Women of Resistance

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The Life of a Kashmiri Woman: Dialectic of Resistance and Accommodation

Begum Akbar Jehan Abdullah, the wife of Sheikh Muhammed Abdullah, who was thrice the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, needs no introduction. One of the harbingers of state feminism in Jammu and Kashmir, she did all in her power for raising the economic, legal and social status of women.

A passionate advocate of women`s education, she believed in its power to place girls, including those from the lower strata, on the path to prosperity and economic empowerment. Begum Jehan is also the subject of study in Nyla Ali Khan’s The Life of a Kashmiri Woman: Dialectic of Resistance and Accommodation.

Khan`s book, though not her first, is a maiden attempt at writing a biography: that of her maternal grandmother.

According to Khan, Begum Jehan always wanted to raise the status of women to that of their male peers so that they would not feel inferior in any way. By initiating development and educational programmes, her efforts were dedicated towards improving the lives of the Gujjar community, to which she belonged.

Khan writes: “Akbar Jehan`s work with Lady Mountbatten, wife of the first governor general of post-Partition India, in the repatriation of young women who had forcibly been removed from their families, during the turbulent and bloody partition of the country, was exemplary.” She and her colleagues made sure that the women who had been separated from their families were provided vocational training in the valley, which gave them a means to eke out a living.

Few people are aware of her significant contribution towards the formation of the Relief Committee in 1948 to provide assistance and support to those who had suffered huge economic losses because of the blow inflicted on tourism in 1947 and 1948. As a schoolboy I watched a film called Bhowani Junction, an adaption of the 1954 novel by John Masters in which a mob of Indians protesting against the British Raj lay themselves on railway tracks so as to prevent trains from departing from the local station on time. Soon several British army officers arrive at the platform with janitors carrying human waste in tubs. The officers threaten to have the contents thrown on the protesters if they do not disperse, which causes the protesters to quickly disperse. It was shocking to read in The Life of a Kashmiri Woman that the Indian government used the same abhorrent tactics against Kashmiris who were protesting against the Indian government and its inhumane policies in Kashmir. There after, it was not surprising to learn about the mental and physical shackles imposed on the people of Kashmir in the name of democracy, religion, justice and peace as in many other parts of the world.

I was surprised to learn from the book that at least 250 dialects are spoken in the Jammu region, which is multi-racial, multi-religious and multi-lingual.

Besides the Kashmiris living in the valley, it also had Bakarwals and Gujjars, who were nomads, moving from place to place with their cattle. Begum Jehan (herself a Gujjar, as mentioned previously) could speak English, Kashmiri, and Urdu fluently, besides Gojri, making her a polyglot. She was a trailblazer in the broadening of the cultural spectrum in Jammu and Kashmir. Towards the last decade of her life, unfortunately, she had to see all of that fall apart. The Life of a Kashmiri Woman shows historical perspectives from the viewpoint of a Kashmiri woman who watched her land go through some tumultuous changes.

Khan has done intensive and painstaking research on the political history of Kashmir through the lives of principal political actors. If you want to read about Kashmir and some of its most famous people, this book offers valuable insight into the land that remains a mystery for many Pakistanis, post-1947.

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