Ufra Mir is a young explorer from Kashmir who has shaped her combined passion for mental health and peace and conflicts at different levels into the development of a psychosocial empowerment initiative – Paigaam.
WRN: We would love to know more about your own initiative Paigaam.
Ufra: As a young explorer, my experiences in a peace-based high school (the United World College of India) taught me the value of respecting differences and the value of sharing. This helped me shape my combined passion for mental health and peace and conflicts at different levels into the development of a psychosocial empowerment initiative which eventually led me to explore my role as a peace-psychologist. Paigaam grew out of this initiative.
In college, I explored health psychology, but then soon realized that’s not what I really wanted to do because it didn’t seem to have aspects that were useful for a complex world and issues, and was not fitting in with my idea and vision of what I hoped to do. So, I tried to combine the approaches of psychology and health with techniques of peace and conflict transformation and reconciliation. From there, we started some small initiatives on arts and psychosocial care in countries like Uganda, East Timor and Pakistan along with individually doing workshops in USA, India, Europe over time. But eventually, I wanted to come back to Kashmir as that was my inspiration to do peace-psychology.
Once in Kashmir, I realised peace-psychology was a far cry when there was not even enough focus on psychological well-being. So I started doing free workshops – in schools, with different organisations, with half-widows, orphans, teachers, students. However, this too wasn’t easy as anything to do with peace in Kashmir is sometimes seen as controversial as people mostly relate peace to the political aspects; even though I mostly deal with some basic crucial skills which are relevant for everyone to feel empowered and help heal people. Probably a lot of it was also because I was a woman. None the less, I strived on because I knew what I was doing and why I was doing it. I live my life on the motto “Never waste a crisis” and “Never give up”.
In Kashmir, I have done some work with at-risk youth; with orphans many of whom have lost their parents in the conflict; with young children living in at-risk areas of the state striving for better education; with some ‘half-widows’ still awaiting the arrival of their disappeared husbands; with women entrepreneurs from rural areas who are trying to earn their livelihood; and with youth struggling with mental-health and emotional wellbeing issues, along with students, teachers and other professionals. Most of my work is workshop based along with one-on-one interactions, where I use experiential activities, simulations, scenarios and exercises to get the message across through diagnostic approach, and pre and post assessments. And operating as an artist at the core level, I use various forms of art in all my work to initiate the healing process (creative writing, art journaling, clay-therapy, storytelling). In a place like Kashmir, with too much pain all across the society (trauma due to killings, loss, injuries, disappearances, brutality and violation of human rights), it becomes even more important to initiate the healing process through creative expression because Kashmir lacks substantial platforms for expression which is a basic human need, especially for women. Creativity only comes where there is discomfort and dissatisfaction; and I believe that pain/stress and creativity are very much linked. Hence, I try to help people transform their pain into creative expressions.Through Paigaam and The Kashmir Institute (a think tank I am one of the founding members of that promotes space for intellectual discussions and research), I try to support young people in exploring various psycho-social-cultural and economic issues through research and qualitative studies. I also hope to soon restart working with a small group of half-widows, and hope to start engaging with some students who have been affected by pellet-injuries and local artists; helping them create a narrative of their inner conflicts and pain through aspects of peace-psychology like healing techniques) and mental health counselling; apart from my regular workshops on various aspects of peace-psychology in Kashmir.
Once in Kashmir, I realised peace-psychology was a far cry when there was not even enough focus on psychological well-being. So I started doing free workshops – in schools, with different organisations, with half-widows, orphans, teachers, students. However, this too wasn’t easy as anything to do with peace in Kashmir is sometimes seen as controversial as people mostly relate peace to the political aspects; even though I mostly deal with some basic crucial skills which are relevant for everyone to feel empowered and help heal people.
WRN: What are your perspectives on the psychology of women in the valley affected by the conflict, and their concerns regarding peace and security?
Ufra: There’s nothing black and white in Kashmir. There are lots of grey shades everywhere in every aspect. I see Kashmiri women as changemakers; they are at the forefront of conflict, because they deal with a lot of things at home and outside which are a consequence of the protracted conflict. I do think that we are becoming numb to the reality as abnormal has become our daily normal but I also think these women exhibit great deal of resilience. The half-widows, or, women in an ongoing conflict situation like Kashmir, when they choose to not just sit in the corner of their homes –take charge of their situations and choose to consciously contribute and act accordingly, that is what resilience is, that is what peacemaking is at a basic level. But the question that lingers is whether they realise the fact that they are taking control of their lives?
Recently we have also had girls pelting stones on the street. It makes one wonder for a few minutes about whether one should be happy about women empowerment and expression in that scenario or worried about the reason why they are there. But this place has so much ongoing trauma and pain, that even these kind of spaces seem to offer relief to people. Are we really channelizing all our energy into something constructive though?The notion of empowerment here is so narrow, that one really needs to work around a lot of issues to be able to do something more than lip-service to the cause of gender-justice . Women in rural and remote areas, from lesser privileged backgrounds, widows or half-widows rarely have access to psychologists or psychiatrists. This is further confounded by a social stigma associated with approaching a mental-health counsellor. In such situations, we have had to approach these women by sometimes training them with some basic mental health skills so that they can help each other in some way. It’s a tragedy that a lot of people in Kashmir go through depression and many of them are not even aware of it. The normalisation of violence and killings in the valley is sad and scary.
It is in fact as much a critical necessity to build peace continuously around the conflict, instead of seeing Peacebuilding as an activity for a particular point in the future as I believe peace is a process, not a product.
WRN: How do you practice Peace Psychology at a personal level?
Ufra: My philosophy of peace psychology comes from an individual perspective. In Kashmir, when one talks about peace, it is immediately linked or restricted to the political definition. As a part of my peace education programs, I try to explain that peace and conflict operate at different levels ranging from inter & intra personal, to community, politics, global and the like. Political conflicts would need political solutions. But at the same time, it’s very important to understand what peace means at an individual level. What I have understood is that if you can create your own pillar of strength, if you can respond and not react to the chaos around you, if you can express all the negativity into a constructive healthy manner – that is peace to me. If one doesn’t even know or understand how to construct one’s own pieces of peace, what is there to construct tomorrow? A lot of it comes from you as an individual, and how you are shaping your environment.
From my experience in peace-psychology and wellbeing work, I can say that people seem to understand peace and freedom as futuristic concepts, as something that will happen in future. It robs people off of their present though. There’s always a shift between past and future that people experience, causing stress at a very basic level. And while achieving (political) peace is the reality that most people aspire for; we also need to cater to issues (psycho-social-economic) that are happening now, in the present such as child sexual abuse, mental health crisis, domestic violence, drug-abuse/addiction and so on.
I have often been asked about how can I think of creating peace in a situation of ongoing conflict? I say, maybe I cannot do anything/much about the political situation or at the policy level, but I cannot also just sit around and wait for “the moment” to arrive. If there is somebody depressed, I need to go and help that person, equip them with some skill, so that the person can deal/cope with what is happening in a healthier or more constructive way.
It is in fact as much a critical necessity to build peace continuously around the conflict, instead of seeing Peacebuilding as an activity for a particular point in the future as I believe peace is a process, not a product. It is at times difficult for people to understand that the dynamics of peace and conflict change every day, hence the future is also changing; it is not static. And what we do today in our present is what will determine our future.
WRN: Would you like to share any positive story which resulted from your peace education initiative and your practice as a peace psychologist?
Ufra: Whenever I work with people, I get a lot of positive response that keeps me going, especially when one has to work in a conflict zone like Kashmir. What keeps me humbled and inspired is when I see women who have actually been through a lot of misery and brutality, and how they, at their own level, are doing whatever they can. Also with the workshops I do, the core of it is about “transformation of thinking”, which makes people feel empowered in a more sustainable way and overcome the “learnt helplessness” so that they can cope with the ramifications of living in a conflict zone because when we are in conflicts/in pain/in stress, we feel helpless. But I believe we all still have certain amount of power in ourselves that we can magnify to at least understand what’s happening to us and accept what’s not working and then figure out what to do about itPeople work with the utopian belief that once this conflict is over there’ll be no other conflict, but that’s not true, because there may also be newer conflicts at different levels, ranging from personal, relationships, social, psychological or even community – and the question that we need to ask ourselves is - are we equipped to deal with those in a healthier, practical and constructive manner?
There’s nothing black and white in Kashmir. There are lots of grey shades everywhere in every aspect. I see Kashmiri women as changemakers; they are at the forefront of conflict, because they deal with a lot of things at home and outside which are a consequence of the protracted conflict. I do think that we are becoming numb to the reality as abnormal has become our daily normal but I also think these women exhibit great deal of resilience.