SRINAGAR: Will the women of Kashmir emerge from the quagmire of the Kashmir conflict or will they remain entangled in it in hopelessness?

This and such questions still dog Kashmir feminists and the Zaira Wasim controversy has provided an opportunity for the women of Kashmir to come out of the shadows of uncertainty.

Naseem Shafai, perhaps Kashmir’s best known woman poet and the only one to get a Sahita Academy award for her poetry, expressed the same predicament at the Jaipur Literary festival when she described the women of Kashmir as the worst victims of the Kashmir conflict. She has dreams of women coming out of subjugation and getting a level playing field in all aspects of life.

Many feminist crusaders of Kashmir like her want the society of Kashmir to embrace the achievements and progress of women in different spheres of life.

Zaira Wasim, the 16 year old girl who shot to prominence and fame with her role in Aamir Khan’s blockbuster Dangal, inadvertently crossed the red lines which exist in Kashmir society because of many reasons. A girl who was brought up in the Hawal locality, a suburb of Srinagar has little knowledge about the nature of the political undercurrents. Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti who immediately after the meeting released the news through the State Information Department with her photograph with Zaira, stirred a storm.

A household name by now,this talented teenaged girl of Kashmir was trolled on Facebook as Mehbooba Mufti described her as a role model for all youngsters. Sensing trouble, Zaira immediately posted an apology on her Facebook wall, as she was told by her well-wishers, friends and family members that Mehbooba has tried to portray her as a poster girl of her success.

Opposition leader and former chief minister Omar Abdullah on twitter appealed netizens not to troll a teen aged girl of Kashmir and narrated the underlying motivation for it. Abdullah tweeted that Mehbooba Mufti was trying to use the success of youngsters like Zaira Wasim to hide her own failures.

Zaira’s apology on Facebook was to assuage the anger that was evident on Facebook.

Why did Zaira Wasim have to face such astorm on Faceook for just a meeting with the CM? Her neighbors at Hawal locality, her school friends and now her fans in thousands are providing an answer to this questiont.

Zaira as a teenage girl got support from her family, from the neighbors, and society at large--- especially in Srinagar city-- to try her luck in the blockbuster film Dangal. She was almost pushed to go for it as initially she was reluctant, not sure about her talent as an actor. Had Kashmir been an intolerant society with shades of male hegemony, she would not have landed in Bollywood.

After the completion of shooting and even after its release she has been moving around in Srinagar and other parts of the state drawing accolades from the people, and facing no visible coercion.

Zaira Wasim encountered trouble only when she met the state chief minister who isoreeling under a wave of unpopularity because of the killings and hundreds of injuries to the people as security forces were given the mandate to to contain protests at any and all costs.

In the tussle of narratives Zaira Wasim is tossed against Insha Mushtaq, a young girl of Shopian with her own dreams to excel in studies who lost both her eyes to pellet injuries. Many people regard Insha Mushtaq as an inspiration for youngsters as she still wants to go for her studies despite the blinding at the hands of the government. Mehbooba Mufti tried to own her also, met her at a Delhi hospital and offered her both eyes to her to see the world again.

Many historians and social activists of Kashmir do not agree to the narrative being displayed on the national media that the Kashmiri women are dominated by men. And are forcibly made to wear the hijab and confined to the four walls of the house.They say that Kashmiri society from decades has been evolving and has provided all means for the women to excel in different fields of life.

This is quite close to reality as even in the most far flung villages of Kashmir there is hundred percent female literacy and the parents feel proud to send their girls to different educational institutions in and outside Kashmir.

Kashmir conflict has taken a toll on the women of Kashmir and certainly on their avenues to flourish in different fields of life. We cannot deny the fact that shades of radicalism are more visible in today’s Kashmir society as many girls even in professional colleges and at the university level have adopted the hijab as their own.

Hijab was alien to Kashmirias our society was very liberal and would not object to dress codes adopted by the young girls. Kashmiri girls have been appreciated and encouraged by our society to touch the skies as some have recently become pilots. There were no ripples in Kashmir when Zaira emerged as the Dangal girl. Raj Bhegum, Shameema Azad. Naseema Shafai are a few amongst hundreds of singers, poets and artists who made their mark in Kashmir society right from the early 1950’s.

Zaira Wasim was right when she snubbed Union Minister for Sports and Youth Affairs Vijay Goel. He tried to identify Zaira with a painting in Hijab. Zaira Waseem told the minister not to connect her to such a discourteous depiction. She went further “women in Hijab are beautiful and free”.

There are no gender issues involved when girls of Kashmir opt for professions from singing to becoming part of Rock Bands. They have the support of families and society at large. In 2013 Pragash, a three member all girls rock band landed in controversy when they went for a concert sponsored by CRF.

The girls were not discouraged when they decided to form a band but the same political narrative caught them unawares. They did the same: posted an apology letter, deleted it and became frustrated and went out of sight. Apart from their band, there were also 200 rock bands most of them having girls and there has been no controversy attached to them.

The day they will become part of any official announcement of a political narrative, they will be hounded, harassed and persecuted. Omar Abdullah was right when he tweeted ,”these people are inspite of the government and not because of it. So it is best to let them enjoy their success instead of trying to hijack it”.

Shah Faisal the first Kashmiri IAS topper in 2010 was often portrayed by the Indian media as a counter narrative to ‘azadi’. When local like Burhan Wani became popular l, many television channels tried to show Shah Faisal as a face for the Kashmir youth to follow for their future.

Shah Faisal recently told the media that the Zaira Wasim controversy has nothing to do with religion but has roots in the Kashmir conflict. He said that Kashmiri society is one of the least conservative Muslim societies of the world. He came out in support of Zaira Wasim in his Facebook post and tried to defend her meeting with Mehbooba Mufti. He dwelled on the realities of Kashmir and argued that as long as there is a government in Kashmir such interactions will continue.

The reaction of liberals from the country, especially from Bollywood was very surprising for the people of Kashmir. They tried to portray people of Kashmir as intolerant with a myopic vision of Islam. It was unfortunate to see the reaction of people like Javed Akthar accusing people of Kashmir as usurping ‘azadi’ of individuals while crying for their ‘azadi’ from the roof tops.

The fact of the matter is that Zaira Wasim was caught in the controversy only because of increasing inclination by separatists and PDP to present their own narratives.. When Mehbooba Mufti called Zaira a role model, the counter narrative portrayed Insha Mushtaq as an inspiration and symbol of resilience in Kashmir.

In the year 2013 when famous Zubin Mehta came for a concert in the Shalimar gardens human- rights activist Khurram Parvez organized a parallel musical concert under the banner Haqeeqat- e - Kashmir to counter the show. He along with a majority of Kashmiris felt that Mehta had come with a script from New Delhi to deflect the global attention from the realities of Kashmir.

Whenever there is such a controversy involving art and artists of Kashmir, not only the government machinery but a major section of Indian media use such opportunities to demonize Kashmiris and show them in a bad light.

The problem in our society is not that it is still conservative but that the undercurrents of politics take over. Zaira Wasim is not the story of gender bias but a reflection of how society is dominated by political undercurrents, and how deeprooted is the anger in the youngsters in particular, against the Mehbooba Mufti dispensation in the light of 2016 unrest.

(The writers are from the Media Centre Kashmir University)

(Editors Note: The article has been published with minimal editing so that the nuances inherent in the writing style of the authors are not lost. In fact in our view this article is as important for what it begins to say at times, and does not complete as for the broader argument within)