Kashmir has remained a territory immersed in conflict and struggle for freedom since 1947, not only in the political sphere but also in the social one. It can rightly be termed a ‘conflict zone’ and in zones such as these nations that contest over it, in this case, India, show novel behaviors of control.
Most notably, narratives such as women’s empowerment can actually be tools the state uses in its blind hegemony to suppress the marginalized. The region of Kashmir falling under New Delhi’s control soon found itself at the mercy of a repressive military rule that turned to violent controlling of areas for the continued progress of the nation-state.
The gendered lens is one that can be employed to understand the conflict in Kashmir and its relationship to national identities. The Indian nationalist imagination views the state as a patriarchal and masculine figure that must exert control over its feminine counterpart, Kashmir, in order to coerce it into submission.
Similarly, feminists have understood violence to be perceived as masculine, whereas, peace is viewed as devalued and feminine leading to the use of gender relations as the basis of fueling violence. A key factor in the propagation of gender-based violence lies in the foundations of the nation-state building process. Women in Kashmir become the first ones to be targeted as “others” due to their ability to hold reproductive power and honor the marginalized community.
Since 1990, violence against women in Kashmir is being used as a tool by armed forces to suppress and ‘dishonor’ the local insurgency movements. But these accounts of harassment and rape as collective punishment have become so widespread over the years that they can no longer be pushed to the sidelines as an issue belonging in the private sphere. However, the state continues to escape accountability or dismiss these claims as mere allegations.
The psychological and physiological implications of living in a state where one’s body, psyche and space is constantly in threat of violation by an external entity are beyond comprehension for most. The state continues to brush the issue under the rug and goes as far as to cloak up the armed forces in a benevolent dress as a counter-insurgency measure. In fact, the continued existence of the militarized state rests on developmental and humanitarian projects.
The Indian state has put the armed forces in the social and community life of the people of Kashmir by forming welfare projects under the Military Civic Action Programs. However, the real purpose of these projects is not welfare but an excuse for the military forces to penetrate the common man’s life and normalize its presence to ensure continued surveillance. Here too, the disempowered woman’s narrative is used to launch humanitarian projects for their supposed welfare.
The affirmative action policies by the Indian state in order to ‘empower’ the marginalized other which it violates and harasses in other spheres of life is inherently contradictory and hollow. It is contradictory because empowerment entails the ability of the empowered individual to make free choices and take control of their circumstances, the militarized state within Kashmir will cease to exist if that were to happen.
Moreover, the propagation of such a ‘humanitarian’ agenda is an effort to undermine and delegitimize women in Kashmir. In order to find a real empowerment narrative, it is important to look at initiatives beyond that of the imperial state. One must look at Kashmiri women such as Parveena Ahanger who organizes sit-ins in public spheres stolen by men to protest against the forced disappearance of Kashmiri women’s families.
In the past too, women in Kashmir have remained part of the armed insurgent struggle against the oppressive state. They have acted as couriers, messengers and supplier of arms and information. They have participated in protests and uprisings and organized sit-ins. In reality, women cannot simply be relegated to victimhood and at the mercy of an external who can empower them.
In the context of Kashmir, it is impossible for women’s empowerment to source from the same structure which continues to weaponize harassment and rape against women when it suits its needs. Empowerment cannot come from a system that relies on the continued oppression and silence of the marginalized community for its continued existence.
The women of Kashmir are not reliant on an oppressive state to supply them a narrative of victimhood and subsequently ‘empower’ them. In the last six decades, these women have continued to participate in overthrowing a militarized, oppressive state, and that is what constitutes their struggle to gain real empowerment.