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The Life of a Kashmiri Woman: Dialectic of Resistance and Accommodation, by Nyla Ali Khan

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L to R: My maternal grandmother, Akbar Jehan Abdullah; her mother, Rani Jee; her older brother Omar Nedou; my grandmother's father Michael Henry [Harry] Nedou aka Sheikh Ahmed Hussain, George Nedou aka Mohammad Akram, and Harry Nedou aka Ghulam Qadir.
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The author’s grandfather, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, was Prime Minister of the State of Jammu and Kashmir, a state historically fought over and trapped between Pakistan and India, from 1948 to 1953. When the two countries refused to follow through on promises to allow a referendum on the fate of Jammu and Kashmir, Sheikh Mohammad was imprisoned for advocating self-determination for the state. As Pakistan and India continued to fight over the state, the Sheikh was increasingly marginalized by both sides.

                The Sheikh’s wife, Akbar Jehan, supported her husband and was deeply involved in the politics of the state u6ntil her death in 2000. She represented the state in the Indian parliament from 1977 to 1979 and from 1984 to 1989. This book is a clearly written detailing of Akbar Jehan’s struggle for Kashmiri self-determination. It is an impressive account of Akbar Jehan’s self-actualization as an agent for change, though suppressed in her native land and, metaphorically, the author’s quest to come terms with the fate of her home state as a fundamental aspect of her own identity.

                The author’s own mother, Akbar Jehan’s daughter, has had to deal with what the author terms “unpalatable motives attributed to her parents and grotesque misinterpretations of their political, and socioeconomic ideologies.” The state itself is divided between India, which controls a large part of it, Pakistan, which continues to assert that the state rightfully belongs to it, and China, which “annexed a segment of the land in 1962. “

               The Life of a Kashmiri Woman combines personal biography of Akbar Jehan and history of her involvement in the constantly shifting political scene in her home state. The author shifts seamlessly between the two, making transitions clear to the reader by using her grandmother’s name when discussing political history and “my grandmother” when focusing more on family connections and stories. At the same time, the combination of the personal and the familial consistently demonstrates how inextricable the two are, as Jammu and Kashmir are clearly both beloved homeland and family origin. The former brings a response of sadness about the fate of the state but a sense of hope that a more just and satisfying result is still possible. That hope is grounded in the citizens’ ongoing struggle to improve the situation, which leads back to the personal.  

                Dr. Khan writes clearly, and seemingly without obvious bias, of the frequently changing political situations in her home state while interjecting the personal when it seems relevant. It becomes clear that the chosen subject—her grandmother’s agency in the struggles of Kashmir—is deeply personal to the author despite her current geographical distance from it. She accomplishes enlightening the reader about the post-partition history of the state, her grandmother’s active involvement in those events, and how much those events matter to both the people in the state and the author herself. For people in the U.S., many of whom tend to have a monolithically oversimplified view of predominantly Muslim cultures, this book’s emphasis on the important contributions of Akbar Jehan and other Kashmiri women can serve as a means to provoke questions about those overly simple views.

It seems, for the author, to be a statement of determination to work to a better solution for her home state as an extension of her grandmother’s hard work and sacrifices, despite the author’s current physical separation from the state.

This book review was written by David Ferrari, M.A., Adjunct Instructor of English at Rose State College.

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