Here Ashima gives her insight into the situation on the ground and her priorities for peace.
Why did you become a peacebuilder?
I became a peacebuilder to rebuild relationships basically. I was deeply, deeply pained by the disintegration of communities which had previously co-existed with a sense of tolerance and acceptance of difference. We Kashmiris didn’t say we are all the same, we accepted the fact we were different and we co-lived. But that all snapped when the guns came. For me that was the most saddening part. This conflict is described as a freedom struggle, but in fighting, everyone has lost their freedom. We are so scared of each other, there is suspicion, terror, mistrust, so where is the freedom? To bring back real freedom, to open up spaces, for people and especially women to come out and voice their concerns, issues, experiences, I think that is why I became a peacebuilder.
In Kashmir people pursue their agenda from exclusive spaces. They do it based on their own sense of persecution, victimhood or injustice. I have always wanted to do things differently. I wanted to create inclusive agendas that brought together all voices.
What drives and motivates me is the process itself. It’s so fascinating and absorbing. It has a life in it and it’s the spirit of that process which motivates me. I’m curious to see it unfold, what lies ahead. Every time I feel pessimistic, defeated, it’s the curiosity of, ‘if we do this, then let’s see’ which keeps me going. And the whole mystery of people themselves. When you bring together people who are divided, who are hurt, who have anger, into a common space and in a couple of hours, couple of days, see how their relationship is transformed once given the space and time to share and cry. When they are done with their anger what unfolds is a beautiful relationship. This to me is so motivating and I believe all these little initiatives are crucial to the larger process of resolving the Kashmir issue.
What difference have you made to the women in Kashmir?
There’s so many ways you can see transformations happen in the women of the Samanbals, from their emotional empowerment to psychological healing. Just to be able to sit down with women and listen to them has had a tremendous effect. This is very important in regions of conflict, in experiences of displacements, where there is deep trauma, where there is deep pain, and hurt, when people don’t have platforms of avenues to voice out; to just listen to them has been one major contribution. But I know listening alone isn’t enough. You have to do more than that and so we use the Samanbals as places where women can learn skills to earn a livelihood.
One of the most significant differences we are making is the sense of freedom women experience when they come to the Samanbals. In situations of violence, or in confined camps, to have a public space where you can come together and claim it as your own and feel responsible towards that space is very empowering.
Kashmiri women are strong and resilient. They have contributed to peacebuilding in so many ways. From coming out of their houses, voting, to this backyard culture where they’ve transformed their little backyards into peacebuilding initiatives by influencing their family in a way that people rejected violence and have supported the processes of dialogue.
What make women good at peacebuilding?
Women have an inherent force of healing, they reach out and explore alternative paths and seek solutions. For women peace is a personal endeavour, what is at stake is the future of their children. Most importantly women do not have clan/tribe loyalties like men so we can think about the welfare of all people.
What women have inspired you?
Two women from different Samanbals continue to inspire me so much. Shahzada in Dardpora lost her combatant husband in the early Nineties and has struggled to keep her family together since. When we started the Samanbal in Dardpora she made sure the idea was accepted by women throughout the village. Many were widows who’d lost their husbands to fighting and their sons to militancy. There was lots of acrimony and intense competition over resources. Shahzada took the lead in taking charge of the Samanbal, arranging spinning training so the women could earn an income and she is now a trainer teaching other women to spin.
Similarly Anjali Suri who lives in Purkho camp, challenged the men who dominated camp politics to ensure the Samanbal could continue and motivated other women to join the group. When we decided to bring the displaced Hindi women from the camp back to their homeland, Anjali played a pivotal role in convincing the community that it was important to meet the Muslim women.
Our grassroots initiatives would never have taken root without the resilience and support of women like Shahzada and Anjali. I admire their courage. In spite of personal tragedies, they have the strength to step out and build peace.
What can you share as a woman?
Very often I plan action to affect change at a policy level. However if it were known to people beforehand it could be perceived as a threat to those with different view points. There is less and less tolerance in our society so my actions would be thwarted. So I often pretend I am an ordinary woman doing ordinary women’s work and then nobody bothers me. I smile saying this as it’s actually fun to come across as a stupid woman when actually you are doing serious, even ruthless work, to implement your agenda!
What are you future priorities?
We’ve created a vast network of women across civil society. We have made singular voices plural, brought cohesion to the issues we face and our demands for the future. The task now is to take this critical mass and make it a force to impact policy, to bring our voice to the centre of the peace process. The Samanbals have laid the foundation; we now have a strong and vast network from which we will build a political movement for peace.