Identity and belonging

Published 4 months ago -


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EDMOND, Okla. – I trace my origin to the hegemonically defined “Third and First Worlds.” While I am filiated to the Valley of Kashmir in the State of Jammu and Kashmir (J & K), a unit in the Indian Union, I remain affiliated to the restoration of an autonomous Jammu and Kashmir. My move to the Mid-West complicated my already multilayered identity by adding one more layer to it: my affiliation with the South Asian diaspora in the US. This affiliation, however, empowers me with an agency to inhabit a space that “slides both geographically and linguistically” (Warley 113). I am positioned in relation to my own class and cultural reality; my own history, which is one among many ways of relating to the past. I am also positioned in relation to my sensitivity to the slippery terrain of cultural traditions and to the questions and conflicts within them. My own struggle not just with the complicated notions of political subjectivity, regionalism, nationalism, but also with the effects of the homogenizing discourses of cultural and religious nationalism, my position as a Hanifi Sunni Muslim woman, and my diasporic position in the West further complicate my position. My concept of the political and sociocultural agency of Kashmiri women in contemporary society and my political interests and ambitions are shaped by how I see my past.

I grew up in a world in which my parents, Suraiya and Mohammad Ali Matto, were fiercely proud of their cultural and linguistic heritage (despite the onslaught of an enlightenment modernity), and honored their Islamic heritage, faithfully observing religious practices, while maintaining unflagging conviction in a pluralistic polity.

My parents, with their reserved dignity, integrity, unassuming pride, and unabated love for Kashmir, have been my role models. They have always explicitly cherished their heritage, while keeping themselves at a distinct distance from those who seek to impose a History on the landscape of Kashmir. Now that I look back with insight, I see that my parents, although well-educated and well-read professionals, did not internalize colonial beliefs about the superiority of European civilization or biased notions about the “degraded” status of Kashmiri Muslims, who had emerged from the swamp of illiteracy, poverty, and bonded labor in the 1940s. Their unremitting loyalty to the land of their dreams and hopes, Kashmir, despite the post-1989 militarized ethos, rabidity of bigotry has validated my admiration for their integrity and open-mindedness. They did not jump either on the bandwagon of either statism or ethno religious nationalism.

Raised in Kashmir in the 1970s and the 1980s, I always knew that I, like my parents, would receive a substantial education and would have a professional life. I instinctively knew that they would protect me from the shackles of restrictive traditions and from the pigeonholes of modernity. My own wariness of statism, perhaps, stems from my Mother’s fraught childhood and youth. Her father, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, reigned as Prime Minister of the State of Jammu and Kashmir from 1948 to 1953.

When the pledge to hold a referendum in Jammu and Kashmir was not kept by the governments of India and Pakistan, his advocacy of the right of self-determination for the state led to his imprisonment. He was shuttled from one jail to another until 1972 and remained out of power until 1975. Despite tremendous changes in the world order, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah did not lose faith in the international system which was premised on Woodrow Wilson’s principle of self-determination, post-World War 1. The Sheikh, I argue, sought self-determination for Jammu and Kashmir as a territorial unit, not as a Muslim nation. He wanted Kashmir to be an international polity. I posit that he perceived the evolution of Kashmiri nationalism in world-historical terms, as opposed to a domestic and local issue.

Her mother, my maternal grandmother, Akbar Jehan, supported her husband’s struggle and represented Srinagar and Anantnag constituencies of Jammu and Kashmir in the Indian parliament from 1977 to 1979 and 1984 to 1989, respectively. It is paradoxical that although she was a determined political and social activist, “according to biographical-genealogical conventions, the (lives of the) fathers are known and largely accounted for, while the (lives of the) mothers are unknown, unrecorded, and, until relatively recently, little explored” (Beizer 3). Akbar Jehan was also the first president of the Jammu and Kashmir Red Cross Society from 1947 to 1951. But during her husband, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s incarceration, she had been burdened with the arduous task of raising five children in a politically repressive environment that sought to undo her husband’s mammoth political, cultural, legal attempts to restore the faith of Kashmiri society in itself.

It is with a complicated legacy as the backdrop that my own sense of identity as a “diasporic Kashmiri,” an “Indian citizen,” an “American Resident,” and “South Asian” is entangled. It is the politics of upheaval and disruption that frame the lives of those of my generation who grew up in the turbulent gusts of Kashmir. The physical distance hasn’t severed the umbilical cord that tenaciously binds me to the territory, the people, and the sociocultural ethos of Kashmir. Although I live and work in the diaspora, my passionate longing for Kashmir remains unabated; my prayers for a peaceful and conflict free Kashmir in which its people will lead lives of pride, dignity, and liberty remain fervent; my dream of a Kashmir to which my daughter, Iman, can return not with disdain but with a prideful identity, one layer of which is Kashmiri, leaves in me an ache and a pining.

My daughter, Iman, was born in New York City, and raised in the American Midwest, specifically Nebraska and Oklahoma. Whenever I reminisce in Iman’s presence and attempt to tell her about the challenges of straddling two geographical, cultural, political, and religious spaces, she doesn’t hesitate to tell me that I intellectualize every experience, making it out to be more complex that it actually was. But, I retort, it is a privilege to identify with more than one cultural, political, and religious paradigm. My experiences and trajectory have enabled me to create a richer, more pluralistic world to inhabit. I am a habitué of a polycultural and hybrid realm, which removed the blinders of an uncritical espousal of custom and tradition a long time ago. I will admit that I still find the opulence of rituals comforting, and some traditions, which are not regressive, give me a sense of pedigree and longevity. I was born into a Muslim family and was educated in a Catholic school run by Irish nuns. I enjoy elaborate ritualism and intricate murals at my place of worship, because they reinforce my belief that faith can move mountains. And the undulating journey of life has taught me that, come what may, one cannot stop believing and trusting in oneself.

As I contemplate the peacefulness and unconditional love that pervade the environment on a quiet snow-clad day in my home away from home, I reflect on my personal and intellectual trajectory that brought me from my homeland, Kashmir, which is cradled by the Himalayas in the South and by the Pamirs of the Karakoram range in the North, to the rolling plains of Oklahoma. My political, ideological, and cultural leanings rendered me a “foreigner” in the American Midwest when I first arrived. The initial sense of “not belonging” and of having to make it in a territory that was oblivious to the import of my lineage, my cultural heritage, and everything that I had, up until then, considered my anchor was disorienting.

Ironically, it was the complexity generated by not “fitting in” and not being a “groupie” that liberated me from circumscribing constructs, some of which were self-imposed. Before my move to Oklahoma, I had owed my sense of self-worth and entitlement to being the daughter of well-respected and illustrious parents, eminent grandparents, and the accoutrements of a privileged birth. But my adopted state, particularly the university town of Norman, removed those shackles and gave me the wherewithal to carve a niche for myself as a progressive academic and writer.

The American Midwest has been good to me. I have enjoyed living and working in the states of Oklahoma and Nebraska, have learned a lot from the tertiary institutions as well as the professional and community organizations that I have been affiliated with. The howling winds of this region constantly remind me about the purpose of life, which is greater than merely existing. I believe and trust in myself with a passion!

And the howling winds also remind me that the younger generation of Kashmiris and Americans has been disfigured by the inability of global consumer culture, the national security apparatus and nation-states, either secular or theocratic, to recognize their political, socioeconomic and cultural aspirations. I would venture to say that we, Kashmiris and Americans, crave a world in which social justice, political enfranchisement, cultural pride, and self-realization are the order of the day.

I yearn for a world in which the living tradition of legends, myths, fables of yore, is resuscitated, reviving the imaginative life of Kashmir and the American Midwest. Myths and legends have, historically, been the collective expression of a people’s identity, enabling them to voice their cultural reality. Haitian writer, Jacques Stephan Alexis articulates the potency of myths and magic more convincingly than I, “The treasure of tales and legends, all the musical, choreographic and plastic symbolism, all the forms of Haitian popular art are there to help the nation in accomplishing the tasks before it.” The recuperation of a culture, the reinvigoration of the rich heritage of both regions, and the revival of the mythos of both regions as well, might not heal the mauled body politic overnight, but it would certainly provide a much needed step in the right direction.

Nyla Ali Khan mem­ber of Schol­ars Strat­egy Net­work. She is the au­thor of Fic­tion of Na­tion­al­ity in an Era of Transna­tion­al­ism, Is­lam, Women, and Vi­o­lence in Kash­mir, The Life of a Kash­miri Woman, and the ed­i­tor of The Parch­ment of Kash­mir. She is ed­i­tor of the Ox­ford Is­lamic Stud­ies’ On­line’s spe­cial is­sue on Jammu and Kash­mir. She can be reached at ny­lakhan@aol.com)

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