By Taruni Kumar
“Jammu and Kashmir women’s football team nets a goal, led by stone-thrower turned goalie,” reads a headline in The Economic Times. The Times of India takes a similar route with, “Stone-pelting Kashmiri girl scores a goal for women’s football”. NDTV calls her a “Kashmiri Stone-Thrower” and adds that she “Is Now the Captain, Goalie of State Women’s Football Team”. But, Hindustan Times, thankfully, adds some context with the headline, “Hurled stones to protect teammates, says J-K woman footballer in viral protest photo”.
All these headlines and articles refer to 23-year-old Afshan Ashiq, who, as NDTV had managed to fit into their headline, is the current captain and goalie of Jammu and Kashmir’s first-ever women’s football team. However, according to the PTI report that several news sites, including The Economic Times and NDTV, seemed to have picked up verbatim, she’s also “the poster girl of stone throwers” and has been described as an erstwhile “disgruntled student”.
The opening sentence of the article reads, “As a disgruntled student, Afshan Ashiq led other girls in throwing stones at the police on Srinagar streets.” The sentence leads the reader to believe that Ashiq, through her student years, was a consistent and active stone-pelter and leader. But, in truth, Ashiq’s stone-pelting career began and ended with one incident.
To Hindustan Times, Ashiq says that on April 15 – the day the photo was taken – she and her teammates were on their way to meet state sports department officials to discuss new equipment that was meant to be given to them. “But on the way,” she says to HT, “Jammu and Kashmir police personnel stopped us and started misbehaving. Some of the girls were even physically assaulted. Seeing that, the team members took the matter into their own hands.”
Yet, the way Ashiq’s story is being portrayed is as if she was a stone-pelter who regularly participated in this violent means of protest in the state of Kashmir. Her “dream transformation,” as the PTI report calls her shift from the persona of a stone-pelter to that of the women’s team captain, apparently “speaks of the government’s success in winning the hearts of Kashmiris”.
The report adds that her life story may be turned into a biopic and she’s been quoted by the PTI report as having said, “My life has changed forever. I want to be an achiever and do something to make the state and the nation proud.”
Ashiq’s story is being reported as if she has just received a second shot at life after having made poor life choices in the past. (Cue ‘Amazing Grace’ in the background. How sweet the sound/That saved a wretch like me/ I once was lost, but now I’m found.) The reports don’t reflect that she was already a footballer at the time, who once threw stones to defend her teammates. A similar story anywhere else in the country would be reported as a woman who took up a weapon in the face of assault. But Ashiq isn’t just a 23-year-old woman. She’s a Kashmiri woman. Her involvement in the national narrative is pro-India, and seen through the nationalist lens, this means she is a success story. Afshan Ashiq is, thus, a good Kashmiri woman. If one was to go by the tone of the news reports about her, she has seen the error of her ways and has vowed to make her country proud.
Similarly, Kashmiri women can either be good Kashmiris or bad Kashmiris. It’s very easy to become a bad Kashmiri woman. Dissent of any kind is seen as anti-national, even if the dissent doesn’t take the form of a separatist worldview.
The same could be said of Kashmiri men, you say? Well, the small difference is often that Kashmiri men are viewed as militants in the making while Kashmiri women are seen as brainwashed. So not only are they bad, they are also brainwashed into badness. Agency for Kashmiri women is even more limited than for women from the rest of the country. On the one hand, in a violence-prone state riddled with Islamist militant groups, there are sometimes religious restrictions imposed on them. On the other hand, the rest of the country views them suspiciously because they happen to be both Kashmiri and female.
Shehla Rashid Shora of the Jawaharlal Nehru University sedition case fame is a good example of a ‘bad’ Kashmiri woman. She was the first Kashmiri woman to be elected to the JNU Students’ Union. Even though she speaks out openly against human rights abuses and in favour of women’s rights in her home state of Kashmir, she resides in the capital city of India and is an active political force. She was the face of a movement to free her fellow university students, Umar Khalid, Anirban Bhattacharya and Kanhaiya Kumar, when they were arrested in 2016. Despite her lack of a separatist agenda, her Kashmiri origins keep cropping up as if to say her motivations are suspect because she was born in Srinagar.
Kashmir’s Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti is usually a good Kashmiri woman but only as long as she toes the Central government line. When Mufti, on July 28, said the Indian flag would not get a supportive shoulder in Kashmir if national parties were to challenge Article 35-A, the BJP, her party’s ally at the Centre, expressed shock and surprise. For a while, Mufti became a bad Kashmiri woman, but as her alliance with the Central government prevailed, her shift to a good Kashmiri woman didn’t take long.
Another interesting case of a bad-good flip-flop revolved around 17-year-old Dangal star Zaira Wasim’s meeting with Mehbooba Mufti in January. Her debut film Dangal, which went on to become the highest grossing Indian film ever, fit squarely into the nationalist narrative with a story of perseverance and, of course, the message that there’s nothing boys can do that girls cannot. But her meeting with Mufti ignited ire on the anti-India Kashmiri Internet, which sees Mufti’s alliance with the BJP as treacherous to its cause of a free Kashmir. In the face of incessant online hate, Wasim eventually issued an apology for meeting Mufti. Against the backdrop of the unrest that had gripped Kashmir in the aftermath of the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, an apology to ease the anger of her fellow Kashmiris didn’t seem like that much of a stretch. But it meant that Wasim had gone from being the good Kashmiri girl to being the bad Kashmiri girl.
But no story rings as true of the nationalist narrative as the one being told about Ashiq. In her interview to Hindustan Times, she says “I threw stones only once in my life. But now it seems that my only identity is that of a stone pelter. It does not matter that I am a student, I study arts and most importantly, I am a footballer. But for the media, I was none of those things.”