Award-winning author, instructor and scholar, Farhana Quazi, has spent almost 20 years traveling throughout the Muslim world to understand political Islam, extremism and the roots of conflict. Her focus is on global conflict, terrorism, as well as women in war and peacekeeping. Her book, “Secrets of the Kashmir Valley” is a book that explores the conflict in Kashmir through the eyes of the women who’re living and surviving there every day. Based on one-to-one conversations, readers become aware of the struggles for women in the land known as “paradise on earth.”
We connected with Farhana recently to learn a bit more about her and this ground-breaking book.
What inspired you to write Secrets of the Kashmir Valley?
When I visited Kashmir, I was moved by the immense beauty and tragedy of the place. Western travelers have called Kashmir “Paradise on Earth” and “Wonderland.” But in Paradise, there are over 800,000 Indian soldiers—that’s one soldier for every eight civilians. Kashmir is the world’s most militarized zone and I wanted to meet the women to understand their struggles and sacrifices. My book is a collection of their stories because they cannot tell them for fear of being killed or arrested. Thus, the book is the secrets of the valley.
As a scholar, there are many ways you could have written a book about the Kashmir Valley and the conflicts in the region. Why did you decide to go there personally and interview women?
There are many books on the politics of war and so few about the people inside war. The only way you can understand any conflict/war is to talk to its people and know them—their love stories, dreams, tragedies, fears, and hope for the future. A people make a place, not the other way around.
What was the most memorable or impactful moment of the trip for you?
I met a woman named Mugli, who was once called “the lonely mother” and she spent nearly 20 years looking for her son, who went “missing” during the 1990s uprising. The truth is her son was among hundreds of young men that the Indian Army captured—arrested and killed. Mass graves were discovered years later and her son could have been in one of those graves. She never found her son and after I completed the book, I found out she died. She touched me deeply. If you are a mother, you will understand the fear and dread of searching for your missing child. I cannot imagine living this way. Her son was not a militant or political activist. He was just a math teacher. When I left her, Mugli said to me, “I just want to hug his grave.” That is the most powerful statement in the entire book for me.
How did gathering these stories and writing this book change you as a person, as a scholar, and/or as an author?
Kashmir forever changed me. When you meet women (and men) living on the edge, trying to survive another day in conflict, you feel so humbled and blessed for what you have. I was born in Pakistan and grew up in America. I have every luxury here, from a private school education to access to health care. I can go out; I can speak freely without being tortured. The Kashmiri people do not have these basic civil and human rights. I can never forget these people. They taught me two things: to speak up for truth and to be grateful to God every single moment for what I have in America.
What are some of the most common myths or misunderstandings that you come across about Kashmir, and/or the women of Kashmir?
Many people see Kashmir as a traditional, conservative society where most women wear the headscarf. They see village women. What they do not see is that in all of India, Kashmiri women are the most literate and that’s a fact. Most girls go to school, and then college. They are some of the brightest and most intelligent women I have met, and I admire their activism. One woman, whose son also “disappeared,” started the silent protest movement and other women like her hold photographs of their loved ones (dead or alive, no one knows) in silent protests. That is so powerful. Another woman, who was falsely accused of terrorism and in jail for five years until her release, started a political activist organization for women. She said to me, “I am married to the cause of freedom.” These are brave women, who are not sitting in their kitchens or raising families. Even those with families come to the streets and protest, calling for freedom and the right to self-determination.
Your book tells the stories of women from all walks of life across Kashmir including mothers, daughters, activists, widows, fighters, martyrs, prisoners and more. Are these women all so vastly different or is there a commonality they share that’s being expressed in different ways?
Women in any place and conflict will have their differences, but despite this, the common thread for all Kashmiri women is freedom. Again, freedom is a basic human right guaranteed to all of us by the Geneva Convention and the United Nations. All people can agree that freedom is a right that should never be denied to a people. Kashmiris are under extreme lockdown today and they are not allowed to move outside their homes; they are trapped in a giant prison and the Indian Government justifies this in the name of a “New Kashmir” and peace and development. But the Kashmiri people do not feel at peace in their own homes. On August 5, 2019, their special status was taken away from them by Prime Minister Modi, India’s far-right Hindu extremist leader. India is no longer secular but an extremist government that oppresses Christians and Muslims—the violent ideology of Hinduvata justifies the subjugation of Kashmiris and all Muslims and Christians throughout India. Kashmir is one of many conflicts in India today.
Kashmir has a Muslim majority. For many Americans, there is a prejudice against Muslims due to misunderstanding Islam. What do you most hope readers come to understand as they read these women’s stories about Islam and being a Muslim woman?
Islam is a peaceful, merciful and tolerant religion, and this is how Kashmiris have lived. While Kashmir is about 70% Muslim, they have lived peacefully with Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, Sikhs and more. The practice of Islam in Kashmir is one that embodies peaceful co-existence and tolerance of all faith. The religious divide has not come from within Kashmir but from the Indian Government which has oppressed Muslims in Kashmir and in other places inside India, such as the state of Gujrat. India has also oppressed other people, who are non-Muslim, including the Naxalites because India wants to claim their resources and land. This is about power, not religion.
Today, you have a distinguished career in counter-terrorism, humanitarian work, and as a scholar and teacher. If the woman you are now could talk with the woman you were at 18, what would you say to her?
Be prepared for pain. Be ready to stand up for truth because it is the right thing to do. Be ready to embrace a life of activism and education because this is what Islam asks you to do—stand for justice and peace. Do not be afraid of slander, criticism, and isolation. Know that God is always with you.
What’s next for you?
I am writing my first novel, a love story called “Postcard from Kashmir” because I want to bring Kashmir to the West in fiction. Not everyone will be able to read my painful stories in my non-fiction work, and so, I think fiction will allow me to engage more readers who want to read multicultural romance and learn about a new place. The story is set in Texas, my childhood state, and the family is Kashmiri, so as the story goes, the main character, Sarah, will visit her grandmother in Kashmir. In this way, I want to bring Kashmir alive to the fiction reader. Kashmir really is a breathtakingly beautiful place and many tourists visit it every day, despite the conflict. My hope is to bring Kashmir to America.
What can readers do if they want to get involved or help the women of Kashmir in some way?
I write to spread awareness. I encourage people to read all you can about Kashmir today; follow the news of the lockdown and then post it on your social media. Spread the news. Education is the first step to global change.