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An Interview with Nyla Ali Khan

Nyla Ali Khan is visiting professor at the University of Oklahoma and is the author of The Fiction of Nationality in an Era of Transnationalism and Islam, Women, and the Violence in Kashmir: Between India and Pakistan , and is the editor of the essay collection The Parchment of Kashmir: History, Society, and Polity . In the interview below with Natana DeLong-Bas (Boston College), Khan describes her efforts to incorporate the previously marginalized voices of women. Khan's emphasis on the oral traditions of Jammu and Kashmir (J & K) is aimed at subverting the traditional narrative of her native region, which, as she explains, has been distorted by competing interests.

Natana DeLong-Bas: One of the most exciting aspects of your work is your use of oral evidence in your research, especially in Islam, Women, and the Violence in Kashmir. Can you tell us what this process entailed, and what trends or surprises you encountered in your interactions with women from the Jammu and Kashmir region?

Nyla Ali Khan: As I explain in my Preface and Introduction to Islam, Women, and the Violence in Kashmir: Between India and Pakistan, I wanted to emphasize women's perspectives on issues of nationalist ideologies, religious freedom, democratic participation, militarization, intellectual freedom, judicial and legal structures in a milieu that does not co-opt them into mainstream political and cultural discourses or First-World feminist agendas. So, I employed, particularly in chapters 2 and 5 of my book, self-reflexive and historicized forms, drew on my heritage and kinship in Kashmir in order to explore the construction and employment of gender in secular nationalist, religious nationalist, and ethnonationalist discourses in the state of Jammu and Kashmir.

I underlined, at the outset, that the focus in my monograph on Kashmir was on the gendered activism of the women of the Kashmir province in the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J & K). The battlefield of armed insurgency and counter insurgency has been the Valley of Kashmir, and the political, economic, and sociocultural dimensions of the conflict have rendered asunder the fabric of that province of J & K, more than the other two parts of the state, which are Jammu and Ladakh. Also, considering my analysis of gendered violence and gendered activism in Kashmir is interwoven with my own personal and intellectual trajectory, I attempted to explore the struggles of a particular ethnic group, Kashmiri Muslim, in the most conflict-ridden part of the State.

Talking to women from different walks of life and different ideological positions, it struck me that although women of Kashmir have been greatly affected by the armed insurgency and counter insurgency in the region, they are largely absent in decision-making bodies at the local, regional, and national levels. I am painfully aware of the fact that although substantive ethnographic work has been done by local and diasporic scholars on the brunt borne by Kashmiri women during the armed conflict as well as on the atrocities inflicted on women by Indian paramilitary forces, the local police, and some militant organizations, Kashmiri women continue to be near absent at the formal level. It would be foolish to turn a blind eye to this gaping lacuna. In my conversations with several women, I recognized the attention paid to gender-based violence in Kashmir by scholars, ethnographers, and NGOs, but not enough attention is given to the political, economic, and social fall-out of the armed conflict for women. Some of my interviewees pointed out that not enough emphasis is laid on how Kashmiri women of different political, religious, ideological, and class orientations can become resource managers and advocates for other women in emergency and crisis situations.

In my interactions with women from Kashmir, I realized that there is a serious lack of a feminist discourse in political/activist roles taken on by women in Kashmir, where the dominant perception still is that, politics and policy-making are the job of the pragmatic, powerful male, not the archetypal malleable, maternal, accommodating woman. As in other political scenarios in South Asia, women politicians are relegated to the "soft areas" of Social Welfare and Family affairs. Although political parties in Kashmir, either mainstream or separatists, have not relinquished paternalistic attitudes toward women, women's rights and gender issues are secondary to political power. Today in J & K, women constitute a minority, increasing the pressures of high visibility, unease, stereotyping, inability to make substantial change, over-accommodation to the dominant male culture in order to avoid condemnation as "overly soft." And I'm not sure how effective sloganeering and street protests by women in the recent past have been. That kind of activism has a role to play, but unless it is integrated with institutional mechanisms, it doesn't have as much impact as it could.

I realized, as did some of my interviewees, that women have not been able to form broad-based coalitions to bring about structural changes that would lead to a simmering and eventual dousing of the violence. Women, unfortunately, have not had a great degree of success in influencing branches of state government responsible for women's issues and humanitarian assistance. And this is something that those who either glorify the state or romanticize militant resistance don't talk about.

I have been emphasizing over and over again and have brought this up at various forums, after developing an academic interest in transitional justice mechanisms, that it is absolutely imperative that women actors in collaboration with other civil society actors focus on the rebuilding of a greatly polarized and fragmented social fabric to ensure the redressal of inadequate political participation, insistence on accountability for human rights violations through transitional justice mechanisms, reconstruction of the infrastructure and productive capacity of Kashmir, and resumption of access to basic social services.

DeLong-Bas: You have mentioned in several venues that Islam, Woman and the Violence in Kashmir is the first of several works using this interdisciplinary and oral history approach to the study of the region. What else do you have planned in this regard?

Khan: A book-length study on contemporary Kashmiri women, ethnographic representations, literature, cultural ethos, economics, and politics hadn't been done before. My book, Islam, Women, and Violence in Kashmir: Between India and Pakistan sought to rectify that lacuna. The political purpose of my critique was to deploy collective memory in order to expose the falsity of the mode of representing the Kashmiri subject as an other to the self created by the discourses of the nation-states of India and Pakistan. I positioned myself with reference to the West as well as with communities outside the West, so I spoke with a complex awareness of and investment in representation. I attempted to analyze the ways in which experiences have been constructed historically and have changed over time.

I was driven me to write Islam, Women, and Violence in Kashmir: Between India and Pakistan because of the trauma caused by over two decades of armed insurgency and counter insurgency; the devastation rendered by militaristic discourse; the consequent sequestration in the Kashmir Valley; my physical and geographical remove from Kashmir; my imperative need to emotionally reconnect with a land that has never ceased to be an integral part of my being; the linkages between personal and collective identity and between identity and action; a questionable unwillingness, which I see in several forums, to recognize the separate niche of women's narratives in the larger political context of Kashmir, which is symptomatic of exclusionary patriarchy in the culture, and which did not establish women's activism as an actuality and an ideology.

After the publication of my monograph, I compiled an edited an anthology on Kashmir, The Parchment of Kashmir: History, Society, and Polity, which addresses various aspects of political, cultural, and socioeconomic life in Kashmir. As I underline in the Introduction to my edited volume, what sets this work apart from other works on Kashmir is that the authors of the chapters are all themselves academics based in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. This book provided a forum for scholars from Jammu and Kashmir to voice their opinions and articulate their arguments vis-à-vis the labyrinthine Kashmir issue. The chapters in the edited volume, in questioning the status quo, enrich and make more nuanced our understanding of the political, cultural, and socioeconomic complexities of Kashmir. I asked the contributors of Parchment of Kashmir, as I have made clear in the Introduction, to foreground their subjectivities, underscore their particular locations in the culture, and explain what was at stake for them in the arguments they were making. My attempt was to highlight the nuanced opinions of indigenous scholars.

And now in the book on my maternal grandmother, which I completed a couple of months ago, my attempt is to steer clear of delimiting and conscripting narratives about her. Can my maternal grandmother Akbar Jehan's life trajectory be viewed in ways other than the determinant ones? I begin the book by observing that, unfortunately, the family archive isn't as much of a treasure trove as I would have liked it to be. I did find plenty of photographers, more from diasporic members of the family, but there was a terrible dearth of letters, journals, and other sources that could have provided rich interpretations and echoes of the multiple narratives surrounding Akbar Jehan. I tell the reader, in all honesty, that to analyze the personal, political, and intellectual trajectory of Akbar Jehan—the woman, the wife, the mother, the political and social activist, and the Kashmiri nationalist, not simply an iconic figure that has cultural capital—has been an emotionally tempestuous journey for me. There were times at which the insurmountability of the struggles that she had faced and the battles, which she had fought, was overwhelming. Also, sharing the reminiscences of her children actualizes her work, removes the opacity of iconicity, and epitomizes the historical figure, Akbar Jehan.

DeLong-Bas: Your use of oral tradition is aimed at what you describe as "historical distortions…with which the histories of independent India and Pakistan are replete." What are some of the most egregious distortions of this history, who benefits from them, and how has your research helped to challenge them?

Khan: In my Ph. D. dissertation which was later published as a book, The Fiction of Nationality in an Era of Transnationalism, I observe that the project of constructing the history of a nation involved selective appropriation of past and present histories and an abrogation of major parts of those histories, which, I would contend, the young nations of India and Pakistan have unapologetically done. I argue, in my dissertation, that in this nationalist project of constructing an official historiography one of the forms that the nullification of past and present histories takes is the subjection of religious minorities to a centralized and authoritarian state buttressed by nostalgia of a "glorious past." I further point out that such official historiographies which, I think, are synonymous with statist versions of history, ignore how communities grow historically within the framework created by a dialogic discourse.

Here I segue into what I consider a serious omission in the histories of independent India and Pakistan. The development of Kashmiri nationalism, prior to the independence of India and creation of Pakistan in 1947 and its further evolution in later years, has not been adequately recognized or accommodated by either India or Pakistan. A point that I have made several times and at various forums is that the foundation of Kashmiri nationalism was laid in 1931, and this nationalism recognized the heterogeneity of the nation. It was not constructed around a common language, religion, culture, and an ethnically pure majority. This process of Kashmiri nationalist self-imagining is conveniently ignored in the statist versions of the histories of India and Pakistan. Here, I would also like to point out that there are some purportedly "subaltern" versions of the history of Kashmir which, in their ardent attempts to be deconstructionist, insidiously obliterate the process of nation-building in Kashmir in the early to mid-decades of the twentieth century, inadvertently feeding off statist and oftentimes right-wing versions of history. In romanticizing militant resistance in Kashmir, such versions fail to take into account the tremendously difficult task of restoring the selfhood of a degraded people, and also the harsh fact that a political movement which does not highlight the issues of governance, social welfare, and the resuscitation of democratic institutions ends up becoming obscurantist. In trying to espouse anti-establishment positions, some of us tend to ignore the dangers of obscurantism and the growth of a conflict economy, in which some state and well as non-state actors are heavily invested. I expound further on this issue in my next response.

DeLong-Bas: Your family has been at the center of South Asian politics for generations, going back to your late grandfather Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, who served as prime minister of Kashmir, and who was a strong advocate of independence. Some of your work has attempted to address critics of Abdullah's government; in the course of your research, did you find that you had to reevaluate some of the decisions made in the early days of the independence movement?

Khan: Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, reigned as Prime Minister of the State of Jammu and Kashmir from 1948 to 1953. Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, for better or worse, was a large presence on the political landscape of India for fifty years. In a fragmented sociopolitical and religious ethos, he represented the pluralism that would bind the people of Jammu and Kashmir together for a long time. Such personages leave indelible marks of their work and contributions on societies for which they have tirelessly worked, and their work, for the most part, traverses religious, class, and party fault lines. To associate such personages with just one political party or one religious group amounts to an inexcusable trivialization. Given the militarization and rabid fragmentation of Kashmiri society, it becomes necessary to evoke the man who symbolized Kashmiriyat or pluralism in the face of divisive politics. It also becomes necessary for federal countries to reassess and reevaluate their policies vis-à-vis border states.

Even thirty-two years after his death, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah remains the most idolized as well the most reviled political personage of Kashmir. My article on this phenomenon appeared in a few newspapers a couple of weeks ago. As I observed in that article, I am still amazed to see how much the intelligence agencies of India and Pakistan, which act covertly to influence the outcome of events, continue to invest in trying to erase the name, ideology, and work of one Kashmiri nationalist, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah. Several state and non-state actors in Kashmir can and have been coopted, mellowed, and made to toe the line of the powers that be. Yet, the unfinished business of the powers to be on both sides of the Line of Control (India and Pakistan) to ride roughshod over the history of Kashmiri nationalism and the evolution of a political consciousness in Kashmir, which began much before 1989, continues unabated. It's interesting that the organization founded by him, the National Conference, bandies his name before every assembly election, but otherwise, conveniently, forgets his politics.

My detractors, as I painstakingly acknowledge in the above mentioned article, level the allegation that I "eulogize" Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, but I believe, with the force of my conviction, that he, with all his contradictions, was a force to reckon with. He sought to find a practical solution to the deadlock that would enable preservation of peace in the Indian subcontinent, while maintaining the honor of everyone concerned. He succeeded in making the politics of mass mobilization credible by merging it with the institutional politics of democracy.

My mother, Suraiya, perhaps unbeknownst to herself, had grown up with the fear of life's tenuousness and an acceptance of the harsh demands of public life. It took her a while to realize that it is impossible to please everyone all the time, unless one willingly relinquishes one's individuality. She has found, to her despair, unpalatable motives attributed to her parents and grotesque misinterpretations of their political, religious, and socioeconomic ideologies. So, she has learned that it is naive and detrimental to expect to have everyone comprehend what one says and attribute the right motives to one. But her faith in the "New Kashmir" that her father's socialist agenda sought to fashion remains unshaken to date, despite the tribulations and upheavals that she has witnessed. She, like the rest of us, carries the burden of her own history.

Prior to 1947, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah and his political organization fought tooth and nail against Dogra autocracy and demanded that monarchical rule be ousted. He described the Dogra monarchy as a microcosm of colonial brutality and the Quit Kashmir movement, led by Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah's National Conference, as a ramification of the larger Indian struggle for independence. In May 1946 the Sheikh was sentenced to nine years in prison for having led the seditious Quit Kashmir movement against the monarch's regime. Initially, the Indian National Congress supported the Quit Kashmir movement and reinforced the position of the Sheikh Abdullah-led National Conference on plebiscite. Mohammad Ali Jinnah's Muslim League was not supportive of the Quit Kashmir Movement and recognized the Dogra monarch as the legitimate sovereign of Jammu and Kashmir with the authority to determine the fate of his subjects, which was not a people-friendly move. As opposed to that, the Indian National Congress advised the monarch, right up to 1947, to gauge the public mood and accordingly accede to either India or Pakistan. The sense of selfhood and dignity, which had begun to blossom in Kashmir, particularly in the Kashmiri Muslim populace, was not a reality for Jinnah's Muslim League, and as later events and political shenanigans proved, ceased to be a reality for India as well. The political movement against the Dogra monarch enabled the evolution of a Kashmiri nationalism, a distinct entity, which couldn't be clubbed with the burgeoning nationalism in the rest of the Indian subcontinent. The argument of Jawaharlal Nehru, first Prime Minister of independent India, that Kashmir, a predominantly Muslim state, was required to validate the secular credentials of India was a later development. Mohammad Ali Jinnah, first Governor-General of Pakistan, refuted the notion that Pakistan required Kashmir to vindicate its theocratic status and did not make an argument for the inclusion of Kashmir in the new dominion of Pakistan right up to the eve of partition in 1947. And just before the monarch of Jammu and Kashmir accessed to India, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah sent his emissaries to Pakistan in order to negotiate the terms of accession with the government of the newly created dominion, but as I said earlier, the only official whose authority Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the Governor-General of Pakistan, recognized was the monarch; he did not recognize the authority of the people's representatives, which was highly problematic for a polity with democratic aspirations. So, I understand the compulsions, the geopolitical realities, and the context within which certain political decisions were made in 1947. Unfortunately, those compulsions and political realities often get overlooked in official historiographies of India and Pakistan.

Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, Mirza Afzal Beigh, and their trusted colleagues established the historical foundations for pluralist democracy in Jammu and Kashmir by revolutionary actions during the 1950s. Land was taken from exploitative landlords without compensation and distributed to formerly indentured tillers of the land. This metamorphosis of the agrarian economy had groundbreaking political consequences in a previously feudal economy, greatly empowering a hitherto disempowered people, which was a significantly tough road to hoe. These measures were tremendously progressive and enfranchised farmers. These revolutionary measures were supported by the Indian National Congress at the time. It would have been nigh impossible to implement these reforms in feudally-dominated Pakistan, in which the radicalness and rigor of such measures would not have been appreciated. Even his staunchest critics would be hard-pressed to deny that Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah was the architect of the economic and political emancipation of Kashmir.

When the pledge to hold a referendum was not kept by the Government of India, which was the stipulation when Jammu and Kashmir acceded to the Indian dominion in 1947, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah's advocacy of autonomy for the State led to his imprisonment. He was shuttled from one jail to another until 1972 and remained out of power until 1975. During my Grandfather's incarceration, my grandmother, Begum Akbar Jehan, was burdened with the arduous task of raising five children in a politically repressive environment that sought to undo her husband's mammoth political, cultural, legalistic attempts to restore the faith of Kashmiri society in itself.

Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah returned to a different world in 1975 after years of imprisonment and externment. The military and political superiority of the India nation-state was well-established after the further division of the Pakistani nation-state into Pakistan and Bangladesh, exacerbating the decay in the body politic of Pakistan. The conventional and brutal war between India and Pakistan in 1971 had resulted in the creation of Bangladesh. This new reality caused a shifting of alliances and a shifting of balance of power. This consummate victory of the Indian military bolstered Indira Gandhi's position as premier of India, and she dealt with the demand for plebiscite in Jammu and Kashmir with a heavy hand. She declared that the Sheikh's insistence on restoring the pre-1953 constitutional relationship between Jammu and Kashmir and the Indian Union, which afforded greater autonomy and freedoms to the state, was inconceivable because, "the clock could not be put back in this manner" (Statement of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on Jammu and Kashmir in the Parliament of India, New Delhi, February 24, 1975). I have tried to delve into events subsequent to my Grandfather's return to the state in my forthcoming book.

History has borne witness to the inability of several stalwarts to achieve their ideals, because they took rigid and inflexible stands. In order to achieve the larger objective, they have had to make compromises, sometimes unpalatable ones. Although there are times when I think that by ratifying the 1975 Indira-Abdullah Accord, the Sheikh committed political hara-kiri, I have reason to believe that he never lost sight of his political goal, which was the well-being of the Kashmiri people and the credibility of their political voice, which had been, unapologetically, stifled since 1953. I talked about the 1975 Indira-Abdullah Accord during my interaction with students and faculty at Portland Community College. By evoking the moral consciousness of a nation, he appealed to the best in human nature.

I would like to believe that my opinions have evolved during the course of my research. And, in all honesty, I find Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah's politics relevant even today. He, like the rest of us, had his flaws and shortcomings, but that doesn't take away from his commitment to Kashmir. I believe, without a shred of doubt, that in civilized societies, political dissent is not curbed and national integrity is not maintained by military interventions. I have said this earlier on other public platforms, and I am reiterating it because it is a viable conclusion to my response to this question. I reiterate that the more military officials get involved in issues of politics, governance, and national interest, the more blurred the line between national interest and hawkish national security becomes. Contrary to what the Indian military establishment is doing in Jammu and Kashmir and the Northeast and what the Pakistani military establishment is doing in Balochistan, people must learn to work together across ethnic and ideological divides and insist that everyone be included in democratic decision-making. It is an egregious mistake and one that has severe ramifications to allow the military of a nation-state to bludgeon its democratic processes. And I cannot emphasize this point enough.

I discuss this issue in the classes that I teach and I wrote about this in my article on "Military Interventions in Democratic Spaces" as well. Instead of deterring the growth of democracy and depoliticizing the people, the goal should be to empower the populace of Jammu and Kashmir sufficiently to induce satisfaction with the Kashmir constituency's role within current geopolitical realities such that a dis-empowered populace does not succumb to ministrations of destructive political ideologies. In addition to addressing the political aspect of democracy, it is important to take cognizance of its economic aspect as well, which is exactly what Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, a man far ahead of his time, did. The dominant perception of Kashmir as just an insurgent state within the Indian Union and not as a political unit with legitimate regional aspirations might benefit security hawks but will not do any long term good.

The state of Jammu and Kashmir is so geographically located that it depends for its economic growth on an unhindered flow of trade to both countries. Kashmiri arts and crafts have found flourishing markets in India for decades. At the same time, the rivers and roads of Kashmir stretch into Pakistan. Prior to 1947, Rawalpindi used to be Kashmir's railhead, and Kashmiri traders would use Karachi as the sea-port for overseas trade. The welfare of the people of the state can be guaranteed by securing the goodwill of the political establishments of both India and Pakistan, and by the display of military discipline and efficiency at the borders. Thanks to my research and productive interactions with people who understand Kashmir, I make these assertions with an earned confidence.

I have brought up this idea in my presentation at a couple of conferences, and I reinforce that perhaps it is time to seriously consider a new regional order which would be capable of producing cross-economic, political, and cultural interests among the people of the region. I believe that women in civic associations and in government can lead the way toward a peaceful pluralistic democracy and support international negotiations for a sustainable peace in the region. All these opinions, by the way, were formed during the course of my research which, at times, entailed painful reappraisals.

DeLong-Bas: You have discussed as well your grandmother's role in the women's rights movement in J & K. Could you go into more detail about this, specifically how she helped to frame women's rights within this particular political and regional context?

Khan: While working on my forthcoming book on my maternal grandmother, I realized that history has done a rather inadequate job at memorializing Akbar Jehan's contributions. Her work of sustaining the community, caring for the marginalized and disempowered at a turbulent time wasn't captured by the avid historian, who "for centuries," has peripheralized the incomparable and hands on work of women in tending to the needs of the infirm, buoying up local communities, raising food for the impoverished, and rebuilding societies after ravaging wars.

It hasn't been easy for me to write about the unique subjectivity of Akbar Jehan, because, in my childhood, she was an integral part of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah's politics, an iconic figure, a political and social activist, whose determination to further her husband's objectives and to bring her dreams of educational and professional advancement for Kashmiri and Gujjar women to fruition remained undeterred.

Considering that in the aristocratic and wealthy strata of society to which Akbar Jehan's parents belonged women's seclusion and the donning of purdah were status markers, her relinquishment of the security, privilege, and dependence that the institution of purdah bestowed on women was a courageous move.

With the oral and historical resources on Akbar Jehan available to me, I investigated the impact of her work for the legal, social, economic status of women in Jammu and Kashmir. She was a passionate advocate of women's education, which would place girls, including those of impoverished backgrounds, in the modern and vibrant world of intellectual and scientific pursuits. Akbar Jehan's work with Lady Mountbatten, wife of the first Governor General of post-Partition India, Lord Mountbatten, in the repatriation of young women who had forcibly been removed from their families during the turbulent and bloody partition of the country, was exemplary. She worked indefatigably to restore the honor of those unfortunate women who had borne the brunt of communal vendetta, recalls my mother, Suraiya, and her older sister, Khalida. A significant contribution of hers, which is not as extensively written about, was the formation of the Relief Committee in 1948 to provide succor to those who had suffered incommensurable economic losses because of the severed blow inflicted on tourism programmes in 1947 and 1948. In fact, in February 1947, the cost of living in the state, particularly in the summer capital, Srinagar, was egregiously high. To protest the distressing rise in the cost of living, Akbar Jehan chaired a Food Committee, which worked hard to improve the quality of people's lives. The institute Markaz Behbudi Khawateen, established by Akbar Jehan, imparts literacy, training in arts and crafts, health care, and social security as tools of empowerment. I expound on her social and political work in my forthcoming book.

The work done by Akbar Jehan's organization is a powerful erosion of Western preoccupation with empirical observation that has led to an inaccurate conflation of Islamic norms with practices. Western feminist epistemologies, as I have observed in Islam, Women, and the Violence in Kashmir, can impair the research paradigms, hypotheses, and field work on women in Islamic societies.

Akbar Jehan, by virtue of her positioning within the institutional domains which make up Kashmiri society had a decision-making authority, which formed the vantage point from which she could conceive alternatives that would shape the processes of empowerment in a particular context, unlike some other intelligent, visionary women who didn't enjoy that privilege. So, it would be difficult to deny that making one's vision a reality, particularly for a women in the South Asian context, is contingent, to a certain extent, on socioeconomic privilege and political clout. But that, by no means, diminishes her work.

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