Makers of Memory: Women in Occupied Palestine and Kashmir
by Tara Dorabji and Susan Rahman
Authors’ Note: This piece is a collaboration that started with individual journeys. In 2014, Susan conducted field interviews with women in Palestine. In 2011, Tara conducted field interviews in Kashmir. We found a common thread in our work—the untold stories of women in occupied zones. We decided to bring the narratives together along with research from the broader field. What we have here is the beginning—stories of resistance in dialogue with each other. More than anything, we are in awe of these women, grateful for the wisdom they shared with us, and struck by the dignity by which they live.
Palestine and Kashmir are both carved up by borders. People are swallowed whole. Stories are silenced and blood flows into rivers. Military checkpoints, armored vehicles, and borders occupy not just the land, but penetrate deeper, into the psyches of people. Occupation is sophisticated. It aims to destroy culture and to terminate people.
For many Palestinian and Kashmiri women, their very existence is a form of resistance. Women are the culture bearers. They are the bringers of life. Their stories of existence and resistance hold in them a vision for a future where the bodies and spirits of their children will not bear the marks of occupation. This vision is the whisper of freedom.
The occupations of both Kashmir and Palestine are widely disputed and often framed as an internal dispute.
In Palestine, the Israeli military, under direction from the Israeli government, controls the movement of people and goods, makes policy that affects the residents, and usurps the land when Israel wishes to expand its territory. Since 1967, over 800,000 Palestinians—men, women, and children—have been arrested or detained in Israeli prisons.1
In Kashmir, the occupation dots the land with armored vehicles, checkpoints, and barbed wire. Kashmir is the most densely militarized land on earth, with approximately 700,000 Indian military and paramilitary deployed. There is roughly one military personnel for every fourteen civilians. An estimated 70,000 Kashmiris have died as a result of the Indian occupation.2
Much of the weaponry in Kashmir comes from Israel: between 2002 and 2008, India acquired $5 billion in arms from Israel to combat Islamic insurgents.3
WOMEN OF RESISTANCE
In both Palestine and Kashmir, women have played pivotal roles in historic and present-day resistance. Women not only hold vigils to make the disappeared visible, but are also in the front lines, organizing protests. In addition, women are often the keepers of the family stories, maintaining the language and culture and passing it along to the next generation.
For women in Palestine, resistance is not a choice. During field interviews, when asked, “Why do you resist occupation?” many women respond that it is inherent to their identities—Palestinians are resisters, especially of Israeli occupation. As one woman put it, “To resist is to exist.”
Nora, a mother, grandmother, lifelong activist, and refugee, has been in the movement since before the 1967 war, and her sumud—steadfastness or dedication to the resistance—serves as a reminder that there is always work to be done. She said, “I can tell you in all honesty if the resistance movement has gone on so far, it is because of the women.”
Mothers and teachers who were interviewed said they felt it was their job to raise their children to always remember the history of Palestine. Teacher and activist Fulla hoped that she would help to invigorate a new generation of resisters by keeping culture alive:
I teach my students more than is in the textbooks. I try to answer the questions about occupation; I try to answer the questions about the corruption that is taking place and what we can do to not be ignorant or passive. I think this is a good thing to do so that the generation that is coming next will be very active when it comes to resistance, and [will] aim toward [a] free Palestine.4
Sometimes the acts of resistance women choose are far more intimate. Lidia, a mother from the village of Nabih Saleh, wanted a son, but her husband was in prison, serving a twenty-five-year jail sentence after participating in the second intifada. She knew that by the time he was released she would be too old to have more children. She visited him in jail one day and smuggled out his sperm, which she immediately took to the doctor to have artificially inseminated in her. Her creative act of resistance resulted in the birth of her now two-year-old son, a living, breathing form of resistance. The Israeli Authority refuses to let her husband see her son as punishment for smuggling his sperm out of jail.
Jailed husbands are one shared aspect of occupied life in both Palestine and Kashmir. For many Kashmiri women, disappeared husbands are another. For women in Kashmir, making the disappeared visible is an essential form of resistance. The Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) was founded for families whose husbands, fathers, and brothers have disappeared. Women make up half the membership of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons and comprise half of the board.5 They lead monthly vigils to remember those who have disappeared.
Meera Shah, whose husband disappeared, explained why she continues to visibly organize:
We are protesting every month in the square. I am not afraid. I must protest not just for my husband or for my sons, but for all the families and the men who are disappeared. There are 10,000 disappeared people in Kashmir . . . I want freedom for the people and for all those who are disappeared, those killed and those in jail. With freedom, the mass graves, crackdowns, and disappearances will all stop. We will continue to protest until we get freedom for all those dead, alive, and disappeared.6
Thousands of mass graves have been documented in Kashmir.7 Of these mass graves, there have been few DNA tests on the remains. Yet, the tests that have been done reveal that the bones mostly belong to Kashmiri civilians.8 Meera Shah told us about her experience visiting the mass graves:
I went to the mass graves and saw the bones, the bones that add up to the absence of 10,000 men. I hug these bones. I hug them for their life.
In addition to making the disappeared visible, women have cared for the wounded, provided food and water to militants, led protests, and organized supply lines under extended curfews.9 Women also hold the stories that the land carries, teaching the children the story of those in their family who have died, using tombstones as a text for remembrance.
KASHMIRI WOMEN UNDER OCCUPATION
The impacts of occupation on Kashmiri women are staggering. There are about 32,000 widows and 97,000 orphans in the valley.10 None of the thousands of cases of disappeared people have been solved.11 Khansa Bashir’s father disappeared, and she took his case all the way to India’s Supreme Court. Bashir’s mother is considered a half-widow, a woman whose husband disappeared but has not yet been declared dead. By conservative estimates, at least 1,500 half-widows live in Kashmir. Half-widows are ineligible for pensions, often unable to qualify for social services, rarely remarry, and face severe economic hardships.12 They generally become the breadwinners for their family. Bashir explained how she sees the occupation:
This occupation is affecting women. Over the years, I have seen many women raped by the armed forces…I saw several cases of women tortured by the Indian army. I am also threatened with calls telling me not to bring forward my dad’s case, or I will pay for it. But me, I am not afraid. I am strong. I will file this case and never stop.
Sexual violence is perhaps the greatest underreported phenomenon in Kashmir. Although there are no reliable statistics on rape,13 a Doctors Without Borders survey found that Kashmiris reported experiencing much higher levels of sexual violence than residents of other militarized zones.14 Surveys found that one in seven Kashmiris witnessed a rape.15
One of the worst atrocities of sexual violence was committed in 1991. The Indian army raided the Kashmiri village of Kunan Poshpora and members of the Fourth Rajputana Rifles Unit allegedly raped more than forty women between the ages of thirteen and eighty.16 As a result of the gang rapes, at least eighteen out of the forty survivors had to have their uteruses removed. Mothers were raped in front of their daughters and little girls in front of their mothers. A pregnant woman gave birth a few days after being raped and the child was born with fractured arms.17
There have been no convictions to date—after twenty-four years, survivors continue to fight their cases in court.
EFFECTS OF ISRAELI OCCUPATION ON PALESTINIANS
The effects of the Israeli occupation on Palestine take many forms, from restricted movement to segregated roads to the deaths of loved ones. Women experience trauma as a result of living under military occupation. Risk of death at the hands of Israeli soldiers and illegal settlers is something Palestinians have come to expect. Sintia lost two children to the occupation. She lives in Bil’in, where both locals and internationals gather for Friday protests. She said,
I lost my son who was a very good man and everybody loved him…I was watching TV, and as I was watching, my daughter came and said that my son was injured… I felt something in my heart, and all the way to the hospital I kept praying. When I got to the hospital, I saw a lot of press and people, including my two sons…They told me my son is martyr. So I went to the emergency room, and there was a tear gas canister in his chest. And it left a hole. So, the doctors had to put some cotton in there…Well, I only got to kiss one cheek and they took him away.18
Tear gas is touted as a non-life-threatening way to subdue a crowd. But in the case of Sintia and many others, the practice of firing tear gas canisters at Palestinians often results in greater harm. Sintia’s pain at losing her son was coupled with yet another tragedy:
I also lost my daughter to the occupation. There was so much tear gas one day, it felt like it was raining tear gas…I came home and didn’t see my daughter. She was at the neighbor’s house. She wasn’t breathing. I could see bubbles coming out of her mouth…The doctors were surprised to see my daughter having such a strong reaction to tear gas, which she had been exposed to many times. What we discovered was that the Israelis were experimenting with other chemicals and testing them on Palestinians who go to Friday demonstrations…By the time I got to the hospital, my daughter was dead. My daughter used to help around the house and Basem used to bring in money for the family. So everything has been really hard since then.
Wadid has lived in her home for over 40 years. She is a prime example of someone whose life has been made nearly unbearable by the Israeli occupation. In attempts to get her to move due to Israeli claims that the land she lives on is an historical Jewish site now called the City of David, Wadid has experienced much harassment. As expansion of East Jerusalem rages on, those who have lived there for years watch and either decide it is time to go or stand firm and feel the weight of the occupier. Wadid’s sumud has come at a cost. Israelis who settle in areas previously Palestinian like where Wadid lives have harmed and even killed Palestinians with little to no repercussions from the criminal justice system.19
My one son Yusef passed away. He was about to turn 16. He was going on the bus on the school vacation…The settlers saw his Palestinian T shirt and chased him after he got off the bus in Mamaela and stabbed him…They took Yusef’s body to Abu Khbir and they took everything, his kidneys, heart, glands. They took all of his organs without their permission. They took his eyes. My son slept with his eyes open. He was a student and he didn’t finish his high school.
The young Israeli who stabbed Yusef never did face prosecution for killing him. Living in a place where there is no justice for Palestinians is a constant struggle. Wadid’s decision to stay in her home despite threats to her life and the constant parade of tourists through her front yard is her act of resistance.
VEILED IN THE MEDIA
Despite the power, organizing, and resilience that both Kashmiri and Palestinian women display, the media continue to portray them as oppressed victims.
Indian media representations of Kashmiri women as victims are a form of colonial feminism, which appropriates women’s rights in the service of empire. Essentially much of the portrayal of Kashmiri women rests on what Deepa Kumar described as “the construction of a barbaric, misogynistic ‘Muslim world’ that must be civilized by a liberal, enlightened West; a rhetoric also known as gendered Orientalism.”20
The media fails to connect how the militarization of Kashmir has led to increased insecurity. The occupation is a primary cause for the suspension of women’s education and the increasing gap in literacy between men and women.21 In Palestine, too, occupation limits women’s opportunities. Limited access to education is a routinely underreported phenomenon. Many women discuss how occupation restricts education or makes obtaining it more difficult. Hube was ready to start college when the first intifada began. At that point, the Israelis closed all the West Bank schools. So, she never attended college. She said,
I graduated in 1987. I got high marks and I wanted to go to university, so I went to Al-Quds in Jerusalem. [Then] started the first intifada. They closed the university and fired us from it, and so I stopped getting my education.
The corporate media routinely marginalize Palestinian women and their roles in both current and past social movements. By contrast, Simona Sharoni’s work highlights the Palestinian women’s movement, tracing its origins back to 1917 or even earlier. She argues that lack of documentation has led many people to assume that women were not politically engaged until the first intifada in 1987.24 In part, this assumption is premised on the Orientalist myth that Arab women are submissive, controlled by their male counterparts, and unintelligent. Nevertheless, Sharoni documents a long history of women’s resistance.25
Clearly, the corporate media have failed to tell the whole story of what occupation looks like in occupied Palestine and occupied Kashmir. Contrary to Western assumptions and stereotypes, Palestinian and Kashmiri women continue to live with dignity and act in resistance. As storytellers, mothers, and organizers, women make up the backbone of these movements for sovereignty and independence, breathing life into what freedom could look like.
This essay is part of a larger work that will be published in Censored 2016. Names of women interviewed in Kashmir and Palestine have been changed.
1. “Political Prisoners in Israel/Palestine,” If Americans Knew, no date, http://ifamericansknew. org/stat/prisoners.html; see also Alison Weir, “U.S. Media Coverage of Israel and Palestine: Choosing Sides,” in Censored 2005, ed. Peter Phillips and Project Censored (New York: Seven Stories, 2004), 285–300; and Nora Barrows-Friedman, “Invisible Victims: US Corporate Media Censorship of Israeli International Law Violations in Palestine,” in Censored 2011, ed. Mickey Huff, Peter Phillips, and Project Censored (New York: Seven Stories, 2010), 293–314. Back
2. Parvez Imroz et al., Alleged Perpetrators: Stories of Impunity in Jammu and Kashmir (Srinagar: International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Indian-administered Kashmir, 2012), 7. Back
3. Angana P. Chatterji, “The Militarized Zone,” in Kashmir: The Case for Freedom (London: Verso, 2011), 112. Back
4. Fulla Jallad, interview by Susan Rahman, Tulkarem, June 2014. Back
5. Association of the Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), Half Widow, Half Wife?: Responding to Gendered Violence in Kashmir (Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, 2011), 5, available online, http://www.jkccs.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Half-Widow-Half-Wife- APDP-report.pdf. Back
6. Meera Shah, interview by Tara Dorabji, Srinagar, October 2011. Back
7. Angana P. Chatterji et al., Buried Evidence: Unknown, Unmarked, and Mass Graves in Indian-Administered Kashmir, A Preliminary Report (Srinagar: International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Indian-administered Kashmir, 2009), 18, http://www.kashmirprocess.org/reports/graves/toc.html. Back
8. Khurram Parvez, interview by Tara Dorabji, Morning Mix, KPFA, December 26, 2011, http://www.kpfa.org/archive/id/76361. Back
9. Seema Kazi, Between Democracy and Nation, 141. Back
10. Ather Zia, “Kashmir: Militarization, Protests, and Gender,” International Peace Research Association Foundation, UC Irvine, Abridged Summer Field Report, 2010, 2. Back
11. Ather Zia, “Disappeared Men and Searching Women: Human Rights and Mourning in Kashmir,” SAMAR Magazine, Issue 36, August 30, 2011, http://samarmagazine.org/archive/articles/364.http://samarmagazine.org/archive/articles/364. Back
12. APDP, Half Widow, Half Wife?, 1. Back
13. Asia Watch (Human Rights Watch) and Physicians for Human Rights, Rape in Kashmir: A Crime of War 5, no. 9, 3, http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/INDIA935.PDF. Back
14. Médecins Sans Frontières, “Kashmir: Violence and Health,” November 2006, 24. Back
15. Medecins Sans Frontieres, “Kashmir: Violence and Health,” November 2006, 3. Back
16. APDP, Half Widow, Half Wife?, 3. Back
17. Huma Dar, interview on KPFA, July 16, 2013, http://dorabji.com/2013/07/kupwara-rape- investigation-in-kashmir Back
18. Sintia, interview by Susan Rahman, Bil’in, June 2014. Back
19. Larry Derfner. Global Research. January 24, 2014 “Settler Violence in the West Bank: A Decades-Long Reign of Terror on Unarmed Palestinians” http://www.globalresearch.ca/settler-violence-in-the-west-bank-a-decades-long-reign-of-terror-on-unarmed-palestinians/5366169 Back
20. Deepa Kumar, “Imperialist Feminism and Liberalism,” Open Democracy, November 6, 2014, https://www.opendemocracy.net/deepa-kumar/imperialist-feminism-and-liberalism. Back
21. APDP, Half Widow, Half Wife?, 7. Back
22. Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (Oxford UK: Oneworld Publishing, 2007). Back
23. Ibid. Back
24. Simona Sharoni, Gender and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (Syracuse NY: Syracuse University Press, 1995). Back
25. Ibid. Back
Tara Dorabji is a writer, strategist at Youth Speaks, mother, and radio journalist at KPFA. Her work is published or forthcoming in Al Jazeera, Tayo Literary Magazine, Huizache, Good Girls Marry Doctors (Aunt Lute 2016), Center for Asian American Media, Mutha, Censored 2016, So Glad They Told Me (Spring 2016), and Midwifery Today. Tara is working on novels set in Kashmir and Livermore. Her projects can be viewed on her website.
Image Credit: Sheila Menezes | http://www.sheilamenezes.com
Susan Rahman is a mother, activist, and professor of sociology, psychology, and behavioral sciences. Her research took her to the West Bank in the summer of 2014 where she connected with family and conducted interviews of women who resist the Israeli occupation. Her work is inspired by the people of Palestine, who show great strength, resiliency, and sumud (steadfastness). Follow her on Twitter @susanrahman. Her book, To resist is to exist: voices of the women of Palestine is available here.