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Kashmiri women who choose to click amidst chaos

A common refrain among these young women, who seek to challenge the patriarchy, is the need for supportive parents.

Last Updated: Sep 23, 2018, 03.01 PM IST
More women pick up the camera to document their vision.
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(This story originally appeared in on Sep 23, 2018)
In May this year, 24-year-old Masrat Zahra posted a picture of herself online. A black hijab hid her face, a camera was strapped to her neck, and she was surrounded by army personnel as she took pictures of an “encounter” in Shopian, Kashmir.

In a couple of hours, the photograph went viral. Someone circled her face, labelling her “mukhbir’’ (informer) and “the girl with the army.’’ She was trolled on social media for being a traitor, phone calls were made to her home, about betraying her people. “I was very scared and so were my parents. It is dangerous to be labelled a mukhbir in Kashmir,’’ she says.

Later, Masrat clarified on social media that she was only doing her job as a photojournalist. Senior journalists like former editor of Rising Kashmir Shujaat Bukhari supported her, as did activists. “It was a vindication of my work and a huge relief,” she says.

As the first woman photojournalist in Kashmir, Masrat has confronted even more serious threats to her life. Last year, she was caught in the post-Eid clashes in Srinagar city, and inadvertently used as a shield by the police. A man, whose face was bloody from pellet wounds, dropped the stone he was going to pelt when he saw Masrat. “I screamed when I realized he could hit me,’’ she says.

But these close shaves have not deterred Masrat, who works as a freelance photographer for local and international news agencies. A woman with a DSLR is still a rare sight in Kashmir and invites attention, often of the wrong kind. It takes a certain resolve to ignore the jibes. Masrat says she tries to reason with people who shame her for her work, but it isn’t easy.

Furkan Khan, a reporter- producer with NPR and also a freelance photographer, shuttles between Delhi and Kashmir, and says she is also often mocked. “A woman with a camera is a spectacle, so sometimes I use my phone to take pictures discreetly,’’ she says. Khan’s interest lies in capturing ordinary life that is overshadowed by the conflict. The biggest challenge is to capture women going about their work, the 27-year-old says. “The atmosphere in Kashmir does not allow women to feel safe if their pictures are online. Women are scared, and men are patronising,’’ she says.

Twenty-four-year-old Nawal Ali Watali, who works as a social activist and doubles as a freelance photographer, agrees. “It is very difficult to build trust. When I approach people they want to know if I am Kashmiri and why I am taking their pictures and not those of the stone-pelters or the mujahideen,’’ she says. Some of her recent work focuses on street sexual harassment in Kashmir. “It is a serious problem but it doesn’t get talked about because it is not a part of the mainstream narrative,’’ she says.

In January this year, Nawal did a series called The Frontliners that captured the homes of people living in Nanga village, Vijaypur district, along the LoC, pock-marked with years of shelling. Apart from their damaged homes, the villagers live in constant fear for their lives. Often there is a political statement, in the picture of a peaceful, verdant landscape accompanied with a conversation about “azaadi.’’

Nawal feels that in this narrative of conflict, no one is talking about Kashmiri women’s azaadi, to walk without being stared at, to not be dominated by men. In a recent post, she says: “Even after azaadi I won’t be free and neither will my fellow women. The protests for azaadi, the sermons they preach are all by and for the men of Kashmir. If Kashmir gets independence tomorrow we will still have to deal with those “sar pe dupatta rakho”, you girls are the reason for floods in Kashmir, oh no you can’t go outside and be yourself, oh yes we will surely comment on you on the roads and one by one stare at you, like you are roaming around naked.’’

A common refrain among these young women, who seek to challenge the patriarchy, is the need for supportive parents. Nawal says her parents are encouraging but they would prefer that she study for civil services than risk her life shooting pictures or doing social work. Furkan agrees, “We live in a place where at 5 pm, girls’ phones start ringing, with people demanding to know where they are and when they will be back. This can be debilitating.’’ Often the girls travel with friends for assignments, but the trail they are charting is unique.

Mehreen Alam, an amateur photographer from the Gutlibagh village in Ganderbal, is the first girl in the Pashtun community of about 40,000 families to go to university, and among the eight or nine women who are working. She works in a bank and but has a passion for photography. “I wanted to take attention away from the conflict and bring it to Kashmir and its people,’’ she says. She confesses, though, that taking pictures on the streets, as ordinary people go about their life, is a tough task.

Furkan says though there are more women photographers in the Valley, the patriarchal mindset is so deep that often women accept it and align themselves to it. “Kashmiri women are always portrayed as half-widows and martyrs to the cause. There is no other narrative for them and I think it will be a long time before that changes,’’ she says.

Masrat acknowledges that the community around them is conservative, and cannot change abruptly. She believes that there is a gradual change, though, as more women like her pick up the camera to document their vision.

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