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Akbar Jehan and the dialectic of resistance and accommodation

By Nyla Ali Khan


To analyze the personal, political, and intellectual trajectory of Akbar Jehan—the woman, the wife, the mother, and the Kashmiri nationalist, not simply an iconic and often misunderstood political figure—has been an emotionally tempestuous journey for me. The Kashmiri political and social activist is my maternal grandmother. I am so interested in studying her life and work because, to my mind, there is a historical value in challenging the historical narratives about the political actors of pre-and post-1947 Jammu and Kashmir and the movement for an autonomous and pluralistic Kashmir. I have attempted to steer clear of delimiting and constricting narratives about her life and work in my recent book. It is important to reshape the collective historical memory so that it includes the humanitarian and pluralistic endeavors of leaders of the movement at that critical time after the partition of India.

While teaching classes on Women’s and Gender Studies at the Universities of Nebraska and Oklahoma, I realized that history has done a rather inadequate job of memorializing the contributions of women political and social activists. Akbar Jehan’s work of sustaining the community, caring for the marginalized and disempowered at a turbulent time, has not been captured by professional historians, who have peripheralized the work of women in rebuilding societies following armed conflict.

With the oral and historical resources available to me, I investigated the impact of Akbar Jehan’s work on the legal, social, and economic status of women in Jammu and Kashmir. She was a passionate advocate of women’s education who sought to place girls—including those of impoverished backgrounds—in the modern and vibrant world of intellectual and scientific pursuits. Working with Lady Mountbatten, wife of the first Governor General of post-Partition India, Lord Mountbatten, Akbar Jehan advocated for repatriating young women who had been forcibly removed from their families during the partition of the country. According to my mother Suraiya and her older sister Khalida, Akbar Jehan also worked to restore the honor of those women who had borne the brunt of communal vendetta. Following the partition, she helped to form the Relief Committee and served on the chair of the Food Committee, which sought to address economic losses resulting from the collapse of the tourism sector and the subsequent rise in the cost of living. Later, Akbar Jehan founded the institute Markaz Behbudi Khawateen, still in operation today, which imparts literacy, training in arts and crafts, health care, and social security as tools of empowerment.

All of these efforts constitute a powerful rebuttal of the tendency among Western observers to conflate Islamic norms with practices. Western feminist epistemologies in particular, 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 believed that women citizens should be accorded equal rights with men in all fields of national life—economic, cultural, political, and in government services. She reinforced the idea that women should have the right to work in every line of employment for terms and wages equal to those for men; women would be assured of equality with men in education, social insurance and job conditions, though she argued that the law should also give special protections to mothers and children. In contrast to many Western feminists, however, Akbar Jehan gave equal credence to the path-paving work of women within religious, familial, and communal frameworks. Moreover, she sought to motivate education within minority communities (as opposed to state-controlled education), and above all she recognized culture and history as sites of political and social struggle.

Akbar Jehan understood that reforms and consciousness-raising could occur most decisively at the grassroots level, not in the corridors of power in New Delhi, nor in the plush halls of parliament. I would venture to say that the many harangues, digressions, dogmatic statements, and red tape of parliament could not intimidate an activist who had worked in the trenches and walked shoulder to shoulder with the leaders of the anti-monarchical, anti-colonial, and Independence movements of the Indian subcontinent. Akbar Jehan was of the opinion that enfranchisement of both women and men, and assuring women of equal opportunities in education, are not empowering in themselves, but would cause a momentous shift in traditional gender relationships. To address these political obstacles, women who were active in politics in the 20th century sought not only to improve the position of their particular organizations but also to forge connections between the various women’s groups. One of their major accomplishments came in 1950, when the government of Jammu and Kashmir developed educational institutions for women on a large scale, including the first University, as well as a College for women. There remains much scholarly work to be done in exploring how women in civic associations and in government led the way toward a peaceful pluralistic democracy.

By virtue of her status among the major Kashmiri institutions, Akbar Jehan earned the authority to make major policy decisions. Thus, she enjoyed a privilege that other intelligent visionary women did not have. For example, she represented Srinagar and Anantnag constituencies of Jammu and Kashmir in the Indian parliament from 1977 to 1979 and 1984 to 1989, respectively. Akbar Jehan was also the first president of the Jammu and Kashmir Red Cross Society from 1947 to 1951. She was the first lady of Jammu and Kashmir from 1948–1953 and again from 1975–1982. So, it would be difficult to deny that making one’s vision a reality, particularly for a woman in the South Asian context, is contingent, to a certain extent, on socioeconomic privilege and political clout. And though Akbar Jehan’s critics have pointed out that her elite position gave her visibility and access to the echelons of power, this by no means diminishes her legacy.

khanNyla Ali Khan is a faculty member at the University of Oklahoma and member of the Harvard-based Scholars Strategy Network. She is the author of The Fiction of Nationality in an Era of Transnationalism, Islam, Women, and Violence in Kashmir, and The Life of a Kashmiri Woman. She is also the editor of The Parchment of Kashmir, a contributor to The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Women (2013), and a guest editor for Oxford Islamic Studies Online.

Oxford Islamic Studies Online is an authoritative, dynamic resource that brings together the best current scholarship in the field for students, scholars, government officials, community groups, and librarians to foster a more accurate and informed understanding of the Islamic world. Oxford Islamic Studies Online features reference content and commentary by renowned scholars in areas such as global Islamic history, concepts, people, practices, politics, and culture, and is regularly updated as new content is commissioned and approved under the guidance of the Editor in Chief, John L. Esposito.

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