16 Days Campaign Theme series: Women peace-builders, by Sumona DasGupta

Sumona DasGupta

Women Peace builders: Where are they in Kashmir?

The experiences of women in Jammu and Kashmir in the years after an armed insurrection broke out in 1989 are as varied as the landscape of the state. It is not just a fact that men and women experienced the conflict differently post 1989,  but also that women themselves experienced it differently depending on whether they were located in Jammu, the valley or Ladakh; whether they were Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist; whether they were from the settled or pastoral communities; whether they lived along the lines of control and the international border or the more interior regions; whether they lived in urban, rural, camp or cluster colonies; whether they belonged to the higher castes or the lower/ scheduled castes; whether they were part of urban elite or the rural poor.  These in fact are only indicative of the many faultlines that separate the life experiences of women in Jammu and Kashmir from each other—and there are many more.

Life experiences of women particularly in the valley were also conditioned by whether their sons, husbands joined one of the many militant groups or not, whether they surrendered to the state in due course and whether they themselves were involved in the armed movement in a covert way.  While some Kashmiri women have in the past acted as couriers and messengers and others have voluntarily or under coercive pressure sheltered those in the militant ranks, they have not picked up the gun or been bombers or suicide squad members unlike some of their other south Asian counterparts. At the start of the insurgency there is no doubt that many women along with men supported the movement for azadi in the valley though the extent of their support for an armed movement waned with time as they increasingly found themselves hemmed between  two armed patriarchies—one of the state and the other of militant groups—both of which had scant regard for their rights. They resisted both these armed patriarchies occasionally but the commonality of shared resistance was too short lived, isolated and sporadic to generate shared bonds that could be a resource for peacebuilding later.

As often happens in situations of overt militarization primordial and essentialist markers of identities and the exclusive life experiences generated within particular identity clusters seem to triumph over socially constructed identities and shared gendered experiences. In an atmosphere of competing nationalisms and sub regionalisms shared experiences as women matter less than their particular community and kinship based experiences which seem too overwhelming to admit of anything else.  And hence the ethnic differences and past competing loyalties of disappeared husbands and sons continue to separate the Kashmiri speaking women of lower Dardpora in Kupwara  and their Gujjar counterparts in Upper Dardpora in Kupwara district along the line of control in Kashmir valley despite the shared experience of being half widows trying to eke out a living in hugely difficult circumstances.   The experience of women cultivators having to live with stray bullets, mines and fenced out fields in Suchetgarh one of the last villages along Jammu’s international border is woven so integrally into their everyday struggles for life and livelihood that it is difficult to imagine them connecting empathetically with those even in other more “sheltered”  parts of Jammu let alone the valley.  The reality of being a Jammu Rajput Muslim woman with close blood relatives across a line of control in a village along zero line in Poonch of Jammu subdivision does not necessarily establish a sympathetic bond between her and the women in the valley whose espousal of the azadi “cause” is seen to make their journey to visit relatives in Pakistan administered Kashmir that much more difficult. The women of the valley who have suffered enormous hardships due to the everyday manifestations of militarization – bombs, bullets, cordon and search operations, midnight knocks, state repression, militant killings – have not been able to connect to their counterparts in Jammu or Ladakh subdivision whose daily travails have been of a different nature.  Ironically women in Jammu and Ladakh  feel aggrieved that the valley has got undue attention at their cost precisely because of the overt violence. Those women forced to live in virtual exile in miserable camps – Pandits as well as  those displaced from Doda, Rajouri and Poonch due to the violent conflict do not see their interests being represented by women’s voices from the valley or for that matter from the settled communities in Jammu subdivision itself.

To build empathetic spaces across conflict spaces that have generated so many  difficult faultlines across landscapes and mindscapes,  requires as I have argued elsewhere, not just cross border dialogues across the line of control but also a dialogue among women across the three subdivisions of the Indian administered part of the state. Women’s solidarities have to be actively built and nurtured and cannot be taken as a given. When the everydayness of the conflict is so overwhelming, when the voices calling for religious or/and subregional solidarities are so shrill, being able to think and connect to the experiences of others who have experienced the conflict differently even if they are women, is not easy.  Yet because women have suffered differently in an armed conflict that is not of their own making there appears to be an expectation that they will automatically become resources for peacebuilding. The fact that they may want to but feel conflicted and torn in a polarized and militarized space is something that needs to be taken into account. The absence of the shared common political goal need not be an insurmountable barrier but the absence of shared and sustained dialogue spaces is. It is only when an indigenous movement led by women seek out paths for dialogue and rainbow coalitions that accepts that the differences in their experiences need not obstruct them seeking a just peace collectively that takes their interests and needs into account that a new chapter will be opened.

Dr.Sumona DasGupta is a researcher based in New Delhi and currently Senior Research Consultant with Society for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA).

2 Responses to 16 Days Campaign Theme series: Women peace-builders, by Sumona DasGupta

  1. Arvinder J.Singh says:

    Very insightful !!
    The need for women to have “healing and emotionally safe spaces” for sustained dialogue is extremely important in the prices of peace building.

  2. Arvinder J.Singh says:

    Very insightful!
    The need for women to have “healing and emotionally safe spaces” for sustained dialogue is extremely important in the process of peace building

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