Farhana Qazi is a scholar and speaker on conflicts in the Islamic world. For her service to the U.S. Government, she received the 21st Century Leader Award by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy (NCAFP) and the Humanitarian Award by her alma mater in Texas. She is the author of the forthcoming book, Secrets of War, written about the women of war in the disputed valley of Kashmir between India and Pakistan.
Visit her blog, www.farhanaqazi.com to read a free excerpt and more foreign policy analysis.
Excerpt from Book
The road into Srinagar was dusty. Local women cloaked in crayon colors walked gracefully alongside the deep green forest. A poster of Lebanon’s famed political party leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrullah, was plastered on the side of a building. Indian Army trucks trudged by with soldiers casually seated in back. Rifles tugged at their shoulders and black boots on their feet. Not a trace of bravura in the whites of their eyes.The driver pointed to the river.
“There, the Jhelum,” he said, wiping his tired eyes and switched on the radio to the blaring sound of Bollywood music. The Jhelum connected Pakistan to India. The river was like the desert, expansive and enticing.
Kashmir. A tiny valley with nearly 86,000 square miles. A microscopic fraction of the world’s population lives in Kashmir. Over ten million in Jammu and Kashmir reside in the state of India, which is two million more than the people in Virginia, where I live. Nearly six million Kashmiris live in the autonomous territory of Pakistan. By contrast, my childhood home in the state of Texas is twice the size of all of Kashmir. The Chinese regions of Aksai Chin and trans-Karakoram area account for 19 percent of Kashmir, or the size of Maryland,[i] disputed by India. At its highest peak is the Siachen Glacier, where Indian and Pakistani troops engage in tit-for-tat border clashes like schoolyard bullies. It is the world’s highest battlefield, fought at an altitude of 20,000 feet. Only India and Pakistan have waged war over Kashmir.
In summer, the valley was a green candy bowl bursting with color. The smell of the place had been an aroma described only as a combination of rain, wood, and a light perfume. When I first arrived in 2008, Srinagar had felt like an amusement park. Tourists glided along Dal Lake in shikaras, small canoes, weaving their way through a floating vegetable garden and a patch of pale-pink water lilies. Children ran up and down the majestic stairs to the entrance of the Mughal garden lined with peonies and roses. Local boys swam in the lake with the sun on their backs. In winter, royal blue snowflakes fell like ice jewels. A slow wind and frost sent tourists home. Few reporters lagged behind to tell one version of a complicated story. Different histories recorded on a single sheet of paper.
The driver, Shah, is clean-shaven, quiet, and wears glasses over his brown eyes large like leaves. He looked like someone with so much to say, but practiced restraint. He sped the car through the dirt road through the forest of local cedar trees and besides fields of saffron. We were heading towards Dal Lake lined by hotels open for tourists and foreign correspondents.
Shahenshah Palace Hotel was situated on Boulevard Road opposite the lake with its own swimming pool, a restaurant set in a garden of sunflowers and cottages for rent. Leaders of the Jammu Liberation Kashmir Front-R, a powerful political party of ex-militants, reserved a suite for me with a view of the lake. All I had to do was listen to party members retell resistance stories in epic detail.
Staying at the hotel was lonely. It was winter. Rooms were vacant. Even at night, I suspected the hotelmanager was keeping a close watch on me. We greeted each other every morning and had tea on most evenings together. Never before had an American woman stay at his hotel. Alone.
Earlier that evening, Shah agreed to take me to meet the wives of ex-militants outside of Srinagar. We passed the shrine of Hazratbal, Kashmir University, and the tomb of Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah or the “Lion of Kashmir,” a legendary national hero and a former Chief Minister. For a brief moment, I stopped at his tomb, guarded by Indian soldiers, to pay my respect. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one. In 2012, the spiritual Buddhist leader Dalai Lama visited Abdullah’s gravesite in a gesture of peace.
We passed winding roads and bunkers with men in nutmeg colored uniforms. Shah drove in silence, until he found the house the size of a cathedral at the corner of a tree-lined road.
Inside, the women welcomed me with open arms. They are sisters who faintly resembled one another in size and height. Short, plump, and circles under their eyes. The older woman who I will call Fatimah had a cherry-red face, a wide smile, and spoke with an accented English. She had come to Kashmir to visit her relatives in the town of Sopore. Her husband, an exile and the former head of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), stayed behind in their home in a Western country.
“I want to do something for Kashmir,” she told me. “I have lived away from my birthplace for too long.”
You’d have to live here, I thought. I understood her desire to help local women. As I listened, she seemed like a woman who wasn’t convinced that women (or men) should protest to free Kashmir from India and Pakistan. She believed in something else. Empowerment. She spoke like a Muslim feminist who demanded change, not by Western standards, but by respecting local customs and traditions.
“Many promises were made to women,” remembered Fatimah. “Men told us we would be equal partners in the freedom movement. Women would be given more rights and opportunities. We would be able to choose how to live.” Fatimah described her role as a protestor, parent (she is the mother of two grown children living in the West), and peaceful activist. She wanted to improve women’s opportunities. To be fair, many women in Kashmir are educated and eager to work. The average literacy rate is over sixty percent, which explained why girls grew up to be doctors, journalists, lawyers, teachers, politicians, and more. Having lived abroad for half of her adult life, Fatimah seemed out of touch with Kashmir.
“We have to be careful,” she continued. “Many women here are too conservative and push Islam on women. That’s not what we need. Women in Islam have always been honored and that should never change.”
Fatimah was right. Islam’s Prophet loved women, a point made by Geraldine Brooks in her book, Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Muslim Women: “He [Prophet Muhammad] married his first wife when he was twenty-five years old. Illiterate, orphaned and poor, he hardly expected to receive a proposal from his boss, Khadija, a rich Meccan businesswoman at least ten years his senior who hired him as a manager for her international trading company.”[ii] Khadija was exceptional for 7th century A.D. when women in what became present-day Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries had limited rights. “She gave him [Muhammad] money, status and four daughters,” Brooks wrote. Muhammad had improved women’s lives by granting them the right to marriage, own property, and work. “They enjoyed most of the privileges and some of the honor bestowed on them by the Quran and the Prophet’s own example,” wrote Jennifer Heath in her popular history of Muslim women in The Scimitar and the Veil.[iii]
Fatimah continued. “The outside world doesn’t know who we are.”
Women have been misjudged in the West. I thought. I remembered a passage from Heath’s work on Muslim women: “It was primarily through the stories in The Thousand and One Nights, or Arabian Nights, that Westerners became acquainted with the women of Islam.”[iv]
I noticed that Fatimah didn’t wear a headscarf. She pulled a light colored scarf over her shoulders and looked radiant in a plum colored outfit that covered her legs and arms.
“Women have a lot to offer. I know I can do something great if I have support from other women and especially our men.”
Maybe Fatimah was right. In a patriarchal place, a woman needed the backing of men to help her succeed. Though Indian history filled with women like Annie Besant, who in 1971 became the first woman to be elected as President of Congress, a national party. If Fatimah stayed in Kashmir, she had a chance of creating new openings for women. First, she had to move back to the valley to lead women. I kept my thoughts to myself. Sitting on large handmade silk-knotted carpets, we continued to discuss women’s rights. Fatimah delved into the history of women in Kashmir. She noted that women had protested alongside men for centuries.
“This isn’t a new phenomenon,” she insisted. “I was part of the movement at one time, when I was much younger and when I lived here. I left Kashmir because I had to.” Fatimah explained her husband’s illicit activities and secret life as a militant. “Can you believe I didn’t know? Anyway,” she said, as a servant girl entered the room with platters of food. “An armed struggle almost never works.”
Fatimah helped the girl draw a sheet over the Persian looking rugs, dyed in hues of red, blue and yellow, to protect them from stains. The woman of the house charmed me with local cuisine: Kashmiri spinach, lamb with a yogurt-based gravy and chili powder, rice, and chutney. Dinner was followed by Kashmiri kava, a tea with beads of saffron, pine nuts and sugar. The decaffeinated drink was the color of lemon zest and soothing as chamomile. We had more than three cups.
A soft knock at the door brought everything to an end. “We have to go now,” the driver said to the women of the house. “I can’t drive her back to the hotel at night. The Army will stop me.”
The women insisted I stay the night. We said our good-byes and I left a cup of warm tea on the rug.
I had a habit of sitting in the front seat next to the driver. I wasn’t afraid of the local men. They called me ‘sister’ as it was their custom to consider all women outside a family a distant sister, or attached ji to my name, hence, ‘Farhana-ji’ to show respect.
“Do you realize where you are? My life could be in danger for driving a foreign girl this late at night.” Shah was upset. Worried.
It was 11:00 pm.
“Don’t say a word.” The driver pointed to Indian guards, their jet-black hair silver under the moonlight. A Sikh officer sported a bright tangerine colored turban to cover his long hair. The other men were clean-shaven and well-trimmed hair.
“Your accent will give it away.” Shah knew I couldn’t speak Kashmiri and he said my English was more American than it was British.
The guards spoke a mix of Hindi and English. What’s your name? Where are you going? Who is this girl? Don’t you know what time it is?
The driver showed his identity card. I held onto my American passport and prayed I didn’t have to reveal myself. Would the Indian Army believe I was a local girl out at night? “You will get us into trouble,” the driver warned me earlier. I ignored him, failing to realize that Kashmir is a stranger place at night. At sunset, the city lights dimmed along the main road along Dal Lake. Elsewhere, robes of darkness concealed the city from view. In the distance, on top of stony hills, a large fort built by the third Mughal Emperor Akbar, known for uniting Hindus and Muslims during his rule, looked like an abandoned outhouse. By midnight, the darkness grayed. Locals knew to stay inside. Kashmiris were forbidden to walk the streets without purpose, and in case of an emergency, they needed to show their papers to bypass security checkpoints. No one was free.
The driver and I waited in silence for the guards to clear the way. An Army officer studied the identity card, read the driver’s name aloud, and looked at me with sharp eyes.
The driver bobbed his head like a woodpecker. Yes Sir. It’s late. Yes it’s dark. The road is dangerous. Yes we are going home. Right now.
This book NEEDS to be on everyones TBR list: