Approaching Gender in a Conflict Zone: Interview with Yasir Abbas
Hakim Yasir Abbas is a passionate law professor from Kashmir. As a critic of orthodox teaching methodologies, which he believes have hindered the development of legal thought in India, he encourages creativity and dialogue in the classroom. Currently, he is an Assistant Professor at the School of Law at the University of Kashmir. Previously, he taught law at Jamia Millia Islamia and at the School of Legal Studies at the Central University of Kashmir. He completed his B.A.LLB at Amity Law School, Noida in 2011 and his LL.M. from Dr. Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University in Lucknow in 2013. He is currently pursuing his Ph.D in Comparative Constitutional Law from National Law University in Delhi. He is on the editorial board of Srinagar Law Journal and on the advisory editorial boards of both RMLNLU Law Review and the International Journal for Law and Public Policy. His areas of interest include constitutional law, human rights, criminology, jurisprudence and international law.
How do you use your classroom as a space to talk about peacebuilding and gender-sensitive issues in a conflict area?
I have always tried to pay close attention to the conflicts that arise when teaching complex law subjects (i.e. restorative justice, the death penalty), where students have to grapple with conflicts between law and morality. It becomes a difficult exercise and practice to follow in Kashmir compared to elsewhere, because everything that you say in class somehow gets related to the Kashmir conflict.
For example, the issue of death penalty has controversial elements related to the Kashmir conflict. The same goes with restorative justice. For a teacher it becomes difficult to separate the two in a classroom context, especially when one is presenting an idea to the class and students approach it with a pre-conceived mindset. This is the problematic effect of conflict - it operates at a psychological level in such a way that it becomes engrained in your thoughts, vocabulary, and lifestyle. Yet, it is through these discussions that I try to raise issues of gender sensitivity, restorative justice, and induce students to critical thinking.
Do you use the topic of restorative justice as an opportunity to further an idea or does it act as an impediment to the classroom discussion?
A lot of people take it as something that is unattainable in the Kashmir context. For someone who has lost a dear one in the conflict - and you do quite often come across students in Kashmir University classrooms who have been personally affected by the conflict - restorative justice comes across as an idea that sounds good in theory but not pragmatic. As a teacher, it is very challenging to to put forward the idea of restorative justice, or to even use a restorative justice approach to solve an issue or conflict between two students who stand at different ends of a political spectrum.
"I had to fill in for a student at the end of the semester “will never appear” (instead of absent), as he was killed in a cross-fire... Coming back to the classroom next day to talk about peace is a very tough job, even for a teacher. "
There are realities that one is faced with when living and teaching in a conflict zone. For instance, I had to fill in for a student at the end of the semester “will never appear” (instead of absent), as he was killed in a cross-fire. No matter what his engagement may have been, as a teacher one will always feel that they have lost someone, and that is the depressing truth about Kashmir. Coming back to the classroom next day to talk about peace is a very tough job, even for a teacher. Incidents like these compel one to be introspective and revisit one’s own notions of peace and conflict.
Given the social structure of Kashmir, how do you talk about gender justice in your class with or without relation to the conflict?
Given the homogenous student population in Kashmir University classrooms, it is tricky to talk about gender justice. One has to be very careful about discussions that may seem radical to students. There are some who are open to such discussions and while they sieze opportunities or discussions freely, the target audience who actually need to broaden their horizons refrains from participating. In such cases, I try to use the law to develop interest, refer to various case judgments, and see what the arguments are on both sides regarding a gender issue. However, even this creates controversies in a classroom situation.
Often it so happens that when a gender issue is broached, the boys participate and state their opinions more than the girls. There is evident gender segregation even in the seating-arrangement of the classroom. While one side needs to be asked to calm down, the other side needs to be forced to speak. As a teacher, too, it becomes difficult to talk about a gender issue when that particular gender doesn’t respond to it.
It is also a concern that given the homogenous culture of the class, the women students feel threatened to express their thoughts on these issues given a certain pre-conceived mindset. For example, while discussing the triple talaq judgment some boys in the class connected it to the Kashmir issue, as for them the Kashmir issue also has religious connotations. They argued that the Supreme Court, being an arm of the state, tried to impose on the population through this judgment.
"I find that sometimes it is constructive to have such discussions in informal settings and gatherings which will not frighten people, but rather provide a free space to those who want to talk or for some people to just listen, whether they agree or disagree."
With this as the backdrop, I find that sometimes it is constructive to have such discussions in informal settings and gatherings which will not frighten people, but rather provide a free space to those who want to talk or for some people to just listen, whether they agree or disagree. I am therefore thinking of starting a book-club to use as a space to talk about these issues.
You talked about the silence of the women in the class, the homogenous nature and conditional practices that keep them silent – do you also feel that there’s a sense of insecurity which prevents them from sharing what they might actually feel and want to talk about?
The challenge concerning the nuances of justice, peace and security of women was brought forth in 2015 when an international marathon event organized by 92.7 FM turned out to be controversial. At that event, certain boys were involved in eve-teasing girls. If you look at how that incident was debated on Facebook, it shows how arduous it is to talk about these issues, where every issue is correlated to the Azadi narrative, and all other debates and discussions is seen as a digression from the ‘main agenda’. It is the women, unfortunately, who are then held accountable for the indecent actions of someone else harassing them.
Gender-sensitivity and security of women beyond protection from the armed forces are continuously seriously undermined and resisted. Even on Facebook, whenever someone raises a women’s issue the strong reactions that it receives is extremely problematic, which shows a culture that is resistant to change. So, of course there is insecurity.
In addition, the image of an independent woman is looked upon with a lot of skepticism. An independent woman is ipso facto considered a devil incarnate or sinful. The social construction of gender norms and the subsequent gendered socialization deeply entrenched in the minds of the people here prevents them from gaining new perspectives or having free and fair discussions.
Talking about sexual harassment of women - it is an unfortunate reality and happens even within the community. However, in a conflict situation when the ‘Us vs. Them’ divide becomes strong, internal violations by the community are overshadowed by the violations committed by the armed forces. Do you see a scope of talking about these violations and issues of WPS beyond Kunan-Poshpora and Shopian? There were also images in 2017 of college-going girls pelting stones to express their frustrations; something of a watershed moment in Kashmir. Is there a way to channel this conflict-induced agency towards a constructive peace building discourse?
I’ll begin with the first part of your question. It is imperative for us as a society to focus on what are considered as peripheral issues of harassment and violation. I say peripheral because these incidents, while very serious in nature, are not given due consideration. And in the process we become responsible for facilitating injustice. Everybody knows and talks about Kunan-Poshpora, but nobody is ready to listen to a huge number of violations and harassments that women in Kashmir suffer daily. There is no doubt that we cannot stay silent on Kunan-Poshpora. But, there we should not neglect so many other Kunan-Poshporas that happen every day. It is sad that the sexual harassment of so many women is belittled and measured using Kunan-Poshpora as a yardstick. Each form of sexual harassment is a grave issue and it has to be put forth as such, rather than devaluing the experiences of some women while highlighting that of others. Talking and reacting to sexual harassment cannot be selective. In this sense, there is serious need for the issues of sexual harassment are kept alive. Not only does it constitutes a major form of violation, any silence regarding various forms of gender-based violence and violation would amount to facilitating injustice.
"Talking and reacting to sexual harassment cannot be selective."
Regarding the second part and channelizing the energy of young women - of course we can, but one also has to be extremely sensitive and cautious about not re-victimising those women who have already suffered some kind of personal harassment or violation. The first thing that is required is to have a mechanism in place, formal or informal, where women can tell their stories without the stigma of being discriminated, prejudiced or re-victimised. There is a need to create safe spaces as far as conversations on harassment are concerned. For instance, domestic violence cases in Kashmir are on the rise, but there is no response to that. These women have not even approached the police, because there is no recognition that this also constitutes a form of violation or harassment. So, a constructive channelization is not possible unless we start developing a proper discourse on how to respond to these incidents. Until then we’ll be stuck with conversations only. Nonetheless, it is equally important to recognize that in a place like Kashmir, conversations are also very necessary. It is a potent approach to able to generate a constructive channelization of agency and energy.
Kashmir’s the socio-local structure is very patriarchal. Women are required to seek the permission of men to take any work forward, because decision-making is not in their hands. There is conflict-induced agency but that too is limited, leading mostly to ambivalent empowerment. On the other hand, the global feminist movement is talking about engaging men. Is there a possibility to synchronize taking the patriarchal structure and mix it with the engaging men strategy to further gender-sensitivity? Is there a scope for young men to engage in these type of conversations and are there young men in Kashmir open to such ideas?
Yes, there are some men who are ready to take it up. Whether they are interested in just conversations or are ready to do something beyond it, I don’t know. Given the social structure here, it is difficult for any feminist, man or woman, to engage in a genuine conversation on women's issues. But the few conversations I attended had a lot of men talking very openly and honestly about these issues.
As mentioned earlier I think it is possible to engage both young men and women through informal gatherings and conversations. In many cases, big events are met with a lot of skepticism; however, simply talking in informal gatherings can lead to low-key movements with a significant impact. Such settings provide safe spaces required to have open and free conversations on these controversial, sensitive issues. The idea of something like a book-club that I spoke of earlier is one informal tool that I wish to use to involve more people, especially the youth to talk about such pertinent issues.