Breaking shackles, she carves a niche for herself

Breaking shackles, she carves a niche for herself

In patriarchal Kashmiri society where women empowerment is considered ominous to male dominating social setup, she shed the traditional image to realise her dream of carving a niche for herself and help women. She aims to empower women in conflict-ridden Kashmir as they face the challenges of high unemployment and marginalisation.

She has trained over 150 people as “barefoot” counselors in the region, mostly to support women who are experiencing tension and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of the conflict.

Ezabir Ali, in her late 40s, is from an upper middle class family in Srinagar with ancestral “lineage” from the Chak dynasty of the last king of Kashmir Yousef Shahi Chak. She has reached out to women affected by 25 years of conflict as a healer to help them deal with stress, trauma and tensions related to living in an abnormal situation as there is a cultural taboo and stigma generally associated with going to a psychiatrist for help.

“Decades of conflict have left deep scars on the psyche of the people in Kashmir, especially women. There was need to respond to the challenges faced by people living in the abnormal conditions of Kashmir where everyday life had become a story of struggle and survival in the uncertain surroundings,” Ezabir told Deccan Herald.

She is committed to motivating women to form self-help groups. “Thousands of women in the state have become widows and their children orphans due to the conflict. They have lost breadwinners, leading to frustration and suicidal tendencies among them. I have organised some of these women into groups to save corpus money and introduced them to the concept of thrift and credit. Due to this, 1,500 women have formed 100 SHGs and they have  enabled them to live with dignity,” she said.

Ezabir did her basic schooling from Nyeri, in Kenya,  where her father A M Mir, a retired IAS officer, was posted as an Advisor to the government of Kenya, and then returned to Kashmir in early 1980s. She completed Master’s in English Literature from Kashmir University and later went to England to do her Master’s in Development Studies from University of East Anglia, Norwich.

A Commonwealth professional fellow and Harvard alumna, she attended the 58th session of United Nations Commission on Status of Women last year in New York and presented a paper on the psychological trauma among half widows in Kashmir.

Asked what inspired her to be a social worker despite being educated in the West, she said: “In late 1980s when I was in Kashmir University one of my batchmates was shot dead by police during a protest rally.

It came as a shock to me. Then, after a few months, one of my close friends’ father, belonging to the Hindu community was shot dead by unidentified persons. The subsequent years of terror, madness and mayhem across Kashmir prompted me to respond to the situation on ground.

“In early 1990s, I volunteered my services to a non-profit, non-political organisation that started working in rural areas to provide community health and development related activities. The organisation trained literate girls from various villages and imparted basic training to them to help people in their areas by providing basic health care facility,” she said.

“During my stint with the organisation I organised participatory workshops for creating awareness on gender health and sexuality issues for women, particularly for women living in rural areas,” she added.

And when violence decreased in Kashmir, Ezabir did a mapping exercise to document the experiences of women from different backgrounds, professions, regions and ethnicity. The exercise’s aim was to look at possible ways to enhance women’s role and involvement in peace building. She wanted them to suggest a way forward not only in terms of what everyone can do to make their positions better but also what they themselves would like to do for the same.

“I also tried to build understanding of issues faced by directly affected women from the two polarised communities (Muslims and Pandits) so that the narrative of blame game which dehumanises the other is done away with. As a result of this involvement, I have been able to link women in the three regions of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh so that a common understanding of the issues pertaining to women is reached,” Ezabir says.
Conflict has had its own consequences, but mostly it has led to the silent suffering of women. “I have been working to bring women on a common platform so that they can share their pain and hopes for the future. Unrest and conflict have affected women very deeply and if they are included in peace processes things that affect them specifically can be tabled as well. It’s time for a change, Ezabir believes.

She says her family encourages and supports her in her work. “While my mother and daughter are a source of strength, my father encourages me to find innovative ways to address and contribute to building sustainable peace. He has never let me give up when I feel low and pushes me to continue my journey.”

Involved in “Athwaas” and “EHSAAS,” a gender peace-building group, Ezabir has been instrumental in the breakthrough consensus agreed by Islamic scholars, allowing Kashmir’s half widows (women whose husbands have disappeared but are not yet declared deceased) to remarry after a wait of four years. This ruling had an enormous impact on hundreds of women, many from rural communities, who often live impoverished lives after their husbands’ disappearance. 

Ezabir has not only exhibited her leadership skills by addressing this
challenging task of bringing religious scholars and ulemas of all sects on one platform to reach the consensus but also has contributed constructively to dealing with a burning issue that was being faced by this hapless lot.

She has earned a name for herself in the field of peace building, women
empowerment and development at the international level. This year, her name figured as one of the runners-up for an award on International Women’s Day among six women across globe whose work was appreciated and highlighted. On being asked about it, Ezabir smiles and says, “I am just doing my bit. I am humbled.”

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