#BeyondConflict: Why This Kashmiri 'Activist' Is Talking About Transgender Rights and Depression In Valley

There is a reason Omar Hafiz is loathe to being addressed as an "activist"

“Conflict cannot be completely eradicated from society, it can only be minimized and mitigated. And what often happens in conflict areas is that conflict itself becomes a commodity where some people invariably benefit from it. Like media houses use conflicts these days to increase their TRPs. Long term effects of this phenomenon creates vacuums in reporting where certain groups or people not directly hit are marginalized and their stories of simple human struggle are overlooked,”says Development Practitioner Omar Hafiz. In areas like Kashmir, everyone is more or less affected by conflict but this 26-year old Kashmiri doesn’t want to be dragged into any conversation which is only around militancy, army occupation of Kashmir or stone pelting. “What I want to do is need-based, action oriented activism and not just conflict activism. I’m not saying that the conflict does not exist, far from it. What I’m saying is that it’s time Kashmir and it’s people were seen as individuals who share all the other trials and tribulations of the human condition. There are other stories in Kashmir which need immediate attention but they are always overshadowed by stories of militancy and stone pelting and those stories need to be told if the rest of the world is to truly understand Kashmiris and if we are to find ways of integration and growth in standards of living,” he says. And this is perhaps why he is loathe to being addressed as an activist

Hafiz’s philosophy is that to normalize situations in a conflict-ridden place, one has to talk about more normal problems that afflicts the rest of the country like mental and physical health, education and gender rights.

Hafiz has been actively involved in multiple social development initiatives since 2004 from disaster/relief management to cultural initiatives. One of his major projects in the early years of his career was about highlighting the toll that conflict is taking on the mental health of  women in Jammu and Kashmir. “We often talk about the half-widows or the mothers who lost their children either to militancy or to stone pelting. But there are a large number of other women from households directly untouched by such events who are indirectly bearing the brunt of conflict in Kashmir. For example, every time there is a call for shutdown or some unrest, it’s businesses that get effected. The man at the helm of affairs might not be getting good business, or the children may not be able to access education and the emotional pressure of all of this falls on the women because they hold the family together in many ways. I did a survey and found that depression has reached epidemic levels among women in Kashmir, despite the fact that they are not directly participating in the conflict. Out of the total suicide attempts in Kashmir, 70% suicide attempts are made by women. And no one talks about this. No one talks about the strife that is invisible and plays along the lines of gender roles and identities.”

In 2016, he traveled across 22 states of India for a peace building initiative called ATHWAAS-Handshakes for Peace which involved and encouraged young artists to understand and depict the Kashmir conflict through their art. The project aimed at creating empathy and awareness about Kashmir among non-Kashmiris. The project culminated in a documentary called Screaming Canvas which was viewed 1.5 million times. The main aim of the project was to bring the suffering of the Kashmiri people into the imagination of the rest of the country.

In 2017, he initiated an online campaign called STEARS which focused on the issues faced by women and the transgender community in terms of suppression, identity and rights. The project was divided into two phases and worked solely through the online involvement of volunteers who shared their stories on a social media platform. The campaign received participation from 55 countries and targeted stereotypical behaviour, social and cultural taboos that limit growth, success and personal well being in women and other gender minorities.

“The S in STEARS, stands for stereotypical, and it describes the tears of the people who suffer the pain of being marginalized, discriminated and outcast by the socially dominant and powerful members of society,”  he says.

The campaign highlighted some transgender voices from Kashmir. “The S in STEARS, stands for stereotypes, and it describes the tears of the people who are inflicted with the pain of being marginalized, discriminated and outcast by the socially dominant and powerful members of society,” he says.

Here’s one such story.

After STEARS posted these videos of transgenders voicing their opinion and concerns, the local media quickly picked the stories. “It was for the first time that transgender groups in Kashmir were considered among BPL class of Kashmir and were allocated remuneration in current budget,” says Hafiz.

Currently he is busy working on the RegioD calendar – Regional Dialogue Through Missing Stories. We often forget that Jammu and Kashmir consists of three regions – Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh and each of these regions have varied stakes and takes in the current conflict that mars the state. Hafiz aims to mitigate the differences by focusing on human interest stories that would evoke the universal feeling of empathy. This would involve sending postcards from one region to another exchanging human stories of suffering, struggle and triumph and compiling the best of these in a calendar format. “We will reach out to the Jammu and Kashmir Bank for incorporating these stories in their annual calendar of 2019 because J&K Bank is widely popular and has great outreach in all the three regions, even in areas where there is no social media access or usage,” he says.

Ultimately, it’s policy that Hafiz wants to affect. “I cannot make any grand impact alone. I am doing the ground work for an alternative narrative, so that others may see it and pick up the strands from here and work forward with it.”