In the introduction to her book, The Land I Dream Of: The Story of Kashmir’s Women, Manisha Sobhrajani talks of Kashmiriyat: “... The melting pot of Kashmiri art, culture, tradition, heritage, food, clothing, etc, is barely influenced by the outside world. It is its own, personalised amalgam, a way of life, lovingly and spiritually referred to as Kashmiriyat”.
Understanding Kashmiriyat can be difficult for anyone who has never been to Kashmir. It can be even more daunting, given that the turmoil in Kashmir over the past few decades has wreaked havoc with not just the state, but with its perception among outsiders. As Sobhrajani herself says, Kashmir is associated, in the minds of most non-Kashmiris, with either of two extremes: a flower-filled idyll of apple-cheeked women, or a land of blood and gore. There is no midway.
But it is this midway that Sobhrajani manages to find in the course of this book. It is, as its subtitle suggests, about the so-far ignored voices of the women of Kashmir. The media has highlighted (and distorted), time and again, what the people of Kashmir have to say: their anger, their sense of isolation and victimisation, their feeling of being inhabitants of a territory coveted by two countries for their own selfish reasons—but these voices have always been of men. Whether religious leaders, politicians, militants or the man on the street—it has always been the man who speaks up.
Sobhrajani, after spending years in Kashmir, therefore decided to speak to women and document what they had to say. This book attempts to “look at the Kashmir ‘conflict’ from the point of view of those who have been neglected—the women.” The introduction, which comprises nearly a third of the book, explains the background: the history of Kashmir; the many issues surrounding the tussle between India and Pakistan over Kashmir; and prominent Kashmiri women, including the much-loved poetess and mystic Lalla Ded and the poetess queen Habba Khatun.
The essence of the book lies, however, in the five chapters which follow. In these, Sobhrajani chronicles the experiences, feelings, and aspirations of the women she interviewed in Kashmir. These range from illiterate village women to highly educated urban women; professionals, housewives, women who’ve sided with militants and women who’ve fought them. Sukanya Parashar, part of a 1947 militia established by the Indian government. Her maid, who fell in love with a militant. A bitter young Kashmiri Pandit woman who fled the Valley with her family as a child and grew up in a refugee camp. A survivor of the incident at Kunan Poshpora, ‘the village of raped women’, scene of one of the most horrific violations of human rights in Kashmir’s history. A half-widow, whose husband is missing and almost certainly dead, but whom the government will not acknowledge as such… And many more.
The voices are many, and they do not always tell the same story—because there are, after all, two sides (or more) to everything. But there is plenty here to present a touching, horrifying, even at times inspirational picture of the women of Kashmir. There is, for instance, the story of the women of Kulali-Marra, home to J&K’s first all-women Village Defence Committee (VDC), where the women carry weapons and are trained in their use. There are women like the elderly Sonam Lobzang, much-respected matriarch of a village family in Ladakh, reeling under the assault of floods but not allowing the disaster to overwhelm her. Or Sheeba Umar Farooq, wife of the current Mirwaiz and one of the women who started a short-lived but bold and very feminist magazine called She.
The strength of this book lies in the varied and insightful stories it tells, and in the way it tells them. More facets of the Kashmir story could have been revealed—for example, stories of those very few Kashmiri Pandits who stayed on in the Valley through the days of terrorism, or the minorities, such as the Sikhs or the local Christians—but even without those, this is a compelling read.