In conversation with Fehmeeda Sofi, The Shadow of Aasiyeh Andrabi
Born in 1986 in Lal Bazar area of Srinagar City, Sofi Fehmeeda joined DeM in 2002. She was slapped with PSA when she was studying in Class 10th. Since then she is put behind bars every now and then due to which she could not continue her formal education and left the studies while pursuing graduation. Presently, she is Press Secretary of Dukhtaran e Millat J&K, one of the oldest muslim women’s religious political movement founded by Aasiyeh Andrabi in 1981.
In an interview with Omer Farooq and Nadeem Gul, Sofi Fehmeeda talks about her journey as an activist and her party’s stand vis-a-vis different social, political and women related issues.
First of all, I congratulate you and your Party Chief Aasiyeh Andrabi for being released after a long arrest of eight months. How do you feel about it, excited?
Not really. We as a nation are collectively shackled in slavery. So this short term release has very little to offer in terms of comfort or excitement unless we achieve that cherished dream of Azadi. These things have now become a part of our life. By these little efforts we seek the pleasure of Allah. We wholeheartedly deal with such trails and tribulations. The day we defeat the oppressor would be the real time of celebrations and jubilations and I tell you that day is not far.
You have been seen like a shadow with Asiya Andrabi since long. Tell us how and why did you choose this path and what was the reaction of your family towards it?
Yes it is an interesting story. It was around 2000 when a maktab under the aegis of Idara Dar ul Zikra was opened up in our localty. I joined it as a teen. I had already heard alot about Baaji Sahiba (Asiya Andrabi). So one day in 2002 I requested the mu’alimah (teacher) of our Darasgah to organize an Ijtima & invite Baaji Sahiba there. Didi (as we would call our teacher) willingly accepted my request and finally I got to see Baaji sahiba for the first time in the Ijtima. I was badly crying throughout that speech of her and that was the turning point of my life. I realised the responsibilities that a muslim woman owes to her society and the role that she can and has to play in the sacred movement of ours. As soon as the ijtimah concluded, I vividly remember that it was As’ar time (the afternoon) when I approached Baaji sahiba and expressed my desire to be a part of the caravan that she leads. As’r (the third part of the day) as per a hadith happens to be a time when your prayers are instantly accepted provided you call out Allah with utmost sincerity. My prayer was also addressed and I became a part of this movement, alhamdulillah. In 2005, DeM started a campaign against obscenity and the flesh trade in various parts of the Srinagar city. I vehemently participated in the campaign and protested against the infamous sex scandal which led to the arrest of eight DeM members in 2005. I was the youngest (eighteen years old) activist to be booked under the draconian Public safety Act (PSA) at that time. That was my first arrest.
As for the family, they were customary religious and had little understanding of issues pertaining to the movement. So naturally, I had a tough time in the beginning within the family. However, things improved later onwards. Now they are much supportive and I thank Allah for bestowing me such a good family. Today they feel proud of me, Fehmeeda, as their daughter and stand by me through thick and thin of my life.
Can you tell us briefly about that sex scandal of 2005 against which you campaigned and were thereafter slapped with PSA?
DeM came to know about the infamous sex scandal through different means. While we were still investigating on our own level one of the associates of Sabina who was kingpin of that whole racket came to Baji Sahiba and revealed all what was going on. Later we came to know by relatives, parents and friends of those girls who used to be exploited in this trade. Three sisters from Bemina who were college students used to be ferried from Srinagar to different cities of India. Their parents would believe that their daughters are studying in colleges but they were loosing their chastity at hands of pimps and clients of India in return of few bucks. There were many such cases.
We launched the campaign but since there were top pro India politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen and other influential persons involved in it so we were not allowed to carry on the campaign and expose those people. Instead of arresting and booking those very people eight DeM activists were slapped with PSA. As I already told you that was my first PSA.
The Kashmiri society is largely conservative in nature, yet DeM has not gained that much of popularity at grass root level and it’s association has remained confined to a numbered lot. Why?
I’d humbly disagree with the assumption that you have made in your question. DeM is an ideological movement & is not about recruiting and accumulating members. Right from its inception in 1981, it has tirelessly worked among different circles and has reached to a stage where it can claim to have a strong base. As an example, there was a time when people here had no idea of Burqa (the long garment) and as Baaji sahiba says, the Bazaz (cloth merchant) once laughed at her when she was to procure a piece of cloth for Burqa. But today the scenario has changed altogether. Assembly of three, four Burqa clad girls automatically get tagged as Dukhtaran, no? Just because we generally escape the media eyes does not mean we don’t reach out to the masses. We do our part quietly and silently without creating scenes. That is our style of doing work. However, I agree that there is no need to feel complacent about and there is always a scope for betterment for every organization including ours.
There are growing social challenges pertaining to the women folk of our society. Does their addressal fall in your party agenda or your fight is on political front only?
Yes, absolutely. Our organization has a religious base and we believe in the holistic concept of Islam that it is the only way of life. Thus, our struggle encompasses all the dimensions of life and we are committed to fight on all fronts including social and domestic issues pertaining to the women folk of our society.
Traditionally DeM has been a staunch supporter of unification with Pakistan and outrightly rejecting the idea of independent Kashmir. Given the changes in the global political scenario, do you think that there is a need to revisit this stand?
Look one can change the strategies with time but no organization can afford to flirt with its principles. We believe that there are only two communities on earth, Muslims and Non-Muslims. This two nation theory which led to the formation of Pakistan is a doctrine & a sort of preamble of our organization. So we will stick to it no matter what. Pakistan is currently the only state on the face of earth which was formed in the name of Islam. Agreed that the present state of affairs in Pakistan is not in compliance with shariah but please tell me where else is it? Is our own condition not worse & more pitiable than Pakistan? Let me tell you that before the creation of Pakistan, people had challenged that a state in the name of Islam would never come into existence and that people should stop day dreaming. Some even said that it would be nowhere after five years. Pakistan is still there but they are not. Time proved them wrong. Today we have a pakistan on the globe, that too the only Muslim nuclear power. And it is quite apparent how geo political equation is getting favourable for Pakistan while world is moving towards multi polar world. Even US has now accepted defeat and India seems to have been isolated on all fronts. On that very front also Pakistan has very bright future when its say will matter before world community.
Similarly, the transformation of apparently secular Pakistan into an Islamic state is under process and hopefully we will have a future Islami-Pakistan. That is inevitable. There is no need to loose hope and be disappointed about. It is also important to note here that world media in general and Indian media in particular has remained totally biased towards Pakistan. They are in a habit of creating mountains out of molehills for whatever happens there & have presented a grotesque image of Pakistan before the world. Our people should be wary of this false propaganda against Pakistan. This is our party stand and we cannot force our people to endorse it. Our people reserve a right to argue and question our stand. However, India has to fulfill its promise of letting people of J&K to exercise Right of Self Determination and leave it for the people of Kashmir to take a decision on political future of Kashmir.
While Modernists and Liberals are projecting women on various fronts, Muslim women are told not to do adventures in the name of leadership. Do you think that there is a need to encourage our women to come out of these ultra conservative cocoons and deliver in their society within the ambit of Islamic teachings?
Basically these are two extreme approaches found in our society and thank God we fall in between the two. In the name of freedom, we muslims can’t allow our woman to transcend the boundaries that our religion has sketched for us. At the same time, we do not recognize the barriers created by, apparently religious people, for us in the name of Islam. We have ample examples of those women who live a satisfied and successful life while following the middle path. I am myself witness to it as I try to practice my religion by my activism and at the sametime I have my own business of handicrafts with my brother.
So, besides being a good mother (which of course is her primary responsibility), a muslim woman should responsibly deliver in her society in different capacities. She must keep an eye on what is happening around. In the context of Jammu and Kashmir, we have seen that it’s the role or vote of a woman which has largely been exploited by the oppressor. Therefore it is important for our woman to create awareness in their own circles.
There are a number of women from the non conservative class supporting Kashmir cause through their speeches, writings and other modes. How accommodative you are to work and cooperate with them?
Under the principle of “ta’wanu a’la birri wa taqwa” we appreciate every voice that supports our cause irrespective of where it comes from. In fact, it gives us more pleasure when these voices are raised by the academicians, writers and columnists from Kashmir or even from the mainland India. It rejuvenates our faith in humanity and fills our spirits to fight the battle until it is won. The fact that our own people spend most of their time in jails and thus cannot reach out to the people and raise their demands, doubles the importance of these voices coming from the circles that have no direct relationship with us.
DeM has never been a part of Hurriyat (a joint conglomerate of various profreedom parties). Why?
DeM has been one of the founding members of Tehreek e Hurriyat which was found in early nineties completely on ideological consonance under the chairmanship of Mian Abdul Qayoom. However, in 1993 when the same was turned into a bigger umbrella under the banner of All parties Hurriyat conference (APHC) having as many as twenty six parties as its members coming from different backgrounds, it was practically impossible to develop a consensus on the political future of Kashmir. Thus to preserve its Ideological identity, DeM felt a need to distance itself from the APHC and continue its struggle as an independent organization.
The second reason for staying away from the Hurriyat is the fact that our domain is exclusively the women folk of our society. However, when it comes to the cooperation in matters that uphold our joint cause, we extend our full support towards Hurriyat conference.
Notwithstanding the unmatchable sacrifices of our leaders, they are often accused of sending their kiths and kins abroad. What is your take on that?
The Indian media is on job to defame the resistance leadership of Kashmir with an aim to create a wedge between leaders and people but it definitely hurts when our own people become victims of this vicious propaganda and start believing into whatever is being fed by these conscience sellers in media. As a personal secretary of Baaji Sahiba, let me tell you the story of that family. When Syeda Asiya Andrabi founded DeM in 1981, she had a fair idea of the difficulties & challenges that this path would pose, thus she was initially reluctant to get married. Finally she had to marry; they bore two children, Muhammad & Ahmad. Now the tragedy is that the father of these children (Dr Qasim) is serving jail from last twenty five years and the mother too spends most of her time in jail. When we have an orphan in our society, we all try to console him through various means. But the case here is different, the children know that their parents are alive and are somewhere around but they cannot see them, cannot afford to have a luxury of taking meals together with all four present at the same time. Just think for a moment! Can you imagine the pain they must be going through? Society does not recognize such children as orphans but they have been subjected to a de facto orphanhood. They are half orphans so to speak. When in 2010, we had a long spell of jail term in Kotbalwal, the maternal Aunt of children came all the way from Malaysia and to lessen the burden of Baaji sahiba, adopted Muhammad as her son. It was not a move for pursuance of careerism as is being portrayed. It was more of a social asylum which he badly needed at that time. Do muslims of Kashmir expect them to beg and roam on roads so that they he could be called as leader’s loyal sons? Give them a chance to grow, read and then take a decision on their own. You cannot force anyone to submission. I was only sixteen when I joined Dukhtaran Milat. Nobody forced me. The children may or may not follow the footprints of their parents. It has happened even with Prophets when their own sons betrayed them. That does not take away the credibility of great men having greatest of the sacrifices at their back. So let Muhammad & Ahmad reach a stage where they can take their own decisions and hopefully they will make their parents proud and carry the mission of the family forward. Moreover those who say such things, let them see and introspect how much they have contributed for movement? If a single family member from their families will come forward it would become a huge caravan.
You have personally suffered a lot throughout this journey with DeM. Did you ever feel sorry for your decision of joining the movement or have your planned to quit this demanding path?
God forbid. I cannot even think of that. I always pray Allah (swt) to grant me a death of a martyr. My association with this movement is not just an emotional decision. I have taken this decision with heart and soul at the right place. I consider it as a blessing of Allah for me. So far I have been slapped PSA almost seven or eight times. But I am not broken at all. In fact, I feel like I am growing stronger. The more they test us, the more we push ourselves. Your question has reminded me of an incident when in 2010, we were placed in a women’s cell in Jammu Kotbalwal jail. Baaji Sahiba was not keeping well that time. I remember how we spent those thirteen nights surrounded by big rats there. We don’t complain about anything. We only pray that these little efforts of ours are accepted by Allah (swt).
There have been news about the ill treatment of Kashhmiri political prisoners in jails. How about treatment which you experience at the hands of jail authoroties and jail mates?
Generally speaking, Jail is a place that you would not love to be in even as a political prisoner. However a Kashmiri prisoner & a Jammu jail make worst out of it. I mean it becomes a deadly combination. The jail authorities treat you as nothing less than a terrorist. I will tell you an incident where you can yourself figure out how badly they treat us there. The television set installed in our jail room had hindi channels only. So the breaking news would obviously go over the head. One day, when the deputy superintendent entered our room with the female assistant, I requested him to get the language of TV changed into Urdu or English. He categorically rejected my request. I argued to check the jail manual and read out the facilities that jail authorities are supposed to provide to the political prisoners. This infuriated the staffman of jail and he did everything except physically torturing me.
As for the jail inmates, some of them are suspected or some are even convicted in different offenses. So leaving few, they generally have a soft corner towards their jail colleagues. During our stay, most of the jail inmates who were non-Muslim Jammuities, were impressed by the character of Baaji sahiba and would take interest in our religious and political discussions.