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Book Review: Resisting Disappearance: Military Occupation and Women’s Activism in Kashmir by Ather Zia

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 15/09/2021 - 9:06pm in

In Resisting Disappearance: Military Occupation and Women’s Activism in KashmirAther Zia explores the everyday resistance of women activists in Kashmir who focus public attention on the Kashmiri men disappeared by government forces. Effectively capturing the agency, memorialisation and resistance of these activists, this poignant and evocative ethnography will be of interest to students and academics working in the fields of anthropology, sociology, gender studies and critical Kashmir studies, finds Aatina Nasir Malik

Resisting Disappearance: Military Occupation and Women’s Activism in Kashmir. Ather Zia. University of Washington Press. 2020.

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Ather Zia’s ethnographic account of the life of Kashmiri women is poignant and evocative, foregrounding everyday life as a political process and agency as a capacity for action that is nuanced. Resisting Disappearance is based on an organisation called the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), which came into being in 1994 to fight the enforced disappearances of Kashmiri men by state forces. Tracing the history of disappearing men and women’s struggles in Kashmir, Zia exemplifies how the experience of Habbeh Khatoon – the fifteenth-century poet’s never-ending search for her husband and struggle against the Mughals who sent her husband, the then indigenous king of Kashmir, into exile – is now manifest in a group of Kashmiri women searching for their men.

The APDP activists are Muslim women from economically marginalised rural classes – half-widows, mothers and sisters of disappeared men who, Zia states, have renounced the gendered rituals of mourning. They mobilise demonstrations, collect documentation, pursue court cases, visit government offices, morgues and prisons alongside holding monthly sit-ins, which are now ritualistic acts of public mourning. It is through this activism – both archival and performative – that these women are making the disappeared appear, or, in other words, visibilising those invisibilised by the government. Here the affective politics and hypervisibility of these women becomes what the author, borrowing from Michel Foucault, refers to as the ‘countermemory’: an alternative to dominant state/official narratives.

This ethnographic work becomes further interesting due to the way Zia refers to her respondents as ethnographic partners or a community rather than as ‘collaborators’, ‘informants’ and ‘interlocuters’, as is the norm in Anthropology. These terms in Kashmir are burdened with politics and used to refer to people who are perceived as traitors who have aided the Indian rule in Kashmir. Secondly, the book is what the author refers to as an ‘intimate ethnography’ where her research community becomes ‘family like’ (19). She further offers her ethnographic poems at the outset of each chapter, crafted from both observation and affect, as what she calls evidence of ethical surfeit – where the ethnographer-poet bears the most honest evidence. This ethnography is therefore a work with dual lenses: one of the trained ethnographer and one of the ethnographer poet, both complementing one another.

Image Credit: Crop of ‘Women on Steps of Pedestrian Bridge – Srinagar – Jammu & Kashmir – India’ by Adam Jones licensed under CC BY 2.0

Resisting Disappearance is divided into seven chapters, each catering to a different theme. Chapter One talks about the work of mourning as the politics of resistance. It exemplifies how mundane objects like a door get established as a spectral space offering a threshold between life and death where the return of the dead is conjured repeatedly. The chapter further underscores the process of disappearing the disappearance from the official records and hence elucidates the subaltern power of affective law in relation to the sovereign law. Affective law here is the emotional work of mourning that these women do to keep alive the memory of their loved ones in opposition to sovereign law which impedes justice and memorialisation.

Chapter Two traces how elections allow for a ‘politics of democracy’ that extends India’s rule in Kashmir, thwarting the aspirations of Kashmiris. Here the construction of the Kashmiri ‘other’ via material and non-material markers is underscored as well as how such representations are furthered by the media, making the Kashmiri body, which is also the Muslim body, doubly killable under law.

Chapter Three is about spectacular protests and activism. It discusses the centrally located Pratap Park as a site of protest. Activists are allowed to protest, albeit in a controlled environment, but acknowledgment of their concerns and the delivery of justice hardly ever take place. This chapter builds on the life stories of Parveena (the head of the APDP whose son has disappeared) and Sadaf (whose husband has disappeared), where their performative activism through the notion of asal zanan (good woman) offers a counter-spectacle to the disappearances. For their activism these women deploy culturally ideal feminine acts, which helps them do ‘damage control’ to their hypervisibility in public. These women undergo a transformation where they are pushed from the private to the public domain; the justification for this is grounded in the ethics of an asal zanan and sometimes in the elevation of their status in being ‘just a woman’. This helps them sustain both the masculine military regime and the subaltern cultural patriarchy – representing what the author calls a triumph of subalterity within subalterity.

Chapter Four further talks about gendered resistance, establishing Kashmiri masculinity as the non-hegemonic one against the powerful military apparatus. The subservient status of Kashmiri men is reinforced through everyday rituals like showing identity cards to the authorities. Here, women are pushed to the forefront as visible partners in seeking redress. Under the atrocities, the conventions of gender seem to collapse; borrowing from Begoña Aretxaga, the author refers to this as the ‘inversion of tradition’.

Chapter Five concerns militarising humanitarianism, where humanitarian projects stand for warfare and not welfare. This combines with processes of stringent surveillance and the compiling of dossiers on everyone in Kashmir, establishing everyday life as a grey zone where Kashmiris are not left with much choice. Such interventions are to justify the military’s presence in people’s lives, with the author showing, for example, how the mode of ‘conversation’ between the forces and Shabir (who was detained under false charges of being a militant for 28 months) changes from ‘torture’ to ‘medical treatment’ – where he was earlier tortured and then offered so-called medical treatment by the forces.

Chapter Six establishes the papers and documents that APDP members curate over time – as a file, not only as the proof of disappearance, but also to offer a material reality to the disappeared. Such documents become both an affective and physical site where the disappeared are retrieved, and at the same time are made invincible and credible. In such cases where there is no grave, no jail, no First Information Report, an indefinite wait before the law and no proper closure for family members, these files or archives become important both as a countermemory of loss and as subaltern power. But at the same time, these documents become ‘useless’ as they fail to bring any relief or justice. The final chapter takes the example of a wedding and a protest as commemorative practices where a blurring of the boundaries between joy and grief takes place. In weddings and protests, songs about the disappeared turn them into funerals and celebrations respectively. Here too the work of memory is in contrast with the official accounts marked by silence.

Zia’s study effectively captures the everyday struggles of these women activists whose life is caught in a limbo, and yet this liminal space entails agency, memorialisation and resistance. The book has ‘women’s activism’ in its title, but it does not fall short in bringing to light the struggles and experiences of men as well. Apart from being ethnographically rich, I also appreciated it for being very readable despite being so affectively charged.  One might find the book replete with the themes of resistance and countermemory, which feature in each chapter, but that very well marks their inevitability in different spaces and performances for the APDP activists. The only thing that could have been done differently would have been to shift the discussion of the history of Kashmir and armed struggle from Chapter Two to the introduction, which would help readers get a better grounding to locate APDP and this rich ethnography from the very beginning. Nonetheless, this book is a useful read for graduates, postgraduates and academics working in the fields of anthropology, sociology, gender studies and critical Kashmir studies.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics and Political Science. The LSE RB blog may receive a small commission if you choose to make a purchase through the above Amazon affiliate link. This is entirely independent of the coverage of the book on LSE Review of Books. 


‘This used to be a blessed craft for women’: in Kashmir, artisanal pashmina weaving is disappearing

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 01/09/2021 - 3:29pm in


Feature, India, Kashmir

The regional economy is in a free fall due to political unrest, military closures, and the pandemic.

Five minutes’ walk from Srinagar’s Jamia Masjid, the largest mosque in Kashmir, is a modest two-story house. This is where Sakeena, 73, lives—and where she has been spinning pashmina wool by hand for more than a decade. She’s well known for her skill in spinning the finest and most delicate yarn from the region’s world-famous wool.

Zain-ul-Abidin, the fifteenth-century Sultan of Kashmir, introduced the art of pashmina weaving. He brought craftsmen from Persia to teach the local population various skills, which included making the wool shawls that are to this day a sought-after luxury item around the world. Kashmiri women have long been artisans of this heritage craft.

For Sakeena, weaving was a means of achieving economic stability. Her mother taught her and her two sisters to spin when she was an adolescent; when she married, she bought a spinning wheel (called a “yinder” in Kashmiri) for RS24, or about $0.32, and used her income to supplement the earnings of her husband, who was a tailor. “I used to earn RS150 ($2) for working five hours a day,” she said, explaining that “back then, that was enough for two proper meals.”

Until the 1990s pashmina wool was spun and woven at artisanal centers all over Kashmir. But with the rise of the Kashmiri armed struggle and the Indian government’s military response, curfews and lockdowns led to a shift: people are now working primarily from home. A few remaining traditional spinners live in pockets of Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir. Sakeena is one of them, but she said that now there is “either no work or the wages paid are not enough to pay for one proper meal.”

The long military lockdowns of the past few years precipitated the decline of the pashmina industry by preventing or discouraging buyers from visiting the disputed territory. As a result, the number of female spinners has declined from a high of 100,000 in 2007 to just 15,360 in 2021, according to The Directorate of Handicrafts & Handlooms in Kashmir.

“Foreign tourists used to come to Kashmir to buy the shawls,” said Sakeena. But no longer. “My daughters have three yinders that have been lying unused for the last year in our attic,” she lamented, adding that they will sell them if the current situation continues much longer. “The Indian government promises to empower people, but in Kashmir, they are doing the opposite by making us economically weaker,” she said.

The politically unstable situation, the prolonged military lockdowns, and now the pandemic, have pushed the regional economy into a free fall. According to a 2020 report issued by the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry, more than 100,000 private sector jobs were cut after August 2019, when the Modi government precipitated an ongoing political crisis by revoking the Muslim-majority territory’s limited autonomy.

Adnan Bashir, who owns a pashmina showroom on the banks of Dal Lake, one of Kashmir’s most renowned natural beauty spots, said that the months-long communications shutdown had severely undermined his business. “Around eight international orders were canceled because I was not able to contact the customer [due to the suspension of internet and mobile connectivity],” he said. One customer from Germany canceled a buying trip due to the military curfews. Bashir described his business’s condition as “critical,” and said he might have to look for another way to make a living.

Fahmeeda, a 67-year-old widow who asked that her real name be withheld, reluctantly sold her yinder last year for financial reasons. It had been a gift from her mother, she said, but she needed the money to buy medicine for her son. “This used to be a blessed craft for women like me,” she said, adding that she had supported her children with the money she made from spinning. “Last year, when Kashmir was under strict lockdown, I went out to purchase raw wool but soldiers chased me away by hitting me with their sticks,” she wept. She now works as a cleaner in a private school for RS800 (just over $10) a month—compared to RS2600 ($35) before the lockdown that began in August 2019.

A recent shortage of raw pashmina has dealt yet another blow to the industry. Ordinarily the wool is imported from Ladakh, which lies on the disputed and ill-defined border between India and China; but in June long-simmering political tension erupted in a military clash that left 20 Indian soldiers dead and caused the suspension of trade between the two regions.

The introduction of power looms presents yet another threat to the 600-year-old pashmina craft. Merchants and artisans led a protest in late June to demand a ban on these looms, which pose a threat to the livelihoods of thousands of Kashmiris. The 1985 Handloom Protection Act forbids the industrialization of pashmina production, said Muhammad Lateef Salati, an activist from a family long engaged in artisanal pashmina production. The government, however, has failed to enforce the law.

Industrially produced pashmina is often sold falsely as authentic traditionally produced wool—a practice that undermines the value of the brand. By failing to enforce the law against manufacturers of mass-produced pashmina, the government shows that it is “not serious” about protecting the craft, said Salati.

Some Kashmiris are trying to safeguard traditional pashmina production by empowering local artisans.

Murcy, the daughter of a family long engaged in traditional pashmina production who divides her time between New Delhi and Srinagar, recently launched Fair Share Cashmere, a socially conscious online business initiative to sell hand-spun shawls made by local artisans. She said that she pays traditional female spinners the highest rate the market will bear. “We have been successful in bringing eight women back to this craft,” she said, adding with a smile that this “feels like a victory.”

The decline of traditional pashmina production in Kashmir has created a vacuum of employment for women who could once depend on the income they made from spinning wool to ensure that their families were fed. Now they are unemployed and, for the most part, voiceless. Murcy is one of a handful of locals who are trying to preserve the remnants of a once-thriving artisanal craft, despite the enormous political and economic challenges.

The post ‘This used to be a blessed craft for women’: in Kashmir, artisanal pashmina weaving is disappearing appeared first on The Conversationalist.

Kashmir’s lost generation of children

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 16/07/2021 - 6:11am in


Feature, Kashmir

The Modi government placed Kashmir under the longest internet shutdown ever imposed in a democracy. 

Two prolonged lockdowns in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir have taken a toll on the region’s children. The first began on August 5, 2019, when the Modi government unilaterally revoked Article 370 of the constitution, which had guaranteed autonomy for the disputed region since 1947. To pre-empt protests, the government blocked internet access and phone connectivity, while the army deployed soldiers on the streets to implement draconian policies that included arrest and detention without charge, curfews, and mandatory home confinement. Schools and universities were closed for about six months. Two weeks after the military closure was lifted and schools reopened, the government in New Delhi announced a country-wide pandemic lockdown that closed all the schools and colleges in India—indefinitely. But while children in the rest of India were able to attend school online, the government refused to restore internet access in Kashmir.

The two million children of Kashmir missed nearly two years of formal schooling. Meanwhile, those from disadvantaged backgrounds had no means of accessing the internet even when the government restored access. The pandemic has exacerbated the digital divide between India’s rich and poor, since very few parents of children who attend public schools can afford smartphones to access online classes.

For those who live in remote areas that lack infrastructure, internet and mobile connectivity are poor even under normal circumstances. Now, with the pandemic keeping the schools closed, a recent BBC News report shows children in rural villages walking miles and even traversing mountains for an internet signal that might allow them to access their online schoolwork. But the signal is so weak that downloading tutorials can take hours. At that speed, online video classes are impossible.

Credit: Adil AbbasKashmiri children walking home from school in winter.

Mental health experts and teachers report that the lockdowns have also exacerbated pre-existing physical and mental health problems, causing trauma that could take generations to heal.

Dr. Majid Shafi, a clinical psychiatrist who treats children and adolescents in the central and southern districts of Kashmir said restrictions on children, who are confined to their homes for long periods during extended lockdowns, has adversely affected their physical, emotional, and cognitive health.

“Almost every parent of kids and teenagers in Kashmir is complaining these days about increased behavioral issues in their children,” said Dr. Shafi, adding that he had seen an “appreciable increase” in symptoms such as a feeling of hopelessness, anxiety, mood disorders, and a decline in academic performance

Isha Malik, a clinical psychologist at a government-run children’s hospital in Srinagar, said the months-long suspension of phone and internet connectivity had severely hampered delivery of mental health-care services. As a consequence, she said, many of her patients had relapsed or seen their symptoms worsen.

Ms. Malik, who also treats psychosocial and mental health problems in children and women at her own clinic in Srinagar, said that drug abuse among adolescents has increased with the lockdowns because they could not “release their pent-up emotions” by meeting up with friends. Data collected by physicians at Kashmir’s Institute of Mental Health & Neurosciences (IMHANS) shows that heroin consumption in Kashmir increased an astonishing 1,500 percent between 2016-19. There are only three addiction treatment centers for the region’s population of 12.5 million.

During the same period of 2016-19, IMHANS found that the number of children hospitalized in psychiatric wards increased from 17,000-30,000. One small survey conducted by a psychologist in Srinagar showed that 72 percent of school-age children said they felt a lack of purpose in life.

But even before the current lockdowns, Kashmir suffered from high rates of mental illness due to ongoing political unrest and repeated military incursions, going back to the 1990s.

According to a 2016 report, co-authored by psychiatrists and researchers from IMHANS and ActionAid International, the mental health situation in Kashmir was already “alarming.” The researchers found that 11.3 percent of the adult population suffered from mental illness, which is significantly higher than the Indian national average of 7.3 percent.

A 2015  study—jointly prepared by Doctors Without Borders, IMHANS, and the University of Kashmir—found that Kashmir was suffering from a mental health crisis of “epidemic proportions,” with 50 percent of women and 37 percent of men suffering from depression and/or PTSD.

In 2019, shortly after the Modi government revoked Kashmir’s autonomous status, the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), roughly equivalent to the ACLU in the United States, released a fact-finding report that found the suspension of internet and phone communication had “hugely hampered” the medical system in its efforts to provide mental healthcare to patients in Kashmir—which mirrors the experience of Ms. Malik, the clinical psychologist in Srinagar.

Amit Sen, a New Delhi-based child and adolescent psychiatrist who was part of the PUCL fact-finding team that visited Kashmir in 2019, described his deep concern for the welfare of the region’s children in a powerful essay for The Indian Express. The city of Srinagar had become a ghost town, he wrote, with the children he had seen playing on the street during previous visits now absent. The minority of children who could access mental healthcare were suffering from “acute anxiety, panic attacks, depressive-dissociative symptoms, post traumatic symptoms, suicidal tendencies and severe anger outbursts.” The violent aggression and abuse perpetrated by the military on civilians, wrote Dr. Sen, could take “generations” to heal.

History of school closures 

School closures are a familiar aspect of life in Kashmir. Students have called for academic strikes in response to political unrest—particularly after the army and government forces killed civilians. In 2016 there was a student strike to protest the military’s killing of Burhan Wani, a popular 21-year-old militant commander in southern Kashmir. In March 2018, the government closed academic institutions for 32 days, when protests erupted after military shelling resulted in the deaths of five members of a single family, along with two militants. In other words, the more recent lockdowns have only exacerbated long-simmering political tensions.

Digital divide, unequal access     

Access Now, an international advocacy group that tracks internet shutdowns across the world, reported in March that the government’s seven-month suspension of Kashmir’s internet access in 2019-20 was the longest in any democracy. According to the group’s analysis, the Indian government blocks internet access more than any country on earth.

The Jammu-Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, a prominent civil rights group, called the government’s communications blackout “digital apartheid.” Only in February 2021 did the government finally restore 4G mobile data service.

Umar Rashid Bhat, a public school teacher in Chandoosa, a village in northern Kashmir, says that 60 percent of his students are from households living below the poverty line, and thus cannot afford smartphones that would allow them to access online tutorials—or to participate in online classes via conference calls, which some private schools offered during the internet shutdown.

About one in five children attended private schools before the pandemic, but enrolment is dropping because the pandemic has put so many parents out of work and has thus made them unable to pay tuition. Meanwhile, 175,000 children have dropped out of public schools. Sharif Bhat, who heads the Jammu and Kashmir office of Save the Children, said the organization believes many of those children left school in order to find odd jobs that would help support their families during the precipitous economic downturn caused by the long lockdowns.

Shah Fozia Hussain, a government middle school teacher in Seer Shaksaz, a village about 37 miles from Srinagar, noticed that one of her eighth-grade pupils joined her online class after an absence of more than a month. The student told her privately that he had been out working with his father, who had been unable to earn a living for months due to the lockdowns. After saving for several months, the son had been able to buy a smartphone that enabled him to rejoin his class. “I was in tears when I heard his story,” said Ms. Hussain. For the hundreds of thousands of Kashmiri children who are suffering under the government’s decision to place nationalism over their welfare and the ongoing ravages of the global pandemic, owning a smartphone that allows them to access their basic right to an education has become a privilege.

The post Kashmir’s lost generation of children appeared first on The Conversationalist.