Memory as Ammunition: What are Kashmiri Women Poets telling us?

Wande Photo by Sameer Bhatt

Kashmir is bursting with women poets who are using Kashmiri language and diction to write searing poetry of its contemporary life. Muntaha Amin features three of them. 

Language is the carrier of culture writes Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, a post-colonial African writer and academic. He believes that colonization takes place in various spheres that include administration,  politics, economics and culture. Cultural colonization according to him, is ensured by controlling the languages of the colonized communities .

Kashmir’s multiple colonization’s, first by the British under the tutelage of a Dogra Maharaja and now by Indian state, whose overt attempts at cultural colonization are all too clear - has had its impact on the Kashmiri language. There has been a tendency to consider the native Kashmiri language as inferior and its usage as a means of communication has been discouraged in public spaces such as the government offices, and educational institutions. Other languages like Urdu, Hindi and English have been given preference over Kashmiri. As the poet Nighat Sahiba rightly points out, an environment has been nurtured where “lakchaar pethaiy chu doadik peth chanawni yiwan ais yi inferiority complex (We are being fed this inferiority complex from childhood itself – like medicine for an ailment).”

However Kashmiri language was not always struggling in the margins as poetry by Kashmiri women in the past illustrates. At a time when there was hardly any vocabulary of modern feminism, Kashmiri women poets like Lal Ded, Habba Khatoon, Arnimal, Rupa Bhawani and Retsh Ded enriched the Kashmiri language with their rich, spiritual and cathartic poetry that  articulates their pain and cries against patriarchy.  

In contemporary Kashmir, there has been a steady decline in the study of Kashmiri and production of literature. While Kashmiri remains the primary language of communication within families and society, it seems to be eroding within the educational and public sector.

Despite such a bleak scenario, it is heartening to observe that a lot of Kashmiri women are writing in the language. These contemporary poets have written about diverse themes such as feminism, occupation, rebellion, romance, women and religion, existentialism, non-conformism, while challenging narratives that portray women as victims and questioning established customs and dogmas of the society.

I interacted with some contemporary Kashmiri women poets and asked them about their experiences and writing.



A telecom engineer by profession, Srinagar-based Rumuz writes under a pen-name.

She began her literary pursuits as a translator of classical and contemporary Kashmiri poetry into English and has translated select works of poets like Habba Khatoon, Amin Kamil, Mehjoor, Shaad Ramzan and Rehman Rahi into English.

Currently, she is working on a translation project with the J&K Cultural Academy, on select Kashmiri poetry of Abdul Ahad Azad. She is also a member translator in Project Simurgh which has been conceived by Sangam House, a Bangalore based art NGO. This project aims at creating and nurturing a new breed of translators for the Kashmiri language.

Of late, she has been writing her own poetry in both Kashmiri and English which has been published in various online magazines like KashmirLit, Kashmir Reader as well as  University of Kashmir Journals and Sheeraza's special edition on Contemporary Poets of Kashmir.

Rumuz describes her writing as an attempt in ‘‘redefining the relationship of man …particularly a woman with God, challenging victimhood and despondency narratives about women, conflict/resistance in Kashmir from a gendered perspective. I have also tried to answer or raise the questions around broader contours of human existence and our ideas of love, life, relationships and death,” she says.

Yi kaem bandan mye kor
butt khana seenas
Yaad chaeni chamm sataawaan.


bu chas chaen akh
addleach takhleeq
yoas tche
dunyaahas pushraevith
ta'ameel baapath
woan kyaazi chhukh haeraan
agar akh gazal
banay marsee.


Zoon mochchi manz
Taarakh kochchi manz
Toati oas tanha..

(moon in his hands

Stars in his lap

Still he remained lonely.)

Rumuz says she began writing as ‘a reaction to certain things in life and perhaps to overcome certain degrees of powerlessness’.

Rumuz believes that the gradual erosion of the Kashmiri language is nothing new and is “true of every other vernacular language” in the world.

“The whole world is bearing the brunt of homogenization and tyranny of uniformity exercised by those in power. However, I strongly believe that there have been more internal reasons than external for this language to have crumbled like this. No great thought or intellectually stimulating work has been produced in this language for a long time. If at all something was, it was poorly marketed and dispassionately discussed. There was a certain kind of cultural inferiority attached to its public dissemination. Parents disowned the language, society at large saw no incentives in the same, the government showed total apathy towards the preservation, improvisation, publication, production, of works of art, music, literature or even academic research in the Kashmiri language.  It is almost after a gap of one hundred years that Prof. Shafi Shauq published a dictionary for the Kashmiri language, after Griersons Kashmiri dictionary in the 1920’s.”

Rumuz believes that with time women have started writing differently. She says that with time the manifestations of patriarchy and misogyny had also changed. “I see modern Kashmiri women writers take the times head-on . Women writers have stopped being the stereotypical examples of parroting personal victimhood.”

They talk about universal conflict, freedom, empowerment, self-reliance, power structures, societal normalization of discrimination and of course, resistance.

Women poets are contributing to the literary landscape of Kashmir and Rumuz is of the view that this ‘diversity is beauty and respecting diversity is justice.’

 “Voices of new women poets reinforces this system of justice. You cannot call any literary landscape vibrant, fair and just unless it removes the barriers of gender, caste, creed and social standing.


Nighat Sahiba

Despite being a science student the passion for literature made it beyond the realm of habit for Nighat Sahiba, a poet from Islamabad (Anantnag) district of Kashmir, to spend most of her time in the library. The time spent in the library let her passion for literature and poetry grow leaps and bounds. 

Born in the eighties, Nighat Sahiba is a teacher by profession and like many other women in Kashmir has experienced very first doses of patriarchy first at home followed by the society and finally in literary circles. She would initially share her poems on social media platforms like Facebook and the appreciation she received would encourage her to write more. But as her poems began to gain more audience, negative questions were raised about her ability to write moving poetry and allegations of plagiarism were also made. She says it seemed too difficult for male-dominated literary circles to accept that a young woman is capable to have such creativity to be able to write like that.

But it was not the same throughout. Soon enough, her poetry was appreciated by established doyens of Kashmiri language which set the path for her to carve out her own niche in male-dominated literary circles.

Nighat Sahiba says she hasn't read any of the old poets of Kashmir valley like Habba Khatoon or Lal Ded but has religiously read contemporary writers like Rahman Rahi, Amin Kamil, Muzaffar Azim, Shafi Shauq, Shahnaz Rasheed and others. She believes that the Kashmiri language is very rich and expressive and one does not need to go that extra mile to learn the complicated grammar nuances to express one’s basic feelings and opinions.

“Myriad possibilities of expression in multiple ways emerge when one starts expressing in mother tongue,” she says.  

Nighat Sahiba is now slowly emerging as a major literary figure and has experimented with almost all the metrical forms, all the meters of prosody and accomplished the feat brilliantly. Not many male writers have been able to do that.

Most of the modern day poets aren't even aware of metrical norms, says Professor Shauq. He further says while reviewing Zard Pannik Daer that, “there is an acute sense of absurdity and meaninglessness. The imagery is great. It is original and genuine, the kind of poetry which is very very rare these days.”

Cover Page of Zard Panik Dyer

In 2014, Sahiba was awarded the Akbar Jaipuri Memorial Award for her contribution to Urdu poetry & in 2017 Sahitya Academy awarded her the Yuva Puraskar for her Kashmiri poetry collection Zard Paniek Daer (Pile of Pallid leaves).

Her poetry – much like Lal Ded and Habba Khatoon, is replete with resentment and questions against patriarchy. She also writes existentialist poetry about the occupation. Her writing is a protest against the established beliefs.

"Rawun mashraw wich kya rudie,

Mat anteh ghody sahlaab achan,

woth near wanukh meh chih khwaab achan".

She urges women to declare their eyes are for dreams not tears.

Why the title of Zard Pannik Daer I ask her.

"Autumn in Kashmir, is the most beautiful and thought-provoking part of the year. Everything is going to end and sometimes endings are beautiful. Rustling leaves are cries of dead generations as if people are singing songs underneath one's feet when one tramples the leaves, the leaves are telling you stories. Likewise, in my life as well, there are piles of withering leaves, dead skin, pain that makes a lot of noise. By my words, I try to draw the pain out of me. Questions that often bother me are why are things the way they are, who are we, where have we come from, where will we return ultimately. Why is there so much misery all around?"

At this point, I interrupted to ask her if she is religious?

The question breaks her into a laugh. 

I interrupted to ask her if she is religious? "I am glad you asked this question as most of the journalists don’t ask about it. If believing in God is religious, then of course I am but if it is to follow the familial and social conditioned set up then-No. I am spiritual you can say. We need to step out of our familial and social conditioning and introspect ourselves about the very purpose of our own existence."

She writes:

Meh zaradh panuk chu wardhan Katih Sontahkal Samkhy

Me Talaash karnah bapat mathaw ishtihaar sadkan

(I am wrapped in pallid clothes made of autumnal leaves

and you ask me to meet you in spring?

To search me, do not paste advertisements on roads, my dear)

She tells me she was surprised at how people actually bought copies of her book and she didn't have to distribute them for free as happens when not many people prefer to read in Kashmiri. “It is much encouraging when young people read your book and give positive feedback,” she says. What really surprises and pleases Sahiba is that when young people contact her for learning Kashmiri language and the script. 

What themes do you write on?

"There is not any specific subject that I can pinpoint but yes I write about on the purpose of my own existence, I write about the Occupation we breathe in, I write about love, but deep down in my subconscious lies the pain generated of everything I see around my own being subsequently which for obvious reason becomes the theme of my outpourings "

She expresses the pain of enforced disappearances of Kashmir's youth in the following lines:

Tarakh royei asei shaman hawith tim koat gayi

anni gatei shahras dil toamblawith tim koat gayi

poshan hindie anhaar agar tim aangan tschay

yaadan hyeund barood bichawith tim koat gayi

goliv yim niey tim qabran maenz moujoodei

maajan yeim aeis lari tal sawith tim koat gayi


(Embedded like stars in the sky, where did they go

having made hearts restless during the dark days, where did they go


In the shape of flowers, they entered our homes

having laid the ammunition of memories, where did they go


bullets took them away, graves devoured them

ones who lay sleeping beside mothers, where did they go).


Sunita Raina

Sunita Raina, is from Dialgam Islamabad (Anantnag) who began writing when she was 13 years old. Her family left Kashmir during the 1986 Anantnag riots. It was in 1998 -  aged 28 when Raina wrote her first collection of poems in Hindi called Chinar Key Aansu (Tears of Chinar). 

Sunita had been trying her hand at writing Kashmiri poetry. And was urged by Motilal Saqi, a well-regarded poet and writer, to persist. But after thinking about it she decided against because as she said, “Ais na chi naa leadership naa readership (We lack both leadership in Kashmir and readership)”she complains.

Cover Page of Rihij Yaad

Finally, Sunita started writing Kashmiri in Devnagiri script and in 2001 her first Kashmiri ghazal collection Rihij Yaad (Flaming Remembrances) came out. The book was lauded by Rahman Rahi. In 2003, Sonzal (Rainbow), her collection of Kashmiri nazms and ghazals was published. Later her ghazal collection Poat Zooni Wothith was published in 2009. Another ghazal collection Man Tsar Tsyoonum (Perception of the Lake of the Soul)  would soon follow.

Translations of her several ghazals came out in a book titled Light And Shade by Professor Arvind Gigoo, which came out in 2013. A Walk through the Mist, another collection of her poems came out in 2016. The poems were translated by professor R N Koul.

Her latest poetry collection Czhoppi Hinz Awaaz (The Sound of Silence) was released in January this year. Sunita described the book as a mirror of experiences of the Kashmiri Pandit community in which  she has attempted to raise several social issues through her poems in a ghazal form. Professor Shafi Shauq, in a review of her poetry, observed, “Sunita emerges as a remarkable poet of the last thirty years. Since she is away from her native land, she does not receive much notice and critical appreciation that she deserves; but no dispassionate account of contemporary poetry can afford to ignore her. Homelessness is Sunita’s dominant theme; a profound feeling of dejection caused by displacement from her home-land makes her poems no less pathetic than elegies on the death of the individual as well as a community.”

The city prospers, let it prosper, makes no difference to me,

Spring has lost its charms, brings no joy to me.

Doomed as I am to live without a shelter on my head,

My home ransacked by others, that makes no difference to me.

Let them do well, no torment of jealousy I feel,

Mere survival is my concern, no other concern I have.

The flowers that I had are all withered in parched soil,

Let Shalimars and Nishats bloom, their glory has ceased to be.

- Translated by Shafi Shauq

Sunita says that Kashmiri language is being eroded. “I believe in going back to our roots,” she says in order to write authentically.

Sunita has worked as a member in the advisory board of National Academic of Literature (Sahitya Academy), but as she states, “Though I have been acclaimed by people like Rahman Rahi, Professor Shafi Shauq, Farook Nazki, I have been systematically ignored by the mainstream media.” 

Sunita subtly registers her protest by reciting one of her couplets :

Tas mat pristov meine khabar

Tas mat diytov yoot azaab.

(Don’t ask them about me

Don’t put so much burden on them.)

She adds how even her own Kashmiri Pandit community initially took jibes at her  for being a ghazal writer. “Zanne haa laikhan “yaar”, laikhan “jaam”, laikhan “maikhaan” (Look , now a woman will write about beloved, wine and taverns!!!)

Literary circles  are very male dominated, Sunita tells me. “The male ego is fragile  and men say things like ‘Will they (women) now work shoulder to shoulder with us? Will they now write Ghazals?”

“Aurat toh sirf bachey paida karegi aur safayi kareygi (Are women just supposed to produce children and do the cleaning)”, she rants. “Kood zaenass peth chu winni aissi kale buth hunaan”(Our faces still swell with disgust when a girl child is born).

Sunita laughingly remarks that, “it is impossible to cage a woman once she decides to step out.”

”In my poetry I strongly attack the image of ‘bichaer zanaan mohnyu (the poor woman image)’, she says.

“I write against patriarchy, the objectifying male gaze, against flawed judiciary, against regressive customs in the family and society. I write against the lies politicians trick us into believing.”

As Kashmir’s literary history is filled with remarkable women poets – Sunita says she has in turn been inspired by “the Sufi poetry of Lal Ded, Arnimal, Habba Khatoon.”

At one instance Raina writes nostaligically about Kashmir’s ascetic past.

Amaa myaini aangin pakya jooge kaansa

Czalyaa soor fel wain balaaye, mei wantam

(Does a sufi still walk the compound of my home

do his mystic ashes still make ailments vanish).

Sunita proudly asserts that she grew up amidst Sufi traditions in Kashmir. “Ais gai Darwaish zaatieye Kaeshir, ais ais yiwan paalni sufi hisaabas manziye (We are of Sufi lineage, we were raised in Sufi traditions),” she says.

Other notable Kashmiri language women poets are Naseem Shafaie and Shahida Shabnum. While Naseem Shafaie is a well known name in Kashmir, who has emerged as one of the finest feminist voices of modern Kashmiri language, Shahida Shabnum is a lesser known one who has published a few poetry collections. Both poets work in the Kashmiri language and their poetry is rich with the feminist imagery and concern for the native tongue.♦

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