Capturing Kashmir

A woman photojournalist navigates state and patriarchy in the Valley

02 September 2019
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On the morning of 5 August 2019, Masrat Zahra, a young Kashmiri photojournalist, woke up confused. Her phone was not working and the street outside her house looked eerily different. Soon, she learnt that the Narendra Modi-led union government had abrogated Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and split the state into two union territories. From that day till at least 30 August, Zahra went out almost every day to shoot in Kashmir to document the restrictions on movement and communication that the government had imposed, reactions to the move and its human cost. The photographs featured in the gallery are a selection of her work from this time.

In the last week of August, Zahra visited Delhi for a brief period of time to get her pictures published. During her visit, she spoke to Tanvi Mishra and Shahid Tantray, the creative director and the assistant photo editor of The Caravan, about being a woman photojournalist in Kashmir, and dealing with the shackles of state and patriarchy, especially since 5 August.

I have been working as a photojournalist in Kashmir for three years now. There are few women photojournalists in Kashmir. People react differently to seeing men and women cover the same clashes in Kashmir. The first time I went to cover clashes in Kashmir’s Jamia area on a Friday, a boy came up to me and said, “Didi, didi, aap chale jao, aapko lagegi”—please leave, you will get hurt. He added that it is a man’s job to cover such clashes. When I went back home, I wondered that if a woman can get wounded, can’t men get hurt too? Do men not bleed?

That was the first day that I saw pellets being fired and learnt how the smoke from tear-gas shelling chokes your breath. Even if you are far away, you can smell it and it makes you cough. Boys were pelting stones there. Since it was my first time covering such an event, I did not know on where I should stand to shoot. My journalist friends asked me to follow their steps—stand where they were standing, do what they were doing. The CRPF personnel were staring at me as if wondering, “Who is this girl in a hijaab with Kashmiri journalists?” At that time, my family did not know that I am going to cover such clashes.

Then I started going to these events alone. At funerals of militants, their corpse is kept on a stage. Only the male photographers have access to the stage, the women do not. We cannot take high angle shots. Some people try to unnecessarily direct you about where to go, from where to photograph. Some are sarcastic. They say, “Aa gayi ladki. Haan ladkon ne toh Azaadi laa di Kashmir mein. Ab ladkiyan layengi.” (The girl is here. The boys have brought freedom to Kashmir. Now girls will get it.) Some women are supportive though.

Masrat Zahra is a photojournalist based in Kashmir.

Keywords: Jammu and Kashmir Article 370 Article 35A militancy