Nyla Ali Khan
In what ways are women present in political contexts? Kashmiri women, from different walks of life, have managed against all odds to express their agency during the plethora of political, social, and military transformations in the past nine decades. During the growing sense of nationhood in the 1930s, and during the political awakening in the 1940s, Kashmiri women forged broad coalitions and informal networks to challenge state-centered, feudal, and elitist notions of identity and security.
My grandmother Akbar Jehan worked with Lady Mountbatten, wife of the first Governor General of post-Partition India, to repatriate young women who had forcibly been removed from their families during the turbulent and bloody partition of the country.
She worked indefatigably to restore the honor of those unfortunate women who had borne the brunt of communal vendetta. In rehabilitating these victims of the brutalized ethos of partitioned India, the first attempt was to restore them to their families.
But if the families were untraceable in the chaotic and turbulent environment of that era, or if the women were afraid of being disowned by their families, who might have viewed their abduction as an irreparable loss of honor, they were provided with respectable lodgings in the Kashmir Valley. Some of these abducted women, even after they were found, chose to remain with their abductors in legitimate, sanctified unions, because they foresaw rejection, disgrace, and dishonorable isolation in their familial homes.
Akbar Jehan and her colleagues ensured that the women who were separated from their families, physically, emotionally, and financially, were provided vocational training in the Valley, which gave them a means of sustenance.
A significant contribution of hers, which is not as extensively written about, was the formation of the Relief Committee in 1948 to provide succor to those who had suffered immeasurable economic losses because of the blow inflicted on tourism programs in 1947 and 1948.
While a political consciousness was evolving in the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, Kashmiri women like my grandmother, Akbar Jehan, made a smooth transition from their conventional lives to people engaged in sociopolitical activism. Although women activists led the way by offering new ideas, building broad-based political coalitions, and working to bridge organizational divides, it was and continues to be an uphill climb.
Before his marriage, my maternal grandfather Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah had undertaken the gargantuan task of determining his intellectual, political, and personal trajectory in an environment that sought to stifle even embryonic expressions of Kashmiri selfhood, self-determining, and nationalism.
In this undulating landscape Akbar Jehan’s resolute and self-willed temperament is amply borne out by her intractable decision to relinquish the safety, security, and plenitude of her maternal home for life with an idealistic, self-willed rebel. The political ideology of that rebel spoke to the repressed masses of Jammu and Kashmir in the 1930s and 1940s, but his political future was uncertain.
Akbar Jehan had, of her own volition, embraced a path strewn with thorns. Lest readers perceive the former statement as the forgivable bias of a granddaughter, I would remind them that, historically, Kashmiri Muslims had not been allowed to climb the political and socioeconomic hierarchy during monarchical Dogra rule in the State. At the time, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s arduous undertaking of constructing Kashmiri nationalism, demanding the political enfranchisement and socioeconomic empowering of Kashmiri Muslims was a nebulous and tottering enterprise. The success of his mission was, by no means, guaranteed.
Having been raised in a milieu that enabled Akbar Jehan to burgeon not just academically but socially and culturally as well, she was as much at ease campaigning at a political rally for the Sheikh’s political organization, as she was in conversing with career diplomats and statesmen. I posit here that Akbar Jehan was one of the harbingers of State feminism in Jammu and Kashmir. I borrow Gul Ozyegin’s proficient definition of State feminism: “the inclusion of women in political citizenship and top-down reforms initiated by the State, without the notable participation of women, for the improvement of the legal, social, and economic status of women” (33).
With the oral and historical resources on Akbar Jehan available to me, I have investigated the impact of her work for the legal, social, economic status of women in Jammu and Kashmir in my book, “The Life of a Kashmiri Woman” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). She was an passionate advocate of women’s education, which would place girls, including those of impoverished backgrounds, in the public realm of ambition, power, and material well-being, “and scientific and intellectual life with a mission of modernizing the country and its people, side by side with their male peers” (Ozyegin 33).
Note: Dr. Nyla Ali Khan, a native of Kashmir, became a citizen of the United States this year. She writes regularly for The City Sentinel newspaper, the CapitolBeatOK news website, and other news organizations in Oklahoma. Her work also is featured prominently around the world. This essay is adapted from a reflection for CounterPunch.org.