The Life of a Kashmiri Woman: Dialectic of Resistance and Accommodation
Nyla Ali Khan
New York: Palgrave Pivot, 2014, 137 pp.
Reviewed by Ather Zia
The biography under review can also be categorized as a memoir authored by Nyla Ali Khan, who is a Kashmiri-American academic. Khan is the granddaughter of Begum Akbar Jehan—the subject of this book—and her husband Shiekh Mohammad Abdullah. Shiekh was the founder of the National Conference party and the first Muslim Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir. Jehan is well known as a political activist, especially for playing a pivotal role in Shiekh’s political missions that ranged from Quit Kashmir movement to plebiscite and finally succumbing to India’s hegemony in Kashmir. Shiekh’s increasing acquiescence with Indian policies cost him the carte blanche that the Kashmiri masses had granted him. Since his death in 1982, the public discourse around his legacy has become deeply hostile. From 1948 till the early seventies, Shiekh was seen as an unrelenting figure of Kashmiri nationalism. The Indian government ousted him from power in 1953, after which he was incarcerated multiple times. The political travails of Shiekh’s life thrust Jehan into the center-stage and forced her to singlehandedly carry forward their political mission and domestic duties.
Khan asserts that through the figure of Jehan, she is providing an account of the modern Kashmiri woman and her agency. She heralds Jehan as an icon of Kashmiri “state” feminism, asking how far has her activism challenged the contours of domestic and traditional roles? While Jehan has been an inspirational figure of her era, it must be noted that her status is privileged and not typical of an average Kashmiri woman. Khan employs oral and written testimonies from her relatives and compatriots, her personal reflections, and publications including those written and co-written by Shiekh to reconstruct Jehan’s life. Khan begins by exploring her own personal and political positionality vis-a-vis her grandmother. Self-reflexivity becomes a sustained engagement while Khan negotiates the terrain of memory. In the chapters 2 through 7, Khan traces Jehan’s birth into a prosperous family, marriage to Shiekh, and her social and political activism. A detailed account of Jehan’s work in the Plebiscite front manifests her political acumen, her doggedness in raising female political cadres, and her oratorical skills. While Khan attempts to analyze the historical and political processes that shaped Jehan’s public persona, she also aims to challenge what she calls the “distorted” and reductive descriptions of her grandparents’ political trajectory.
In the last chapters 8 through 13, Khan relies heavily on personal recollection of Jehan’s private behaviors, and delightful quirks; thus, providing a wholesome picture of a woman undaunted by struggles. She also puts to rest the longstanding rumors of Jehan’s marriage to Lawrence of Arabia, stating that slander becomes the easiest way through which a woman’s progressive work is undermined (93). In these chapters, Khan traces her growing relation with Jehan, and the dynamics within the family members. In 1987, after Jehan won the Indian parliamentary elections, the political rifts between her children grew and the party was in doldrums. Jehan supported her eldest son’s leadership for the party against her daughter that Khan understands as Jehan’s entrenched traditionalism. Towards the end of nineties, Jehan was a symbolic figurehead of the National Conference. She witnessed her party getting deeply isolated from Kashmiri masses, who by then had thrown their weight behind the armed uprising against the Indian rule. In 2000 Jehan passed away—a sad woman, as Khan calls her—amidst the waning hold of Shiekh’s political legacy on the Kashmiri masses and a deeply polarized family.
While culling Jehan’s figure as gendered, progressive, and an agentive Kashmiri woman, Khan also utilizes her as an exemplar for analyzing Shiekh’s political legacy. This approach becomes a dual analytic and one that often limits and subsumes Jehan’s persona into the iconic status of Shiekh, but Khan argues that she does this “to do justice to Akbar Jehan’s life” (57). She states that it is incumbent upon her to contextualize and explain Shiekh’s political decisions, which equally shaped Jehan. Historically Kashmiris had heralded Shiekh as a defiant symbol, calling him the “Lion of Kashmir,” but towards the end of his political career, they increasingly grew distanced from his legacy. Even though Khan insists this book is not a resurrective narrative (89), she reasons that Shiekh’s ultimate “capitulation” to India in 1975, a political hara-kiri, should be seen as inevitable in face of India’s growing grip on Kashmir (83).
Khan’s analysis also becomes limiting because she insists on understanding Jehan in relation “to an era in which she lived and states that she is not interpreting history through the subjective lens of contemporary politics” (75). This approach, while insulating the historical role of her subject from the prevailing trenchant critique, also makes the concerns that Khan raises about Kashmir today either seem forced or as token observations. For example, in context of Jehan’s transition from domestic to the sociopolitical realm, she asks, “does the insurgent movement in Kashmir stress women’s political empowerment and address the protracted crisis for security and legitimacy?” (33). Since Khan does not directly engage with understanding the separatist politics, nor the chronic militarization—both of which have led to phenomenal changes in gender dynamics—such an observation makes one wonder whether it is a genuine attempt at looking for parallels or plainly undermining the separatist movement. In the backdrop of Jehan’s activism, Khan notes that today women in J&K politics are a minority and wonders “I am not sure how effective sloganeering and street protests by women in the recent past have been?” (45). In absence of an adequate background about the current political, social and human rights movements in Kashmir, this query is unclear about which women protestors are being referred to and in what context. These are glaring gaps in analysis, which also harbor the danger of making this biography appear too insulated from the grassroots reality of today’s Kashmir.
In a succinct allusion to the armed movement, Khan echoes the heavily contested analysis that the Kashmiris resorted to arms because democratic institutions have been historically quashed (116). On the other hand, she invokes nostalgia of a past when “political repression…militarization stunting growth were not even specks on the horizon” (3). Between the two contrasting scenarios, Khan’s own account of Jehan’s life does not support the “ideal” past but one that shows sustained political repression. In this context, the armed struggle is not the sole result of disillusionment with democratic institutions but a symptom of India’s increasing disregard for the UN mandated plebiscite and the policy of forced integration through direct, cultural and symbolic violence. To conclude, Khan provides a fine account of Jehan as a woman whose agency congeals through accommodating social expectations and molding herself into a progressive public figure. A nuanced reading of this biography showcases Jehan as a gendered agent of a certain social ranking and also makes her symbolic of India’s questionable statecraft in Kashmir that has historically involved direct and indirect repression in order to pare down resistance struggles into accommodating structures.
Ather Zia is a faculty member in the Anthropology Department and Gender Studies Program, University of Northern Colorado, Greeley. Ather is currently working on an ethnography of militarization, gender, and human rights abuses in Kashmir. Her other major writing projects include co-editing a reader on Kashmir titled “They Gave Us Blood’: Narratives of Normalcy, Sacrifice, and Terror in Kashmir” and an untitled non-fiction anthology based on ethnographic narratives of politics in Kashmir with Harper Collins. In 2013 she won the second prize for ethnographic poetry on Kashmir from the Society for Humanistic Anthropology (American Anthropological Association). She is the founder-editor of Kashmir Lit, a journal based on writings on Kashmir at www.kashmirlit.org.
 I will also use the acronym “J&K” for Jammu and Kashmir.
 Seema Kazi, In Kashmir: Gender, Militarization, and the Modern Nation-State (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2010). Also see Alistair Lamb, Kashmir: A Disputed Legacy 1846–1990 (Hertsfordbury: Roxford Books, 1991) and Sumantra Bose, “Kashmir, Roots of Conflict: Paths to Peace,” in Walter Laqueur, ed., Voices of Terror (New York: Reed Press, 2004).