hardly been portrayed objectively in its true perspective. Women’s issues have purely been the victims of interpretations, misinterpretations and re-interpretations!

The so called revolution/delusion of igniting women against men or awakening them to strive for their rights was (is) an incorrect interpretation of feminism that even attacks the institutions of motherhood and marriage. For even those championing its cause or striving for pan equality or the pan obsession of being at par, were much married and mothers. Though the objective of this paper is not against women’s liberty of choosing to remain single or even with radical feminist ideology or those who are struggling for women empowerment for it is anybody’s right to live the way they want to.

As the western academia/culture reaches the post-feminism level, whereby gender equality is no more contested as it was in the earlier more radical stages of the feminist movement, it is worthwhile to pause a little and raise some important questions. Can feministic theories emanating from the west provide a panacea to the complexities and difficulties of the native Indian terrain? Can models of feministic action interchangeably be used without diminishing some elemental aspects of the borrower-culture?

 The fact is anything that stands on rhetoric alone and hollow bases, loses its validity and charm with the passage of time. The same happened with this (feminism) pan equality, misogynist attitudes and the “hate men” ideology and it goes without saying that it all had a considerable impact.

However, in the Muslim world there was not even the need to cope with the feminist onslaught, because the societal ethos (communitas) and religious/moral code was like a strong fiber between the man and the woman, thereby giving a defeating blow to all the frivolous waves of feminism and rubbishing the arguments of all those who even went on to say that feminism is as natural as breathing.

Of Conflict Situation and Women Empowerment: A Dichotomy

Some painful Myths turned to truths by researchers about women in Kashmir

  1. Women played a significant role in ongoing freedom struggle of Kashmir. It was never so except by some self-proclaimed and ambitious women leaders.
  2. Conflict in Kashmir forced women to come out of their households. The fact is that they were already emancipated in consonance with the existing local standards, the conflict in fact restricted their mobility.
  3. Conflict is responsible for late marriages as most of the young men died. I believe conflict prompted early marriages due to sense of insecurity among the parents.
  4. Women in Kashmir who cross over the barriers of gender norms, are excommunicated.
  5.  As believed by some authors but it is not true as far as the local ethos is concerned.
  6. They supported the resistant forces by heart. Yes they supported such forces, but it was their compulsion may be because the chunk of resistant forces were their family members or the kith and kin of their close ones.
  7. Today some authors talk of the gender dynamics of conflict. I argue that there was hardly any gender factor involved in the conflict except the suffering imposed on them due to violence by men or violence on men. The problem with most of the authors on Kashmir is that they always generalize the life of women who are either the success stories or victims of the conflict, instead of taking a realistic cross-section of the women somewhere in between!
  8. There is a significant role of women in peace building in Kashmir.  When Kashmir started burning in 1989 they were mute spectators and when it is limping back to normalcy they are again there as passive citizens.
  9. Women contribute to violence in many ways in a conflict zone. Women never contribute to violence, in fact they always face violence and oft times with some semblance of equanimity.
  10. Kashmir’s separatist women groups were actively militant in their nature. It is a brutal myth in academic circles.
  11. Patriarchy prevails in Kashmir. I believe not the kind of patriarchy that prevails elsewhere in the country. Today’s family structure in Kashmir is filiocentric, I mean where the lead role is played by children(both males and females) and that is laudable as they are the future of the country and the state.
  12. Women have been at the forefront and worked shoulder to shoulder along men in all struggles. The fact is women suffered more than men but never worked shoulder to shoulder with them.

Women in Limelight

Empowering a woman is necessary to enjoy the fruit of her labor. (Laitonjam, 2013).The conflict situation in India’s conflict zones like the distant North-East or Jammu and Kashmir, especially in the valley of Kashmir, has brought the issues of women into the limelight and forced every right thinking citizen to focus on them. In recent times, Kashmir is not attracting attention for its high rate of achievement in many fields. The objective reality is that J&K has a backlog in terms of unfulfilled gender based egalitarian treatment. A cursory glimpse at how women in Kashmir live, gives ample evidence that all is not well in this so-called paradise on earth. Though J&K is different from the rest of India as far as domestic abuse or other woes of women are concerned, if the manipulated data produced by academics or NGO’s on gender status is overlooked. However, the conflict situation, especially since the 1990’s, has wreaked havoc in the psycho-social health of women who have proved to be the worst victims of conflict mostly in an indirect way through the pain and suffering perpetrated upon their loved ones, though demonstrating ample resilience. Today a considerable chunk of them (victims) live their lives as widows, half-widows, young orphaned girls, displaced citizens or migrants, poor due to loss of the bread owner, mentally disturbed due to the unexplained disappearance of their loved ones, that is actually the fallout of the  armed conflict prevailing since 1989.

Therefore, there is dire need of the empowerment of women by vesting them with a “feel secure” psyche in the first place and working for their socio-economic security as well. If we talk of their empowerment, we have to consider their visibility in all fields like education, the competitive job market, political participation and economic emancipation etc but before all this, we have to render them a safe access outside their homes. The prerequisite to actualize all this is good governance, for good governance promotes empowerment and empowerment further enhances good governance (Laitonjam, 2013).Only the holistic empowerment of women can achieve the needful and for that we need an integrated approach  that begins from security and safeguarding women’s honor, to her widespread access to all the modern facilities of life. Empowerment can be considered as a change in the life pattern of women that enables her participation in decision making, increased capacity to lead a descent human life, level of self confidence, etc.

The notion of empowerment upholds every one’s right to determine his/her own future, lifestyle, acquiring the power to think and act freely, exercise choice, voice and decide autonomy and enjoyment of all human rights.

The Sense of Empowerment at local Level: A people’s perspective

There is a sense of empowerment at the micro-level, amidst the crisis due to the grave conflict situation. Women do feel scared and insecure of being the inhabitants of a police state but at the local level, community level and household level, they do not feel disempowered, barring some exceptions.

Therefore, overlooking the impact of conflict or major perspectives/grand narratives at a macro level, the empowerment of women in Kashmir can be discussed as a social aspect on the micro-level, using the phenomenological and ethno-methodological prism of sociology. Going deep down to people’s thinking about women empowerment at the micro-level or viewing women empowerment through the prism of micro-perspectives (ethno-methodology and phenomenology), one can safely conclude that women in Kashmir are not suffering at the domestic level to the extent it is highlighted, barring some instances and it is a fact that their status in the society has not declined but improved in many ways.

The Diverse Perceptions of Empowerment/Disempowerment: A Discussion

Today there are as many perceptions of women being discriminated against as there are cultures. The issues of women empowerment have only turned to power relations between men and women and shaped up hostile relations rather than the acquisition of empowerment in reality. The tussle is of ego clashes, access, control of resources, decision making, public visibility, life with dignity, economic independence and so on. Are women really so disempowered today that we mostly discuss such relevant issues only on Women’s Day or other occasions? Or is it their sense of internalization of violence, inferiority, self domestication and psyche of being a weaker sex that has rendered them confused? The terms “empowerment” and “disempowerment” both hold different meanings to different people and as per the norms of the context. Similarly, the theme of dis-empowerment due to patriarchy too has wider interpretations and misinterpretations. Frankly, women are not so much in discomfiture as is told or perceived. However, it is mostly the academic and political domains that over-exaggerate and represent gender issues in a more belligerent format. I think we have lost the real vision of understanding both the women suffering and their empowerment because we always compare more than conceptualize the various and distinct contexts of their empowerment and mere imitation of the west perhaps to us is almost synonymous to development or women’s being at par with men to feel empowered. An important perspective of women’s self evaluation, perception of self satisfaction and self actualization is still missing in the dominant gender discourses. To a larger section of the populace and so called social analysts, rural or tribal women are disempowered perhaps because they do not go to beauty parlors every week or attend meetings or conferences but stay at home and attend to mundane tasks such as to rear cattle, work in fields, take care of their children, and do not know how to prepare ice creams or pizza-pasta and other exotic foodstuff.. A researcher studying gender issues on finding women working in fields in a village, abruptly concludes that they are slaves, made to work by men, lack government jobs, are illiterate and thus disempowered and disadvantaged, ignoring the fact that women are not always disempowered or slaves, they are not made to work against their will instead they (women) keep on motivating their family members to work hard for the family’s progress.The basic facts remain hidden, like the fact of the people’s sense of empowerment in different contexts and geographies, the sense and sprit of co-existence and division of labour among people, women’s own sense of empowerment and their consciousness of responsibility towards home, the  culture of work and hard work amongst women, women’s working alongside men in the fields also imparts a sense of equality to them.

Kashmiri women are undoubtedly in acute trauma due to the decades long on-going conflict situation. They live in fear and a constant sense of insecurity. A chunk of them have lost their husbands and sons in the bloody violence. Many of them have lost their honour and chastity due to rapes and molestations in the acute and unaccountable conflict situation. A large number of them have lost their sons to disappearances. So many of them had to beg for their son’s/husband’s dead bodies to be returned to them, to the authorities, and a plethora of them have lost mental balance, suffered from anxieties and lost their selves to depression, etc. Almost all of them restricted their mobility/free movement, higher education dreams, employment and liberty due to the deep rooted and all pervasive felling of insecurity, in their psyche. Therefore, there is still a long way to go to realize empowerment in the real sense of the word. Nilofar Parveen (name changed), a Kashmiri research scholar from a prestigious University in Delhi argues that:

“Kashmiri women have skies to touch in order to be known as an empowered folk. They are, however, half-way through this battle. Since time immemorial, they have been manning ways alongside their counterparts to deliver to their families and Kashmiri society at large. Mirroring the roles of women globally, they have been shouldering family responsibilities with ease and compassion and, eventually, carrying this zeal to public spaces to contribute to their surroundings as well through their careers in politics, health, education, and governance. However, their number in these spaces is too small to count for the total emancipation of their gender in this society.

On the ramifications of the decades of conflict situation upon Kashmiri womenfolk and linking it to their empowerment dilemma, she further adds:

“The outlay of living in the most militarized zone, with a plethora of injustice and fear on a daily basis, coupled with the established ‘gender’ roles and rising social evils such as dowry deaths and female foeticide, has proved a direct road block to women’s empowerment. Such a situation has, in many ways, obstructed their journeys to self-actualization. However, their resistance and will to triump cannot be ignored, which actually buttresses their efforts to touch heights.”

Despite all this, the Kashmiri woman is still the world’s most empowered lady not because she is a scientist or an astronaut but because she has not lost her dignity at home, she loves the moral code and is satisfied with her male kin, she is not involved in any feminist crisis, she is really honored by all in her family and she returns the same to her family, devotedly. A Kashmiri mother is still the actual head of the family. If we see the reality and observe minutely, women have gained more honour at the domestic level despite living in the world’s ugliest conflict zone. Though all of them do not go to office, however they toil diligently, working hard for their families in whatever capacity they can. The beauty is that Kashmiri women are not in any tussle with their men folk. Conflict too has bound them together and shaped up a collective consciousness to resist the pain, torture, suffering in this war-like situation together. Menfolk too are immensely conscious of their (women’s) honour and dignity and ready to safeguard them at any cost. Women too have no regrets for all the hardships they face for their families. A Kashmiri woman does not discriminate between sons and daughters for she is brought up in a Kashmiri family, where she is socialized amply and enough to deal with the life-cycle of crisis events. She is satisfied and happy with her life. This is absolutely true that the majority of the Kashmiri women are treated with high respect in their families and in the society. Our institution of marriage, family and kinship are strengthened by our women. While there is a greater hue and cry over gender violence today, she is being involved for some social, political and economic interests. The sense/actually the non sense of the feeling of being disadvantaged or discriminated is the phenomenon of the political mind sets. Whatever is narrated today as the plight of women exclusively, is not happening at the grassroots level to that extent, though in the past it was true. However, today the scene is different. Being exposed to armed conflict constantly is extremely trying on everybody and particularly traumatic for the women folk but on the domestic front they are not neglected in any manner. What they might perceive as restrictions or lack of freedom is actually the caring attitude of their families and mostly comes under the code of life that is equal for all humans and therefore must not be painted incorrectly as gender inequality.

As the regional situation for women is characterized by low levels of access to education, healthcare, maternal mortality and economic, social, and political opportunities, however, today the scene is improving and Kashmir is no exception. Women’s visibility in the public sphere and space is quite visible and there are a plethora of females enjoying the equality of life as well. There visibility is there despite the horrors of the conflict, showing their resilience and wit. Kashmiri women have been demoralized deliberately to a greater extent both socially and politically. The academic discourses have focused more upon their internalization of the feeling of ‘Being Disadvantaged in Society’ – in them fostering the sense of alienation and inculcation of feminist tendencies. The facts are different at the grassroots level. No doubt, there is poverty, violence and the unmet needs and demands but not exclusively of women alone. Also, just her going to office does not signify her empowerment, a lady growing vegetables and looking after her garden is equally empowered in her own sense. She commands the whole family who fully reciprocate her love, care and respect for family values.

Roadblocks to Emancipation: Need for a Rethink

Many a times the hollow political slogans regarding empowerment prove disempowering and virtually act as the road blocks to actual empowerment.

The concept of empowerment, as used by many agencies, refers merely to entrepreneurial self-reliance and needs a rethink. It places emphasis on mere superficial realities and not individualistic values, family values, common or small scale perceptions or truly evaluates women’s actual place/status in society.

Gender justice can be achievable provided the gender issues are not politicized and internalizing the sense of disempowerment, being domesticated; caged, wasteful, worthlessness is stopped.  Actually the very empowerment discourse and politicizing thereof is very disempowering. Furthermore, the enforcement mechanisms of welfare policies for women are also not context friendly and mostly the enforcing agencies are corrupt.

Issues that need to be addressed regarding gender in the real sense of the word, are everybody’s worry barring the so called feminists. Though the problems like domestic violence, lack of higher education, women’s emancipation not reaching the desired heights, lack of ample economic resources and opportunities are still prevalent but women are still much better off as compared to the past. We need to rethink on all these issues seriously and start working in collaboration to bring about the desired change rather than mere politicization of such discrepancies. Needless to mention that women are themselves more responsible for their issues/plight today like the menace of domestic violence, where a woman perpetrates violence on her fellow women, reflecting a lack of understanding and the vital sharing and caring aspect. They can definitely achieve emancipation and come at par with their counterparts on all the fronts which they lag behind in at the moment, but not by blind competition or imitation of other cultures that is suggested to them and certainly not overnight!

 We cannot say their empowerment is a myth, neither can we say that their empowerment is a reality in full but we as a community/society can definitely evaluate their lives and roles using the people’s micro perspectives and perceptions like their position in the family and community, their functional role play and its significance, their role in decision making, the power and honour they enjoy at home and outside, their own sense of being and its worth in their minds, etc. Their existence is not a wasteful one but has been perceived so by armchair scholars for their  contribution, position, productiveness  and sense of honour has mostly been presented in a shabby form and misinterpreted as a mere power with men.

Women can achieve emancipation when their tremendous role in the society is appreciated and their success in all fields is celebrated. Also home their greatest contribution as home makers, must be acknowledged and hailed.

 One of the significant road blocks to their meaningful development, is politicization of their issues rather than any practical issues. They must not let their issues be politicized and should realize their worth and greatness of nature. They must enter a rat race to compete with men and start creating a sense of their world and our world.

 At the national level, it is worth mentioning that India should seriously look into the increasing crime against women and specifically look into and deliver justice to all the women like the rape horror that has wreaked havoc and rendered the female folk with a terrible feeling of insecurity everywhere. Also women victims must be given justice especially in the conflict zones like Kashmir, etc. Already the graph of trust deficit against the State is high in Kashmir, as justice is still to be done in so many crimes against Kashmiri women, that the state must take cognizance of and should not ignore.

 It is high time that we, as morally conscious citizens and those in the corridors of power possessing an articulate voice, create and raise large scale awareness of women’s issues with active participation and improvement of all women and men; to initiate and accelerate action to improve access to, and control of resources by women; to create an enabling environment to enhance self-confidence and a sense of autonomy among women. We have to be respectful towards them and guard their identity and individuality. Otherwise, celebrating Girl Child Day, Mother’s Day, Children’s Day, Women’s decade or Women’s day is useless, futile and a part of a meaningless and derogatory rhetoric.

 Last Word

Kashmiri women are emancipated enough and, therefore, not caught up in any unproductive feminist crisis, though there is still much more to achieve. They have their own sense of empowerment and they live beyond deficiencies and blame at the domestic level and keep contributing to their families. They feel empowered enough at the micro-social level due to the indigenous ethos, resilience, culture and socialization, etc. However, they need to be safeguarded and given justice for all the moral travesties against them during the conflict situation. At the domestic level their sense of honour, position, sense of being and self-worth and dignity has shown a positive trend despite the violent landscape around.

It will be no exaggeration to say that no good news is news in India. The really empowered stock is never represented by media or even in academic discourses for we are hell-bent on negative thinking and negative politics over everything, especially in this part of the world. The very negative discourse on gender will lose relevance in the coming few decades because all the issues confronting the globe are now less gender centric and more human centric and there are no purely men’s or women’s issues, there are simply human issues that call for a solution. The pity is that today’s academic discourses on women, be they discrimination, violence debates, feminist politics, women and public space issues and even environmental debates, are all nothing but the self fulfilling prophecies of the pseudo-academics and so called theorists, who are just crazy to deliver keynote addresses on the women’s themes or write rhetoric simply to get published in high impact factor journals. They still say that the western women are far more developed than those of the eastern world, just because the parameters of being empowered they set/select and blindly compare with other women of the globe, is simply the unbridled freedom or freedom to do anything.

We must not reduce empowerment or emancipation to just women’s access to the job market but consider and study local and small scale perspectives/narratives of empowerment as well, to do justice to gender studies. Academia must represent women in the way they are and avoid false generalizations and self created comparative scales of empowerment and emancipation of women. We need to study the different contexts women live in and study their sense of life satisfaction as well. Empowerment can be better understood from the people’s perspective and not from the researcher’s perspective for people feel happy or empowered when they give their own meaning to their lives, work, living, etc. We must also realize that women are not the only exploited group and therefore should not be seen or idealized just as powerless and discriminated human beings and nothing beyond that.

Women’s emancipation is with them. They need to involve themselves in their struggle for rights and a truly dignified life. They cannot achieve through others, they need to learn to achieve by themselves.

“The thing women have yet to learn is nobody gives you power. You just take it.” (Roseanne Barr- an American actress, comedienne and writer).


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Adfar Shah belongs to Sarojini Naidu Centre for Women Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. Author is a Delhi Based (Kashmiri )Sociologist. Mail at

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