Prajnya Gender Talks, February 2021 || Muslim Women, Agency and Resistance in Kashmir by Inshah Malik


February 2021

Rapporteur: Suhasini Udayakumar

Inshah Malik

Inshah Malik is an Assistant Professor of political theory and international relations at Kardan University, Kabul; a visiting Professor at the University of Washington; and previously a Fox Fellow at Yale. Her 2019 monograph, “Muslim Women, Agency and Resistance in Kashmir,” shed some much-needed spotlight on Kashmiri feminism. 


Having been raised in Srinagar, Kashmir, questions about her and her fellow Muslim women’s mobility and rights followed her through adulthood. She noticed a glaring political disconnect between India and Kashmir, which motivated her to investigate what Muslim women want and to study their lived experiences. 

She launched her study with an interventionist feminism approach i.e. when groups of people from mainland India would visit Kashmir to research the struggles of Muslim women. However, this would often lead to tropes of these women being voiceless victims of double patriarchy. She knew there were several challenges in her way: How would she talk about them without taking away their sense of agency? How would she communicate that Kashmiri women who complied with Islamic rules and wore a hijab were not necessarily without agency?

Prevailing Narratives

She began by defining the concept of agency. Mainstream western feminism is well aware of cultural patriarchy but not that patriarchy can manifest in various forms (political, social, militarist, authoritarian regimes-based patriarchy etc). Agency must be defined keeping all these patriarchies in mind. Inshah dove into the work of middle-eastern feminist scholars, which was nevertheless complicated by West-vs.-Islam narratives and countered by right-wing Islamist movements, inevitably dislocating the findings of Muslim women’s research. American imperialist interventions operate through a white saviour complex that means to “protect and save Muslim women” (the despicable counter of which is the Indian man’s complex as displayed in the aftermath of Article 370 when Indian men rushed to marry Kashmiri women); Inshah spurs us to reflect: considering that feminism is a movement against the oppression of women, how can it align itself with imperialism?

Over the past decades, researchers have studied the struggle in the Kashmiri political context and the school of self-determination that emerged. But Inshah asks, how did women articulate themselves within the (sometimes) restrictive and conservative Islamic laws, while at the same time questioning and critiquing the state’s patriarchy?

Kashmiri Women and Self-Determination

Inshah interviewed 50 women who were active in various movements since 1947 to answer these questions. A few respondents – now in their 80s and 90s – had participated in the Riverside Front Movement, fighting for the right to vote. The movement had galvanised scores of women who supported Farooq Abdullah’s campaigns for women’s rights. 

The new Kashmiri manifesto led to liberationist ideas and the Kashmiri socialist self-determination movement which fought against feudal land acquisition. The movement aimed to reshape and emancipate Kashmiris’ social public life. Mass mobilisation and education drives happened through word of mouth and community-based political discussions. Women, who were active members, had no formal education but were well aware of the nuances of self-determination. One respondent described how she was inspired by the struggle because of the sense of community and common faith that it instilled amongst women, and the sense of purpose and agency it gave them. 

Meanwhile, a class divide emerged: elitist women were creating a narrative of modernisation – one that was defined as being linguistically, culturally, and politically closer to North India. Many  Kashmiri women shed traditional headgear and reformation was influenced by elitist Indian modernity. However, women continued to discuss their individual, personal, collective and Kashmir’s political future.

Dismantling Misconceptions

Inshah highlights that Muslim societies are viewed as products of religion and not of modern transformation and industrialisation. Narratives commonly depict Muslim women as wholly oppressed and ignore the political actions that actually led to women’s behaviour. She states that Kashmir was indeed India’s first Hindutva state, where the Dogra Rule was imposed and beef banned; so Kashmiri Muslims are not as governed by Islam as people think. Such a monolithic, linear view of Muslim societies is problematic because it becomes impossible to discuss Muslim women without mentioning their religion. Such a view is also exclusionist because Islam is labelled as especially or exclusively patriarchal whereas all major religions in the world are unequivocably patriarchal. 

Even the idea of agency that we have stems from Indian feminism, where it is seen as individual autonomy. This conception of autonomy is masculinist since the concept of agency can never really be individualistic even in modern societies where gender relations have changed; it can only be exercised in relation to other people. Our feminism fails to acknowledge this idea.

Inshah next delves into the post-1980s trend that viewed Kashmiri women as “mad women, a simplistic narrative that politicised madness. This narrative traps women’s work in the web of patriarchal language, and questions how these women who fought for the rights of other women also furthered the cause of men who oppressed women. But this narrative is overly simplistic and fails to understand the depth of the situation. She cites a few examples to describe this phenomenon. 

Aasiyah Andrabi was the leader of the Dakhtaran e Millat (Daughters of the Nation) outfit, which propagated an Islamist right-wing vision. Aasiyah used feminist interpretations of Sharia law to fight for women’s rights. She broke open the locks of mosques where women were prohibited, fought social evils like dowry and divorce, and helped women regain economic independence. But even until 2000, Yousaf Raza Gillani disregarded her completely, labelling her as “crazy.” 

Kashmiri women struggle to express themselves and be heard as political leaders. In other states, the law determines life; but in Kashmir, institutions have broken down and laws work against people, delivering impunity to criminals. Asking women to take political actions that are also feminist means a dismissal of the unique and challenging socio-political and cultural realities of Kashmiri life. We must rethink women’s relationship to religion – but not without considering the context within which these women are embedded and examining why they choose to work within those tropes. 

From another perspective, the “mad” Kashmiri woman is recognised as part of a political movement but is a target of redemption. Footballer Afshan Ashiq who was active politically found herself in the midst of disparate narratives due to her “stone-pelting.” Some insulted her for doing what must be left to men, or what was a traditionally masculine and reprehensible behaviour; some Kashmiri journals painted a narrative of her journey from footballer to stone-pelter while Indian media spun it as a transformation from stone-pelter to footballer. Thus, the mad vs. sane narrative becomes a pro-Kashmir vs pro-India narrative. 

Masrat Zahra, a Kashmiri photojournalist, defied her family and community by studying and pursuing journalism. She is famously known for her photograph of Arifa Jan, a woman whose husband was shot 18 times by the Indian army, and who routinely suffers from panic attacks. Masrat was booked under the UAPA for “inciting unrest” through this photograph. However, media narratives disregard her political feminist work and instead focus on her conservative dressing.

In yet another story, top militant groups had announced that women did not need to participate in political resistance such as stone-pelting and reassured them that they would be protected by themselves – their “brothers.” In response to this announcement, thousands of women came out to pelt stones. Such stories of daily resistance by common women are lost in the feminist discourse on Kashmir. 

Inshah concludes by pointing out that Kashmiri women are wedged between two oppressive influences, one where they are disregarded and another where they are regarded as crazy. But they are smart enough to know they have to fight both these influences with their own distinct brand of political feminism.