Stuck at Home, Kashmiris Are Using Social Media to Spark Progressive Conversations

Confined to homes on account of lockdowns, Kashmiri youth are using social media effectively to target Kashmir’s taboo culture and is sparking a progressive shift.

“We had never imagined we would be chasing child predators,” declares the voiceover at the beginning of a YouTube video. It then proceeds to narrate the step-by-step account of what has probably become the first social experiment undertaken in Kashmir to unearth the prevalent paedophilia in the region.

Three young men, Muhammad Furan (22), Adnan Mir (24) and Mohammad Hisham (19) – all engineering students – were incensed when they heard that their friend’s minor sister was harassed by a man on Instagram. The episode ignited an idea to explore and discover the extent of paedophilia in Kashmir. “We immediately brainstormed on the plan,” said Furan. “We got down to work. For two to three days we worked on the pictures with which to bait the potential abusers.”

The trio solicited help from a 30-year-old female friend who offered a picture of herself, which they morphed using sophisticated photo-editing tools to make her look 14 years old. They brightened her skin colour, softened its texture, and ironed out folds and wrinkles before applying AI-enabled face filters. Software that modulates the voice was used to stretch vocal sounds as thin as possible to resemble those of a minor girl. “We produced as many different photographs of this newly minted minor as possible,” said Mir. “It took us a lot of time but eventually we managed to set the bait.”

Within 24 hours of the first photograph being uploaded, the account received more than 80 direct messages from men who sought to build a “friendship” with this mysterious minor girl. “We began receiving unsolicited pictures from men of their private parts, many users texted obscene messages. One guy even masturbated on a voice audio. We were equally disturbed to discover the kind of mindset which was already prevalent in the society but which we had never even acknowledged, let alone discussed,” said Hisham, who did most of the technical work for the project.

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As people across J&K find themselves confined to their homes on account of successive lockdowns, and as business, commercial and educational activities grind to a halt, social media-savvy Kashmiri young people have embarked on a separate journey. They are channelling their potential into different paths – part of which has resulted in a new social discourse in the Valley that’s targeting Kashmir’s taboo culture and sparking a progressive shift.

The video exposing the paedophilia became an overnight sensation in Kashmir. The web links were shared on social media extensively and the video reached thousands of users across the Valley, who probably would have never given a thought to the issue. While the effort has been largely praised, it also brought the three young men some criticism and threats. “Some people are accusing us of doing it for money,” said Hisham. “If that was the case we would have monetised our online channel, but we did not. We wanted to provoke some self-reflection in our society by initiating a discussion about child sex abuse.”

Like this student trio, 25-year-old Ahmed Hussain, who manages a popular comedy platform Jajeer Talkies (literally, hookah talkies), also broke the lockdown-induced social torpor in Kashmir with a thought-provoking conversation on casual sexism and misogyny. Last month, Hussain uploaded a video on his YouTube channel that broached the issue of female sexual harassment and prevalence of sexist attitudes within Kashmiri society.  The video featured two more young Kashmiri artists: Shoaib Shah (26) and Insha Mushtaq (26).

Ahmed Hussain manages the popular comedy platform ‘Jajeer Talkies’. Photo: Shakir Mir

In the video, Shoaib would start off sarcastically, asking the sexist questions that men usually do. In response, Insha delivered long comedy-laden monologues, using humour as a tool to hammer home the pathos behind routine sexism that women in Kashmir face. The video is interspersed with testimonies from around a dozen Kashmiri women who anonymously narrate their accounts of experiencing harassment and sexism. The women speak of casual misogyny in great detail, lending remarkable evidentiary value to the entire effort.

“The idea that animated this effort was the daily experience of patriarchy felt by women, myself included,” Insha, a student of comparative federalism at Jamia Hamdard University, Delhi, told The Wire. Insha has returned to Kashmir in view of the deteriorating COVID-19 situation in Delhi. “For instance, a few days ago I happened to jog along the famous Boulevard road that runs the entire length of Dal Lake and I found myself being followed by a man. When we girls sit together, we often reflect over this complete lack of discussion over things that matter to us. Hence I was always fired by the impulse to talk about it.”

Ahmad, who is also a proprietor of a private school in Srinagar, said that the idea to challenge regressive social attitudes occurred to them during the lockdown when he and his friends reflected a great deal over the issue. “We thought we should get serious about social issues. We already had a huge Kashmiri audience on social media on account of our previous work related to comedy and political humour. Now we decided to harness this follower base to promote right kind of ethics,” he told The Wire.

Ahmad had also been summoned by the J&K police previously over his political comedy that deployed satire as a means to slam the government over rights violations in the union territory, where press freedom is increasingly facing state censorship. “The threat worked and I had to stop talking about state oppression and find other important issues to discuss.”

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Twenty-seven-year-old Arshie Qureshi, a PhD student in Jamia Millia Islamia University, Delhi had to return to Kashmir after COVID-19 cases in the capital spiked exponentially, since contracting the infection outside her home could prove extremely troublesome. Ever since she has returned, her phone rings almost daily with callers, most of them women, complaining about domestic abuse. Arshie and her colleague Subreen Malik, who is a lawyer, were both associated with a Kashmir-based women’s group which they had recently left over some differences.

Now Arshie and Subreen have teamed up and, drawing on the network of relationships they have built over the last few years, are reaching out to distressed women who suffer domestic violence and abandonment. “We have witnessed a surge in the number of women who have connected with us during the lockdown,” Arshie told The Wire. “Our job is to mete out legal assistance. We counsel the victims in many cases and also connect them with legal aid services.”

Arshie has been one of the vanguard voices of feminism in Kashmir. She was also featured in the September 2017 issue of Feminism in India, to which she contributes frequently. In Kashmir’s conservative social milieu, she has broached issues such as campus sexism, household misogyny and the importance of the Me Too movement – subjects that rarely provoke honest conversations about the social failings that deeply affect women.

On a muggy summer afternoon in Srinagar, Arshie, spoke to The Wire about her endeavours. “We have a long way to go,” she said. “My research work concerns access to justice for women in Kashmir and when I go to the ground and speak directly to the suffering women, I realise how deep and underestimated is this morass. I come across cases I barely knew existed. Plus, the lack of any dedicated women’s groups leaves these women stranded and demoralised.”

What Subreen and Arshie intend to do is not only deliver legal assistance but also create a support structure that facilitates access to justice and offers emotional and moral support to affected women. They do not operate out of any office, nor have they given their group a formal name. “But we will be formalising this initiative soon,” she said.

This new emergent discourse also stands apart from previous attempts in that it does not dissociate itself from, feign ignorance about or proclaim aloofness from the conflict situation and the broad-based political aspirations of Kashmiris, which lean heavily in favour of political resolution through a referendum.

Often, media reports filed from Delhi paint a picture of a hidebound Kashmir, populated with religious extremists who have monopolised the discourse of ‘Azadi’. In this scheme of things, ‘Azadi’ is naturally an offspring of the religious predisposition of Kashmiris and any genuine effort to forge a culture based on universal modern values of freedom and liberty can only emerge from a mainstream Indian standpoint.

Then, there are also ethical considerations. Historian Pankaj Mishra has denounced what he calls an “emancipatory imperialism” where a mainstream Indian “civiliser” feels empowered to “show Kashmir’s overwhelmingly religious Muslims the light of secular reason – by force, if necessary.”

In practical terms, it translates into support for the use of unrestrained force and curtailment of civil rights in Kashmir – recall the sale of T-shirts lionising the use of a human shield – going hand in hand with calls for “modernising” Kashmir. It’s no accident therefore that Kashmiris often find this line of thought, which seems straight from the playbook of John Stuart Mill, as repulsive as it is patronising.

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As Kashmiri blogger Arsilan Aziz explained, while reviewing mainstream Indian commentary about Kashmir,  “Emphasis on the Islamic appearance is seen in most of the reports… men are mentioned with beards and women with headscarves, implying that the population is protesting because they have been radicalised. The bogies of Sharia, Ummah, and radicalisation are repeated one after the other. Kashmiris cannot be radical liberals, or communists, etc., but only radical Islamists — a monolith.”

A lot of Kashmiris understand and resent this arbitrary compartmentalisation. “Plenty of such observers from outside suffer from this saviour complex,” Arshie explained. “It’s like we don’t have the agency of our own, or Kashmiris as a society cannot marshal a decisive battle against misogyny and patriarchy. When they abrogated Article 370, they cited empowerment of women as one of the reasons but it’s ironical that to achieve its abrogation, they imposed measures that deeply affected women. This politicisation of discourse regarding women’s emancipation is both repugnant and at the same time duplicitous.”

Like Arshie, Insha too is aware of the layered nature of Kashmiri society and the complex mosaic of beliefs and experiences that underpins their political aspirations. She is as erudite with her words as she is articulate. “It’s not only societal patriarchy that affects us but also the military besiegement of Kashmir which is locally called occupation,” she said. “After all, the discourses of territorial control and domination are also suffused with metaphors of masculinity. The Kunan Poshpora mass rape case and Shopian rape and murder case will always be imprinted into our minds, because they happened at the time when we were coming of age.”

While the youngsters have also become the target of a backlash from conservative segments of society, they have so far shown an undaunted spirit. “We are going to use our platforms for these very ends now,” said Ahmad. “This is for first time we managed to carve a toehold of space to discuss and raise these issues in public. We won’t reverse the gains.”

Shakir Mir is a Srinagar-based journalist.