The woman question in South Asia — II

As I contemplate the significance of International Women’s Day, I wonder about the plight of women: not just in the developing world, but in the developed world as well, who have been socialized to play second fiddle, demure, passive, and seek neither political nor cultural empowerment.

I ask myself, and my readers, the following questions:

Can women play an important role in establishing a more inclusive democracy and new forums for citizen cooperation? Can female leaders lead the way by offering new ideas, building broad-based political coalitions, and working to bridge organizational divides? Should women active in politics aim not just to improve the position of their own particular organizations, but also to forge connections between the groups’ agendas for revival of democracy, and for the reconstruction of society with strategies and agendas of other groups in the population, who have also been disenfranchised? Can women’s groups, in this manner, pave the way for sustainable peace, universal human rights, and security from violent threats of all kinds?

It is the peripheralized — of whom women form a large portion -who are concerned about structural changes that would enable transformations within entrenched structures, and thus appropriate the peace building mission from the elitist national security constituency.

In contemporary Kashmiri society, the question of the role of women in the nationalist scenario remains a vexed one. As Ann McClintock observes about the role of the subaltern woman in ‘third world’ societies: “Excluded from direct action as national citizens, women are subsumed symbolically into the national body politic as its boundary and metaphoric limit”. I reinforce that in Kashmir, there has been a dearth of secular women’s organizations working toward structural change that could enable gender equity.

Why is gender violence such a consistent feature of the insurgency and counterinsurgencythat have wrenched apart the Indian subcontinent for decades?The equation of the native woman to the motherland, in the nationalist rhetoric of recent times, becomes more forceful. In effect, the native woman isconstructed as a trough within which male aspirations are nurtured, and themost barbaric acts are justified as means to restore the lost dignity of women.

In one instance, the crime of a boy from a lower social caste against awoman from a higher upper caste in Meerawala village in the central provinceof Punjab, Pakistan, in 2002, was punished in a revealing way by the ‘sagacious’tribal jury. After days of thoughtful consideration, the jury gave theverdict that the culprit’s teenage sister, Mai, should be gang-raped by goonsfrom the wronged social group. The tribal jury ruled that to save the honourof the upper-caste Mastoi clan, Mai’s brother, Shakoor, should marry thewoman with whom he was accused of having an illicit relationship, whileMai was to be given away in marriage to a Mastoi man.The prosecution said that when she rejected the decision she was gang-rapedby four Mastoi men and made to walk home semi-naked in front of hundredsof people. The lawyer for one of the accused argued the rape charge wasinvalid because Mai was technically married to the defendant at the time ofthe incident (“Pakistan Court Expected to Rule on Gang-Rape Case,”KhaleejTimes, 27 August 2002).

Why is gender violence such a consistent feature of insurgency and counterinsurgency that have wrenched apart the Indian Subcontinent for decades?

Such acts of violence that occur on the Indian subcontinent bear testimonyto the intersecting notions of nation, family and community.The horrific stories of women, in most instances attributed to folklore,underscore the complicity of official and nationalisthistoriography in perpetuatingthese notions. I might add that the feminization of the “homeland” as the “motherland” – for which Indian soldiers, Kashmiri nationalists in Indian-administeredKashmir as well as in Azad Jammu & Kashmir are willing tolay down their lives — serves in effect to preserve the native woman in pristineretardation. Although this essentialist portrayal of the Kashmiri woman in J&K is clearly suspect, it is embedded more deeply in quasi-feudalculturesof South Asia. Such cultures have been fiefdoms of feudal lords whose only concern is with the impregnabilityof their authority and the replenishment of their coffers. Women in the quasi-feudal cultures and societies of South Asia are still circumscribed within the parameters createdby the paternalistic feudal culture that forbids the creation of a space fordistinct subjectivities.

An increase in female representation, not just token women, in the Parliament, Legislative Assembly, Legislative Council, and Judiciary would facilitate a cultural shift in terms of gender role expectations, legitimizing a defiance of the normative structure. The intrusion of women into traditionally male domains would cause perceptible erosion in the structural determinants of gender violence. Such a 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” according to Bisnath and Elson.

In the present scenario in Jammu and Kashmir, no thought is given either by the state authorities or by the insurgent groups to the pain of women who have been victims of the paramilitary forces and/or militant organizations.


The writer is the author of Fiction of Nationality in an Era of Transnationalism, Islam, Women, and Violence in Kashmir, The Life of a Kashmiri Woman, and the editor of The Parchment of Kashmir. Nyla Ali Khan has also served as guest editor working on articles from the Jammu and Kashmir region for Oxford University Press (New York), helping to identify, commission, and review articles. She can be reached at



Published in Daily Times, September 1st 2017.