Aasia Jeelani was one of the first journalist-activists who gave a voice to oppressed women and fought for them with all her might and heart. At a time when the armed rebellion in Kashmir was at its peak, and the killings, torture, harassment and rapes by the Indian armed forces were the norm of the day, it was a big deal to stand up to the might of the Indian forces. At a time when the oppressed had begun to accept oppression as their fate, a young woman in her 20s stood up in a male-dominated society to urge them to speak up and get their voices heard. At a time when there was no social mechanism to help the victims or when there was no religious activism to rehabilitate the valley’s ‘half widows’, the same young lady led the way. Aasia Jeelani came and went ahead of her times, perhaps. She lived the entire 30 years of her life with a purpose to serve the truth and to help the poor and the oppressed by all means possible. In doing so, she turned out to be an inspiration for a generation of souls who carry on today what she died fighting for.
Born on February 9, 1974, in Srinagar, the summer capital of Kashmir, Aasia completed her schooling from Presentation Convent Higher Secondary School, Srinagar. She graduated in science from the Government College for Women in Srinagar. Since she had a flair for writing, she pursued a master’s in journalism from Kashmir University with great enthusiasm. Aasia’s first journalism stint was as a trainee reporter and researcher with Agence France Presse’s (AFP) Kashmir Bureau from 1998 to 2001. Next, she interned with The Times of India in New Delhi for a year. Since her creative mind sought freedom in work, she left the daily in 2002 to join The Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS). This proved to be a turning point in her life. “I want to make people know what is truly taking place in Kashmir,” Aasia had said during her visit to the Netherlands in 2003. But what was exactly the reason for taking up activism, that too at a time when the situation in Kashmir was nothing short of scary? Dr Shabina Miraj, a childhood friend of Aasia and the then-president of the newly launched Kashmiri Women’s Initiative for Peace and Disarmament (KWIPD), throws light on how it all began. “In 1989, when Aasia and I were in 10th grade, the armed struggle became more prominent. Aasia, who used to live in Downtown – known for its pro-azadi people – witnessed the daily crackdowns and violence by the Indian Army,” says Dr Miraj. “Especially, when women became the victims of molestation and rape by the Indian armed forces, she decided not to suffer silently and changed for the rest of her life. She started thinking about the fate of these women who were raped and whose husbands disappeared in the custody of the Indian Army.” Dr Shabina Miraj describes how sexual violence against Kashmiri women changed Aasia. “I saw a change in Aasia. She became more interested in doing something for the people,” she says. In her initial journalism years, Aasia also worked on a monthly newsletter “Informative Missive” published by the Public Commission on Human Rights. Later in 2002, Aasia and her friends launched the Kashmiri Women’s Initiative for Peace and Disarmament (KWIPD). She became its first head. It was just a beginning. Aasia soon launched “The Voices Unheard”, a quarterly newsletter under KWIPD’s banner. It went on to bring out several stories of the suffering of women and children living under the occupation of the Indian forces. Aasia was the first editor of the popular newsletter in which she wrote most of the articles herself. She was a living example of ground reporting. Her yearning for truth took her to far off places, sometimes even near the Line of Control, in search of the stories she wanted to tell. She became a voice of the unheard miseries of people, especially women. Her work attached her personally to the victims of rights violations and gave her a reason to set up tailoring and pickle centres for widows and orphans at different places in Kashmir. On April 20, 2004, A taxi carrying her and other activist colleagues from Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), was blown up in a landmine blast in the Chandigam village of northern Kashmir’s Kupwor district. Aasia and the cab’s driver, Ghulam Nabi Sheikh, were killed on the spot while JKCCS’s senior member Khurram Parvez, (then 26), was seriously injured in the blast; his right limb was amputated later. Three other volunteers of the group also sustained injuries in the blast. “The vehicle was completely damaged. Aasia and the driver were lying on the road, unconscious,” says Sadiq Ali, one of the three volunteers who survived the blast. “We asked for help from a nearby army camp. We screamed, shouted but to no avail.” The team was on its way to verify reports of people fleeing out of fear of coercion by soldiers during a parliamentary election, when their vehicle was blown up by a landmine. Thus, Aasia became perhaps the first woman in the short history of the Kashmir conflict to have died in the line of duty. She had given a slip to her family who would have probably stopped her from taking the risky trip that most would have avoided. The news of her death came as a shock not only to her family and associates but also to all the people of Kashmir, who had known her for her work. “I was completely stunned when I was first told over the phone that Aasia had just been killed. Though I was sitting in a world far removed from the daily tragedies of Kashmir, I couldn’t help but feel an impending sense of desolation while listening to the heartbreak and anguish resonating in the voices of those who were dealing with the immediate crises on the ground. It was hard for me to witness, in those moments that those who have been humbly striving to empower Kashmiri society were now almost paralysed by a sense of powerlessness,” writes Usmaan Raheem Ahmed, a research scholar in Fletcher school of Law and Diplomacy, Harvard University in a book titled “Aasia, Martyr of Peace”.
Aasia became the voice of the unheard through her publication, “Voices Unheard”. The cover of its first volume read: “Her ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace.” It was the first magazine in conflict-torn Kashmir that highlighted the violence against women and children. It turned out to be one of the major contributions of the young activist-journalist. Through her writings, she urged the oppressed people of Kashmir not to suffer in silence. She strongly believed the stories of atrocities by the Indian armed forces needed to be told to the world outside Kashmir. In her article, “An Era of Silence”, she wrote: “It is we who have to strive for our fellow beings and devise means and ways for helping the victims and bringing the culpable to book. Our silence will go a long way in boosting the morale of the guilty who feel they can get away with anything. Silence is not always golden, it can be deadly too. Women don’t have to compromise on vulnerable issues, strong voice is needed to agitate the atrocities”. Advocate Parvez Imroz, the president of the JKCCS, says Aasia was like a war correspondent who visited far off places in search of stories of torture and rape and to record statements of rape survivors.
Aasia was one of the first activists in Kashmir who fought for and gave a voice to ‘half widows’, then a new entity in Kashmir: women whose husbands went missing in the custody of the Indian armed forces. In the very first edition of “The Voices Unheard”, Aasia highlighted cases of the missing men and the stories of half widows. There was a growing number of such cases in Kashmir during the 1990s and early 2000s. The security forces would pick up men without declaring their arrest, and later allegedly kill them in fake encounters. The whereabouts of most such men are unknown to this date. Aasia, in her first article, “And the search is on…” described the condition of half widows in quite moving words: “Women have arrived and arrived all over the world but here women have arrived to suffer and suffer in silence.” In the same article, she also wrote, “Women in Kashmir are suffering, a mother has lost a son, a sister has lost a brother, a daughter has lost a father and a wife has lost her husband. Yet all are living and braving all oddities that life has thrown at them, hoping someday, their dear ones will arrive and all the sufferings will end. And this speaks volumes about women’s emancipation in Kashmir. And until the sufferings end the search goes on and on.” Such cases of “enforced disappearances” – as they came to be known as – brought a period of pain and agony in which the women and children were worst affected. Women, most of whom waited for their husbands for years together, could not dare to stand up for their rights, including that of remarriage. The idea of remarriage for a half widow was a social taboo – it still is. Many women who remarried had to face a hostile society and even antagonistic families. Widows, who had children and wanted to remarry for economical or moral support, were afraid to take the bold step as their relatives and even neighbours would warn them of dire consequences if they contemplated the idea of re-marriage. In the second volume of “The Voices Unheard”, Aasia wrote a strong and bold piece titled “Half-widow, Half-life and Half-truth”, advocating for social and religious support for half widows who want to remarry. Aasia wrote, “Kashmiris are suffering and amidst this pain, the solutions have to be worked out. The need of the hour is that ulama come forward and educate the society about the plight and provisions in Islam so that when any such woman wants to re-marry, people should welcome and support her move, and she takes the second journey of life with a sense of ease and not guilt. Young men should come forward and offer to marry them, it is we who have to work for solutions and not depend on outsiders the way we have been depending on them to solve the Kashmir dispute, results notwithstanding.”
Aasia did not only tell the stories of the victims of human rights violations but also made efforts to organise community help for the victims. She was moved by their condition and the depressing situation. She became involved in the activities of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP). With the help of her associates, she set up a self-help group where girls from different parts of the valley were trained. The group later evolved as the Aasia Memorial Foundation. She was also a part of APDP victim-donor program in which a family of the disappeared is adopted and provided financial help. After a visit to Chennai – where Aasia had gone for training to launch self-help groups for the destitute women in Kashmir – there was a lack of response from the women victims. She shouted, “If Dalit women can make it why can’t we?” recounts the lawyer-activist Parvez Imroz. She was keen on collective action to prepare the victims for self-sustenance instead of depending on pittances. When the idea of organising self-help groups for women was discussed, Aasia urged that the same should be established in each and every village and neighbourhood of Kashmir. Aasia had said, “Let’s get started right now and it will happen in a matter of months, not years.”
The spirit of helping the needy was deep-rooted in her character. “When she was four-and-a-half-years-old, on an Eid, I gave her five rupees. With the money in her hand, she left only to come back after giving it to a poor lady,” remembers Jahan Ara Jeelani, Aasia’s mother. Aasia mother recalls how she used to enjoy marriage ceremonies. A perfection in the colour of lehenga (the bridal attire) and a variety of dresses mattered the most to her, recalls her mother. “She used to live each and every moment with great energy.” “Tears trickle down my eyes whenever I remember her. Her presence is felt. Her loss has to be endured but is unbearable. We remember her every moment, every time, while we eat and sleep. We miss her,” says Bashir Ahmed Jeelani, Aasia’s father, while tears roll down his cheeks. Aasia had also set up a foundation for poor women where they made pickles and clothes to sustain themselves. Her mother says she was not aware that the baby in her lap would one day do such a commendable work. “She would always say: ‘Mummy pray for me, as you are very near to God’s house.’” Aasia is also survived by her siblings Dr Snober Jeelani and Umar Jeelani. Human rights activist Khurram Parvez, who worked with Aasia and was also her friend, says the most important aspect of her was that she was a pious girl. “People write about her as a committed and a dedicated person. But for her, all these things didn’t matter.” Talking about her professional approach to work, Parvez recalls Aasia would often say, “If somebody wants to do something, let him do it professionally and with a sense of responsibility.”
On October 26, 2003, Aasia attended a peace management conference in Amsterdam where women activists from other conflict zones in the world such as Palestine, Iraq, the Balkans, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Kosovo, and Macedonia were in attendance. Aasia became friends with a Dutch peace activist Marjan Lucas. “She really impressed the conference. She wanted to have her story heard.” In the conference, she said, “I came all the way from Kashmir, not to listen to all of you – yes I also listen to all of you – but I also want you to listen to my story, to our story,” remembers Marjan. Towards the end of the meet, Marjan remembers praising Aasia for a scarf she wore during the conference. But Marjan didn’t know Aasia would leave a letter for her covered in the same scarf before flying back to Kashmir. “In the letter, she wrote on our friendship and she also promised me in the letter that she would see me soon in Kashmir, but that never happened,” says Marjan Lucas with moist eyes.