In a time where Kashmiri narratives were male centric and male dominated, Aasiya Jeelani emerged as a carrier of justice for Kashmiri women. A courageous journalist, she chose to work for the truth of her people in a political and national climate which subdued the voices of Kashmiris. As Kashmiri women now take space in the Kashmiri Resistance Movement, they tribute the journalist-activist who paved the path for them to do so.
While current day Kashmir struggles under the abrogation of article 370, we remember one of the first women who tried her best to bring justice to Kashmiris, and more particularly, to Kashmiri women.
Aasiya Jeelani was born in Kashmir on February 9th, 1974 and grew up in the ambit of curfews and crackdowns, events that tainted her youth and shaped her identity. She attended a convent school in Srinagar, and later earned a Bachelor’s in Science. She completed her masters in Journalism from the University of Kashmir. Her childhood friend, Dr. Shabina Miraj talked about Aasiya Jeelani’s involvement in the resistance movement and what eventually led her to be an activist:
“In 1989, when Aasiya and I were in 10th grade, the armed struggle became more prominent. Aasiya, who used to live in Downtown – known for its pro-azadi people – witnessed the daily crackdowns and violence by the Indian Army. Especially, when women became the victims of molestation and rape by the Indian armed forces, she decided not to suffer silently and changed for the rest of her life. She started thinking about the fate of these women who were raped and whose husbands disappeared in the custody of the Indian Army. I saw a change in Aasiya. She became more interested in doing something for the people,”
Her environment became a catalyst that drove her towards a fight of confrontation with the Indian state, a job she felt could be best achieved by journalism. She was one of the first women to speak and write against the Indian State and about the human right violations in Kashmir. She took on this fight for the rest of her life.
Aasiya Jeelani’s work in activism was a breakthrough within the fight against human rights violations in Kashmir. Aasiya worked in JKCCS on fact finding and research, and was a part of publishing reports on disappeared people in Kashmir under the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP).
Journalism and a push towards Kashmiri struggles
Aasiya Jeelani’s first job in journalism was as a researcher and trainee reporter at Agence France Presse’s (AFP), Kashmir Bureau, in the year 1998. AFP became a platform for her to solidify and ground her journalistic skills, and started her career as a researcher. In 2001, Aasiya decided to start working at the Times of India. This time period allowed her to grow as a journalist, and she settled in Delhi. However, she soon felt disenchanted from the work she was doing.
This cognitive dissonance left her feeling vulnerable and lost, and pushed her to leave her life of comfort and privilege in Delhi to move back to Kashmir. Thus began her most memorable work with The Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS). Aasiya wanted to give words to the struggles of Kashmiri women and their traumatic experiences, both from the Indian Army, as well as the patriarchal structures that dictated them. This instigated her journey towards intersectional Kashmiri activism.
Activism and the Feminist Resistance
Aasiya Jeelani’s work in activism was a breakthrough within the fight against human rights violations in Kashmir. Aasiya worked in JKCCS on fact finding and research, and was a part of publishing reports on disappeared people in Kashmir under the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP). With JKCCS, she worked on publishing reports about human rights violations that take place in Kashmir.
Aasiya wanted to give words to the struggles of Kashmiri women and their traumatic experiences, both from the Indian Army, as well as the patriarchal structures that dictated them. This instigated her journey towards intersectional Kashmiri activism.
Soon after, Aasiya and her colleagues founded Kashmiri Women’s Initiative for Peace and Disarmament (KWIPD), an organisation that focuses on the gendered conflict in Kashmir, and empowers the voices of Kashmiri Women. She was its first head. Aasiya gathered global support for the Kashmiri plight through this organisation. In 2003, she attended a Peace Management Conference in Netherlands, and talked about Kashmir and Kashmiri women. She wanted everyone to know the reality of living under a repressive state.
A manifestation of this organization was a first of its kind quarterly newsletter magazine called ‘Voices Unheard’, detailing and exploring gendered violence and gendered experiences in Kashmir. The circulation of this magazine began in 2003, and she took the role of editor. She highlighted issues such as rape and torture of Kashmiri women, and expressed the struggles of ‘half widows’, a term coined for women whose husbands disappeared at the hands of the Indian army. She believed that since women were the most vulnerable to oppression in Kashmir due to the armed conflict, they deserved a distinct voice and platform. Aasiya was extremely dedicated to her work, and traveled across Kashmir to foreground the adverse effects of the conflict on women.
In this manner, Aasiyaa created a platform for women to raise their voices and concerns within a state that constantly prevented them from doing so. She spoke the truth in a time where journalists and activists were punished for writing about the reality of Kashmir. She worked hard to speak this truth, and was brave and resilient throughout. These contributions were immensely imperative, and set the stage for the feminist Kashmiri narrative as it is known today.
In addition to stories and reports, Aasiya Jeelani also tried to help the victims of gendered violence in Kashmir. She visited Chennai to train for launching self, help groups for women in Kashmir. According to Parvez Imroz, a human rights lawyer, receiver of the Rafto Prize, and president of JKCCS, Aasiya wanted to initiate action to help victims become self-sustaining rather than dependent. She also wanted the self-help groups to exist in all villages in Kashmir. He highlighted how Aasiya had moved beyond the restrains of an upper middle class background and perspective, and understood the actuality of Kashmir through the lens of disprivileged Kashmiris.
On 20th April 2004, Aasiya decided to join Khurram Parvez, a human rights defender and current coordinator of JKCCS, on an election monitoring and fact finding mission on the then parliamentary elections. She was ill at the time, yet volunteered be a part of the election monitoring team going to a small district in Kashmir called Kupwara. Their job was to monitor the polling in these districts and determine whether elections were fair and legitimate, and whether they had any value in the heavily armed conflict zone. While on this assignment, an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) was detonated, causing the car in which both Aasiya Jeelani and Khurram Parvez were seated together. The IED severely injured Aasiya, and she succumbed to her injuries on the way to a hospital.
The perpetrator of Aasiya’s death is unknown, but investigations were conducted in order to find out how Aasiya was killed. Her death devastated her family and friends, and was a visible loss from the list of people who spoke the truth about Kashmir. Election monitoring was halted for a while. After her funeral, JKCCS decided to continue fact finding on the election process, and released a report dedicated to her.
People remember Aasiya Jeelani as the woman who gave her life up for the Kashmiri cause. She worked fearlessly in a space that was determined to silence her. She was irrepressible in the face of adversity, and took every woman along with her. She eventually died fighting for the same cause. However, Aasiya’s efforts didn’t go to waste. She etched a permanent mark in the history of Kashmiri resistance, and paved a path for all women to speak their truths. She created an entry point for all Kashmiri women journalists and activists to write and speak about the gendered conflict in Kashmir and the impact that has on its gendered population.
Through time, Aasiya Jeelani and her work has become the principle foundation on which the struggles of Kashmiri women are voiced and empowered. She continues to be an inspiration for her colleagues, and for all Kashmiri women for her bravery and hard work. Her life, and her mission, will never be forgotten.