The first time I spoke with Tehmeena, it was in the capacity of getting to know her professionally. Having worked as a career coach and a dialogue facilitator, I have a knack towards listening to make space for that which is not directly spoken about. For this young woman, the first thing that hit me was how poised, guarded and assertive she was. I decided to probe sensitively. There was a sense of dignified hurt that seemed to lace her claim to build an assertive image. She knew she had a story and she was sensitive regarding how she wanted her story to be told. We all want to be heard for who we are. But for Tehmeena, it was now more about being heard for what she stood for. Here was an opinionated, assertive, ambitious woman who knew her stakes very well when she had rebelled at the very outset. Now she was determined to see it through till the end and she wanted to be understood for the values which has progressively shaped her position. She was conscious that her intentions should be communicated artfully and very humbly, she acknowledged that she was learning to be better at the task. I knew that it would take more than one call to dialogue with her. And looks like, I was right!
"I hail from Kashmir as you know and by Kashmiri society standards, I have earned the reputation of being a rebel early on in my life. I was bossy, assertive and argumentative as a kid but then, I only had the conscious intention to use my voice for what I understood as just and supportive of someone's rights. As a young girl, for me it was about the rights of girls in Kashmir and the need to support the cause of their empowerment, myself included. The status and condition of women in Kashmir is dismal you know. It was a deeply personal journey for me to stand for the cause of gender justice.There is so much to work on to support gender justice and advocate for policies which are inclusive of the rights and claims of women in the valley. I have witnessed it all first hand, having grown up in such an environment. If people would really see me for who I am, they would witness my struggles to get here. It wasn't easy." She paused to reflect. I decided to probe her to walk back down the memory lane. "So tell me Tehmeena, how and why do you think you came into the field of activism in the first place?"
" Ah, well. I told you right that I was an argumentative kid? So I used to receive a lot of criticism back in my school days when I chose to stand for and argue for what I believed to be right, specially with respect to what I believed was my right as a girl and what other girls should stand for. I had started noticing since my middle school days that girls were treated and groomed in Kashmir to not aspire for unconventional roles that they might have the instinct to play and aspire for. When I tried to advocate for the right of girls to live life on their own terms, their right to education, career and choice of partner, to stand for their right to resist violence and abuse, I was told that my voice didn't matter. I was told that I had to be experienced and had to have authority to be taken seriously for what I believed demanded attention. That was when I took the decision to work with an NGO right after my Standard XII. While pursuing my undergraduate degree, I chose to engage myself in field work with the NGO to learn first hand about the actual state of affairs with respect to the position and condition of women in the valley. It was an eye opening experience for me."
"Tell me more about what you learnt." I pressed on.
"I learnt about the miseries of women and the unjust community rules, conditioning which would keep women hostage to the reality of a life that is grossly unequal, filled with many an instance of violence and coercion. Women were often conditioned to believe that they couldn't have a better life. The hopelessness was scarring for me as a young girl. I gathered my data for all my arguments as I studied and explored more of the condition on the ground. I would talk to my friends in college about my findings and try to mobilize support for my cause. Soon I found myself as a part of the STEARS campaign and also led the MeToo campaign by gathering stories of abuse from Kashmir. In the STEARS campaign the focus was to build safe space for bringing to light gender stereotypes which affect women and transgenders disproportionately while MeToo was about highlighting the cases of abuse in the valley. MeToo movement was the movement which got me attention for the efforts I made to often go to the furthest corners of the valley to collect stories. Many young people could relate and started reaching out to me." It was interesting to me as I reflected how Tehmeena, who was told as a young girl that her voice didn't matter, still chose to become the voice of a community that barely trusted her to have potential. It must have been difficult as a young person, criticized and often pushed to the wall for daring to speak her truth. I waited for our young rebel to continue with her story.
"Over the years, I have found my voice supporting more than one cause though I primarily relate to the cause of Women's Empowerment in Kashmir. I was appointed Bureau Chief Jammu and Kashmir of ICN Digital Media Group where I worked for two years, interned with the Ministry of Women and Child Development, Government of India and am at present working as a policy researcher at Policy Perspectives Foundation. For me, field work and experience, data gathering and analysis are important. That is how I started my activism career to lend my voice to others. I continue to do the same even today and was eventually honoured with an opportunity to speak at the 43rd Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council on 2nd March 2020. I spoke alongside members of the European Parliament and other policy makers, esteemed dignitaries from all over the world."
"My voice matters." she asserted almost as an afterthought. At this point, I could clearly witness this young woman's grit and determination to stick to her conviction that her voice mattered. It was as if while narrating, she was growing self aware of how far she had come from being the girl who was criticized for having a voice to becoming the voice of Kashmir to the world at the United Nations Human Rights Council. Was her claim to her opinion and her journey to the UN really about representing Kashmir abroad? Can one person be made responsible for that burden when she is not even an elected official? I wouldn't look at her journey to the UN that way but I presumed that many did, and looks like, again, I was right when she shared about the criticism she received on her return. Tehmeena's journey up to the UN was much less about representing Kashmir but more about representing a possibility for Kashmiri women to have a voice at the global table of decision making. It is sad that her journey was never seen that way. Her opinions may be her own and many may disagree or differ but her determined, "never back down" spirit fueling her rebel soul has earned her my respect and admiration. Can Kashmir not celebrate this daughter's victory for the demonstrated strength of her voice? Is it really only about an ideological battle rather than the changing reality of possibilities for Kashmiri women which Tehmeena has so powerfully demonstrated by earning her place at the table of decision makers and thinkers? My attention veered back to our narrator as she spoke again.
"Ever since I returned from the UN, me and my family received a lot of criticism for the same. All my life I have struggled to live on my own terms because I believed that I had the right to the same. I have crafted my own reality finally and somewhere that has led me to the opportunities that had come my way. I am grateful for my life and am happy with the choices I made. I would urge my peers to do the same. It is important to stand for something that matters to you. We all need a purpose to live for. I hope to be an author someday!" she brightened up as our dialogue came to a close. By this time, Tehmeena seemed to finally have her guards down. The gritty young rebel seemed to feel for once that her story was in safe hands. "I hope people will see you differently after this blog Tehmeena." I tried assuring her to give her hope for some encouragement and support in her work.
"I know it will be the Best. I believe in you. And thank you once again." she replied. From being and becoming the voice of possibility for Kashmiri women, to trusting the voice of the "other" ( her Bengali counterpart) to uphold her own voice and story, we had already somewhere built trust and solidarity for the cause of a new narrative for women along the way.