Inverse Journal presents an excerpt from the first chapter (“The Politics of Mourning”) of Resisting Disappearance: Military Occupation & Women’s Activism in Kashmir (Zubaan, 2020) by Ather Zia. The selections presented here are part of a book produced from the combination of rigorous academic research and a decade of robust fieldwork coupled with the capacity to present ethnography through a poetic language that the text internally innovates upon.
Ather is no stranger to poetic and creative writing, literary and narrative journalism, and anthropological poetry. As a result, the convergence of these is apparent in the way her book documents and attests to the experiences of the many Kashmiris seeking justice, truth, and answers. The text also functions as a dark travelogue of sorts mapping the state of continued injustice and abject conditions of violence—both overt and covert—enforced upon those who are at the center of its subject matter. A poem at the end of the introduction to the book is also included here.
In a Kashmir occupied as much by silencing as it is by militarization, the communication of human experience requires new linguistic tools that in certain ways can best be facilitated by the complexity of a poetry that emerges in the telling of countless human stories. Zia’s book successfully innovates upon that poetic language to document and present the experiences of its Kashmiri subjects, while preserving the core of its academic research and fieldwork required to cohesively propel such a text forward. In doing so, Zia’s book transcends any formal boundaries dictated by genre, form, and style to produce a text that sets a new standard of its own. The result is a humanization of those dehumanized and a visibilization of those invisibilized and ignored—a task that, in many ways, is central to anthropological and ethnographic enquiry.
These selections from Resisting Disappearance: Military Occupation & Women’s Activism in Kashmir are published here with permission from the book’s publisher, Zubaan. Inverse Journal has included an independently curated visual bibliography with links and media relevant to the book and its author.
you are always arriving
in the night,
during the day
brushing against me
you are always arriving
now, the door stays open
I am not afraid
of the soldiers or mice
now, only you arrive
all fear is gone
THE POLITICS OF MOURNING
It was the cold winter of 2009, and I was on my way to the home of senior APDP activist Zooneh. She lived with Babli and Lali in a two-room tenement in the historic city of Srinagar, Kashmir’s summer capital. Huge piles of frozen trash surrounded the home. Stray dogs, an increasing menace in Kashmir, were searching through the offal, trying to loosen bits to eat. Amid the barking of hungry dogs, I entered the decrepit house and was about to close the door behind me when Zooneh asked me to “leave the door a little open.” At the height of an excruciating winter, when most Kashmiris I knew had sealed the cracks in their windows with old newspapers and plastic sheets, I found this fragile woman keeping her door half-open. I did not think much of Zooneh’s decree, and throughout my visit that day I tried to stay far from the draft that continuously whipped through the open crack.
Gradually, as Zooneh opened up to me, I realized that she had a habit of keeping the door of her home a little ajar, to ease what she expressed as wutarr (feverishness/discomfort) and damm (choking). As my fieldwork progressed, the symbol of the door attained an important and meaningful place in my ethnographic observations. Zooneh often invoked the symbol of the door in various contexts. Sometimes she explicitly said, “I can never fully close my door. If I do, I feel as if I am being choked; it gets dark before my eyes. I keep my door a little open. . . . I feel like [her son] Syed Ahmed is just outside, waiting to come in. How can I just close it?”
DOORS AND HAUNTING SPECTERS
In this ethnography, specters—ghosts of the disappeared—become visible-invisible in the lives of those who are living. The door is established as a spectral space—the threshold of being and presence, life and death, specters and ghosts, of departure and return. As an animated space where the return of the disappeared is conjured over and over, where Syed Ahmed is suspended in a state of return, without ever arriving, the door is a potent symbol of the continuing work of mourning: a politics of resistance. The figure of the ghost and the experience of haunting provides a framework for understanding the politics of mourning and how the disappeared body fuels the emerging experiences of resistance to the Indian military occupation.
Some of my other research participants also had a telling relation with doors, in that they did not feel comfortable locking them when they went out. Most of them, Zooneh included, made a point of ensuring that someone stayed at home. They would say, “What if someone was to arrive when we are not home?” This is an iteration of the common Kashmiri maxim that “a door should never remain closed.” Most Kashmiris use this phrase to convey a compassionate openness, a ready state of altruistic reception: What if someone in need drops by, even just for a visit? For the families of the disappeared, this ethos has become a habit heightened in intensity, ritual, and meaning, as the families are always in a state of waiting for the disappeared to return.
Sadaf Jaan, whose husband had been disappeared by the Indian army, always kept a key under a brick in her yard. She and her husband had had this arrangement before he was disappeared, where he would let himself in if he arrived home before her. The irony of Sadaf’s action was that she lived in a rented room, where she had moved after her husband was disappeared. If her husband was ever to return, he would not know where she lived, much less be expected to retrieve the key from the designated place. In constantly engaging with the idea of the disappeared’s arrival, the partially open door appears as a symbol of hope for the physical return of the beloved. The door serves as an icon of loss, mourning, agency, and resistance. Syed Ahmed, for Zooneh, is a continuously absent presence, invisible between apparitions, and enacted as a kind of invisible visibility, a haunting. Hence the door is a threshold where Syed Ahmed is established as a specter, always hovering outside and waiting to come in.
 Founded in 1994 by Parveena Ahangar and Parvez Imroz, the APDP is a network of parents, relatives, and other concerned people dedicated to searching for disappeared Kashmiri men. Currently both founders head individual APDP groups.
 Zooneh, interview with the author, 2009, Srinagar.
About the Book
In Kashmir’s frigid winter a woman leaves her door cracked open, waiting for the return of her only son. Every month in a public park in Srinagar, a child remembers her father as she joins her mother in collective mourning. The activist women who form the Association of the Parents of the Disappeared Persons (APDP) keep public attention focused on the 8,000 to 10,000 Kashmiri men disappeared since 1989. Surrounded by Indian troops, international photojournalists, and curious onlookers, the APDP activists cry, lament, and sing while holding photos and files documenting the lives of their disappeared loved ones. In this radical departure from traditionally private rituals of mourning, they create a spectacle of mourning that combats the government’s threatening silence about the fates of their sons, husbands, and fathers.
Drawn from Ather Zia’s ten years of engagement with the APDP as an anthropologist and fellow Kashmiri activist, Resisting Disappearance follows mothers and “half-widows” as they step boldly into courts, military camps, and morgues in search of their disappeared kin. Through an amalgam of ethnography, poetry, and photography, Zia illuminates how dynamics of gender and trauma in Kashmir have been transformed in the face of South Asia’s longest-running conflict, providing profound insight into how Kashmiri women and men nurture a politics of resistance while facing increasing military violence under India.
About the Author
ATHER ZIA is a political anthropologist, poet, short fiction writer, and columnist. She is an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology and Gender Studies programme at the University of Northern Colorado Greeley. Resisting Disappearance: Military Occupation and Women’s Activism in Kashmir won the 2020 Gloria Anzaldua Honorable Mention award, the 2021 Public Anthropologist Award, and the Advocate of the Year Award 2021. She has been featured in the Femilist 2021, a list of 100 women from the Global South working on critical issues. She is the co-editor of Resisting Occupation in Kashmir (2018), A Desolation Called Peace (2019) and Can You Hear Kashmiri Women Speak? (2020). She has published a poetry collection The Frame (1999) and another collection is forthcoming. In 2013 Ather’s ethnographic poetry on Kashmir won an award from the Society for Humanistic Anthropology. She is the founder-editor of Kashmir Lit and is the co-founder of Critical Kashmir Studies Collective, an interdisciplinary network of scholars working on the Kashmir region.
RESISTING DISAPPEARANCE: MILITARY OCCUPATION AND WOMEN’S ACTIVISM IN KASHMIR
Affective Politics and Disappearance in Kashmir - Brunel University Research Archive (BURA)
Review of Ather Zia. Resisting Disappearance: Military Occupation and Women’s Activism in Kashmir. University of Washington Press, 2019, pp. 267.
University of Toronto
Enforced Disappearance and Everyday Life in Kashmir - Political and Legal Anthropology Review
“Enforced Disappearance and Everyday Life in Kashmir”: Review of Ather Zia’s Resisting Disappearance: Military Occupation and Women’s Activism in Kashmir (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2019), in Political and Legal Anthropology Review (2020)
Johns Hopkins University