Serious Lack of Feminist Discourse in Kashmir : Dr Nyla Ali Khan

In an exclusive feature with The Policy Times, Dr. Nyla Ali Khan, a former professor at the University of Nebraska-Kearney and the granddaughter of Sheikh Abdullah says political parties in Kashmir, either mainstream or separatists, have not relinquished paternalistic attitudes toward women.

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Serious Lack of Feminist Discourse in Kashmir
Dr. Nyla Ali Khan
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Dr. Nyla Ali Khan is a former professor at the University of Nebraska-Kearney. She has authored two books – The Fiction of Nationality in an Era of Transnationalism and Islam, Women, and Violence in Kashmir: Between Indian and Pakistan, and contributed several articles on politics and Jammu and Kashmir. Dr. Khan is the granddaughter of the late Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, the first Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir.

Dr. Khan is known as “A feminist-activist-scholar,” received her undergraduate degree from Lady Shri Ram College in New Delhi, and her master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of Oklahoma-Norman.

In an exclusive feature with Nandika Chand of The Policy Times, Dr. Nyla Ali Khan shared her views on Kashmir and highlighted issues of Kashmiri women.

“Political parties in Kashmir, either mainstream or separatists, have not relinquished paternalistic attitudes toward women,” says Dr. Nyla Ali Khan, a former professor at the University of Nebraska-Kearney and the granddaughter of Sheikh Abdullah. In an exclusive feature with The Policy Times, Dr. Nyla says not enough emphasis is laid on how Kashmiri women of different political, religious, ideological and class orientations can become resource managers and advocates for other women in emergency and crisis situations. “There is an unwillingness, in both Kashmir to recognize the separate niche of women’s narratives in the larger political context of both places, which is symptomatic of exclusionary patriarchy in both cultures, and which does not establish women’s activism as an actuality and an ideology. Women’s rights and gender issues are secondary to political power. Even within the domestic and feminized realm of home and family, women’s issues are peripheralized.”

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It is a Challenge

An important challenge is to create new openings for women to discuss public issues and become active participants. Dr. Nyla says Kashmir needs to revive and reinvigorate civil society institutions that could initiate groups to assemble freely and express shared interests, values, and purposes. She further says women citizens involved in civil society, as well as government offices, need to forge strategies for reconstruction and evolution of society. “People must learn to work together across ethnic and ideological divides and insist that everyone is included in democratic decision-making and given full access to basic social services.”

Women Empowerment

In 1950, the government of J&K developed educational institutions for women on a large scale, including the first Government College for Women. Dr. Nyla says the institution provided an emancipatory forum for the women of Kashmir, broadening their horizons and opportunities within established political and social spheres. “Higher education in the state received a greater impetus with the establishment of the Jammu and Kashmir University.” To empower women, Dr. Nyla says women citizens must be accorded equal rights with men in all fields of national life – economic, cultural, political and in government services. Women must be given the right to work in every line of employment for terms and wages equal to those for men. Women must be assured of equality with men in education, social insurance, job conditions and the law should also give special protection to mothers and children. Government scholarships need to be designed to ensure full access to education, with instruction available in regional languages as well as English. The State must work to regulate the economic activity to ensure fair distribution of goods, power, and services. The level of women’s empower varies according to factors such as class, class, ethnicity, economic status, age and family disposition etc. It takes a long time, sometimes over a generation to change a deeply entrenched mindset. When it comes to gender hierarchies, gender violence, and traditional roles, Kashmiri society is still very conservative. “I would say that the focus needs to be on the emancipation of women which is intertwined with a sense of responsibility toward the community.”

What Needs to Be Done

Dr. Nyla says there should be an increase in female representation in institutions of authority like colleges, universities, judiciary, legislative assembly and legislative council. “This would facilitate a cultural shift in terms of gender role expectations and legitimize a defiance of the normative structure. The intrusion of women in traditionally male domains would cause perceptible erosion in the structural determinants of sexualized violence. This form of empowerment would frame and facilitate the struggle for social justice and women’s equality through a transformation of economic, social and political structures.” Dr. Nyla says that women’s organizations in a conflict zone like Kashmir need clear nation-building programs which would involve reviving the civil society, resuscitating the shattered economy, and providing sources of income. “Although women are active at grassroots self-organization, they are seldom recognized for their work. It is important for these organizations to pave the way for sustainable peace, human rights and security which would diminish the potency of militarized peacekeeping, following closely on the heels of militarized interventions. Northern Ireland is a good example – prior to the peace moves between the paramilitary forces and the political institutions, women worked to forge connections across the community. The most effective way to make a gender perspective viable in Kashmiri society would be for women, state, as well as non-state actors, is by forging connections between their agendas and strategies for conflict resolution and reconstruction of society with the strategies and agendas of other sections of the populace impacted by conflict.