Gender, Conflict and Peace


Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra, Ph.D. – TRANSCEND Media Service

We celebrate Women’s Day on March 8 every year. Since the day was declared a day of celebration, we see processions, marches, posters and various activities highlighting women’s plights and progress around the world. This year the United Nations theme for the day is “Equality for Women is Progress for all.”

Have we really progressed on this front? Is there any real empowerment of women?

As I work in areas of conflict transformation and peacebuilding, my focus on women in conflict situations and peacebuilding processes is natural. I prefer to look on this day the role women played in conflicts and peacebuilding. What better way to analyze this than to review a book on gender, conflict and peace in Kashmir, just out of press last month, fresh and warm. The book titled Gender, Conflict and Peace in Kashmir: The Invisible Stakeholders is written by Dr. Seema Shekhawat and published by the Cambridge University Press. The book is the result of the author’ decades-long research in Kashmir.

The subtitle of the book says a lot about the status of women in Kashmir. It draws our attention to the real position of women in conflict and peace discourse in Kashmir. When the role of women in conflict is juxtaposed to their role in peace, there appears asymmetry. The author draws our attention to the militancy when it was at peak in 1990s. Women were everywhere. They took part in protests, fought security forces, and testified rape cases against the security forces in public. In a conservative society like Kashmir this participation could not have been possible without the patriarchal sanction. Women’s role as perpetrators, mobilizers, supporters, the author argues, sustained the militancy. Kashmir received international attention. The media flashed burqa clad women protesting on the streets of Srinagar, arguing with the gun totting security forces, shouting anti-India slogans.

The severe crackdown by the Indian security forces under the armed forces special powers act sent male militants and their leaders into hiding, leaving the movement in hands of the women. Women mobilized and spread the message of Azadi, encouraged their sons to participate in militancy, and sang bravery songs at the death of their sons. They were the main engines of the movement. They hid guns under their veils, carried letters for male militants, obstructed the path of the security forces to let the fugitive militant escape, nourished wounded militants, fed them, and even escorted  male militant under the cover of veil to escape security posts. Shekhawat devotes a full chapter to elaborate the roles played by the women in militancy. According to her, “The movement could not have received international attention on such a large scale had Kashmiri women not supported it.” (p. 78).

The militancy receded in 2000s. The violence went down in the Kashmir valley, the main site of insurgency. The governments and the separatists engaged in dialogue. Peace moves such as ‘round tables,’ ‘heart to heart talks,’ were initiated. Various confidence building measures were also initiated. Working committees were formed to carry forward the peace process.

“Where are women?” in this peacebuilding process, the author asks poignantly. She points out how Kashmir “provides ample evidence of prejudiced nature of conflict and peace making, which glorified women as linchpins of the movement for secession but later did not hesitate in pushing them to the fringes of the peace process”  (p. 145). There are many such moving arguments in the book. Hence, for anyone interested to learn the status of women in conflict situation and in peace processes the book is a must. The author provides us evidence from the field, drawing from her numerous interviews, how the women of Kashmir are sidelined in the peace process. They have no representation in peace committees. To add, they are not vocal in demanding their due share in the peace process.

Are there no women leaders in Kashmir to be part of the peacebuilding process? The author points out that there is no dearth of women talent in Kashmir. But either they have chosen to remain silent and acquiesce to the old patriarchal norms, or they think that the male leadership is naturally poised to lead the peace process; they have no role to play. Rather, they need to go back to their traditional domain of activity – taking care of family and being confined to the four walls of the house. Even the existing women’s separatist organizations are silent on this issue. The author rightly argues, “Kashmir seems to be an apt example where women’s organizations subjected women to a male-dominated order” (p. 101).

The author strongly argues unless women are part of the peace process, it will remain highly insensitive and exclusive. The central message of the book is: women must play a key role in peacebuilding. For Shekhawat, “the aim of sustainable peace (in Kashmir or elsewhere) cannot be realized when the process is exclusive and discriminatory” (p. 165). This book paints a vivid picture of the reality and unfolds before us the paradox that despite celebrating the Women’s Day with all fanfare, women’s status in society remains deplorable. Are women listening? They must rise and stake their claims. Perhaps this should be the message of the Women’s Day, which this book reinforces.


Dr Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra is a member of the TRANSCEND Network and an Indian commentator. His areas of interest include conflict transformation and peacebuilding in South and Central Asia. He is a Fellow at the Center for Peace, Democracy and Development, University of Massachusetts Boston.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 10 Mar 2014.

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