Qurrat-ul-ain, a writer and political commentator, has for the past five years been involved with Athwaas (which means handshake in Kashmiri language) - a peace and reconciliation initiative of WISCOMP (Women in Security Conflict Management and Peace). Registered as an NGO, WISCOMP facilitates the leadership of women in the areas of peace, security and international affairs. Beginning 2006, as part of the Track 2 diplomacy initiative, Qurrat-ul-ain is also engaged in a dialogue with people living in Pakistan Administered Kashmir.
The Athwaas initiative encourages Kashmiri women to travel to different parts of the troubled region to rebuild trust between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs; explore possibilities for reconciliation; identify and nourish peace constituencies; and articulate the concerns of women to policymakers. Today, the Athwaas women - eight of them - are engaged in active listening, trauma counselling and organising conflict transformation workshops.
A former school teacher and a single mother, Qurrat-ul-ain, 56, feels that Islam leaves no space for hatred and that Kashmiri leadership has to rise above petty politics, making Kashmir a bridge of friendship between India and Pakistan.
Recently, Qurrat-ul-ain went on a Haj pilgrimage to Mecca, despite not being a very religious person. However, the journey has equipped her better, she feels, to assist in the reconciliation process.
Q. You were part of an-all women group to Mecca. Did that create a stir, as women are traditionally not allowed to go on Haj all by themselves?
A. According to Islamic tenets, a woman cannot go for Haj without a mehram (a male companion who should be related to her). However, there is a debate on this issue. Before leaving for Haj, four of us had inquired about whether this is binding. There were different interpretations from different clerics. However, it was confirmed that women who have crossed the age of 50 can go as part of a women's group. Another group of clerics, however, opined that in times of peace a woman could go for Haj as part of a women's group or with any other group with whom she feels comfortable. However, the important thing is that even if a woman is with a male companion, at the time of Tawaf (circumambulation of the House of God in Kabba), everyone is on his/her own. Wahan to hosh hee nahin rehta aisa ruhani ahsaas hota hai (It is such a spiritual experience that we are not conscious of anything else).
Q: Why did you go on a Haj?
A: Haj is an obligation for every Muslim. It is one of the fundamentals of Islam. However, I wanted to go beyond the symbols and rituals attached to Haj and step into a space that transcended identities to experience God in a new way. When I stepped into that space, no doubt I carried within me the confluence of Islam and Sufism, consciousness of the Kashmiri syncretic culture of humanism, and my identity as a woman. But the journey melted all notions of 'isms' and I discovered my spiritual self. It was an empowering experience. In that space there was no contradiction or conflict between the different identities, they were at peace with each other, complementing and synergizing to accommodate the larger essence of humanity of which we are all a part. When we went round the Khan-e-Kaba to perform Tawaf, there was no question of segregation. It was a large sea of humanity with people from different nationalities and regions of the world, speaking different languages, irrespective of class and gender, intermingling with each other. Identities took a backseat. Faith and spirituality connected us as human beings.
Q. How do you link your faith with your peace work? Women in Kashmir do not hold religious positions - how do they reach out to share their spiritual knowledge?
A. Yes, it's true that women do not hold religious positions but they have been instrumental in shaping the psyche of the Kashmiri community in accepting each other's faith, being tolerant and, more recently, opposing extremism by rejecting diktats issued for women. Hence, from Lal Ded (a 14th century poetess) to contemporary Kashmiri women, Kashmir has witnessed and also provided space for women's spirituality to manifest and transcend the barriers of gender, religion or race. Lal Ded's vaaks (poetic verses) were more powerful than any cleric's sermons. Her vaaks permeated Kashmiri society and urged the people to look within for realization and salvation. The fact that Lal Ded was the spiritual guru of our patron saint Nund Rishi - who laid the foundation for the Rishi tradition in Kashmir, which emphasized Hindu-Muslim love and equality - speaks volumes about the spiritual space women have shared with men.
Q: But the women are suffering so much due to religion. Do they have a voice in Kashmir?
A: I am not saying that patriarchal structures and social conditioning does not oppress women. It does! Like anywhere else in the world, here, too, religion is often used as a double-edged sword, interpreted in ways that subjugate women. It happens in Hinduism as well. But what I am trying to emphasize is that in Kashmir, women have not allowed extremism to take root. Women continue to recreate shared spaces, build peace and reach out to rebuild human relationships. So, Kashmiri women's spirituality emerges from humanity and goes back to humanity.
Q. What kind of success have you been able to achieve through Athwaas?
A. I've always believed in a spirituality which emerges from humanity and goes back to it. So, through Athwaas, I have been able to reach out to the destitute and widows in the Valley. Most importantly, Athwaas has given me the opportunity to listen and accept the pain of others and create a space where women can come together to resolve differences through a process of dialogue. The mere action of reaching out to women in remote villages or to the migrant camps in Jammu, and listening to them was in itself a transformative experience not only for them as well for each one of us in Athwaas.
Q. Do you interact with the militant women groups also?
A. No. We have not directly interacted with them as Athwaas. But some members may have in their individual capacity.
Q. After Haj, has there been any change in the way you respond to situations and negotiate conflict in your daily life?
A: Definitely. I am conscious of the fact that I have to be patient and give space to my opponent. Whether it is my school, family or community, for the larger purpose of peace in relationships, I ignore small conflicts so that they do not escalate into larger conflicts. Differences will always be there, so I try to accommodate and respect these differences. I try to look for common points, on issues of agreement, and concretize friendships rather than take a confrontationist stand and create bitterness. However, when ethics and principles are at stake, dialogue becomes the best way to resolve differences.