Asiya Andrabi is in prison again. This time, the leader of Dukhtaran-e-Millat or “Daughters of the Nation”, an all-woman, pro-Pakistan group that advocates Islamic law for Kashmir, was charged with inciting protests among female students in April.

As anger about the murder and alleged rape of an eight-year-old child in Kathua district spread in the Valley, girls emerged from campus gates or gathered in college lawns to protest, at Amar Singh Women’s College and Kashmir University in Srinagar, at the Girl’s Degree College in Anantnag, at various schools and colleges in Baramulla and Bandipora in the north. Demands for justice in the Kathua case shaded into slogans against the government and for azadi. The protests led to violence as security forces tried to shut them down.

Andrabi was in Anantnag when she was arrested along with other members of the Dukhtaran-e-Millat. The police call the Dukhtaran a “soft-terror” organisation, supporting pro-Pakistan militant groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad. How exactly they provide direct support is not clear. Police officials cite the fact that they organise protest rallies, visit the homes of pellet victims and try to impose burkha and sunnat, or an orthodox religious way of life, on inhabitants of the Valley. Every time a Dukhtaran member was arrested, the Lashkar and Hizbul Mujahideen issued statements condemning it, said one officer who did not want to be identified. It proved the group worked closely with militant organisations, according to him.

Perhaps that is why the religious school for girls in Anantnag town, where some members of the Dukhtaran are said to teach, denies any association with the group. Inside this curtained world, a veiled woman who identified herself as Sumaiya said they only gave religious instruction and stayed away from politics. But did she think the Kashmir dispute was about religion or politics? That was a dilemma that had existed from the start, she said. Should girls go out to protest? Yes, why not, if the boys go out.

Protesting women

Women’s protests are not new in Kashmir. “People have forgotten the 1990s,” said Hameeda Nayeem, who teaches English at Kashmir University and is married to separatist leader Nayeem Khan. She recalled how men and women marched in large numbers to the United Nations building to demand a plebiscite, for instance.

But many agree that women have now become more confrontational with the state. Recent images of college girls pelting stones on security forces and being detained for taking part in protests raise some old questions again. Where do women see themselves in a separatist movement whose protagonists have always been men, which has largely been defined by men? Where do women’s individual freedoms figure in the idea of azadi?

Dukhtaran-e-Millat's Asiya Andrabi, Kashmir's most well-known female leader, gets a mixed response from women in the Valley. (Credit: Vikas Khot / HT)

Andrabi, it has been argued, prescribes private roles for women even as she enters the public sphere. Her public mobilisations are meant to reinscribe women in the domestic sphere, minding the home front as wives and mothers while the men go out to fight. Perhaps the most well-known female leader in Kashmir’s separatist politics, Andrabi gets a mixed response from women in the Valley.

“She has this vision of being the sole figure representing Islam,” said Nayeem. “It does not mean that the majority agrees with her.” When Andrabi tried to enforce the veil for women in the Valley, Nayeem said she issued a “tough statement” against her. She claimed she received threats for speaking out against Andrabi, but that would not stop her. “Kashmiris are never in favour of any imposition. Some people sympathise with her because she has suffered,” conceded Nayeem. The story of how Andrabi’s husband has been imprisoned for 25 years for his links to militancy, how Andrabi herself is periodically arrested under the Public Safety Act, is well known in the Valley.

But Zamrooda Habib, who started a women’s organisation called the Muslim Khawateen Markaz, which later joined the ranks of the separatist Hurriyat, refers warmly to “Asiya baji”. She also agrees that there is “no better rule” than Islamic rule. “Hindus are also safe, Christians are also safe” under Islamic law, Habib said. “Everyone’s rights are respected, especially women’s,” she added. But Habib also asserted her difference from Andrabi. “She is a religious leader, I am not a religious leader,” she said. Andrabi concerned herself with how people should practise religion, while Habib stuck to social and political issues.

Another teacher at Kashmir University gave cautious approval of Andrabi: she did not agree with her politics but said it was brave of Andrabi to speak for women. Students at Kashmir University who said they join and organise protests do not seem to agree with Andrabi’s overtly religious mobilisations. It is political, they insist. “It has never been a religious fight, it is just that we are Muslim,” said Aksa Jan, who is from Anantnag and a student in the department of social work. Her classmate Aynee Arif explained, “When India revolted against the British, the religious majority was Hindu so it looked like a Hindu revolt.”

So, the scope of the Dukhtaran-e-Millat’s influence on the current round of protests cannot be ascertained, though many in the Valley believe it is limited. After 30 years of militancy, women’s protests have deep and complicated roots.

Mothers to militant sons

What, for instance, does a woman like Nabiza Begum still expect of the armed struggle? She lost three sons and a step son to the militancy. Lassa Khan, her husband, died two years ago, weakened by repeated torture at the hands of security forces, she said. They tortured her too, she said, leaving her with a damaged kidney and poor eyesight. Their two-storeyed home, tucked away in the hills of Kokernag and surrounded by fields of maize deep in South Kashmir’s Anantnag district, is relatively new. The older structure that once stood there was burnt down. Nabiza Begum is not very sure how old she is, maybe 56 or 57. The years have bled into one another for her.

She said Mukhtar, her step son, was the first to go, sometime around 1989. He had been an overground worker for armed groups before he joined the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, one of the earliest militants from that area. He stole his father’s hunting rifle and left home and was too scared to come back because he would be scolded by his father, said Nabiza Begum. Then Ghulam Abbas, her own son, joined the Hizbul Mujahideen. She told him not to go but he did not listen, she said. She did not know if he had crossed the Line of Control to train in Pakistan. She did not see him for the next five years, until Aijaz, his younger brother, left to join the Hizbul Mujahideen. This time, Nabiza Begum told her son to leave. Her youngest, Muhammad Abbas, never became a militant. He was 13 years old when he was killed in the crossfire between militants and security forces in 1999. She said the forces used him and one of his teenaged cousins as “human shields”.

Mukhtar was the first among Nabiza Begum’s militant sons to die, sometime in the mid-1990s. Meanwhile, Aijaz had become a well-known militant, escaping security cordons several times. Which meant the security forces descended on the family regularly, taking Lassa Khan away for interrogation. When their three-storeyed home was burnt down, they moved to a mud hut at the top of the hill. One day, the forces came to look for Aijaz there. When they could not find Aijaz, they took his mother away. Nabiza Begum said she was dragged down the mountainside to the site of their burnt down house. That was when Lassa Khan, who was away from home at the time but had got word of the raid, went to the security forces and asked them to detain him instead.

Nabiza Begum (right), who lost her sons to militancy, says she would join the funeral processions of militants. Her daughter, Rubia (left), still remembers the soldiers came for her brother and took her mother instead. Photo credit: Muneeb ul-Islam

Rubia Jan, Nabiza Begum’s daughter, was around 10 years old when the soldiers raided their hut. She remembers children from the neighbouring house, too young to pronounce the word military, shout “newtry, newtry” as they advanced through the surrounding forests. The violence would turn her into a vagrant. Relatives who lived nearby feared the security forces too much to give her shelter, Rubia Jan said. She spent a few months with an uncle in Srinagar. At other times, she would sleep in machans in the maize fields. These had been built for watchmen to keep bears away. Eventually, Aijaz was killed around 2002 and six months later, Ghulam Abbas was also shot, Nabiza Begum said. Rubia Jan was married in 2003 at the age of 16.

“I want to see azadi before I die,” said Nabiza Begum. She said she had played her part by joining the funeral processions of militants who had died. “When a Pakistani militant died, I went. I thought he was Aijaz. But even when I learnt he was not, I buried him,” she said proudly. For herself, she said, she only wants freedom from “zulm”, oppression. There is no other azadi that she can imagine.

‘Ocean of sacrifice’

Women enter the history of Kashmiri separatism through stories of great suffering – harassed, raped, tortured, left to guard the home and raise children as men go out to fight and are killed. Most often, they appear in the imagery of conflict as grieving wives and mothers, with mourning the only form of defiance left to them.

“Women have seen the worst times,” said Saima Farhad, who teaches in the department of social work at Kashmir University. Habib echoed, “Kashmiri women are an ocean of sacrifice.” While women are willing to suffer, in this formulation, few have looked for prominence in public. “So far as political leadership is concerned, ordinary women never showed any interest in joining,” claimed Nayeem. “It is a selfless movement.”

In many ways, the battle for territory has also been a battle over women’s bodies. In the 1990s and early 2000s, a militant group called the Lashkar-e-Jabbar tried to enforce the veil by flinging acid on women and even threatening them with death, a campaign that was openly supported by Andrabi. Beauty parlours in the Valley were also attacked. “Even I got a burkha made, though I never wore it,” said Nayeem.

What is more keenly felt today is a sense of physical threat from security forces coursing through the Valley’s streets, searching homes and people. Conversations about women in Kashmir inevitably lead to the famous cases of alleged rape by security forces: Kunan Poshpora, 1991, Shopian, 2009. “We have to fight every day to come to college, to cross the [security] camps,” said Aksa Jan, who travels daily from Anantnag town to Kashmir University in Srinagar.

Other spectres of conflict have also haunted women. Students at Kashmir University speak of the braid chopping scare last year, when panic spread across the Valley that unknown attackers were creeping up on women and cutting off their hair.

These various insecurities have driven women indoors and, sometimes, behind veils. Both Habib and Nayeem say that many women in the Valley now wear the veil to assert their Muslim identity but also as a safety measure, to avoid drawing attention to themselves. The dangers of living in the Valley are also why women have stayed away from taking leadership roles in politics, Nayeem said.

Zamrooda Habib says separatism in the Valley has seen only two women leaders, Dukhtaran-e-Millat's Asiya Andrabi and herself. (Credit: Tauseef Mustafa / AFP)

Political women

But it may not just be insecurity or self-abnegation that keeps women away from organised separatist politics in Kashmir. “The Hurriyatwallahs are still in that traditional mode,” laughed Nayeem. “At the civil society level we accept” women in leadership roles, she said. “I head a civil society, men of high calibre have accepted my leadership,” she said, referring to the Kashmir Centre for Developmental Studies, of which she is chairperson. But politics is still ruled by patriarchy, she added.

Habib is more bitter. “Women don’t count for anything in this world, their voices are not heard in politics,” she said. Habib pointed out separatism in the Valley had seen only two women leaders, Andrabi and herself.

In 1985, Habib started the Women’s Welfare Association in Anantnag, an organisation that tackled social issues like dowry. But when militancy gained ground, it became the Muslim Khawateen Markaz, which has been renamed the Kashmir Tehreek-e-Khawateen. “We would provide moral and logistical support to the militancy, to the boys who had picked up guns,” said Habib.

When the Hurriyat, a collective platform for various separatist organisations, was formed in 1993, Habib signed up. “I joined the Hurriyat because I wanted a say in decision making,” she said. That did not happen. Instead, in 2003, Habib was imprisoned for five years, charged with offences under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

Now, Habib, who lives in a quiet, upscale neighbourhood in Srinagar, seems to have given up on her political ambitions. She even seems to have changed her mind about political participation. Women should not join a men’s muqabla [reckoning], she said.

Yet, in Kashmir University, students seem to be growing impatient. “Men are considered strong, women are considered weak – one weak threat will break their legs,” said Aynee Arif, explaining the constraints of what she identifies as a “patriarchal society”. She added, “Otherwise, why won’t women join [militancy]? They have been suffering equally.”

The story of ‘She’

One of the reasons Habib wanted to join the Hurriyat was that she wanted to bring “women’s issues” into separatist politics, she said. But that project, too, has been abandoned.

As large sections of the Valley fight for political freedom from India, certain conversations have been driven underground. The story of She, the women’s magazine founded by Saim Farhad and Sheeba Masoodi, wife of Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, is a case in point.

Farhad and Masoodi started the magazine in 2006, soon after they had finished their masters’ courses. “We thought of doing something that would highlight the issues of women,” Farhad said. “Someone said just write about it. We thought we would write in newspapers but then we thought, after one article, people will forget about it. So we thought we would come up with our own magazine.”

The magazine had nothing to do with conflict, Farad was quick to add. It was only to talk about women’s issues, the problems they faced in their day-to-day lives, she said. But the publication, touted as the Valley first “feminist publication”, was the subject of lively interest from the day it was launched at Gandhi Bhavan in Kashmir University. “We did not invite the media,” said Farhad. “But that morning, Gandhi Bhavan was jam-packed with media.” Who called them is “still a mystery”, she said.

The magazine ran into controversy with its first issue, which talked about dating in the Valley. “It is very common, though we do not talk about it,” said Farhad. In the end, it wound up after just three issues, though Farhad claims it was not because of the criticism. She got busy with teaching engagements and Masoodi with her family.

The subjects that a feminist magazine may have tackled – domestic violence, guidelines on sexual harassment in the workplace, the right to make certain choices – are still difficult to talk about. They have not made a dent in separatist or even regular electoral politics. “What is happening to women, I don’t see any politicians taking it up as a priority,” said Shahryar Khanum, a lawyer who is also part of the Kashmir Women’s Collective and believes women must join electoral politics in order to be heard. “The spaces where these conversations happen are conferences, or when we go to offices, behind closed doors. Because of conflict, we are discussed less.”

But among the older generation of women who were invested in separatist politics, there is a sense that these conversations must be postponed. “When there is a storm, you cannot talk about these things – patriarchy, whether it is right or wrong. You support the movement, these things will be sorted out after azadi,” said Habib.