The “Brave Face” of Kashmiri Women: A Conversation with Farah Bashir
By Nafeesa SyeedNovember 30, 2021
Bashir spent several years as a photojournalist at Reuters. She turns her keen eye on intimate details in deceptively sparse prose with a beautiful flow. From love letters and acid attacks to assassinations, her book bears witness to an oft-forgotten conflict. On August 5, 2019, the Indian government scrapped Article 370 of the country’s constitution, which had provided some level of autonomy to Kashmir. The picturesque valley went into lockdown for months and then COVID-19 hit. Kashmir remains one of the most militarized zones in the world. A local saying goes that for every seven Kashmiris there is one soldier. With an uncertain future, Bashir says Kashmiris must be the ones to tell their own stories.
Holding a mug of chai, Bashir spoke to me via Zoom from her home in the old city of Srinagar, Kashmir’s capital, during the Eid holiday in late July. The morning light and chirping birds filtered from her window. Here is our edited and condensed conversation.
NAFEESA SYEED: Your book is from the point of view of your adolescent self. We see incredibly complex and horrific things happening through that innocent lens. How did you come up with the distinct voice that’s carried throughout?
FARAH BASHIR: I wanted to write what I knew before I knew things. Like for example, I studied psychology in my undergrad here. There is a vocabulary you learn, there are words you learn, but I also vividly remember that young girl, who didn’t know all of that, but was experiencing things when things were changing on an hourly basis. So, I wanted to retain that kind of knowing and unknowing. It was exploring that in the book — what I knew and what I didn’t know. It took me a decade to process it and another decade to write.
When you live in a conflict zone, or a war zone, especially women, before you know anything you get to know war. You get to know that militaristic gaze. You get to know the fear. So I didn’t want to lose anything of what that girl experienced at that point. That posed my only challenge when I was revising the drafts. I remember I had to explain this to my editor, and she was very sweet, and she understood the whole thing. If I would by mistake add a big word, she’d be like, “Do you think she would say something like this?” She acted like a really empathetic and very sensitive editor. And we would delete it. It was a deliberate effort to keep it like that.
When you read the book, there are only nine chapters about me or my life. But there are 14 others about other women. It was like how women in war, everyone processes things in their own way. They just process it differently. Their coping mechanisms are very different. I say this because I became quiet but I also indulged in self-harm quite a bit. That was my way of retaining control. And my other cousin became very vocal for a few years and she would get together with girls from the neighborhood and they would draft a memorandum that they would want to take to the UN office. After ’95, she completely changed. She became more quiet, and I started observing more.
I started observing that almost like it was an out-of-body experience, to be honest, those few years. And then slowly, you start making sense of what’s going on. I think some things I started making sense of when I was writing. I was also in therapy, so I would talk about that event and suddenly, it would dawn upon me what exactly had happened.
Your grandmother Bobeh is the heart of the narrative. I recently read Meander, Spiral, Explode by Jane Alison, and she talks about structures beyond the linear climax. She describes one pattern as a “cellular” narrative with disparate but linked parts; it made me think of your book. Each chapter has a different memory, but Bobeh’s funeral unfolds bit by bit in each chapter as a thread linking them all.
When I started writing, the structure of my grandmother’s funeral came to me. Kashmiri grandmothers are really loved and respected and adored, and she was very authoritative and she was very progressive. Suddenly, she was exposed to a foreign world where she didn’t know many things were happening. And the windows that our home had were shut and they became like walls and we were in a prison literally. And because in downtown, you have wooden [homes], you hardly have windowpanes, you have very small windowpanes, we were living in these dark structures. Her health deteriorated much more also because of the tear gas outside and the stress inside and people are getting killed, and youngsters are getting killed, so she couldn’t make sense of what was going on. It was also to honor her memory and talk about her funeral and keep it going throughout the book, as if I didn’t know at that point how she was being diminished and decimated by war.
Her funeral became like a creative device. That held it together. I went through three structural changes, when I was looking at it. I even arranged it thematically, I was thinking, “Okay, maybe this is what happens.” Then I looked at it from years, like maybe I’ll just do, ’90, ’91, ’92, whatever, ’94. But it just seemed like you’re just stating something. Bobeh’s funeral also juxtaposes two deaths — different kinds of death. Bobeh’s death was a natural death and then also deaths within deaths, and how other deaths also happen, which were not natural. Like my cousin was killed, so there’s the chapter “A Wedding, a Funeral.” So I can talk about Bobeh’s death, but I can’t explain a killing, a death by killing. It was also that struggle.
You also have this scene where you start reading obituaries in the newspaper and signing them.
The book starts with a death and ends with the attested dead. I had this strange habit, I think it was also because I was growing up in those years, when you go for your board exams. I don’t know if it happens in the US, but we were supposed to get our documents attested or signed by a “gazetted officer” — we used to call them, like these professors or engineers, or whoever who were in a certain cadre. So, I would see my documents get signed like that and I would open newspapers and I would also sign these photographs, because my photographs would be signed by these [officers]. And then later when I processed that, that particular behavior, it was so strange. I would only sign the ones with photographs, and they were mostly youngsters at that point who had been killed, who had been martyred, so it was a very strange way of trying to legitimize their being.
It was very strange when I analyzed or at least spoke to my therapist about all of this. And then I realized what was going on, and the ease with which I talk about Bobeh, even though I was so close to her and her funeral, I can continue it throughout the book. But about that cousin of mine, I couldn’t edit it properly till the last draft. And even then, I was just looking at obvious grammatical errors or something that I might have missed, or probably keep the consistency as the other chapters. But it was a struggle to write that. It’s a reaction to two deaths.
Do you still read obituaries?
Not anymore, I think. Because now the papers, especially after 2019 and with COVID, the papers hardly come in. But I do enjoy obituaries, I must say, it’s very weird. Not the obituaries that are in Kashmir, but generally, how people are remembered. I find it strange when people pass on, who’s remembering them: I look at sons and sons-in-law, and daughters and daughters-in-law. It’s a strange fascination with obituaries, generally with death, I think [with] most Kashmiris, the poetry, the music that comes out, it’s stained with death and funerals.
I’m just trying to see poetry in it — how people remember the ones who leave.
There’s such an awareness of your body in this book; it’s very sensory. All five senses are present: the touch of your hair, odors from food and losing your appetite, the sound of the army boots, the military lights flashing into homes.
When I was writing this, it was not that I would remember the entire memory. Or I had made sense of that entire habit. But these habits were with me. Like, for example, this difficult relationship with food, I still have it with tons of food. Yesterday, someone asked me, like a joke from a friend, “Did you eat palak-kokur [spinach and chicken]?” Because that was the dish which was cooked at that particular Eid in ’89 when my cousin was killed, and I just cannot touch it on Eid. There’s something, the smell reminds me. I can have it on a regular day but [not] if it’s cooked that day in the house. As a result, I think my mum just knows it now and she doesn’t cook it.
The relationship with food or pulling out my hair or being scared of light — this is how I started writing this memoir. I had sometimes just a 50-word memory, I just had the memory. And then I would go back or even talk to other people who were associated with that particular incident or event. I would talk to them randomly and just trying to corroborate my own memory. And also trying to see if that was actually a memory. So any event where I was pulling out my hair, it stayed with me.
I remember very vividly, walking through that crackdown, and being very aware of how I was and how I was walking and how I was being watched. And there’s nobody else. It’s like Kashmir has emptied out. And there are no men because they’re assembled somewhere [by the military], and you see only the men in uniform, the troops. So those were memories. And then I would just go back and remember that detail, like what happened, and why did I start feeling like that. Or it was also certain behaviors that I had adopted, which I didn’t know why I had adopted and then the links to those particular habits became quite evident.
That’s from the visceral scene where you wrap yourself in front of the troops. At different points you describe things as “out-of-body,” which you used again now. But we also get the sense that you’re fully inside your body because of how you’re internalizing the conflict. Help me reconcile that.
I still don’t feel very comfortable without a big dupatta [long scarf] around me in Kashmir. I’ve grown up in downtown and downtown was probably a place where segregation of gender was not a thing at all. It’s a congested area and people are literally peeping into each other’s bedrooms, they’re so accessible. And women are talking all the time and men. It’s very mixed in the right healthy way. I was never aware of how I looked with men in the community, or boys in the community, or probably I was too young. But the militaristic gaze, it just makes you aware how vulnerable you are … that you really don’t have any agency, they can do anything, they have the gun. So, it’s like both of them, the uniform, the gun, the weapon, and the man who is foreign and is here to achieve a certain purpose. I think all of it comes together and then does something to you, that you suddenly as a woman are aware of that.
I’ve also tried to look at other writings, for example, on Kashmir from other women, from outside. But I’ve never been able to see this kind of fear being spoken about because it’s a very personal thing, which happens to Kashmiri girls, and nobody talks about it, really. You can’t come home and say, “The army guy was looking at me.” You can come home and say the neighbor’s son passed a remark or you can speak about that. But how do you talk about a military gaze, for example? Or when acid was thrown at my friend? I haven’t seen anyone talk about it. I still remember her face, perpetually, she used to look extremely scared, but also very alert.
I was reading this book the other day by Svetlana Alexievich, the Belarusian writer, The Unwomanly Face of War, and she also talks about the same thing. Wars are seldom spoken from a woman’s point of view. Because there’s no heroism there. And whatever happens on the street or on the frontlines is spoken of because there’s physical bravery and there’s killings. But then I thought of the moral courage that women demonstrate in wars, in conflict zones, ordinary women. They are no less than heroic, things that they go through, and they absorb all this and then they don’t talk about it. And they still put up a brave face and then they walk through the same checkpoint again, and showing that they’re not scared, but they’re literally dying inside. It’s almost like you’re performing, you’re showing that you’re not scared but you’re showing that you can walk through. But inside you know that anything could happen to you, at any point, at any moment. It really depends on the whim of the other person.
How has conflict shaped personal and collective views on gender?
I think collectively what I did realize what happened soon after the ’90s and that dense militarization, a lot of girls started covering their heads and their bodies. It’s like you are visible, but you’re also invisible in a way … I’m talking about regular, ordinary girls who were growing up and who were really young to even take a stand, or even process what was going on. They’re visible, but they’re also invisible in a way.
I haven’t seen any cousin of mine or any friend of mine really confront a trooper’s gaze.
Men can’t even protect in such a situation. They are typically the protectors, let’s say in a socially constructed structure or societies. But they really can’t do much and you almost see men sort of feel emasculated in a way. And that gives rise to a host of other problems.
Problems, such as?
Such as sometimes domestic violence and women being the dual recipients, for example, when men can’t control [things]. It’s like when I couldn’t control circumstances around me, I started turning against my own body. And I have spoken to a few journalists after that and they all spoke about … doing some harm to their bodies when they can’t control things. There’s this journalist who said she actually scratches herself till she bleeds. There’s also this book by British Chinese journalist-author Xinran called The Good Women of China, and she speaks about this young, probably pre-puberty [girl] abused by her father or a male relative at home. And she gets hurt and she gets taken to the hospital and she’s about to be discharged, but she starts poking the wound again, so that she doesn’t get better and that she doesn’t go home to abuse. When I read that I was like, women do turn against themselves, or their bodies and start mutilating in some way or the other to gain that control. It’s a weird thing.
When you’re walking with the daughter of a slain religious leader, you say: “I didn’t have the courage or the words to rake up the past.” Now you’ve written a memoir. What made you ready to go there?
You’re essentially going back to the event that gave rise to that trauma. Whether it’s indignation, humiliation, whether that’s injustice. You’re trying to look at that event but the way is through trauma. At that point, we didn’t have the vocabulary to even form, it had happened within an hour, things changed. One didn’t have that sophistry really of words to ask or to articulate.
When there used to be crackdowns, the troops would always get someone from the neighborhood, in downtown especially, and they still do — which is the human shield thing — and they basically push the neighbor inside the house first. And if there is an ambush that’s going to happen, the first casualty will be of your neighbor or of an ordinary civilian. I remember using that in the memoir and the memoir, by the way, went through three legal readings.
Yeah. From the publisher.
What were they looking for?
That there isn’t anything that can basically get you into trouble in terms of sedition, etc. The first feedback that came back had 14 instances where I could have been tried for sedition.
That’s why if you see, for some events, in the back, in the notes, there are multiple sources cited. The Hawal massacre, for example, even on the last reading, legal was like, “If it didn’t happen, drop it.” And I got so upset with that, that is the chapter that has the longest number of citations. I think I’ve given [sources] from various years, it runs through one-and-a-half pages.
So, I was telling you about this “neighbor policy.” Journalists were reporting it at that point, and they didn’t know what it was called. And now it’s a known thing, Israel does it, it happens all the time in Kashmir, this whole thing about human shields. I used the “neighbor policy” at that point, and it was a colloquial term, you would hear it in conversations. But this could have been challenged in the court of law — that “she is really instigating people and trying to wage war against the state.” One didn’t even have the vocabulary. It’s not only me who was like 13 or 14, but even grown-up men and women and journalists.
I was reading this essay the other day by Nadine Gordimer, where she talks about witness literature, and she says in witness literature, three things are important: the place, the task, and the meaning. Place and task involve the immediacy of the day, journalists capture it, videographers capture it, and it’s right then and there. But for witness literature what is also important is the “inward testimony” where you impart meaning to those happenings, where you basically start examining what happened, where you really scratch the surface and then see either the impact it has or what happened. I think documenting trauma also becomes a part of that. You’re not only looking at trauma, what the outcome is, but you’re also looking at where did it come from and where does it emanate, and what was a part of it, was it really the injustice, was it really the humiliation?
Like me covering myself, I think earlier I wouldn’t bother to explain it to people. But once I located how it started, and then I saw it in other women how they started covering up. When we were growing up, hardly anyone covered their head, like even now, I will not cover my head or hair, but I’ll cover my body. I don’t care about the hair, but it’s really the body. That inward testimony from witness literature sort of also helps you decode that trauma. And then trauma is really an outcome of something.
Why was it important to capture the early 1990s, especially, when one might say so many other things have happened since then and the conflict is ongoing?
There were three things. First in the contemporary history of Kashmir, in the last 150 years, was the Treaty of Amritsar when we were sold, all of us, land and people by the British to the Dogra [princely dynasty]. A lot has been written from the historical perspective, but there’s no social history. We don’t know what people felt, how they lived, what their time was like, we hardly have access to material like that.
Second, was the 1931 uprising. We commemorate the killings of those 22 people who stood up against the Dogra regime. But again, what did people go through at that point? How did it shape what happened before, what happened after, how were they living? Again, hardly any material to access. Op-eds and historical material, you’ll find ample written on that period. In the ’90s, the armed insurgency broke out, it was the third event in the last 150 years of that magnitude. And I just happened to be part of Kashmir’s history at that point and a girl.
If you really look at the memoir, it also captures a certain time, a way of living which doesn’t exist in Kashmir anymore. It captures a time which looks very remote and distant and faraway in Kashmir right now. So, I was also trying to capture that social history in a way of that time, how people lived, what their rituals were, and how they changed overnight.
You wonder what-if, what life would’ve been like without war. It’s like a gaze outward, as you realize: “Our lives were controlled from elsewhere and the dreams that we dreamt were always at the mercy of someone else, someone occupying us, ruling us.” You’ve lived outside Kashmir and many Kashmiris have moved out of the valley since the ’90s as well. What happens when you leave?
Whatever the distance, like whether I was in Singapore, or I’m now shuttling between Delhi and Srinagar, or you’re in the US, I don’t think you can mentally disconnect ever. It’s a bit like what I talk about that PTSD should not be “post-stress,” it should be — like this friend of mine joked — “perennial-stress.” It’s almost like that perennial engagement with the homeland.
Also, you’re not the policy-maker, you can at best raise your voice, and will that voice even have any kind of implications? I don’t know. But you’re always mentally engaged and connected, physically you might not be. And what happens, when I’m in Kashmir, there are chances that I will make notes but not write-write because then suddenly you feel like nothing is in my control, what’s this going to do? But when you move outside and you see what others have access to — the dignity, the basic life — it just becomes even more stark of what we’re going through. And that anger builds up.
It’s not because you’re so much in love with your homeland, etc., but it’s the sheer indignity and humiliation that we are subjected to on a daily basis, our kids and everyone, elders, dead, living, everyone.
Outsiders always ask the diaspora: what do Kashmiris want? I always say you need to ask the people there. What do you think Kashmiris want?
We may not know what we want, but we definitely know what we don’t want. We definitely don’t want to be ruled by others, for sure.
How do clampdowns on free speech affect Kashmiri writers?
Even when I was writing, I wasn’t sure it was going to come out. There’s always that thing in the back of your mind that you don’t write freely. You don’t. There’s always that fear that you sort of suffer or something at the back of your mind, that this may or may not see the light of day.
Nafeesa Syeed is a visiting scholar at UCLA’s International Institute. She spent 15 years as a journalist for news outlets in the United States, the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. She is at work on her first novel.
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