“The State has been perpetrating so many atrocities in Kashmir that one’s silence on it is criminal” says Freny Manecksha author of Behold, I Shine: Narratives of Kashmir’s Women and Children.
Behold, I Shine cuts across the conventional masculine narrative of the Kashmir conflict and focuses on the Valley’s women and children. The book records the lived experiences of women living in a militarized zone.
“In 2011, when a few friends and I were driving back from Shopian (In South Kashmir), we saw two women walking down the street. It triggered me to ask my friends about Kashmiri women. A while later, sensing my keenness, my friend looked at me and suggested that I look at Kashmiri women’s narratives more closely. It first started with two articles and over the last 6 years it expanded,” said Freny.
What was the process of documentation like?
Since 2011, I visited Kashmir every year. Sometimes my visit would last a week and sometimes a month. The book doesn’t have a formal structure as such. In a way, I think it almost feels incomplete.
Did you speak to the women in Kashmiri?
No, mostly we conversed in Urdu and when they spoke in Kashmiri, I had someone to help me translate.
Was it challenging to translate a vernacular conflict into English?
Well, while writing, I always made sure that the context was clearly set. More than literal translation of words, I was constantly trying to figure out how to translate stories of suffering into tales of resistance.
I realized how important it was to have an understanding of how political language is expressed in Kashmir. My inability to comprehend Kashmiri also made me more aware about things like gestures and how gestures also needed translation. For example, I met a woman whose husband was coaxing her to speak of how she was once sexually violated by security forces. This had happened 11 years ago, so she was struggling to address the issue. She spoke to me about everything else like daily life, abuse and harassment by security personnel’s but just refused to talk about that particular night. Finally, when everyone left the room, just as I too was leaving, she pulled my hand and slipped her pheran off her shoulder. This was how she showed me what had happened to her. So in her story the crux is not the words she spoke through her actions.
Also most of the women narrated their stories in a very disjointed manner with a lot of gaps. I also realized that many stories emerged as soon as I switched off the recorder. Listening to narratives became an art I had to pick up.
Do you think if a local woman wrote the same book, it might be entirely a different book?
Yes, I think it would have been a more personal account with much more depth.
What do you, as a non-local, offer to the narratives of these Kashmiri women, in a way that a local might not be able to?
I think it was easier for me to look at the stories from a distance. I had the opportunity to consider each one dispassionately since I don’t share their lived experience. Maybe, if a local wrote the same, it would have been hard to emotionally detach oneself from the reality.
Did your ‘outsider’ position ever interfere with the narrative?
I haven’t really thought about that.
In terms of entitlement there has been the much talked about argument that a Brahmin giving agency to a Dalit is no less violent to the Dalit movement. Did you think of the effects of you, a mainland Indian women giving agency to Kashmiri women?
As a journalist, I have tried my best to be honest and straightforward with the stories but of course someone from outside could look at it that way. Also, being an outsider can sometimes help. Once, I was telling one of my friends about how surprised I was that local women would open up so quickly. She said that maybe they see it as some form of catharsis, where they trust an outsider more. I think, it could also come from some kind of misplaced hope that an outsider might be able to help you.
Did that pressurize you?
Yes, it weighed me down some times.
Do you think women narrativize the conflict differently than men?
Well I don’t think of it as ‘different’. I think, it is about unmasking nuances and stories that have not been addressed; especially, because women have just not been recorded as much as men.
In the six years that you’ve been in and out of Kashmir, do you see a change in the way women are now responding to the conflict?
Yes, hugely. There is an evident change but I am unable to give a shape to this change just as yet. And the change is not just from within the community, even women from outside are also finally starting to respond to the conflict.
How did local men respond to you meeting women?
It is a patriarchal society. In my case, I had least interference from men because I spoke to most women alone. It might have been different if I didn’t have good sources ho help me set up these one-to-one meetings.
Do you address women’s sexuality?
No, I haven’t touched sexuality. I do talk about the third gender briefly but the focus of my book was to look at how women responded to the militarization.
How do you think national media narrativizes Kashmir?
If you’re talking about TV, then I’d say, it is nothing but horrendous. Why is there this craving to criminalize people, not just Kashmiris but Muslims or even anyone who dares to express dissent? Also, this whole black and white, yes or no discourse makes no sense. How can you claim to be an analytical media if you completely refuse to look at complexities?
On the other hand, I think print media is now producing very interesting material.
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