Reviewed by Deepti Misri
One of the most moving achievements of Inshah Malik’s new book is its passionate documentation of several decades of Kashmiri women’s political participation, lovingly archived by Malik within the pages of this compelling first monograph. The book’s title lays out its argument: across five chapters, Malik carefully documents Kashmiri women’s political agency, offering in the process a sustained rebuttal of the trope of the hapless Kashmiri Muslim woman. This trope, as she details in the first two chapters, circulates differently in mainstream and scholarly Indian discourses, wherein Kashmiri women appear as “either voiceless victims or ideological supporters of men” (2); and also in the historical narratives of Kashmiris, where Kashmiri women’s role in resistance politics is often overlooked in favor of narratives of their victimization by the Indian state (22). While the suffering of Kashmiri women under conditions of extreme militarization can hardly be in dispute, Malik is most interested in how their experiences of suffering and oppression have always existed alongside, and indeed have often catalyzed, their political agency, activism and resistance efforts within the larger movement for Kashmiri self-determination.
Much of Malik’s argument in the introduction (Chapter 1) is oriented towards undoing the effects of a generation of postcolonial Indian feminist scholarship, which has frequently presented Kashmiri women as victims of “competing patriarchies” of the Indian state on the one hand, and Kashmiri male militants on the other, as if the two were equivalent from the vantage of Kashmiri women. Noting the often removed character of such scholarship, Malik offers instead ethnographic vignettes and detailed historical context, tracking Kashmiri women’s political involvement through thirty unstructured interviews with political and community leaders as well as social workers and writers across generations. Malik begins here to move readers away from notions of agency that privilege the individual self, asking us instead to consider agency as an expression of a self formed in community. This allows her to raise heavy questions about the benchmarks of feminism in South Asia, and the modes of agency that are counted—and discounted—as “feminist”, in impact if not intent.
In this vein, Chapter 2 seeks to interrupt the lionization of elite women credited with being political forerunners in Kashmir, centering lower class and caste Kashmiri women in the history of political protest in Kashmir. Considering the role of women during the massive anti-Dogra protests of 1931, when Kashmir’s Muslim-majority population rallied against their systematic exploitation and marginalization by the Dogra government, Malik details the cases of several Kashmiri women who had come out to protest and endured violent reprisal (28). Here Malik’s compilation of the names of women killed by the Dogra forces – Fazli, Sajida Bano, Jan Begum, Freach, Fatima – exemplifies her feminist method, whereby these women’s names, previously scattered across various published histories of Kashmir, are brought together as evidence of lower-class women’s sustained participation and sacrifice, which, as she argues, “bolstered the political demands of the elite Muslim leadership” (29). Malik argues forcefully that the elite women who are often seen as pioneers in Kashmiri nationalism, in fact followed working class women who had defied gender norms and come out to protest the Dogra regime in the 1930s.
Chapter 3, one of the most complex chapters in the book, provides a historicized view of Kashmiri women’s political projects informed by Islam, detailing women’s participation in organizations such as the Islamic Students League, Dokhtaran-e-Millat (Daughters of the Nation), Women’s Welfare Organization, Muslim Khawateen Markaz (Muslim Women’s Center), and the J&K Mass Movement. Pushing against the secular feminist panic often surrounding such projects, Malik explores how in fact women in these organizations successfully mobilized Islam to clear space for women’s participation in political life and indeed for women to take center-stage as leaders of the resistance. For instance, she details Farida Dar’s leadership of the predominantly male J&K Mass Movement, noting how she challenged male domination within the organization and often moderated masculine affects in the service of larger political goals. In this chapter Malik also provides arguably the most nuanced existing scholarly analysis of the figure of Asiya Andrabi, the founder of Dokhtaran-e-Millat, an organization that came to be globally dubbed as “women’s Taliban” for its moral campaigns such as encouraging women to veil and blacking out posters of scantily clad Bollywood women stars. What Malik offers is not a straightforward defense of DeM (that is not the task Malik sets herself) but rather a challenge to those who fail to recognize how many familiar feminist markers of modernity are in Kashmir inextricable from a Hindu nationalist state project that thrives on stereotypes of Muslim atavism and anti-modernity, not only in Kashmir but across India.
In Kashmir, the supposed gift of Indian modernity, whether in the form of roads or of “women’s empowerment”, comes inevitably tainted with shades of empire, and is recognized by many as a part of the colonial apparatus that deploys it. Reminding readers of a context where historically prostitution was legalized by the Dogra state under deeply extractive conditions; and more recently Indian army personnel and bureaucrats have been involved in the rape and sexual exploitation of local Kashmiri women, Malik situates Andrabi’s campaigns against women’s sexual objectification as an anti-capitalist and anti-imperial gesture, rather than a simplistically patriarchal one. Malik does not simply declare it a “feminist” gesture either; as she patiently explains, “Dokhtaran defends many patriarchal positions to create a strategic struggle against the traditional patriarchy that denies women their rights and pushes for their complete subjugation” (68). A failure to comprehend these dynamics is a hallmark of the kind of scholarly entrenchment in Indian nationalist frameworks that Malik questions throughout the book. At the same time, Malik also details how women’s activism in pro-freedom organizations was also explicitly anti-patriarchal by the more recognizable benchmark of “women’s equality”, which many of these women advocated as a pre-condition of liberation for all. The chapter richly catalogues the successes of women such as Farida Dar, Yasmin Raja and Anjum Zamruda Habib in politicizing Kashmiri women, while securing expanded space for women within the movement and Kashmiri society more broadly.
If Chapter 2 was concerned with making visible non-elite women’s contributions, in Chapter 4, Malik considers how after 2008, Kashmiri women of an educated middle class began to participate through journalistic and other creative writing, from reportage to poetry and fiction. Significantly, Malik’s respondents see their efforts as contiguous with protests on the streets, rejecting the hierarchy of non-violent v/s violent modes of protest. In Malik’s observation, non-violent phases of Kashmiri resistance haven’t always allowed for more space for women’s negotiations of gender hierarchies; on the contrary, she argues their efforts have been easily subsumed into the state’s “peace” efforts during phases of non-violent struggle. This chapter leaves the reader wanting for a taste of these writings in the form of some direct quotation, though Malik offers broad observations by paraphrasing her interviewees’ motivations and understandings of their own work, as she does in previous chapters.
With this book Malik joins an important cohort of Muslim feminist ethnographers such as Lila Abu Lughod, Saba Mahmood, and fellow Kashmiri Muslim feminist ethnographers such as Shazia Malik and Ather Zia, who have compelled feminist scholarship to account for Muslim women’s participation in anticolonial resistance as a matter of feminist significance, requiring a radical recalibration of what feminist transformation means in the context of Muslim-majority societies. This book will be of wide interest, not only to scholars across Kashmir studies, but also to readers on Muslim feminisms, Indian and South Asian feminisms, and decolonial feminisms more broadly.
Deepti Misri is Associate Professor of Women and Gender Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder.