Lal Ded, Habba Khatoon and Arnimal - Kashmir has had a rich tradition of women poets. Ded was a 14th century Sufi poet, Khatoon sang beautiful verses during the 16th century and Arnimal was known for her songs in the 18th century. But later years saw women poets lose their prominence. Surprisingly, during the insurgency years of the 1990s, some brave new women poets emerged in Kashmir. Among them, Naseem Shafai, 49, made her mark; she is the first woman poet who started writing in Kashmiri. (Ded, Khatoon and Arnimal belong to the era of oral literature). Shafai - a college teacher - has seen violence at close quarters: militants shot at her journalist husband. But this did not stop Shafai from writing against the violence unleashed by the militants and by the Indian security forces. Her poetry expresses what her state has suffered in the past decade and a half.At the recent South Asian women writers' meet in New Delhi, organised by the Women's Initiative for Peace in South Asia, Shafai spoke of the need for a humanist approach towards the Kashmir issue.Q: As a poet, how do you view the turmoil that Kashmir has been going through for so many years? A: It is heartbreaking to see my beautiful land reduced to a battlefield in the past decades, with militants on one side and the security forces on the other. For centuries, invaders passed through Kashmir. But Kashmiris have witnessed the worst during the recent years.The loss of what we consider simple joys finds its way into one of my poems: "Not impossible/But difficult it has become/ For the two lovers/ To walk on the banks of the Dal Lake/ Into the moonlit night". Q: What do you think are the reasons for this violence?A: Kashmir has become a pawn in the power game between India and Pakistan. Both countries want the land of Kashmir but no one seems to be bothered about the Kashmiri people, who have suffered so much in these times. The suffering of women has been the greatest. Never before were there so many widows and orphans in Kashmir. Women have been sexually abused both by militants and security forces. And one of the saddest events has been the large-scale migration of the Kashmiri Hindus out of the state.Q: Do you think the Kashmiri Muslims could have stopped the large-scale migration?A: How could they have stopped it when they were not sure of their own safety? In fact, many Kashmiri Muslims too had to migrate because their businesses were ruined and their safety was threatened. And those who live there live under threat. I have borne the violence in my own life. My husband, Zafar Miraj, who is a journalist, became a target for the militants in 1995. He was shooting a feature for a television channel when he was shot twice in the abdomen. It was a miracle that he survived. Soon after, he went into depression and it took many years to bring him out of that. Our only son - then studying in Class 9 - moved to Delhi to the home of our Kashmiri Hindu friends. He lived there for three years to finish school. The communities of Kashmir were very well knit. What is amazing is that all this violence has not been able to cause a rift between them.Q: What is the way out?A: I am against all forms of violence, be it a mere slap or a gunshot. The real problem is of Kashmiri identity. We have been ruled by the Mughals, the Sikhs and the Dogras. We have never really had our say, for we have been very peace-loving. But this does not imply that we are willing to erase our identity. Let those who want our land speak to us in our language and know what we want. Personally, if someone went to so much trouble, I would give away the space reserved for my grave as I do not own any land. We live in a rented home.Q: As a poet did you have to struggle to make a place for yourself? A: We have had a glorious tradition of poets but they all belonged to the oral culture. I was the first woman to start writing poetry in Kashmiri. (Before her, some women wrote poetry, but only in Urdu.) I started writing when I was in my early 20s. I got encouragement from my husband, his family and my Kashmiri teacher. However, I cannot say the same about the male poets, who rarely had a word of praise for me. But I continued to struggle and my first anthology of poems - Dar Cemutzrith (Open Window) - came out in 1999. I was able to open the window of opportunities. Now there are a number of young women writing in Kashmiri and that makes me very happy.Q: What do you usually write on? What do you think are your strengths as a woman poet? A: I usually write on women's lives. Women always have a richer storehouse of vocabulary that they inherit from their mothers and grandmothers. Whenever I used new words and expressions in my poems, my teacher would ask where I learnt them from. Women also bring to poetry or other genres of literature a whole new area of experience and vision. These have been my strengths too. Q: What is your dream for Kashmir, once described as `paradise on earth'? A: Yes, it was described as paradise on earth and so it was. But now it is described as paradise lost. My generation has seen a lot of violence and bloodshed. We have seen our dreams blown to smithereens. I hope and pray that this will not be the Kashmir that will pass on to the coming generations. I am a college teacher and it wrenches my heart to see pain and fear written on young faces. My prayer for them in verse is: "My prayer goes to them. I'll sing them psalms/ May the new moon ever/ Shine in their sky."
April 25, 2004, Women's Feature Service