There is a new story of intolerance everyday in my country. I no longer know whether these stories shock or upset me anymore. Or if they have become part of the background – things I have learnt to live with. Like children begging on the streets. It is a disturbing truth but I have normalised this tragedy and I live my life.
However, in the present scenario of Kamalhaasan’s film being banned, Salman Rushdie being kept away from Calcutta and Durga Vahini women wanting to ban an exhibition of nudes, comes the news of three young girls from Kashmir, whose voices are being stilled. Teenagers, three of them, formed a band and participated in a concert. Yes, they showed initiative and drive but did what many young girls like to do – had a good time. We don’t know whether they were immensely talented, we’re not sure if these girls would have persisted with their band, which they call Praagaash – from Darkness to Light. Some reports suggest that Praagaash means morning light. It is highly likely that schoolwork would have left them very little time to hone their musical talents, or like many other kids they would lose interest and move on to other things. Or maybe, Praagaash would have been a sustaining force in their lives, allowing them to dream big and pursue their artistic ambitions. But it seems that many people do not think that three young girls making music and having a good time is something to be encouraged and supported.
We know that Kashmir is a disputed place. Many of us empathise with and support the struggles that the Kashmiri people have been having with the Indian state. We believe that there has to be an end to state violence and muscle flexing in Kashmir. The Kashmiri people want autonomy and dignity and many of us believe that they must have it. The Governments of India and Pakistan, as well as many other political groups need to stop trying to control different sections of Kashmiris. In a climate where people are struggling to be heard, one would expect that three young girls doing something new would be a cause for celebration. Rock music is male dominated and Praagaash was the only girls’ band in the contest that took place in Kashmir in December 2012. After coming into the limelight, the girls’ band came in for much online abuse. They were accused of being immodest and betraying both Islam and Kashmiriyat. Media reports tell us that venerable elders like the Grand Mufti of Kashmir have asked the three girls to stop playing music. The three band members were frightened, two of them have reportedly said that they will not make music and all three are apparently in Delhi. The Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir has spoken in favour of the girls. Of course, we need to ask why things have come to such a pass under Omar Abdullah’s Chief Ministership that girls cannot form a rock band.
I am disturbed because here we have another instance of girls being stopped from making decisions and discovering the world, in the name of culture and tradition. I cannot understand why the Grand Mufti felt compelled to control three young girls. Does he have a vision of Kashmir where girls cannot be free? Is his Kashmir about schooling girls into a compliant submissiveness? The Grand Mufti is perceived by many Kashmiris to be too aligned to Indian interests and consequently, not a ‘legitimate’ Kashmiri voice. However, newspaper reports suggest that when it comes to controlling girls there is does not seem to be a difference between how the issue is viewed by many Kashmiris – those who believe in azaadi – and the Grand Mufti. I could not help but recall the efforts of Asiya Andrabi and the Dukhtaran e Milat making various attempts to impose an ‘Islamic’ dress code on Kashmiri women and trying to browbeat them into acquiescence. Their efforts have certainly met with some success though perhaps they have not gathered as many people into their fold as they would have liked.
Sexism and misogyny are ingrained in India. Does it have to be the same in Kashmir? A vision for azaadi must encompass freedom and equality for all its people. This equality has to take into account various axes like class, caste, community, religion, gender, ability and so on. The idea of Kashmiriyat has to be redefined to make it equal and inclusive. Women and girls are forever controlled by a bogey of ‘culture and tradition’. The impression created is that culture and tradition are unchanging and immutable. Culture is fashioned by people – it is born out of their lives and is, by its very nature flexible, accommodating and changing. Tradition too adapts to changing mores and times. The challenge for Kashmiriyat is to bring in all the elements that will make Kashmir free, equal and inclusive.
Despite the climate of fear that the name calling on social networking sites and the Grand Mufti’s so-called ‘fatwa’ have created, many artists and politicians have spoken out for the girls. At present, the girls seem frightened and silenced but it is important that the state administration, as well as the parents, teachers and friends of the girls and also the mass of Kashmiris are able to give them the support they need and the girls are able to resume a life that allows them to learn, explore opportunities, take risks and challenge stereotypes. Those of us who dream of freedom and equality are waiting for Kashmir and its girls to blaze new paths with determination, courage and confidence and rid us of our fears and suspicion of the uncharted and unknown.