Carving out space for Kashmiris to exist authentically has been difficult. Even in the safest and most welcoming of spaces, I have found myself cornered by a community I supposedly share so much common ground with.
By Shabana Shaheen
Whenever I’m in South Asian spaces, I always prepare myself for the onslaught of tokenizing and marginalization. It’s been hard to build community with other South Asians. Walking into a space that is expected to be safe within a diaspora that I share culture, food and history with is always a challenge.
My people’s history is a little bit different. When the conversation is about food or familial piety, we are all on the same page. But when the conversation moves to migration stories and nationalism, things get awkward. My family is from Kashmir, the most militarized region in the world, a region that has been under occupation longer than India and Pakistan have been independent nations. A region referred to as both heaven on earth and one of the most dangerous places on earth.
Every single time, like clockwork, the barrage of questions and comments commence once folks find out I’m Kashmiri:
“I love Kashmiri Tea! It’s the pink one right?”
“I love that song Bumbro from Mission Kashmir!”
“It’s so sad what’s happening there!”
Once we get over the conversations about pashminas and pink tea, things turn serious. The shift is uncomfortable. The focus turns to the violence and trauma that defines much of what the world knows about Kashmir. Some folks ask about the “terrorism” while others ask about the systemic sexual violence against Kashmiri women and children. The inquiries turn into demands for uninhibited access to narratives of tragedy, the pain of occupation and the history of our suffering. I go from being a living breathing Kashmiri to a depository of curiosity and entitlement. It feels dehumanizing. I feel like a hostage, who has to give themselves away as ransom or forsake community.
The feeling of having to choose between being true to myself and my identity and making community with South Asians is suffocating. I’m protective of my people, our history and our hopes and dreams. I think about the stories from my parents and grandparents about Kashmir. The violence of Partition, the beauty of the mountains, the yearning for liberation, and the shadows of violence that always remain.
What does it mean when spaces that are cultivated for South Asians doing liberation work, alienate those seeking liberation within our own communities? How does a community move forward in doing social justice work that reflects the complexity of the American political landscape while remembering that work must continue to be done within our community? Failure to understand Kashmir reflects the continuing struggle to deconstruct islamophobia, casteism, Hindu nationalism and India-centrism within South Asian spaces.
I struggle between wanting people to see another side of Kashmir and wanting to protect it. The long history of occupation and denial of self-determination began long before the 1980s insurgency or the 1947 partition. The rich history of Sufism, Hinduism and Buddhism evident in the centuries-old temples and shrine. The traditional craftsmanship and artistry that create paisley designs, metal casted handicrafts and intricate motifs of chinar trees. The poetry and prose of Allama Iqbal and Agha Shahid Ali. And yes, the savory pink tea, the soft pashminas and the houseboats on Daal lake.
The tireless work of Nobel Peace Prize Nominee Parveena Ahanger to bring justice and closure to the relatives of disappeared people in Kashmir cannot be recognized while ignoring the history of laws and military actions India has carried out. Agha Shahid Ali’s The Country Without a Post Office doesn’t just serve as a metaphor for oppression, but a detailed narrative of insurgency in the 1990s. The trauma and pain InshAllah Kashmir illustrates the complacency of South Asians in the continued oppression of Kashmiris and the impossibility of consuming other’s trauma without consequence.
When I think about what I want people to know about Kashmir, I always return to the feeling of holding that responsibility on my shoulders. The expectation that those from a marginalized group must share their narrative and history so others can learn and grow. I am always met with demands of a specific kind of presentation of my people and our history. Demands for specifics on trauma and violence that Kashmiris face and access to that pain. They want all the good and bad of Kashmir served on a silver platter without regard for the labor involved. They want every part of my identity that matches their motives and interests and leave the ones that don’t behind. They want the art and literature that have served as avenues for Kashmiris living through brutal occupation but not the history of how we got here.
Carving out space for Kashmiris to exist authentically has been difficult. Even in the safest and most welcoming of spaces, I have found myself cornered by a community I supposedly share so much common ground with. Building and moving forward means coming face to face with our history, trauma and realities. Rooting ourselves in the difficult and necessary conversations around nationalism, casteism, colorism and misogyny are crucial. The middle class, upper caste Indians and Pakistanis that dominant South Asian spaces and narratives must step up. Those of us at the margins will not shoulder this responsibility on our own. Before we can march towards liberation, we must come to terms with our truths, and we’ve only scratched the surface of the work that needs to be done.
Author Bio: Shabana is a writer, researcher, and organizer living in Richmond, VA. She is a Kashmiri femme who loves pop culture, bad diaspora discourse and wholesome memes. You can find her hanging out with her cat, Simba or daydreaming about surviving late stage capitalism. Follow her on Twitter @gormintchachi.