Changing women identity in Kashmir

By Bilal Ahmad Malik,

The status and role of a Kashmiri woman have undergone tremendous changes during recent years. As a matter of fact, if the status of a woman alters, so will the family and society at large. Today, Kashmiri women are confronted with challenges of multiple belongings. Sometimes it is the question of equal participation, modernity and gender ‘cautiousness’ which shape-up their identity and at times religion and culture becomes a dominant factor in doing so. Like all other societies, the changing women identities in Kashmir are profoundly influenced by the attitudes and demands of the ‘social structures’ they live in, both in regional and global context. With the commence of 21st century, through faster means of communication to external world, the local women identities felt heavily exposed to challenges and opportunities caused by the globalization and its undercurrents like women empowerment, feminism and so on. As result, a typical Kashmiri woman, by and large conservative, experienced a sharp wave of ‘socio-religious’ transformations affecting her dress, desire and demeanor. Consequently, imposing a gender specified ‘consciousness’ over different social institutions like education, politics, economy, social work, and social movements, including the religious ones. The paradigm of change ultimately gave birth to ‘hierarchy schisms’ in a years old male predominant society. Enthralled by the development of modern structures in West vis-à-vis woman identity, Kashmiri women seem to ‘reorganize’ their identity, at a juncture where its (Kashmir’s) ‘traditionalism’ is fighting a battle of nerves against ‘modernism’. I didn’t use word ‘religious traditionalism’ deliberately because in many traditional manifestations, forcibly added to Islamic credentials, like women can’t run a business, women is intellectually ‘born weak’, women can’t have their ‘say’ in family matters, women can’t set a choice at the time of marriage, women can’t be part of regional or national politics and so on, there is nothing to call it ‘Islamic’ except it, unfortunately, happened in a dominant Muslim society. This is probably the reason that most of the local sociologists and anthropologists have defined these evolutionary and behavioural changes in Kashmiri women as a ‘reactionary disposition’ against mislead cultural interpretations of religion.

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In Kashmir, like other Muslim societies, the Mullah’s, people mostly enacted with artificial religious portfolios except few, have often intertwined and wrongly communicated the divine objectives of Islamic law (al-maqasid al-shari’ah) while deliberating over the position of women in Islam and other gender related issues. Being mostly unknown to social changes- societal demands and human responses, these Mullahs constructed a fragile ‘public perception’ that all power relationships, from a uniform family to a diverse society, are fundamentally characterized by the strongest gender- indeed, to them strongest is none other than masculine gender. Such unsubstantiated and ‘religiously wrong’ interpretation of Islam limited woman activism and put her relevant development at halt. Consequently, confining her chances of acting as an equally responsible and parcitpatory citizen and eventually making her victim of ‘male dominance’. Thus instead of sharing their due strengths, capabilities and carrying out their responsibilities, both inside and outside their family, women started developing a feeling of hostility even among their loved ones. It is ironical that this peculiar sense of ‘inferiority’ is not felt only in worldly affairs but also in cultural and religious engagements. It is probably because of this reason that Kashmir’s long chain of rashi (sainthood) tradition is devoid of great ‘women minds’, except few names like Lala Ded and Haba Khatoon, and unfortunately this trend still continues.

Against this background, it is not surprising that religiosity and cultural identity of women went through a series of dramatic transformations. They started challenging their traditional ‘identity’ tagged onto them against their consent and demanded religion and culture of reform, which according to them, would confer onto them their due rights. They stood firm and ‘spoke up’ against all; religion, culture, and family maxims and whatever seemed to them as ‘stumbling block’ in identifying their genuine identity. This indigenous informal ‘women voice’ might would have remained objectively different, if there had been no inflow of external feministic ideas. The imported feminism, an embodiment of recognition, participation and free will of women, reshaped Kashmiri woman’s ‘aspirations and inspirations’ to a large extant. Besides genuine women issues, not violating religio-cultural ethos of Kashmir, it (imported feminism) demanded free gender interaction and choice in sexuality, dress and display as well, which Kashmiri women would have never thought of. Later on, as a result of ‘syncretization’ between local and external feministic ideas, the case of genuine ‘women empowerment’ eventually proved to be an unwanted journey of ‘Westernized’ feminism- a potential threat to Kashmir’s religious values. Now, Kashmiri women looked towards Western feministic identity, aiming to achieve ‘greater liberty’ and improve their living conditions. What has saddened me most, that whenever I got a chance to question these women, especially college and university students, about their ‘new identity’ was their uniform reply, “we have been poignantly dismantled and encapsulated in a male-dominant culture, is this what religion talks about status of women? And if it is so, than it is sheer injustice and why should we believe in an unjust religion”. This answer would paralyze me every time as I, being a student of religion, know that Islamic principles are predominantly supportive to women’s rights like economic independency, education and social participation. It makes me think, had these Mullah’s put everything according to divine order, giving men and women their due rights, then women would have never felt a need to search for some imported identity.

By referring to this patriarchal society, I want to have a claim, may be others won’t agree, that pure masculine developments, rightly or wrongly strengthened by religion and culture, in almost all spheres of action have undermined‘women potential’ and plunged Kashmiri society into gender clashes. Consequently, it widened the ‘social splits’ and cultivated atmosphere of distrust between different social dynamics like family, religion, gender, culture, and so on. By accepting transformation and adopting a new identity, Kashmiri women expressed hopes that their feministic voice would surely evoke a ‘women friendly’ mindset and would bring a meaningful change in bogus traditional and cultural perceptions favouring male highhandedness. It is worth to mention that yet the impact of societal circumstances on the identity, affiliation and transformation of the Kashmiri women is not being realized and understood in diverse perspectives. Although some Muslim reformists seem to negotiate with the women, as happened in societies like Iran,Pakistan, Egypt, Tunisia, and Turkey, so that they can express more freely in public, for example in the academia, offices, business, politics, and media. Nevertheless, the Mullah’sstill have the feeling that unfavorable weather conditions, social and economic tensions, political unrest, social and moralanarchy is predominantly because of women and their changing ‘identity’ from traditional Islamic to modern Western. Alas! Such unchecked and illogical arguments against women will prove nothing except making their case much more strong.

(Author is a research scholar in Islamic studies at Centre of Central Asian Studies, University of Kashmir, India.)