JAMMU: If in 2016, pellet shot and blinded Insha Malik was the most haunting image of Kashmir, in 2017 the summer has begun with the defining images of women and girls joining the men in pelting stones on security forces and police. On the face of it, it’s a giant leap.

Afshan Ashique, a 21 year old football coach, was among the women who pelted stones. According to a news report, she did not intend to. It was only while she was moving, along with her team of 20 girls, towards the playground when stone pelting started. A cop mistaking them for stone pelters, began slapping one of the girls, the report adding, provoking Afshan and her team to pelt stones.

This case of ‘accidental’ stone pelting may well be an aberration. Many girls across the Valley moved out of their schools and colleges voluntarily last week to protest against the killing of a Pulwama college student by the police and the forcible entry of army and police inside the college campus before that. They participated in marches and in some areas they joined the male counterparts in pelting stones on the security personnel, surprising many.

Though this trend is new, it is not quite a bolt from the blue. It is strongly linked to the present context of Kashmir’s volatile situation and the 27 year old journey of women through the ups and downs of militarised Kashmir and its deeply entrenched patriarchy.

In 1989-90, women vehemently opposed the burqa diktat that right wing organizations like Dukhtaran-e-Millat imposed, despite incidents of throwing paint to embarrass women who refused to cover their face and an alleged case of acid throwing. Some women however chose to adopt the burqa as a way of life. The diktat did not last long but peak militancy period carved new roles for women in the Valley.

In many fields including education, women marginalization during the peak militancy period was glaringly visible. The school drop-out rate was far higher among girls, women disappeared from news rooms and courts. However, at the same time many women who had never ventured out of their homes were pushed to play the role of bread-earners for their families that lost their earning male members to the vicious cycle of violence, which also increased their vulnerability. As haunting stories of infamous rapes of Konan-Poshpora and many others resonated in Kashmir, women were largely pushed to the brink in their daily lives and public spheres.

The Kashmir story even in those days was not a simple story of marginalization and victimization of women. Many women crossed the red lines to actively participate publicly as agitationists and justice seekers. This activism in the last 27 years of history of insurgency has by and large been shaped around their domestic roles as mothers, sisters, daughters and wives – in invoking or discouraging the men and boys in their families to pick up the gun and join ranks of militants, in acting as shields for the men during raids and cordons and in seeking justice for the men of the family killed, tortured of disappeared in custody.

This female assertion was more a part of domestic activism, inspired by the concerns of safety, security and oppression of their family members, especially men; not about their own safety and their own aspirations. Even in cases of sexual assault and rapes, the patriarchal nature of protests that sought to bracket rapes within the paradigm of honour or stigmatized the victim, the women has been largely invisible.

Women in Kashmir have played an active role as an integral part of the present resistance since 1990 but in a subordinate position. Centrality of patriarchal ethos has often defined and limited women’s agency. Women have by and large been absent or played subservient roles in politics – both in mainstream and separatist camps, where women find little or no space in decision and policy making level. Mehbooba Mufti remains an exception and her agency is seen more as a perpetuation of a dynasty than a defining gender role.

However, there has been an evolutionary trajectory of women’s involvement in public and political spheres that leads to the present day image of school and college girls pelting stones. Signs of marginal change were already visible though in very passive forms.

The Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons headed by Parveena Ahangar is one of the strongest strands of the women’s resistance movement in Kashmir; largely illiterate women have taken upon themselves the task of justice and ‘knowing the truth’ about their men who disappeared in custody of security forces.

Elitist women have crossed the red lines of ‘silence’ and begun speaking out in public spaces, even organising events or making other interventions in the society, whether it is about building solidarities, providing humanitarian aid or attempts to bring gender in the sectors of health, education and other areas.

From the public passivity over Konan Poshpora mass rapes to the massive outrage that poured over Tabinda Gani rape and murder and Shopian twin rapes and murders, the Valley had already seen feeble changes. There was far greater mobilization of both men and women for justice around the latter two cases. The fact that the victims were dead and could no longer be placed within the honour discourse could be one reason. However, the striking contrast between the perpetrators of the latter two cases highlights the larger and stronger presence of women’s agency. The accused in Shopian rapes and murders were men in uniform as opposed to the Tabinda Gani rape case of 2006, where the accused were four poor labourers, two of them Kashmiri natives.

In recent years, the voices against sexual assault at homes, workplaces and those perpetrated by security agencies have become stronger, a trend that also goes hand in hand with the nation-wide trend of stories of rapes, molestations and sexual assault coming out in the public domain. It is in line with this trend that six young women decided to dig up the Konan Poshpora case and free it of the myths and stereo-types, that the case had come to symbolise it, by documenting the narratives of women in the shape of a book ‘Do you remember Konan Poshpora’.

In the last one decade, an increasing number of women have begun donning the head scarves and hijabs, which were otherwise unknown in the Valley. While some of them are inspired by religion or peer pressures, many young girls admit that it was a conscious assertion of their different identity, making head scarves a symbol of the resistance against the oppression of another identity. No easy conclusions can be drawn from such trends.

After the 2010 agitation, a young college student, on conditions of anonymity, mentioned that police had picked her up for questioning after her Facebook post that was critical of the brutality of security forces. She was let off after her family intervened and she promised not to give vent to her feelings on social media.

Essar Batool, one of the authors of ‘Do you remember Konan-Poshpora,’ was a college student in 2008 and recalls how girls started protests inside college campuses during the Amarnath land agitation. “We wanted to go out but were not allowed.” She finds that ever since 2008, women have been craving to challenge the oppressive atmosphere they find themselves in, not just to oppose the ‘military occupation’ but also against patriarchy that pushed them into a marginalized space.

In 2010, when some college girls came out on the streets to pelt stones on the security forces, they were sniggered at and ridiculed by men who sarcastically remarked that “now they will get their azadi”. Thereafter, barring some occasional image of a woman picking up a stone as an expression of her defiance against the state, mostly inspired by her role as a mother, daughter or sister, the visibility of women in violent street protests has been very marginal but has gradually become acceptable. When the college girls broke that norm last week, the social media was flooded with salutations for the ‘brave sisters’. This acceptability within the society of women trying to push for new gender roles for themselves has also played as a catalyst.

It is these simmerings of recent years that have lead to the present day symbolism of women as stone pelters, making the significant statement as equal partners, as equally enraged, equally strong and equally robbed off a sense of fear as they join the men on the streets to face lathis, tear-gas, bullets and pellets. As Essar aptly puts it, “these images of young women with their cute bunny bags or football in hand” are extremely powerful. They shatter many myths and stereo-types about Kashmiri women.”

She explains, “opinions in Indian media have tried to project the hijab wearing girls and stone in hand as ‘regressive’. This is not the case. Not all girls protesting were wearing hijabs; some were just covering their heads and face to hide their identity. And, head scarves cannot be deemed as symbols of regressiveness and patriarchy. I, for instance, wear a hijab as opposed to my mother who would step out of her home in the 90s wearing a burqa. The women who made a significant point while picking up a stone are fully aware that their stone cannot shake an empire or free them of any oppression. It is about feeling empowered.”

“They challenge not only the political regime but also patriarchal norms within which women have been subjugated, though not in a very rigid way, for years. It isn’t just about opposing military rule, it is about challenging their own collective oppression as women and I proudly see it as a step towards women’s assertion for an equal footing within Kashmiri society,” says Essar.

The image of Afshan Ashique, seen with a football in one hand and a stone in another, further lends credence to this theory of Kashmiri women shedding their inhibitions and sense of fear. A member of her team said that images of security personnel and police beating up women inspired her while she was picking up the stone, making the important point that her action was both personal and political. Not all girls, like this team, reacted when they were caught in a situation.

For many other girls trying to dodge tear-gas shells and batons of security personnel on the road said they had made that conscious choice. “Our men have shed enough blood. But ‘azadi’ will come when we join them,” they say.

The fire is ignited. After a college girl was injured during the street protests, it inspired many more to come out, giving this assertion a new booster shot.

Would women continue to mobilise themselves in spaces already carved out by the masculine discourse of stones and bullets in a militarised setting? Or would they carve their own niche with other creative, even if symbolic, ways of resistance? Whichever way this new phenomenon goes, Kashmir is likely to see a greater visibility of women in a far more assertive and leading role.

(Cover Photograph BASIT ZARGAR)