(Prof. Rekha Chowdhary, 57, was born in Jammu and has been a university teacher for the past 30 years. She is currently the Professor of Political Science, University of Jammu. During her distinguished teaching career, she was the visiting Fellow under a Ford Foundation grant at the Queen Elizabeth House, Oxford, in 1992-1993; winner of the Commonwealth Award availed at the University of Oxford, 1997-1998; and the Fulbright Fellow availed at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at the Johns Hopkins University, Washington DC, in 2005.)
‘We Crossed the Line’
Coming back from Muzaffarabad after attending a cross-LoC women's conference, I was asked by someone: 'so what is the most important thing that you accomplished during your visit?' I answered without much thinking: ‘we crossed the Line’. This was actually the spirit which dominated the visit as well as the conference. We had crossed the line literally and also metaphorically.
It was an overwhelming emotion that had overtaken each one of the ten of us who were standing at the Indian side of Kaman Bridge as well as a score of women who were on the other side of the bridge, waiting for the gates to be opened. They had travelled the same morning from Muzaffarabad to receive us.
On clue it seems, it started drizzling and we became doubly conscious of the boundaries and borders that we were going to cross. It was after sometime that gates were opened. Officials from both the sides moved and reached the middle of the bridge and held a sort of meeting for few minutes before we were allowed to walk on the bridge. We crossed the bridge and reached the other side of the LoC just into the arms of the women waiting there. ‘We did it!’ was the chorus everywhere.
It was crossing the Line per se – the Line which has divided the two sides of Jammu and Kashmir and which has restrained the people from meeting their closed ones (close standing here for blood relations – brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, grandparents) even when they may be living a mountain, a river or a road across. The Line once drawn would not allow people to trace their roots and visit their villages and homes that they once lived in but were forced to leave. It was the idea of doing something that was ‘impossible’ till very recently. The line named as ‘ceasefire line’ initially and renamed as LoC in seventies, was opened for the movement of people in 2005 but as a general rule only those people were allowed to travel who had relatives on the other side of LoC. Maybe in the beginning, it was the humanitarian consideration that worked in this direction as thousands of families were divided across the LoC and were to be given a priority over others to use the LoC route. However, soon it became a sort of rule and came to be followed so strictly that even the officials dealing with the paperwork were convinced that only relatives could travel through LoC, others needing to go across had to take the visa route of Wagah.
So one can understand the excitement that we were feeling! Though a few of us had some relatives on the other side of LoC, but many others did not have any relative and we were crossing the LoC merely because we were the residents of the state. It was a ‘Permit’ which we were carrying that was the basis of our visit. No passport was required and no visa was stamped. It was just a single page permission issued by the Government of the state of J&K. It was just like visiting another part of the state. The only reminder to us that we were crossing the Indian territory and entering the territory under the control of Pakistan were the immigration and custom offices on both the sides. That we are among the first group to cross the LoC in this manner, is in itself a matter of significance. We were conscious that we were making history hoping that this small step of ours on the Kaman Bridge will open the route for many other groups – the professionals, the media persons, civil society activists, cultural troupes, students. We were setting the precedent.
Throughout our trip we were conscious that we were not standing alone, the governments on both the sides were very much supporting our trip. From the word ‘go’, we were given the VIP treatment. The ‘delegates’ was our designated name and the difficulties were eased and special arrangements were made in this name on both the sides. The immigration officials on the Indian side seemed to be as excited about our trip as we were. They were wishing us and our conference good luck. The officials on the other side were treating us like royal guests.
It was around the theme of building bridges and bringing women's voice in peace-building that the Conference was organised. There were three sub-themes of the seminar: Gender and Peace-building: Understanding women's narrative on Kashmir conflict; Empowering women in peace-building; and lastly, Women, Inclusive Security and sustainable peace-building. The basic tenor of the seminar was built around probing the role of women in the peace processes and advocating for a bigger space for them in all the formal political processes and institutions. There was a general concern that despite being the major stakeholders in the political processes, women are generally marginalised in decision making processes. Despite the assertion of the agency of women in a variety of manners, neither are they represented in leadership positions nor are their gender concerns reflected in the conflict related discourse. In the overall patriarchal nature of conflict, their issues are raised in an instrumental manner without much concern for their gender interests.
Though like every other discourse on conflict situation, the suffering of women in the conflict situation was underlined, yet the basic mood of the participants was to emphasise the resilience and survival of women. Participant after participant emphasised the need to go beyond the discourse of victimhood and to focus on their survival strategies, their empowerment and their assertion of rights. A speaker clearly emphasised the point that too much of emphasis on victimhood leads to the perpetuation of discrimination. Reflecting at the ground reality which points towards the fact that women have come out of the mode of victimhood, many participants talked about the need to focus on the issues related to rehabilitation and reconciliation. Rather that the politics of despair that is generally reflected in the male-dominated discourse of conflict, it was the politics of hope that was being stressed upon. Examples of prominent women were given who are involved in the process of rehabilitation of other women; who are engaging in the issues related to justice; who are playing active role in empowering women–educating them, building their skills, providing them resources. Countless nameless women, it was stated, are providing support to their families. On the whole, women are moving forward, coming out of their passivity and transcending their state of helplessness.
What could be further seen as path-breaking response during the conference, was the emphasis on woman being both as a ‘person’ in her own right as well as a ‘political person’. The language that was used was the language of ‘rights’, of ‘assertion’ and of ‘demands’. Though acknowledging the suffering of woman as a ‘mother’ or as a ‘wife’, the need to go beyond this discourse was emphasised. As a speaker stated that it is true that many women have suffered because they have lost their sons or their husbands, yet limiting them to their relationship with men leads to making their agency invisible. Till the time we continue to see women only in their relation to men, their gender subordination is reinforced.
Interestingly, mention was made, not only of social subordination of women but of their political subordination. Ranging from the issues of absence of women in leadership positions, formal political institutions, and peace processes to the issue of the absence of gender narratives of conflict – the patriarchal nature of all politics, both the mainstream as well as separatist, was pointed out. The fact that the political space is not being provided to women, was taken note of. Demand was therefore made not only for including women in the formal and informal processes of peace building but also in all other political processes and institutions. Extending the debate to other dimension of politics, the political use of religion to the disadvantage of women was also talked about.
Gender remained the central point of conference. Much of the debate revolved around the question of rights and empowerment of women. In the specific context of peace building, the gender concerns, gender representation and gender equality were considered the major pillars. Linking the relationship between gender equality and peace building, a participant noted the two-way relationship between the two. If there is gender equality, there would be better scope for peace building and if there is peace, there would be better possibilities of gender equality.