The Himalayan region of Kashmir has a rich history of gender emancipation compared to other places in the sub-continent. As author Prem Nath Bazaz writes in Daughters of The Vitasa Kashmir’s society historically had elevated status for women who enjoyed responsibility, power and freedom. This treatment has led them emerge from domestic front to the political dominion.
Many participated in battles as commanders and generals, with many others playing a key role in its freedom struggles. The recent death of “the melody queen of Kashmir” reminds us that even after centuries these women will be remembered as proud legacies of the valley — through its folklore, literature and art that often portrays Kashmiri women — as ‘the bravest in the world’. Here are the reasons why Raj Begum who died on October 26 is included in the list of seven most influential women of Kashmir history.
1. Queen Didda:
From 958 A.D. to 1003 A.D. Kashmir valley was ruled by Queen Didda – a daughter of Simha Raja, who was then the king of Lohara dynasty. Her marriage to the king of Kashmir, Ksemgupta united the Lohara dynasty with that of her husband’s kingdom. After her husband’s death she first acted as queen regent succeeded by his son, grandson’s and later achieved absolute power. Her desire for administration and tactics were implored with ruthless executions.
Coins have been found by her name along with her husband. Kalhana has written much about her personality in his popular Hindu mythology ‘Rajatarangni’.
2. Lalleshwari or Lal Ded:
Born in Pandrethan, southeast of Srinagar in 1320. Lalleshwari aka Lal Ded came from a Pundit family and is attributed as being the creator of mystic poetry in Kashmir. Her verses are the earliest compositions in the Kashir language and are an important part in history of valley’s literature.
She was only 12-year-old when she got married. Once she was 24, she left home at the pretext of an mismatch marriage. Later, she became a sanyasian (renunciation), and a disciple of the Siddha Srikantha.
Common phase of her in Kashmir parlance is: “Ha’el Mertan Hakar Mertan; Lali Lal’le Wath Tchali Ni Zah (loose translation: In my house whether meat of small or large pet is prepared for meals; still I will be given the same stone in my food-pot).
It is known that Sheikh Noor-ud-din Wali alias Nunda Rishi, was also influenced by Lal Ded. She died in 1392. Seven decades later, in 2000 National Seminar released a book titled Remembering Lal Ded in Modern Times.
3. Habba Khatoon:
Nightingale of Kashmir, the Habba Khatoon was born in 1554. First married to an illiterate peasant boy that soon ended up with divorce. She then married Yusuf Shah Chak, who later became ruler of Kashmir. Habba Khatoon’s initial name was attributed to Zoon literally the Moon.
When her husband Yusuf was captured by Mughal emperor Akbar, he was subsequently taken away to Bengal in 1579 to never return. She became an ascetic and died in 1609.
Of literary history and Kashmir poetry Habba Khatoon is a legendary figure. Most of her songs indulge in the lyrics “remembrance of separation” and “sorrow of disappearance”.
4. Queen Koti Rani:
Daughter of Ramachandra, Kota Rani was the last Hindu ruler of Kashmir ruling until 1339. She was married to king Rinchan, who later embraced Islam and adopted the name of Sultan Sadruddin.
When Richan was assassinated after ruling for three years, Kota Rani was first appointed as a regent for Rinchan’s young son who was under the company of a Persian Muslim, Shah Mir. Later when she married Udayanadeva who died in 1338. Their son, who was a disciple of Bhatta Bhikshana, became prime minister under her rule.
Rakesh K Kaul in The Last Queen of Kashmir claims Shah Mir who was ‘a legal guardian of maharani’ tricked Koti Rani on many occasions in order to marry her. Rakesh writes moments before Koto Rani died while cutting her wrist with the newly sharped knife edge of the dejhoor she spoke to Shah Mir, said: “I will no longer play heed-and-seek and will accept your love. Accept me and take me to the stars.”
She is credited to have constructed a canal that saved Srinagar city from frequent floods, and called the canal as “Kute Kol”. The canal gets water from Jhelum River at the entry point of city and again merges with the river beyond the city limits.
5. Begum Zafar Ali:
The former legislator and deputy Director of Schools in Jammu and Kashmir, Begum Zafar Ali was the mother of Agha Showkat Ali and an intimate friend of Fatimah Jinnah.
A pioneer in women’s liberation in Kashmir, she first met Mohammad Ali Jinnah and his sister Fatimah while accompanying her father to Nishat in Srinagar city. The meeting left a deep impression upon Begum Zafar Ali. After meeting Jinnah, few days later, in a house boat at Lal Mandi situated on the banks of River Jhelum, she facilitated a meeting of Kashmir women with Fatimah Jinnah at Zananna Park (now Lawns of Secretariat).
However, the organizers faced wrath of nationalist bigots. Begum Zafar Ali later resigned from All India Women’s Conference.
When Jinnah wrote a letter to her son, Agha Showkat Ali asking him to abandon the civil service and join the activities of Muslim Conference. It was Begum Zaffar Ali, who asked her younger son to dispatch the letter to Agha Showkat Ali. But the letter never reached to her son.
In 1953, Shiekh Abdullah had approached Begum Zaffar Ali seeking her help in motivating her son who went to Pakistan with a promise of inducting him in his cabinet. Although the meeting was arranged by Sheikh Abdullah at Wagah Border, it yielded nothing.
6. Raj Begum:
Born in the heart of Srinagar at Magarbal Bagh on March 27, 1927. Rehti Begum aka Raj Begum was the daughter of Ghulam Rasool Sheikh. Initially exposed to mass media by a senior artist Ghulam Qadir Langoo.
Raj Begum went on became staff artist in Radio Kashmir, Srinagar in 1954 and up to 1986 continued her service as formal staff artist. Her zeal and talent in field of art and music has gained her popularity among three generations in Kashmir. She died on 26 October 2016.
Generally, known as melody queen of Kashmir, Raj Begum is a recipient of 2002’s Padmashree Award. Besides that she has been awarded with numerous medals that includes: Sangeet Natak Akademi Puraskar in 2013, Sadiq Memorial Award, Gold Medal for best Music Concert in Kashmiri Folk Music, Silver Shield by Kala Kendra, Bakshi Memorial Committee, Award and Certificate of Excellence from Prasar Bharti in 1999.
7. Parveena Ahangar:
An epitome of strength, Parveena Ahanger is known as the ‘Iron Lady of Kashmir’ who formed the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) in 1995. On 8 August 1990, her 16-year-old son Javed Ahmed Ahanger disappeared after he was picked up from her house by Indian troops.
Four year later in 1994, she founded the Association of APDP where the victims gather not only to fight together, but also to comfort each other. According to APDP estimate, at least 8,000 to 10,000 men are missing owing to enforced disappearances. She has represented APDP’s cause at Philippines in 2000, Thailand in 2003, Indonesia in 2005, Chang Mai in 2006, Geneva in 2008, Cambodia in 2009 and London in 2014. Her efforts attained a global recognition on July 10, 2005, when she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Indian media Channel CNN IBN also nominated her for an award, which she rejected on account of the ‘deceitful’ approach adopted by Indian media over the tragedies of Kashmir.
(Umer Beigh is an freelance journalist from Kashmir. He studies at Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi.)