It was in 1990 when Cynthia Enloe coined the one-word phrase ‘womenandchildren’ to bring forth how women always figured in war narratives as those needing protection, portrayed merely as victims. That women were equal participants in the society, equally navigating through the complex terrains of war and conflict, was something that male-centric discourses conveniently ignored. In case of the Kashmir conflict as well, the portrayal of women has largely been confined to that of victims. The Indian state, on its part, took to promoting the narrative of a conservative Kashmiri society that didn’t allow women the freedom they desired; hence, it sought legitimacy for its attempts at women empowerment through military initiatives like the Sadhbhavana. Narratives of women’s choices and freedoms were pitted against those of Kashmir’s Azadi. It was as if women could be spoken on behalf of and could not speak for themselves. However, over the years, as Kashmiri women, in their attempt to reclaim their spaces under militarized control, are also reclaiming narratives from a state that has obfuscated their realities by presenting them as victims of societal patriarchy and militant violence. It is within this context that journalist Freny Manecksha’s maiden book, a non-fiction detailing complex interactions of Kashmiri women and children with the everyday marred by violence, needs to be read.
Behold, I Shine moves from an analysis into Kashmir’s history from as far back as the Treaty of Amritsar in 1846, to as recent a time as the massive uprising following the killing of popular militant commander Burhan Wani in 2016; from the otherwise beautiful landscape dotted with military installations to the violence within ‘private’ spaces; from children’s experiences of growing up in the conflict, to women’s resistance as part of the Azadi movement; from sexual violence as a weapon of war to use of memory as a tool of resistance; from attempts at seeking justice, to finding hope and peace in spaces like the shrines, to women’s choices in re-imagining their gendered identities within the specific religio-cultural setting and the larger context of Azadi. The author weaves these stories in as much a journalistic as a subjective style— the former’s training of ‘how, what and when’, merges with the latter, making her acknowledge the ‘outsiderness’ and learning of how stories need to be heard.
Throughout the book, there are important questions that Manecksha raises, some that are answered through the narratives she shares, some that are left unanswered for the readers to comprehend; some with multiple answers, reflecting just how complex the realities of everyday life in Kashmir are, and why women cannot be looked at merely as victims. An important aspect that comes to the fore in these diverse narratives and questions is that of militarization. The book captures these varied aspects of militarization from its direct impact on women, in terms of physical acts of violence including killings, torture, and rape, to the pattern of impunity, to its impact on access of spaces and the transformation of certain spaces like the streets in the process, to how childhood memories are rife with instances of crackdowns and curfews, of uniformed men and guns and boots. In doing so, what becomes clear is how all aspects of society and daily life are impacted by the conflict. For example, when the author brings up the notion of rights of the girl child, she attempts to throw light on how this has to be looked at both within a framework where the patriarchal mindset relegates her rights to being less important, as well as the larger concern for security in a militarized environment that she is confined to. ‘Does “concern” for a woman actually connote “control” over her?’ (p. xiv) she asks. Further, she questions, ‘Has militarization led to restrictions on clothing and behaviour, or is it the militants who are imposing such “rules”?’
In ‘How Do I Tell My Story: Sexual Violence in the Valley’, the author details the sexual violence on a Gujjar woman at the hands of two army personnel, perhaps in 2004, during ‘the maize-harvesting season’ and then by an army officer, later offering a sum of Rs 50,000 for her silence. In narrating the story, Manecksha brings forth fractures in the society, the complex reality of the Gujjar community seen as loyal to India, while being greatly impacted by the conflict and occupation, for it had a direct impact on their livelihood, and the remote terrain that made women more vulnerable. Also important is how sexual violence becomes a weapon where women are targeted for being related to the militants, as well as the very ways in which such accounts are narrated. That there are vague references to the act of rape, that the nitty-gritty details might not be revealed, that there are questions of what to tell and what not to tell, the author refers to these as ‘accepting the sounds of silence’ (p. 60).
The book traces the stories of Kashmiri women looking for those that had disappeared. As the head of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, Parveena Ahangar’s quest to look for her son, subjected to enforced disappearance by the Indian forces, merges with a similar quest by hundreds of others, in a ‘deliberate movement of grief into the public visual space’ (p. 84) to highlight how memory and grieving become forms of resistance. The book also details, as the author notes, ‘a growing trend in gender sensitivity in Kashmir that refuses to restrict conversations on women to just those that are conflict-related, but encompasses issues like societal restrictions, domestic violence, sexuality, and so on’ (p. 130). This is highlighted by narratives from women who have been conducting workshops imparting sex education or conversations around dress code and the very notions of morality. The 2013 Public Interest Litigation by a group of fifty women seeking re-investigation into the Kunan Poshpora mass rape case was a way of breaking silence over rape, of gaining legitimacy for such discussions in the society, and of how women are linking the question of sexual violence with the overall repressive nature of the Indian state in Kashmir.
While it could be claimed that the book has not given due space to violence committed by militants, even though it highlights a case of rape where a militant was involved, that would only be another attempt at the state getting away by bringing forth violations by ‘the other side’ or re-enforcing the image of women as victims caught between the two guns. State violence is the foreground, for the state is seen as the protector of people’s rights; therefore, it becomes the principal focal point when talking about violence, rights, and justice. The acts of violence by forces backed and provided impunity by the state have been widespread and systematic, and documenting them does not mean overlooking other forms of violence, where again the state has the power to hold the guilty to account. The state’s position, regarding accusations of violence against its forces, has always been to come to their defence, to accuse people of having sided with the militants. It is in that regard that state violence, which fuels further violence and makes impunity seep even into the domestic sphere, becomes central to a project documenting everyday lived experiences.
In Manecksha’s book, questions are multiple, answers are complex, and sometimes, there are no answers; at other places, the answers are too short; sections end abruptly where the need for detail is too pressing. But what emerge throughout the book are patterns of resilience and resistance that Kashmiri women have been a part of over the years, like their refusal to be spoken for. Works like Behold, I Shine attempt to bring forth declarations by Kashmiri women of refusing to be mere victims in the conflict discourse, their subversion of statist narratives, and vocal personal-political declarations of their own. However, when the author says, ‘When I gave women the space to speak,’ (p. xvii) one has to go back to the question of whether women need ‘us’—the more privileged outsider, to give ‘them’—the ones actually battling it out, the space to speak!
Samreen Mushtaq has recently submitted her PhD to the Department of Political Science, Jamia Millia Islamia. She is currently working as a Research Consultant on a project at The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy, Chennai.