Being a Muslim Woman in Kashmir

Womanhood as defined by Islam needs no amendments. Infact, it is we who need to have the critical awareness to avoid maligning religious principles to oppress someone

IT is a truth universally acknowledged that domesticity is hardly a marker of a woman’s identity in today’s world. But one mustn’t dare to use obsolete hierarchical binaries between a womanhood that is restricted to the private sphere and dismiss it in favour of the public one. This is especially true for women in Kashmir, who tread the thread between the two very precariously albeit with grace.

Many discussions, especially local, often use the word “conservative” to describe Kashmiri society. It is bold of us to use this world to chastise ourselves. Not that there isn’t any truth to it but  in a world where the west exercises hegemony to delineate what is progressive and what is not; we run the risk of stereotyping our own ways of life. This is especially true of us in the age of global islamophobia.

However, in a bid to protect our authentic ways of being, we must not legitimise problems within our communities and shy away from reform. In Kashmir, womanhood is still attached to ideals that uphold a patriarchal  order. This impulse is sustained through a problematic use of religion and through an insistence on traditional values that do not pass the test of rights.

Our ideas about women are still deeply problematic. We tend to put women on a pedestal when asked about the “status of women” in our society. This is far removed from how the same society views women. They’re defined in a sense that they cannot define themselves. Our society has labels that still adhere to castigating women who do not fit its model of an ideal womanhood. How then can we claim to have “let” our women exercise agency?

As muslim women, modesty is an integral part of our belief systems. However, this ideal has also been used to shame women who do not adhere to it or do not adhere to someone else’s definition of it. In the context of religion, women in Kashmir are given a certificate of excellence if they exercise this and only this aspect of their religion. Women who struggle with it are hardly given a benefit of doubt. They’re ousted from the sacred circles of self-styled citizens of heaven; increasing their sense of alienation.

However, it is an absolute need of the hour for us to regurgitate and reassess our ideas. This is not because one has to do away with one’s religious beliefs but because there’s a need to have an unproblematic understanding of it. For instance, our ideas of religion are largely tainted by biases that are not islamic but south asian. Islam was chided by the Arabs when it was brought to them by our beloved Prophet because they thought it was too “progressive”. Shift the scene to our social milieu and you’d find this impulse missing. This isn’t because non-muslim models of womanhood are better but because our understanding of religion has been a casuality of traditions that it had set out to correct.

Womanhood as defined by Islam needs no amendments. In fact, it is us who need to have the critical awareness to avoid maligning religious principles to oppress someone. It is only with a clear, just and unproblematic knowledge of religion that we can truly preserve our ways of being and our belief systems.

Muslim scholars in the west have already started teaching religion through the prism of social justice as they observed that in a world which offers desirable alternatives which seem better off in their commitment to rights; religion ran the risk of being abandoned.

In Kashmir, given the political situation, the need to reach out with the right understanding of religion is direr. In the presence of narratives that justify violence against people; we cannot afford to be callous with an understanding or an articulation of our beliefs. In simple words, we cannot afford to mess up. This is most true in the case of our perceptions about women and their roles.

Historically, upper class western feminist movements have been criticised for their part to play in propagating racism and rationalising colonialism. This was because they held the power to define acceptable models of womanhood that were not intersectional. In India, this has been the case with upper caste feminists who are also defining “ideal” and “progressive” models of womanhood and demonising others like Dalits, tribals and muslims.  In the existence of discourses that delegitimise and colonise, we do not have the liberty to make mistakes.

However, as Kashmiris, we do not have a reason to despair as well. Women in Kashmir have always been stakeholders in the cause of our economic, political and social progress. Working women are not an unusual scene here and it has never been that way. Here, women exercise their agency in both public and private spheres.

Hijab clad women are not indoctrinated as the progressive liberals would have us believe.

Muslim women in Kashmir cannot be characterised into categories that are borrowed from other South Asian cultures. For instance, the use of the word “pardah” and “ghoonghat” are used interchangeably by progressive liberal groups to criticize these practices. This is done without historicising the merits of such criticism. Pardha and hijab have evolved in meaning in the 21st Century. Even as they must remain in essence, a submission to God; they are now a challenge to the onslaught of hypersexualising commodity culture and western modernity as well.

Ideas of progress, liberation and freedom are being redefined by muslim worldover and Kashmiri women occupy the frontlines by example. Those of us who identify as muslims are reasserting our rights to practice our beliefs without being shamed for them. We’re also subverting the hierarchies that place some women over others. More and more, we’re also recognising that a woman’s role in the domestic sphere is as appreciable as her role in the public working sphere and vice versa. We’re also pushing back the forces within our cultures that try to dictate us.

As a society, we must now encourage forces of reform and justice that are already playing out in our everyday lives. It is also required that we understand problems of women in Kashmir while being sensitive to a matrix of their identities. This implies the need to be sensitive to differences of region, religion, sexuality, class and caste. There’s a vacuum that can only be filled with collaboration and not confrontation.

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Tooba Towfiq

Tooba Towfiq is the Opinion Editor at Kashmir Observer

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