by Mehk Chakraborty
An unabashed feminist who is making an impact in the lives of underprivileged children and women, Fatimah Ali is among the young change makers is Indian Occupied Kashmir.
Kashmir’s visible and documented conflict that has lasted over three decades now, escalated in the past two years, has also seen a rise in armed resistance and militancy particularly among the youth. Several reports of human rights violations, disappearances of youth and civilian casualties are among some of the visible consequences of this long drawn conflict.
Fatimah’s interests and work revolves around addressing the challenges children face, breaking the taboo of the conversation around mental health, fighting her own personal feminist struggle in a greater context of patriarchy, and using creativity as a tool to channel energies and create something constructive.
In a conversation in a café at Srinagar, Fatimah shared her work, musings on the state of mental health awareness in Kashmir, perpetuation of gender roles, the state of the LGBTQ community, and the road ahead.
Could you speak a little about the work that you are currently engaged in?
I am currently pursuing my MPhil in Clinical Psychology in Srinagar and working with numerous NGOs. I also work with Kashmiri Youth Arts Initiative (KYAI) where I mainly work with children for workshops on the arts art as a form of healing.
I had left Kashmir to pursue my graduation but I eventually came back as I wanted to work here and help my people.
As part of KYAI, I conduct different forms of workshops that employ poetry, storytelling, writing and drawing, among other modes of creative expression. Through a healing session of the arts, I try to encourage a safe space for venting and expressing trauma and aggression, while also promoting adaptive coping skills.
Why do you think art therapy is important in a place like Kashmir, where the youth have a host of mental health problems to deal with?
Kashmir is a conflict zone that has seen transgenerational anger and the atmosphere of aggression has reached even those who haven’t been subject to violence directly. Depending on where you inhabit and your socioeconomic status in Kashmir, conflict affects you in different ways, but anger has slowly become the normal and expressions of the same emotion in abusive ways is increasingly becoming common. There are children as young as 8 who I’ve seen as pretending to throw stones.
Is mental health spoken about and addressed enough?
The children are clearly fighting their own struggles with a range of mental health issues, which are not just limited to the young, such as Generalised Anxiety Disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I think in such an atmosphere of violence, art can be a constant tool of venting negativity and move towards healing. Channelisation of such emotions to creativity can really come as a big help for many here.
These issues are very common yet mental health is not at all discussed here, with the elite and upper classes showcasing higher levels of taboo. There is little awareness and a lot of denial once a mental health issue is identified.
What is your reflections on Kashmir as a feminist? How does the socio-religious and political atmosphere impact the situation?
The society in Kashmir, like many parts of the world, has strict gender norms and women are not expected to be a part of the public sphere. I have been questioned over my qualifications, desire to pursue Psychology and several lifestyle choices time and again owing to the fact that I am a woman. We live in a space where the normative is patriarchal, and my voice challenging that is definitely rooted in my identity as a feminist.
A Kashmiri woman, in my eyes, is doubly disadvantaged because of her subject position as a woman in this place. Incest is common here, women are subject to patriarchy from the general population in addition to the sexual frustration and violence inflicted by the military presence here.
I think the biggest challenge, however, is to break away from traditional gender roles more than anything, as religion and social norms have been interpreted and used as tools to reinforce patriarchy, which is not necessarily unique to Kashmir and is a larger problem of the world.
How do LGBTQ rights figure in Kashmir? Is conversation on sexuality open?
Homophobia is very common, and we have a term in Koshur for effeminate men, which is often used pejoratively, which is “lans”. Diverse sexual identities are still unacceptable and even with women who commonly identify with non-heteronormative identities and sexual identities face many problems. Sexuality is not very openly discussed here and can be considered a taboo.
Where do you see the future headed for the Kashmiri youth?
The men are going nowhere, the women have some hope.