Peace, on women's terms

In the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley, women on every side of the conflict are becoming politically active.

Twelfth-grader Sami Yusuf Gani has already lost one brother, a Kashmiri independence activist whom she says was killed by the police in 1994. Another has been arrested so many times, he has withdrawn into a fantasy world.

But Sami, attending a recent pro-independence rally here, says she would gladly join the struggle for Kashmir's independence. And not only would she support it; she wants to lead. "Why not? If my parents allowed it, I would join a political party and run for office," she says, tucking a misbehaving hair under her scarf. "Women have lost a lot in this struggle."

Behind the firefights and bomb blasts of the 12-year insurgency in India's northernmost state, Kashmiri women quietly have borne what may be the greatest burden of war: rebuilding society.

A few have led village protest marches, or formed their own political parties and activist groups. Most become leaders reluctantly, as breadwinners and rulemakers, after husbands and sons are killed. But while Kashmiri women are still far from the pot-banging Argentine widows who brought down the military junta in the 1980s, their growing prominence is shaking up notions of a woman's place in an Asian, and Islamic, society.

"Women come out to protest, not when a known terrorist was killed, but when there is a clear-cut human rights violation - when someone was clearly not a militant, or when [he was] someone who was trying to change his life," says Madhu Kishwar, a New Delhi-based human rights activist and founder of Manushi, a journal on women's issues. "Women need idealism to motivate them, to feel they are doing some good. There has to be a very clear dividing line between good and evil. In Kashmir, very often, that doesn't exist."

There are plenty of obstacles to women's involvement in politics throughout the region. Those who have survived the trek into this male world - women like Indira Gandhi or Benazir Bhutto - often do so through sheer force of personality, and by following their powerful fathers. Other women enter at the risk not just to their reputations but to their lives.

"There are so many widows in Kashmir, so many men are killed, but if the women tried to get involved in activities outside the house, either to earn income or to become politically active, they are often branded as 'loose women,' " says Urvashi Butalia, founder of the rights group Kali for Women. "If they get past that hurdle, then they have to face the security forces or the militants. There's a fear of speaking out, of being attacked, raped, or robbed." She pauses. "It's not as if patriarchal society has completely disappeared."

Yet a handful of Kashmiri women are getting involved, with the goal of bringing a clearer moral compass to the process.

The two most prominent female political figures are, ironically, poles apart in their politics. Mehbooba Mufti is founder of the mainstream Jammu and Kashmir People's Democratic Party, which advocates clean government within the Indian union. Asiya Andrabi is founder of Dukhtran-e-Millat, an orthodox Muslim group that advocates women's empowerment and demands Kashmir's secession from India. But while their politics diverge, their central goal is identical: to bring the women's perspective.

"I personally feel that women can do a lot to bring peace to Jammu and Kashmir," says Ms. Mufti in the garden of her home on the outskirts of Srinagar. "When male politicians come out, they start lecturing on ideology. For women it's totally different. It's human, and more forceful."

Mufti - who follows her father, the former India Home Minister Mufti Mohammad into politics - says she occasionally meets women who would like to make a difference. But "the atmosphere is very tense," she says. "Women do contact us, but the first thing they ask is if they can get security." She gazes at a bunker where a soldier is posted to protect her house. "When I travel, I'm supposed to get a double escort of security, but most of the time I don't even get a single guard. How then do I assure any woman, or any man, that they will be safe?"

Outside Mufti's quiet suburbs, Asiya Andrabi meets a reporter in a hotel room near a bustling shopping district. If hers is the more radical face of Kashmiri politics, it is also the hidden face: She wears the traditional modest veil of an orthodox Muslim, a chador. Her organization, Dukhtran-e-Millat, or Daughters of the Community, at one time sprayed dye on the faces of women they found not wearing a veil. (The Indian press later exaggerated reports of this act, turning the dye into acid.) It's a step that Mrs. Andrabi now regrets, preferring to preach instead about the rights of women under Islam.

"A lot of Kashmiri women are not aware of their political status under Islam," she says, nursing her 17-month-old son under her all-covering chador. "They were taught that your status is centered in the home. But we tell them, Islam has given you the right to take part, not just in your family, but in society. They have their own individuality."

With a master' degree in biochemistry, Andrabi entered politics in the late 1980s, pushing for women's colleges. More recently, she has criticized more- extremist sects of Islam - particularly the Talibanized version found in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and increasingly in Kashmir - for denying education to women. For this reason, many orthodox Muslims consider her a radical feminist. "We are fighting a holy war in Kashmir," she says. "Women, too, have a role in jihad."

But on Nallamar Road in Srinagar, scene of a recent massive protest for an assassinated religious leader, Farida Hazari says there has been much too much fighting already.

"We want independence, freedom," says Ms. Hazari, a middle-age mother who has lost a son to the independence struggle. She looks morosely at a street full of young men, whipping themselves into a chest-beating frenzy, shouting "Long live Pakistan" and "They're coming, they're coming, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba." (Lashkar- e-Tayyaba is among the more violent of the Pakistan-based militant groups operating in Kashmir.)

"We have given our children for this movement," she says. "The only solution is talking together. Everyone should be at the table. We want peace through talking, not fighting."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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